The Food Groups of Paris

Writing about the food of Paris is almost as overwhelming as writing about my wedding day or the birth of a child — so filled with wonder, joy, sublime layers and feelings, but I can barely manage to choke out more than tired cliches when attempting to describe it, and those tired cliches will never do it justice. What shall I include? What shall I omit? Anything I write will be woefully inadequate, but I feel compelled to try.

How was the food and dining experience in Paris? Spectacular. Wondrous. Magical. Artistic. Satisfying. Fresh. Delicious. Loving. I am so happy that my fancy, dress-wearing events occurred at the beginning of my time in Paris and not at the end, because I’m pretty sure none of my dresses would have zipped up by days 5 through 10. Needless to say, we ate well. Very, very well.

I am intrigued, almost to the point of obsession, about how a country can remain so slim and chic, yet eat like they do. After careful study, I have concluded a few things. One, like many city dwellers throughout the world, they walk a lot. Lydia estimated that she walks about five kilometers a day (about three miles), and I believe it. They are not a sedentary people and yet most do not seem overly occupied with le sport and working out, as we do.

Two, they are not snackers. French people savor every meal, eating slowly, always putting down their forks between bites. Meals are never rushed. That was one of my favorite things about my time there — the ability to feel like I can sit, relax, eat, and converse through multiple courses. The fact that much of the country is still eating multi-course dinners at 9:00 pm does not seem to hurt their waistlines, so our old American maxim of “no eating after 7:00 pm” is heartily disproved in France.

And finally? Portion, portion, portion control. I loved eating an appetizer, main course, salad, dessert or cheese, followed by coffee or armagnac, and never once feeling like Miss Piggy because it really was a little bit of everything and most places did not serve giant American portions. I was satisfied without feeling like a glutton. Considering how well I ate, I really didn’t gain that much weight — about two and a half pounds. I am quite sure most Parisians would struggle maintaining their weight if they ate twenty-seven restaurant meals in row, too. I have a feeling if I ate as many American restaurant meals for ten days straight, that number on the scale would be much higher. In any event, only an idiot would go to Paris and attempt to keep any sort of diet. The food is as much a part of the landscape as the museums and monuments, and missing out on that would be missing out on Paris itself.

I love escargot so much that it hurts. It is truly one of my perfect foods, and having escargot in Paris was one of the greatest experiences of my culinary life. I think I ordered escargot four times during the course of my visit, and they were spectacular every time. The picture above is from a lovely restaurant in Le Marais called Carrette. Most of the time, they were served as pictured above, but I did order them once in puffed pastry, too. The simple preparation using garlic, wine, butter and herbs is my favorite.

Croissants are a big part of daily life in France, and even though I am not a big bread-in-the-morning fan, skipping croissants seemed like skipping the Eiffel Tower. This picture of my daily French breakfast was taken from my neighborhood cafe, a spot which was cordial but not especially friendly. However, the price was right — under 4 euros for a coffee and croissant, while my hotel charged three times that amount for the same plus cereal and fruit. It was a nice start to my morning, sitting outside with my leisurely croissant and coffee while planning my day. I will miss my daily croissant, but my jeans will stop fitting if I continue this tradition.

Salads are a popular choice for lunchtime, and I ordered a slightly different version of this carpaccio salad at least three times that I can recall. It was incredibly flavorful and satisfying without ever feeling heavy. I am going to attempt to make something like this at home very soon.

If I ate escargot every chance I got, Ed ate some version or another of salmon tartare: he had salmon tartare topped with avocado, he had salmon tartare topped with cream, he had salmon tartare topped with crab, and, shown above, he had salmon tartar topped with quinoa and herbs. Each version was delicious, but this one was probably my favorite.

Finally, no food post about Paris is complete without mentioning macarons, the petite French almond cookies filled with ganache. Macarons may have been around since the de’ Medicis, but they just came on to my radar recently. (Also, I recently discovered a hot new band from England called The Beatles, have you heard of them?) The two great places to purchase macarons in Paris are Laduree (pictured above) or Pierre Hermé, which was conveniently located around the corner of our hotel. I am still trying to process how I feel about macarons. For one, they are pricey — about $1.60 a piece, which is certainly one way to help exercise self control while eating cookies. This tiny box, which any of my children could single-handedly consume in one sitting, was about $28. Like many other delusional American home cooks, I think I will attempt to make them myself one of these days. Julia Child has taught me to be fearless in the kitchen.

