Macaron madness

According to the food media, macarons are the new cupcake. I, for one, am completely happy to jump on this bandwagon in support. When I say macaron, I’m not talking about those outdated mounds of coconut and egg white your grandma used to make; I’m referring to the beautiful little silver dollar-sized mouthfuls of deliciousness you find in France. These little beauties have made their way across the pond, and are steadily making a name for themselves right here in Indianapolis. You can find them around town without too much trouble — Circle City Sweets and Taste are two locations that immediately come to mind.

I was first taken with les belles macarons during our visit to Paris nearly two years ago, and was happy to make their reacquaintance during a long weekend there in November. Within the windows of every patisserie we walked past, and there were MANY, there they were. Mouthwatering rainbows of the tempting gem-like little cookies in all flavors and colors. I only wish I could have tasted them all, but at a euro or so each, I had to be somewhat selective about sampling.

In simplest terms, a macaron is a flat meringue cookie sandwich. The cookies themselves have a shatteringly thin glassy surface that gives way to a slightly chewy interior and some sort of sinful filling in the middle. Chocolate cookies with chocolate ganache, pistachio, lemon, berries, mocha — the possibilities are endless, as you saw if you watched the inaugural season of Top Chef Just Desserts. Morgan turned out a “red hot” macaron with chocolate filling, and a blackberry version that looked divine.

Last night, we ended up hosting an impromptu New Year’s Eve get-together with our neighbor friends down the street, and I decided macarons would be a lovely addition to our hors d’oeuvres table. Since I’d already put together some chocolate custards as a sweet treat, I chose to create a vanilla bean macaron with raspberry filling. Armed with a recipe from the current issue of Bon Appetit and encouraged by two YouTube macaron demonstrations, I started plotting my approach.

On paper, macarons look deceptively simple to make, but hold your horses. It’s not as easy as it sounds to pull them off and come away with the elusive “foot” on the bottoms that allows you to correctly sandwich the cookies together.

There are really only three ingredients for the cookie part of the program — powdered sugar, egg whites and almond flour — plus whatever flavoring agents you might want to incorporate. Now here’s the first challenge: almond flour is not a commonly available ingredient. In fact, I wasn’t even sure what it was, although the Bon Appetit recipe said it was sometimes just labeled as ground almonds. A trip to the Marsh baking aisle uncovered barley flour, spelt flour, buckwheat flour, rice flour and several shelves full of other specialty flours, but no almond flour. Hmph. Fortunately, Trader Joe’s came to my rescue. I quickly located a bag of almond meal that I assumed was what I wanted. $3.99 later, I was appropriated supplied and ready to bake.

Here’s the drill, you sift the almond flour/meal with the powdered sugar (not as easy as it sounds because the almonds tend to gunk up the sieve), then you whip the room-temp egg whites with a tiny bit of sugar until they hit the medium peak stage (I added the vanilla bean here). Fold the almond-powdered sugar into the egg whites in stages until just combined, then carefully spoon the batter into a pastry bag. (A Baggie with the corner cut out will do in a pinch if you don’t have a pastry bag in your culinary arsenal.)

Pipe the batter onto a parchment paper-covered cookie sheet in 1/2-inch blobs about an inch and a half apart and then leave them be for about 30 minutes. They will spread out and become very flat, but don’t worry. This is what you want. Don’t be tempted to cut corners and put them in the oven immediately – the YouTube demo said to wait until the surface is slightly hardened and you can touch it with your finger without it sticking. Something about doing this helps them bake up the right way.

While you wait, you can prepare your filling. In my case, I simmered fresh raspberries with sugar, cornstarch and a little orange juice until thickened, then strained the mixture to remove the seeds.

Once they’re “gelled,” the macarons bake at 290-300 degrees for about 15 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through. When they come out, cool them on the sheet and then carefully peel them off the parchment paper. Spread a little filling on each side and stick them together to create the sandwiches. Voila – macarons!

my vanilla bean macarons with raspberry filling

I definitely need more practice piping so all my cookies come out consistently the same size, but overall, I was pretty darn pleased with my first shot at macarons. The texture seemed appropriately delicate and the flavor was good, although the almonds kinda overpowered the vanilla beans. I’m already daydreaming about new combinations to try next time.

Wishing you all a deliciously happy 2011!!!!

Happy New Year!

