Viva la fromage!

When hubby and I lived in Sonoma, the heart of California wine country, for a spell several years ago, we made a weekly habit of a cheese board dinner. Meaning, once every weekend (or more frequently some weeks), we would purchase a bottle of previously untested wine and round out our evening meal with some fabulous local cheese, fruit, sausage, olives, nuts, bread and other apropos local produce and nibbles. With all the insanely good markets going on here in Paris, we knew we couldn’t let this visit drift away without doing the same thing here at least once. Yesterday being the weekly Bastille street market, what better time would there be for us to get a true taste of France?

We took a slow stroll through the market knowing we wanted to buy wine, cheese and bread, leaving the other goodies up to chance. The market was crowded as hell and we had a little trouble navigating the stroller through the narrow aisles, dodging other shoppers with their glowing cigarette ashes and the ubiquitous Parisian dog poop that seems to be EVERYWHERE. Do these people just never clean up after their pooches or what?? The amount of street candy you see here is truly offputting; it’s like tiptoeing through a minefield every time you walk down the street..

First up, the cheese… hubby asked the first fromager we found for recommendations, and he hooked us up with a wedge of Brie and a block of bleu d’auvergne. Done. Next up, a booth selling wines from the Burgundy region. The vendor recommended an “unusual” white to go with our cheeses, and we took his suggestion. A baguette, some gorgeous little black and giant green olives that shone like jewels and reeked of garlic and herbs, a small handful of strawberries, some grapes, an apple and we were all set.

When our tummies started growling around suppertime, I set out the spread and we spent the next half hour happily nibbling away at our treasures. Sadly, some of our selections proved better choices than others. The wine was unusual, indeed. I like my white wines either crisp and sweet like a Riesling or rich and oaky like a chardonnay, but this was neither. I can’t quite say what the flavor was – maybe spicy? It was light, but it wasn’t sweet and it wasn’t buttery. In other words, it was just ok for me.

We went one for two on the cheeses as well. The bleu was fantastic, and between us we put away the entire block, hubby enjoying his with the bread; me spreading little chunks onto slices of apple and strawberry. The brie was another story, however. Maybe I’m just more accustomed to the milder Americanized versions, or maybe it was just better suited for a palate much more sophisticated than mine. In any case, neither hubby or I could manage more than one bite.

I knew we were going to have trouble when I unwrapped the package. As my hubby so succinctly put it, it smelled like a sweaty gym sock. I figured, ok, this is a French cheese, perhaps it’s one of those cases where stinky equals good. Not so, I’m afraid. One bite and our fears were confirmed. I’m still puzzling over exactly what it tasted like. It didn’t taste like cheese, that’s for sure. It tasted sort of like a cow pasture. Not that I’ve ever sampled a swatch of cow pasture, but if I had, this is how I imagine it would taste. Gamey and grassy and overly ripe, not in a good way. Ugh. Very disappointing, as I am usually a big fan of rich and creamy Brie and will eat it spread over anything that will stand still. Anyway, we filled up on the bleu and a small chunk of Emmentaler we had leftover from earlier in the week, and it was all fine in the end.

our beautiful Parisian cheese board

our beautiful Parisian cheese board

I feel I’ve probably eaten my weight in cheese during this two-week trip. It’s impossible to escape, between the croque monsieurs, the omelets, the quiches, the crepes and the desserts, the Francais LOVE their fromage. And why shouldn’t they, with so many delicious options to choose from? Still, I fear for the state of my cholesterol. Hopefully all the exercise I’ve gotten has been enough to offset my high calorie intake. Amazingly, my pants are actually fitting more loosely than they were before we arrived, and my butt’s never been in better shape. I guess that’s what walking two or three hours a day and staying in a third-floor walkup apartment with steep, narrow stairs will get you. Whatever the reason, I’m not complaining!

Today is our last day in Paris; tomorrow we’ll be up and catching a taxi to the airport at a rather ungodly hour. We had originally intended to enjoy our last evening meal tonight at the scene of our first Parisian dinner together – Cafe Rempart, but seeing as how we’ve already been there this morning for coffees and Nutella crepes, it seemed a bit much to hit it twice in one day. Instead, we tried a place we’d not been to yet, a bistro called Restaurant Sully, right across the corner from the lovely produce stand I’ve been frequenting all week.