I have so much more to share — I could easily go on (and on and on and on) for weeks more, but I do believe it is finally time to stop and focus on the present. I will leave you with one of my favorite pictures taken from a market in Le Marais, and it sums up Paris perfectly: the ordinary is beautiful, and there is beauty everywhere you turn. Everywhere. I am so incredibly fortunate to have had this experience, and I know it will always be with me in a thousand different ways. I have changed for the better.

I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil. — Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast


Postcard from Paris #3

Another highlight of my trip was an afternoon of lunch and shopping with my aunt’s cousin Lydia. It was nice to spend the day with a real Parisian, and a lovely one at that. I could exhale a bit and let someone else do the talking and expert maneuvering around Paris. Our first stop was the rather intimidating 24 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, home of Hermès. I simply could not go to Paris without stopping in there — if for no other reason than to say that I did — but I was happy to have my new French friend for backup. I considered buying a tie for Ed, but the one I liked the best is only available in the heavier silk twill, and I know that he would not have liked the thicker weight. The legendary window display was a vibrant yellow, with Kellys in offbeat combinations of red and green, orange and blue. If we’re shopping with my imaginary money, I’d still probably get my Kelly in a practical black color. See? Even imaginarily rich, I retain my good sense.

After Hermès, Lydia treated me to a fabulous outdoor lunch of beef carpaccio salad with shaved parmesan and mille feuille for dessert, and we headed to the world-renown Galeries Lafayette in search of a new handbag for moi. When we arrived at the Longchamp boutique, it was literally take-a-number-line-forms-here busy. Lydia told me that the Longchamp bags are really nothing special and not highly regarded among fashion savvy Frenchwomen, but very favored by foreigners. I read between the lines. She directed me to the Lancel section and told me Frenchwomen appreciate this brand which has been around since 1876 even though they have no presence in the US, and I immediately was drawn to the totes of their French Flair collection. Beautiful leather, beautiful hardware, and reversible (which I told myself would rationalize significantly blowing my self-imposed budget to Ed — if we think of it as TWO handbags instead of one, it’s almost a bargain, n’est ce pas?). I was happy to go for a bag which just felt better quality and aesthetically more “me.” It was a joy to shop with Lydia (don’t even get me started on the shoes! and the mustard!) and I look forward to her visit to the US later this summer.

My neighbor had recommended an English speaking wine tasting class by Ô Chateau, and we signed up for this one. From the website:

Ô Chateau’s Wine and Cheese Lunch has become a landmark for any gourmand traveler. We designed this tasting as a fun and different way to spend a meal in Paris. Instead of going to yet another restaurant, our Wine and Cheese Lunch is a great opportunity not only to taste good French products but also to get an education about them.

The tasting starts at noon in a beautiful tasting room. We’ll taste five different wines, coming from five different regions of France. From Champagne to Bordeaux, from Sancerre to the Rhone… just sit back and enjoy this tasty Tour de France of wine and cheeses – O Chateau style!

Most of the presentation will be focused on wine. Yet, your sommelier will suggest pairings, will explain to you why this cheese might work better with that wine. While you indulge in two of France’s best delicacies, you will learn about French wine, how to read a French label, how to pair it with food; you’ll be taken through a tour of France’s main wine regions…

A day spent walking around Paris can sure create an appetite, so servings of wine and cheese are generous. Plus we add some charcuterie (smoked ham from the South West of France, saucisson from Corsica…) to bring even more joy and color to the table.

I can assure you that this was every bit as fabulous as it sounds and definitely worth every euro. Sure, I am going to be absolutely insufferable at cocktail parties now, what with all my new found knowledge and dramatic affectations, but I accept that.