Final thoughts on France

As our train slowly sways its way out of Gare du Nord before picking up speed bound for Cologne, I can’t help but reflect on the past 10 days we’ve spent in France. Several impressions stand out in recent memory:

For me, the food is the best thing about France, bar none. Ah, the food. I’ve already covered my love for the street markets in a prior entry, but this affection also extends to so many other items as well. I think I could eat croissants for breakfast every morning for the rest of my life and be perfectly happy about it. Perhaps a pain au chocolat thrown in here and there for a little variety. And crepes…

I almost enjoy watching crepes being made more than I do eating them. Well, almost. The way these vendors know how to pour the perfect amount of batter onto the steaming greased griddle and use their little sandbox toy-contraption to spread it out, then wiggle a long flat spatula under the whole thing, fold it and flip it to the other side without tearing the delicate golden brown crepe… it’s half master skill, half art form. My go-to crepe is one spread with a layer of melting drippy Nutella, but I also had a delicious savory version that was stuffed with ham, cheese, olives and mushrooms. The crepe master managed to position the cheese so that as it melted, it oozed out the sides, turning all crunchy and brown on the grill. He then folded the whole thing a couple times like origami, and handed it over. I was in raptures nibbling the crusty cheese away to get to the actual crepe-wrapped goodness inside.

A short list of the best things I’ve had to eat while in France would have to include the salads I made with my street market produce purchases; the breads, pastries and preserves at a place called Le Pain Quotient during our first Paris breakfast with hubby’s mom, thyme-scented rotisserie chicken from a Parisian butcher shop, a chocolate macaron with ganache filling, Brie-smeared baguettes, and the steak dinner I prepared in our Aix hotel room kitchenette.

Second thing worth mentioning: I do a hell of a lot of walking here, without even thinking about it. Contrary to popular belief, some French women DO get fat, but they’re few and far between. With the amount of passive exercise they get, it’s not difficult to see why this is so.

Since neither hubby nor I like being cooped up in a cramped hotel room, we make a big effort to get out and about on foot as much as possible. I always come home from our European adventures with looser-fitting pants and, in the words of my dear hubby, feeling fit as a racing snake. I’m blessed to have good genes that keep me fairly thin to begin with, but I walk my ass off when we’re abroad. Literally. I keep intending to bring a pedometer with me on these trips to see just how much ground I’m covering, but never manage to remember to buy one beforehand. No joke, we walk for MILES, and that doesn’t even include stairclimbing. Take it from someone who struggles with a perpetually flat-as-a-pancake booty — my butt has never looked better than it does right now. I may just have hubby take a photo of it for me to post, I’m so proud.

Not to mention, my European travel diet consists of often spotty meal planning. For example, we might arrive at a hotel late and not get to eat a decent dinner. Or, say, we sleep in and miss breakfast. Whatever the case, I rarely eat three full meals a day here. I know I’m definitely burning off way more calories than I’m taking in, so I don’t feel bad about allowing myself an extra croissant, real cream in my coffee, or a big honking chunk of bleu cheese. Which is cool, because the French don’t do low-fat. Why would they when food tastes this good? The closest I’ve seen to diet anything is Coca Light (Diet Coke), but no one seems to order it.

On the far end of the continuum, many of the pale waifish teenagers and early twenty-somethings in France are impossibly skinny, seeming to exist solely on cigarettes and espresso. They look nearly vampirish. It’s unnatural. I want to rip the smokes out of their mouths, hold them down in the bright sunlight and forcefeed them creme fraiche.

Which brings me to my next point: smoking. Still compulsory in these parts. It’s a minor victory that smoking has been banned inside restaurants and cafes, but anywhere al fresco, it’s still fair game. Bummer, because the best part of the whole café experience is sitting at one of the outdoor tables, sipping your coffee and simply watching the world go by. A little hard to do when you’re worrying about your toddler inhaling loads of second-hand smoke from the oblivious mademoiselle sitting two feet away. And the second you step off a train or out of a hotel lobby, you’re walking straight into the heart of darkness that is the unofficial smoking section. I grew irritated with seeing young women galore pushing baby strollers around, butts aglow and hanging out of the corners of their mouths. Alas… let’s move on.

I wholeheartedly admit, fashion is not my forte. Just ask the two gal-pals who came to my home and staged a wardrobe intervention earlier this year, dismissing nearly half the items in my closet as “Spongebob Squareshirts” and “grannywear.” It’s no surprise that I feel like a fish out of water in France. Paris, especially. The younger French women wear some crazy-ass stuff that I wouldn’t even attempt to get away with (or want to) back home – think bubble skirts and leggings, or jean shorts with black tights and knee boots in the dead of winter. I saw one guy wearing a pair of pants that were slung so low in the middle, even M.C. Hammer would have passed on them. Honestly. It looked like he took a dump in them and forgot to change.