My dinner was better than hubby’s – I enjoyed the best roast chicken in recent memory, even better than the really good one I enjoyed last week, along with a mixed green salad and a few slices of baguette. I got a quarter chicken portion, dark meat, the thigh and leg encased in the most perfectly crispy thin skin ever, all topped with a rich sauce that was the very essence of the chicken itself. I kept trying to figure out what was in it; the best I could come up with was that it tasted just like a super-intensely reduced chicken stock thickened with a little bit of butter. In any case, it was incredible. Hubby ordered one of the evening specials, an entrecote steak with peppery gravy, fries and a salad. All good, but not nearly as good as my chicken. My only complaint I had was that the portion was fairly small and I was still hungry after I had gnawed every shred of meat off the bones. Not a bad thing, really, in retrospect, as it left me plenty of room to fully enjoy a dessert.

I’ve been wanting to order a tarte tatin since we got here, but it’s not been on as many menus as I expected it would be. Thank goodness I was in luck tonight. Tarte tatin is a traditional French dessert, like a French cake-y version of apple pie ala mode. It’s not unlike a pineapple upside cake, but made with apples. I really need to learn how to make this stuff once we get back home. The wedge I received tonight was very generous in size, heated to steaming and served with a small side ramekin of creme fraiche to spoon over the top (creme fraiche is tasty concoction the consistency of light whipped cream cheese, but with a subtle tarty tang like sour cream). I spooned the entire lot over the cake, watched it melt into the apples and took a big mouthful. Mmmmmm. Hubby said he would have preferred something chocolate, but only after he’d eaten three or four large bites. I finished off every bit of the rest. The perfect way to cap off a lovely meal on our last night in the City of Lights.

This little piggy went to market

Ah, another day, another market… you’ve gotta love Paris.

We saw the stands being erected for a street market on one of the streets shooting off from Bastille while we were walking around in search of Valentine’s Day dinner. Sure enough, the next day it was teeming with vendors and throngs of shoppers. This market was a little more spacious than the one we came across up by the Eiffel Tower the other day, but no less busy or impressive.

We spent a happy half hour or so wandering up and down the stalls, checking out the wares. Mountains of sumptuous strawberries, oceans of fish the likes of which we’ve never even heard of, bins of olives, honey, hats, purses — you name it. It’s too bad the weather isn’t a little bit warmer, I found myself yearning to assemble the perfect picnic and seek out the nearest garden.

 

the Bastille street market

the Bastille street market

As an quick aside – Even the terms of endearment here are food-related. One such example, people call their children and loved ones “mon petit chou,” which literally means “my little cabbage.” How cute is that!

Earlier in the morning, the baby and I hoofed it over to the supermarket to pick up some rations and supplies. As we passed a high school tour group, I heard two of the girls catching sight of us and cooing about what a cute little French baby I had! The ultimate compliment! Could we really be passing for locals?!?!

I’m afraid I committed a cardinal sin – I stopped into Starbucks. Hubby cringes as I write this. As a seasoned traveler, it is nearly unforgivable to him to frequent an American chain establishment when there are so many local authentic French cafes in proximity. I justified my actions by reasoning that I just wanted a cup to go on the way to the store. Plus, I knew the coffee would be consistent. Starbucks, alas, is the same everywhere. Disappointingly, quite a few cafes seem to serve coffee out of a machine, not the good perked kind you’d expect. 

So anyway, I ordered my grande latte and asked for directions to the supermarket, then went on my way. However, in wheeling the baby stroller over cobbled stones and streets, half of my coffee ended up sloshing out all over the pram. Divine justice, perhaps?

After a spin through the market, hubby offered to take the baby off my hands for a few hours so I could enjoy a visit to Sacre Coeur. My favorite sight on my last trip to Paris four years ago, I was really looking forward to a return visit to the scenic spot. I’d really hoped hubby would want to join me, but he declined and in retrospect, I’m glad he did. The stairs and crowds would have been difficult to navigate with the baby in tow. So, I hopped on the Metro and was on my way. 