The weather in Paris was on the rainy side during our visit, but it rarely ever rained for long. Sunday was our first truly legitimate 100% sunny day, and the Parisians finally shed their coats and scarves and lounged en masse at the Jardin du Luxembourg. It was lovely to see so many people at rest, soaking up the sunshine and relaxing so openly. Like so much in Paris, the scene below felt right out of a movie. On the way to the gardens, we saw a man riding a bike with his little dog in the basket. Then we walked by a woman resting her head on a man’s shoulder while he read a book of poetry aloud. Can I make up a more beautiful French scene if I tried?

Next time: Food, fashion, whimsy and au revoir

Postcard from Paris #2

When we first got to Paris, we took a hop-on-hop-off tour of the Seine, and we passed this massive palatial building strangely called L’Hôtel National des Invalides. We were very confused. What kind of hotel has armed guards with machine guns patrolling its exterior?  And who names a hotel after sick people? And why does it look like a palace? So many questions, but we were jet lagged and Eiffel tower bound, so we forgot about Les Invalides. (You can read all the answers by clicking the Wiki link on the name). Then on Tuesday night Ed informed me we had invitations to a private reception at the confusing “hotel” we saw known as Les Invalides, which is actually the site of Napoleon’s tomb as well as three different museums. But the real selling point (aside from awesome food and wine) was “fanfare” by the regiment de cavalerie de la garde republicaine, otherwise known as French military officers riding giant horses while playing trumpets, trombones, drums and prancing in elaborately choreographed circles. It was jaw-droppingly spectacular, and I will never forget my front row view. It felt like such a brazenly Napoleonic display of French superiority and made me proud to be a wannabe-Frenchman!

Here lies Napoleon.

Despite my secret suspicion that I hail from French royalty, I finally got over myself and braved the Metro. It was actually quite easy and user-friendly, even with its massive maze of colors and numbers and connecting commuter trains and various you-can’t-get-there-from-here type scenarios. Okay, I will admit my iPhone’s Metro app helped me tremendously, but more due to the tiny map print’s assault on my aging eyes than the actual directional challenges. After all, I am a veteran of the Philadelphia public transportation system, and the Metro/RER is the Ritz compared to Philly’s SEPTA. That said, urine smells the same in every country, and it’s still not my favorite method of transportation. Alas, champagne taste, beer budget.

I learned each Metro stop has its own “charm,” and some are more charming than others. I think Palais Royal, the blingiest Metro entrance ever, is my favorite. It made me happy every time I saw it. (I should note the black background of my scarf is making me look “fluffier” than I actually am, but I couldn’t resist sharing this picture).

At least four people have told me to skip the Louvre and head to the Musée d’Orsay, and now I understand why! What a fabulous little museum with a very impressive collection. The layout is so smart and logical, and I was lucky to catch a special exhibit of Degas’ nudes.

After my morning of conquering the Metro, next big adventure was sitting down in a very French, not very touristy cafe and ordering a lovely lunch, only to discover that my American magnetic strip credit cards were not accepted for the 23 euro bill, and I only had 9 euros on me. Quelle horreur! I don’t even know how to say, “May I wash the dishes?” in French. Fortunately, I was permitted to run to the nearest ATM (I left my Kindle there as a goodwill gesture, though nobody required me to do so), and I came back with plenty of cash.

I would be horrified enough if that happened in the US, but Paris? Ack! Fortunately, the Parisians have been nothing but lovely to me — everyone from taxi drivers to Metro clerks to waiters to Ed’s French business associates. I have nothing but compliments for them, and I’m a bit puzzled as to why they seem to get such a tough rap in the tour guides as rude and unfriendly. Au contraire! I feel like I understand their demeanor quite well, as I am quiet and reserved towards strangers (sometimes incorrectly confused for snobbery or elitism) but I will gladly help anyone who is polite and asks for my help. By the end of my trip, five different people asked me for directions en francais; certainly the most flattering compliment ever was to be mistaken for a Parisian who knows her way around town. My French is not great at all, but I do try, and perhaps that is the difference among people who are finding them rude.

I must tend to my enfants now, but I promise there is much more to share later this week.