However, with age comes wisdom. Many of the more mature women dress impeccably. I can’t even recall any actual outfits, but they all just seem put together in a way that appears simultaneously effortless and tres chic at the same time. A jaunty scarf (I’m telling you, these women know more creative knots than a sailor), fabulous footwear, a classic bob haircut, a swipe of red lipstick… they know how to pull it all off.

Fashion isn’t restricted to humans here, either. I’ve seen some seriously pampered pooches out and about, dressed in sweaters, raincoats and hats that probably cost more than I spend on my own clothes. The French LOVE their dogs. I just wish they would do a better job of cleaning up after them. Everywhere you look — poop. You really have to watch your step closely, lest you wind up with a soleful. To make matters worse, the piles are all but camouflaged this time of year by the brown leaves on the ground. Taking a stroll down the street is like walking through a minefield.

I somehow managed to tread in a big smear and didn’t even know it until I got back to the hotel room and started wondering where that awful shit smell was coming from. After deducing that the toddler’s diaper wasn’t to blame, I realized the bottom of my boot was caked. Even trouncing through puddles and shuffling through the grass didn’t get rid of it. I ultimately managed to scrape the merde out of all the tiny grooves with a twig. Ugh. The very next day, the toddler and I were playing in the expanse of grass across from our hotel when some woman’s yappy furry friend came bounding over to us. As he/she/it enthusiastically jumped all over me, I saw that this dog had apparently stepped in its own mess and with each bounce, was now transferring it onto the tops of my only remaining pair of clean shoes.

I certainly can’t wrap up my summation of one of the most beautiful and vibrant countries in the world talking about crap, so I’ll change the subject to a happier theme. I have this theory that cities are like people, and you can have relationships with them just like you would other human beings. To that end, I’ll attempt a little word association game to describe my impressions of the places we’ve been and seen:

Paris = Majestic. Magical. Cultural. Stylish. Feast of the senses. Out of my league.

Aix en Provence = Graceful. Friendly. Fashionable. Laid-back. Intelligent.

Marseille = Scrappy. Persevering. History. Tough talking, but with a soft side. Surprising.

And with that, I bid France adieu and au revoir, looking forward the rest of the week in Germany.

Aix-rated

Day one in Provence and so far, so good! Much of yesterday was spent just getting here. We took a taxi to Charles de Gaulle to bid my mother-in-law a fond farewell before she caught a flight back to Ireland, then cabbed back into town to Gare du Lyon train station to await our carriage south. The weather, still rainy, took a turn for the colder and we had to really bundle up to ward off the chill.

Boarded our train due south and settled into our luxuriously large first-class seats (thanks, honey! I hereby defer all responsibility of booking train tickets to you from now on.) Soon, we were underway, looking forward to an uneventful three-hour express ride straight into Aix-en-Provence. Halfway there, the train came to a screeching halt and I feared our travel plans were going off the rails yet again. Turns out there was a problem with one of the exterior doors coming open, which required the attention of a mechanic before we could continue. Being stopped in the middle of nowhere meant the best solution was to travel backward to the closest train station. With our being on a busy track such as this, we had to just sit there and wait for the traffic to clear enough for us to make the return. So wait we did.

An older woman sitting in the seat across the aisle spent the entire trip wheezing and struggling for breath, making me question whether she really should have been traveling at all. I couldn’t determine whether the constant grunting, gasping and throat clearing was really a serious medical condition or just a nervous tic. This woman sounded like she REALLY needed some oxygen; I nearly leaned over and offered her the toddler’s inhaler at one point, the poor gal.

Finally, we backtracked, the problem was fixed and we went on our way. We arrived in Aix about an hour and a half later than anticipated, well after dark and starving. The next hiccup to be addressed — taxi after taxi refused to pick us up, the drivers taking one look at our collection of bags, stroller and baby and pleading not enough room in their cars. It was no problem for the cabbies in Paris, but here, our accoutrement was providing a problem. A kind soul eventually agreed to give us a lift to our hotel.