Coming off the Metro in Montmartre, I got a little confused. For starters, the exit itself entailed about three flights of stairs up a narrow winding staircase. Ugh. By the time I and my fellow Metro-ers emerged into the daylight, we were huffing and puffing like the Big Bad Wolf. The spiraling stairs disoriented me and I didn’t immediately see any directional signs to the cathedral, so I ended up setting off in the wrong direction. Fortunately, a big looping turn through a pretty residential area (more uphill climbing) deposited me where I needed to be. 

The white domes of Sacre Coeur gleam from the hillside like a sentinel, and although it was slightly hazy, I imagine that in the sunlight they shine as if they’ve been kissed by heaven itself. As noisy and thronged as the exterior of the cathedral is, the interior is reverent and quiet the second you step in the door. The sanctuary literally took my breath away, it’s hard to believe this kind of beauty actually exists. The sun streamed through the stained glass windows to illuminate the faces of the visitors below. Talk about a religious experience in the truest meaning of the word… I’m not Catholic, but it’s impossible not to feel in God’s presence here and I found myself reciting a silent prayer. I lit a candle in honor of my mom and one for my father-in-law as well and left feeling spiritually renewed. 

Once you step back outside into reality, the commercial side of Paris tourism slaps you in the face. The crowds here are unbelievable – groups of people in all shapes and sizes speaking every language under the sun, cameras and tour guides in hand. A duo of Polish wannabe rappers were accosting the eardrums of passersby with their boom box and their self-promoted street show, which as far as I could tell consisted of a few So-You-Think-You-Can-Dance-style hip thrusts, some juggling, and a lot of hype.

Hungry, I made my way slightly off the main souvenir shop drag into a cafe for a snack. The Six Nations rugby tournament was this weekend, and I found myself seated next to a table full of enthusiastic and loyal Scots, both the men and women decked out in kilts. I ordered a Croque Monsieur sandwich and my first Coke in about a week. Croque Monsieur is another French menu mainstay; you can find them in almost any cafe or bistro. It’s basically a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, but this being France and all, they find a way to make it richer and more decadent. The cheese is added on top of the bread, along with a little bit of creamy bechamel sauce, and then the whole thing is broiled. When’s the last time you had a grilled cheese that required a knife and fork? Delish. You can even get it topped with a fried egg, in which case it becomes a Croque Madame. (A reference to ovaries perhaps??)

Unlike in America where your food often arrives with a whole slew of condiments, the standard food adornment here is mustard. Servers bring a little carrier to your table that contains salt, pepper, and a small jar of spicy Dijon. And when I say spicy, I mean SPICY. This stuff will clear your sinuses and make your eyes water if you take too much. It’s yummy in small doses, though. Also, there seems to be one kind of salad dressing here and one kind only – a creamy tangy dijon vinaigrette. Don’t even think about asking for Ranch.

Hubby and I decided our tummies and our wallets needed a little break from dining out, so I embarked upon operation Cook-At-Home tonight, a real adventure in a kitchen the size of a closet. Two electric burners and a tiny cutting board made cooking here feel like a Top Chef challenge, but I managed ok. The knives, pots, pans and tools here are sparse, but what we do have is of the highest quality, so that helped matters quite a bit.

I’d stocked up at the store for spaghetti with a sort-of Bolognese sauce. The electric burner took about 20 minutes to boil a pot of water for my pasta, but that was the most difficult hurdle I had to overcome. I jazzed up a bottle of store-bought marinara sauce with some hamburger, mushrooms, zucchini and tomatoes. With a side salad and some fresh baguette, it wasn’t bad. It felt good to cook, but I really found myself missing my arsenal of spices from back home. I had also picked up a bottle of Cotes du Rhone at the grocery for 2.40 euros, and was pleasantly surprised to find the quality on par with much of the wine we drink back home at three or four times the price.

our first home-cooked meal in Paris

our first home-cooked meal in Paris

As I sit here writing this, it’s cold and misty outside, yet here I am, safely ensconced in a cozy little cafe with a cup of cafe au lait cooling on my table and a view of the Bastille monument just outside the window. At the table next to me, a stylish older woman feeds a small Yorkie terrier tiny pieces of sausage off her plate.

Ah, les Francais….

Valentine's Day a la Francais

Oh my goodness, where to begin… let’s see. Breakfast the past few days has consisted of croissants and coffee – darn near the most perfect culinary combination ever invented.

Today is Valentine’s Day and hubby and I decided we would commemorate the occasion with a visit to the Eiffel Tower. When in Paris… we took the Metro from Bastille to the Champs Elysees, walked down to L’Arc de Triomphe, then hoofed it over to the tower itself. On the way, we came across what has to be without a doubt the most amazing street market I have ever witnessed. To be sure, it was the mother of all farmers’ markets.

This market was all enclosed by one long narrow tent set-up and stretched on for nearly 8 blocks nonstop. It was stand after stand of the most beautiful offerings I’ve ever seen – everything from made-on-the-spot steaming cauldrons of paella to seafood, flowers, produce and even the occasional non-food items such as shirts and jewelry. Every single item was absolutely beautiful and laid out in displays of the utmost precision.

The French are obsessed with aesthetics, and this market was a perfect example. It’s not good enough to have some great produce mixed in with some so-so produce at the bottom of the bag. For example, you know how in American supermarkets you can buy a container of strawberries and at the bottom of every container you’ll find several berries that are starting to mold or are just not that ripe? Not so here. You can rest assured that every single berry in the bunch will be perfectly ripe, juicy and delicious. No waste whatsoever. It’s like that with every single thing you might want to buy, you’ll know it’s all of superior quality and freshness right down to the very last bite.

 

seafood vendor at the awesome street market

seafood vendor at the awesome street market

produce at the street market

produce at the street market

 

 

Hubby ordered a chocolat noir crepe from a made-to-order crepe stand. The crepe master manning the grills was an older gentleman who looked like he’d been creating these lovely treats his entire life and had the technique down to a science. Making the perfect crepe is nothing short of an art form. It takes the perfect batter, ladled out in the perfect amount onto a hot grill at the perfect temperature. A quick and careful spreading of the batter with a small wooden tool and then a smooth flip to assure the ideal brown crust. Fillings added at the optimum moment to melt the chocolate to just the right degree and expert origami folding. There you have it. Hubby took one bite and his eyes nearly rolled back in his head in sheer ecstasy.

 

the crepe master

the crepe master

 

This market just absolutely blew my mind. If I lived here, I could go crazy eating my way from one end to the other. It would take me forever, but God, I’d welcome the challenge. It was just exceptional. There’s nothing else I can say.

Seeing as how we were in the midst of sightseeing and had no way to keep things preserved until we returned to the apartment at an unspecified later time, we refrained from buying anything. Geez, it was hard, but probably smart. I could have gone broke there.

After a spin around la Tour Eiffel, we stopped into a cafe for a warm-up. Unable to resist the thought of Patrick’s earlier treat, I ordered a cafe au lait and a crepe of my own spread with Nutella. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Nutella, I pity you. Get with the program. Immediately. It’s a crack-addictive chocolate hazelnut spread the consistency of peanut butter, a welcome addition to ice cream, pancakes, crackers, fruit – you name it. When I was pregnant, I enjoyed thick spoonfuls of it on cinnamon graham crackers. When it’s spread onto something warm, it melts ever so slightly into near-orgasmic perfection. Ah….

Baby started getting cranky, so we grabbed a taxi back to the apartment for a little downloading. After some laundry and unwinding, hubby took off to a nearby tabac/bar to watch some of the Six Nations rugby matches while baby and I took a brief nap. Hubby returned to the apartment an hour later with a beautiful bouquet of pink-blushed roses for me as a Valentine’s Day gift. What a guy! In testament to the French attention to detail, the roses were wrapped in pink tissue and thick white paper, tied with some raffia with a business card and a bonus orchid tucked in. Lovely! Hubby said he even had a conversation in the tabac about the bouquet, the other men commenting on the high quality of the product. Bonus points for hubby. Just what every woman wants to see on Valentine’s Day – the man she loves bearing flowers! 