We’re staying in the Citadines, a hotel/apartment-type setup with locations throughout Europe. Our digs are basically a glorified dorm room – lino floor, a tiny kitchenette and a fold-out sofa. It’s not as bad as it sounds, though, we have a balcony overlooking some lovely mountainous scenery and the location is far enough outside the main drag to be fairly quiet, but only a 10-minute bus ride away from the center of town. There’s actually a full swimming pool under our balcony, but I can’t imagine anyone having the balls enough to face that chilly water this time of year.

By the time we got checked in, it was getting on to 8 p.m. and we hadn’t eaten since a lunchtime snack at the airport. Our rations for the little guy were running dangerously low and there aren’t any restaurants within quick walking distance, so hubby set off to find something to tide us over until morning as I stayed behind and unpacked. The toddler was NOT happy after falling asleep in the cab and then being unceremoniously woken up to unload. About 45 minutes later, hubby reappeared with pizzas and wine and we relaxed with slices of cheesy pepperoni, olive and mushroom pie and some delicious local red. After waging yet another nerve-jangling bedtime battle with the toddler, we all finally drifted off to sleep around 11:30 p.m.

This morning dawned bright and sunny, at long last! Whereas Milan made a scrappy first impression on me, I must say, Aix-en-Provence is proving impressive from the get-go. For starters, the climate here is fantastic. Hubby has spent a little time here before and described the area to me as vaguely northern California-ish. And he’s right – the mountainous scenery sort of calls to mind the California wine country region where we used to live. Of course, this is also a wine-producing area with the same kinds of indigenous vegetation. The sight of wild-growing rosemary and lavender brings a smile to my face.

Having no food in the room apart from the tuna-and-olive-topped pizza we didn’t touch cooling on the balcony, we hurried through our morning preparations and headed into town on foot as soon as we could after getting up. The section where we are staying is filled with nice-looking, well-kept apartment buildings sporting balconies filled with lovely plants, miniature bushes and trees.

After a short while, we came into the center of town. The city seems to radiate out from Le Rotunde, a roundabout distinguished with an impressive large fountain. Aix is known as the “City of Fountains;” to be fair, there are a lot of water features, but many are not all that. A trickle of water squirting up through a large bush does not a fountain make, but whatever.

Le Rotunde

The main thoroughfare is called Cours Mirabeau and shoots off directly from the rotunde — a large, mainly pedestrian street full of shops, banks and quaint restaurants. The whole joint is beautiful really, very clean and well maintained. The crowds aren’t too bad; then again, we are here during low season. The city population hovers around 125,000 normally, and it’s a university town. I can’t imagine how crazy busy it must be during the summer. Paris is hectic and churning all the time; in Provence, the pace of life seems a little slower and more forgiving. People actually stop their cars here to let us cross the street. In Paris, you have to hold onto your ass and run like hell.

We settled on a café right on the rotunde for breakfast/lunch — Nutella crepes, coffees and fruit salad. Slightly overpriced, but delicious. The gooey chocolately crepes were a huge hit with the toddler, as evidenced by the little brown fingerprints he left all over my cream-colored turtleneck. After fortifying ourselves, we took a stroll down the Cours Mirabeau checking things out. I’ve made contact with an English-speaking ex-pat group and found out they have a weekly coffee chat on Thursday mornings, so we sorted out the location — a beautiful tiny restaurant/café on a side street off the Cours Mirabeau. Also nearby, an English bookstore with a great vibe and hearty selection of tomes in my native tongue. Score!

Cours Mirabeau

The rest of the afternoon was spent stocking groceries for the room, first at Aldi and later at the charming market shops downtown. Trying to save a little money, we’ve decided to eat in the room when we can this week and I needed to prepare. For dinner tonight, I was in the mood for pasta and therefore, bought macaroni noodles and ingredients for a pseudo-ratatouille with salad and baguette. Unfortunately, the cooking equipment in the room leaves something to be desired… I tried to view the whole experience as a Top-Chef challenge, and after hubby finally figured out how to get the two-burner electric cooktop going, we were off and running. The finished product? Not one of my best efforts, but it was nice to dine Chez Nous as opposed to taking turns simultaneously subduing the toddler and trying to wolf down our dinners as we’ve been doing in restaurants for the past week.

Hubby is flying off to Wales tomorrow for a few days of professional networking at Rally Britain, so the toddler and I will be making our appearance at the first of two ex-pat coffee klatches tomorrow morning and hopefully gain some ideas for fun things to keep ourselves occupied. I’d love to get down to take a look at Marseilles while we’re here, maybe check out some of the countryside and taste some local wine, olive oil, what have you. A bientot!

Murder on the Italian Express

Busy few days!

For our last day in Milan, hubby went back to the trade show and the toddler and I headed back downtown on the tram. Through one of the tourist magazines I found in our hotel room, I discovered it’s possible to take an elevator up to the roof of the Duomo for some interesting bird’s-eye views of the city.

Il Duomo

 

The tickets to go up cost a very reasonable 8 euros, and the experience was pretty awesome. You take the elevator up to the back corner of the roof and wind your way among the spires and gargoyles, up and down stairs around to the front. Eventually, you emerge into a flat space in front of the very tallest spire where you can simply breathe and take it all in. I can’t even describe how magnificent it is to commune with all that gorgeous architecture up close and personal. Just put it on your agenda if you’re ever in Milan.

on top of the Duomo!

The last supper in Milan Tuesday night was our farewell visit to Il Pavone. My meal was a delightfully light and pillowy gnocchi with a rich gorgonzola cream sauce and a few toasted walnuts scattered around the plate for good measure.

Il Pavone gnocchi con gorgonzola

I think hubby had a pizza diavolo, but I was too focused on my own food to care much. The three of us split what seemed to be the Italian equivalent of a crème brulee for dessert and bid the beautiful Maria a fond arrividerci.

the lovely Maria

Because I hate to fly so much, we had determined to take an overnight sleeper train to Paris Bercy, departing Milan around 11:30 p.m. Packed up and ready to go, we grabbed a taxi to Milano Centrale train station and waited for our ride. I thought it might actually be, dare I say it, a fun adventure. Silly, silly me.

I had a sinking feeling when I bought the tickets the day before that this trip may not go quite as planned. I couldn’t get my point across to the guy behind the counter, but he gave me reservations for beds for two adults, so I knew we’d have some sort of place to rest our weary heads at the very least. Or so I thought…

I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, but having taken very nicely appointed trains elsewhere around Europe, I figured this journey would be fairly similar. Ho ho ho.

The train pulled in and we waited to embark among a large, milling crowd. It looked old and rather run down from the exterior, not at all like the nicer ICE trains I’d ridden before. I grew more nervous with every passing minute.

Finally it was time to board. The narrow passage proved a tight squeeze for all our baggage plus car seat plus stroller plus baby, so hubby lugged it all in piece by piece while I kept watch over the little guy outside. Every time hubby reappeared to grab another item, the looks he gave me grew more and more ominous. I quickly began to realize that this decision was going to be a mistake of colossal proportions.

The toddler and I climbed aboard. Fortunately, our beds were in the very first group of berths, so we didn’t have to go far. Unfortunately, the space was so tight, our largest bag wouldn’t fit into the “room.” We had to leave it in the hallway, and we were warned by the train staff not to leave it unattended. The hallway itself was narrow as well; people literally had to climb over the suitcase if they wanted to get by us.

Tickets are available in various classes — first class for a private section of berths, and peon classes where you may or may not find yourself sleeping with people you don’t know. Which do you think I’d managed to procure? Yep. You guessed it.

Our room, if you will, consisted of six bunks packed in like a sardine can, three on each side with well-worn, not-so-clean upholstery. When we came in, some fellow travelers were already there, two 40-something Asian ladies claiming the middle bunks. Our reservation denoted that we were to occupy the top two. Not exactly smart when there’s a two-year-old in the mix. The women were kind enough to trade us beds and immediately made themselves comfortable in the top bunks. Oh, did I mention the entire car REEKED of mothballs? I found myself mouthbreathing so I wouldn’t gag.

Everyone got settled in and we started to roll. Keep in mind, it was well after midnight by now. The toddler, who so graciously fell asleep in the taxi and stayed asleep right up until we boarded the train was now completely alert and ready to party like a rock star. The Asianettes hunkered down to sleep, yet the toddler was singing round after round of “Wheels on the Bus” and “Old MacDonald” at the top of his lungs. There was no hope of getting him to lie down without an all-out screaming tantrum; we just had to wait him out.

We eventually took the toddler out into the hallway so our companions could get some rest and hubby took a seat on top of our lonely suitcase. The looks he was giving me went from ominous to murderous. The vocal stylings continued as the toddler then launched into an enthusiastic rendition of “Itsy Bitsy Spider” followed by “Farmer in the Dell,” the Wonder Pets theme, “ABCs” and whatever else came into his little brilliant mind. At least the Asianettes didn’t mind, hubby poked his head in to get something and found them snoring like buzzsaws.