For dinner, we decided to get dressed up for a nice meal out. Not that every other meal we’ve had thus far hasn’t been nice as well, but this being Valentine’s Day and all calls for something extra-special. Venturing out in new directions, we wandered up to the Bastille roundabout and ended up in the Hotel Bastille. It looked like a hopping, busy place from the exterior, but it wasn’t until we’d gotten inside and ordered a drink that we realized it really wasn’t a restaurant at all. The only few plates we saw customers enjoying were actually desserts and when the tab arrived, we discovered the server had talked us into about $40 worth of drinks (one round, mind you – a jumbo-sized beer for hubby and a nice-but-not-THAT-nice glass of red wine for me). Yikes. We devoured every single olive in the complementary nibbler and most of the peanuts to try to get our money’s worth. Oh well, the ambiance was good and we wrote it off as a special occasion treat, then continued on in search of dinner.

The Bastille area has been busy during the week, but tonight it was positively thronged with a party crowd. Mohawked young men smoking in small groups on the sidewalks, stylish men and women on their way to clubs, and tourists seeking hotspots. Finding the mainstream establishments a little bit too trendy for our taste, we ventured off the beaten path a little bit to find something quieter and came across Cafe Vosges – a smallish diner-style establishment that looked friendly and inviting. 

Our waiter was a kind, patient young man who took in our fractured French in stride and made us feel at ease. The French menu didn’t offer much we were familiar with, but I recognized the term “entrecote” as steak. Seeing as how all I’d had to eat today was a croissant at breakfast and some Nutella crepes for lunch, I was ready for some real sustenance. Hubby followed suit and ordered the same. The waiter took our request and we went along with his suggestions, not realizing we’d just asked for our steaks rare.

The meat arrived not just rare, but bloody. Not fans, hubby and I stumbled our way through asking the nice waiter to take the steaks back and have the chef cook them a little more, which he did in a most gracious way. I didn’t know how hungry I actually was until the food came; I devoured my salad and half of hubby’s fries, then pounced on the steak once it came back, cooked just right second time around. 

Baby soon decided he’d had enough of being cooped up in the stroller and started in on his high-pitched squeals, so we tipped the waiter big and high-tailed back to the apartment, where we look forward to baths and an evening of relaxation. It’s going to be hard to top this Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s Day a la Francais

Oh my goodness, where to begin… let’s see. Breakfast the past few days has consisted of croissants and coffee – darn near the most perfect culinary combination ever invented.

Today is Valentine’s Day and hubby and I decided we would commemorate the occasion with a visit to the Eiffel Tower. When in Paris… we took the Metro from Bastille to the Champs Elysees, walked down to L’Arc de Triomphe, then hoofed it over to the tower itself. On the way, we came across what has to be without a doubt the most amazing street market I have ever witnessed. To be sure, it was the mother of all farmers’ markets.

This market was all enclosed by one long narrow tent set-up and stretched on for nearly 8 blocks nonstop. It was stand after stand of the most beautiful offerings I’ve ever seen – everything from made-on-the-spot steaming cauldrons of paella to seafood, flowers, produce and even the occasional non-food items such as shirts and jewelry. Every single item was absolutely beautiful and laid out in displays of the utmost precision.

The French are obsessed with aesthetics, and this market was a perfect example. It’s not good enough to have some great produce mixed in with some so-so produce at the bottom of the bag. For example, you know how in American supermarkets you can buy a container of strawberries and at the bottom of every container you’ll find several berries that are starting to mold or are just not that ripe? Not so here. You can rest assured that every single berry in the bunch will be perfectly ripe, juicy and delicious. No waste whatsoever. It’s like that with every single thing you might want to buy, you’ll know it’s all of superior quality and freshness right down to the very last bite.

 

seafood vendor at the awesome street market

seafood vendor at the awesome street market

produce at the street market

produce at the street market

 

 

Hubby ordered a chocolat noir crepe from a made-to-order crepe stand. The crepe master manning the grills was an older gentleman who looked like he’d been creating these lovely treats his entire life and had the technique down to a science. Making the perfect crepe is nothing short of an art form. It takes the perfect batter, ladled out in the perfect amount onto a hot grill at the perfect temperature. A quick and careful spreading of the batter with a small wooden tool and then a smooth flip to assure the ideal brown crust. Fillings added at the optimum moment to melt the chocolate to just the right degree and expert origami folding. There you have it. Hubby took one bite and his eyes nearly rolled back in his head in sheer ecstasy.

 

the crepe master

the crepe master

 

This market just absolutely blew my mind. If I lived here, I could go crazy eating my way from one end to the other. It would take me forever, but God, I’d welcome the challenge. It was just exceptional. There’s nothing else I can say.

Seeing as how we were in the midst of sightseeing and had no way to keep things preserved until we returned to the apartment at an unspecified later time, we refrained from buying anything. Geez, it was hard, but probably smart. I could have gone broke there.

After a spin around la Tour Eiffel, we stopped into a cafe for a warm-up. Unable to resist the thought of Patrick’s earlier treat, I ordered a cafe au lait and a crepe of my own spread with Nutella. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Nutella, I pity you. Get with the program. Immediately. It’s a crack-addictive chocolate hazelnut spread the consistency of peanut butter, a welcome addition to ice cream, pancakes, crackers, fruit – you name it. When I was pregnant, I enjoyed thick spoonfuls of it on cinnamon graham crackers. When it’s spread onto something warm, it melts ever so slightly into near-orgasmic perfection. Ah….

Baby started getting cranky, so we grabbed a taxi back to the apartment for a little downloading. After some laundry and unwinding, hubby took off to a nearby tabac/bar to watch some of the Six Nations rugby matches while baby and I took a brief nap. Hubby returned to the apartment an hour later with a beautiful bouquet of pink-blushed roses for me as a Valentine’s Day gift. What a guy! In testament to the French attention to detail, the roses were wrapped in pink tissue and thick white paper, tied with some raffia with a business card and a bonus orchid tucked in. Lovely! Hubby said he even had a conversation in the tabac about the bouquet, the other men commenting on the high quality of the product. Bonus points for hubby. Just what every woman wants to see on Valentine’s Day – the man she loves bearing flowers! 

For dinner, we decided to get dressed up for a nice meal out. Not that every other meal we’ve had thus far hasn’t been nice as well, but this being Valentine’s Day and all calls for something extra-special. Venturing out in new directions, we wandered up to the Bastille roundabout and ended up in the Hotel Bastille. It looked like a hopping, busy place from the exterior, but it wasn’t until we’d gotten inside and ordered a drink that we realized it really wasn’t a restaurant at all. The only few plates we saw customers enjoying were actually desserts and when the tab arrived, we discovered the server had talked us into about $40 worth of drinks (one round, mind you – a jumbo-sized beer for hubby and a nice-but-not-THAT-nice glass of red wine for me). Yikes. We devoured every single olive in the complementary nibbler and most of the peanuts to try to get our money’s worth. Oh well, the ambiance was good and we wrote it off as a special occasion treat, then continued on in search of dinner.

The Bastille area has been busy during the week, but tonight it was positively thronged with a party crowd. Mohawked young men smoking in small groups on the sidewalks, stylish men and women on their way to clubs, and tourists seeking hotspots. Finding the mainstream establishments a little bit too trendy for our taste, we ventured off the beaten path a little bit to find something quieter and came across Cafe Vosges – a smallish diner-style establishment that looked friendly and inviting. 

Our waiter was a kind, patient young man who took in our fractured French in stride and made us feel at ease. The French menu didn’t offer much we were familiar with, but I recognized the term “entrecote” as steak. Seeing as how all I’d had to eat today was a croissant at breakfast and some Nutella crepes for lunch, I was ready for some real sustenance. Hubby followed suit and ordered the same. The waiter took our request and we went along with his suggestions, not realizing we’d just asked for our steaks rare.

The meat arrived not just rare, but bloody. Not fans, hubby and I stumbled our way through asking the nice waiter to take the steaks back and have the chef cook them a little more, which he did in a most gracious way. I didn’t know how hungry I actually was until the food came; I devoured my salad and half of hubby’s fries, then pounced on the steak once it came back, cooked just right second time around. 

Baby soon decided he’d had enough of being cooped up in the stroller and started in on his high-pitched squeals, so we tipped the waiter big and high-tailed back to the apartment, where we look forward to baths and an evening of relaxation. It’s going to be hard to top this Valentine’s Day.