Hoping to wear the little guy down, hubby took him for a walk to find the dining car. Service was closed for the night, but at least it was empty and gave the little dude room to run around and play without disturbing anybody. I stayed behind to keep watch over the bag and tried to read. An hour later, they came back, hubby looking utterly defeated and pissed off. The toddler was still singing, and now skipping. Knowing I had some penance coming my way, I jumped up and took my lumps. The toddler and I headed back to the dining car again, weaving our way through six or seven other carriages full of quiet berths. I looked longingly at the private “suites” as we passed and mentally punished myself for not being able to convey that’s what I was after when I bought the tickets. Dammit.

After another hour or so of full-on hyperactivity, I managed to get the toddler to sit on my lap long enough to relax. Not sleep, mind you, but wind down enough to the point that when I asked him if he wanted to go lie down with daddy, I actually got a “yes.” Back we went, me trying to carry the toddler and not fall off the train in between cars, when I realized that I had no idea what number our carriage was. I figured we’d see hubby still sitting on the bag in the hall, but he was nowhere to be found. Uh oh. I’d come to the last car of the train and just stood there, holding a weary toddler and wondering what I was going to do. I didn’t even have my phone to send a text; I’d left it in my purse back on my bed, wherever that was. Just as I was contemplating lying down in the middle of the dirty hallway and praying someone would find us in the morning, the interior curtains in the compartment parted right where I was standing and hubby motioned us inside. By some stroke of sheer luck, we were standing exactly where we needed to be.

Hubby had managed to wrestle the remaining suitcase into the middle of the floor in our room and squeezed himself into one of the middle bunks. The toddler went right to him without complaint when I handed him over and settled down to sleep. I climbed into the other bunk across. Thank GOD no other passengers showed up to the claim the two remaining beds on the bottom, I can’t imagine how two more people could have possibly fit into that room.

I closed my eyes and hoped for the best, trying not to touch anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary and praying I still had a small bottle of hand sanitizer in my purse. The motion of the train was quite lulling, really. The jet-plane decibel snoring emanating from the bunk above me was not. I could not believe the noise this woman was putting out. Seriously, I was convinced at one point she was doing it on purpose. There is no way she could make that kind of a racket without waking herself up or choking to death in the process. I checked my watch. 3:45 a.m. Sigh. I closed my eyes and could literally feel the waves of resentment coming off my non-sleeping husband a few feet away. At least the toddler was depleted enough to get a solid stretch of shut-eye.

The Asian Rip Van Winkle finally woke up around 7:30 a.m., and she and her buddy started jabbering away in a language I didn’t recognize. The train conductor came by to check our tickets again. We knew we were running late, but when hubby asked him how much longer and he said another three hours, my jaw hit the floor. We were originally due in to Paris Bercy station at 8 a.m., leaving us plenty of time to take a cab to the rental apartment, drop our bags and shower before heading to the airport to collect my mother-in-law, who we’d arranged to fly in and stay with us for the weekend. As it was now, we’d be pushing to get there by the time her flight landed at 1:30 p.m. By that time, I was so exhausted, I did manage to fall into a somewhat fitful sleep for an hour or two. Really, there was nothing else to do.

At long last, we pulled into Paris around 11 a.m. I was never so glad to arrive anywhere in my entire life. Hubby told me not to speak to him unless I absolutely had to, which I respected, knowing I was totally in the wrong for this comedy of errors. I’d apologized a handful of times and didn’t know what more I could do or say to make things right, silently pledging to drug myself stupid next time and agree to get on whatever airplane might be available. I asked hubby if  he thought we’d look back on this experience someday and laugh. He said no.

Anxiously keeping an eye on the clock, we cursed some more when we saw the line for taxis extending halfway down the sidewalk outside the station. (And I wonder where the toddler recently picked up “Shit!”) Somehow by the grace of God, we eventually got a cab and made it to the rental apartment to meet the lady from the service who let us in. Hubby dashed off on his own to the airport, arriving with about 30 minutes to spare to meet my mother-in-law’s plane. Whew.

The two-bedroom Marais-situated apartment we’re renting is lovely, small but charming, up four flights of narrow winding stairs that are guaranteed to give me buns of steel after a few days. After a much-needed shower, the toddler and I ventured out for a bite of lunch at the first decent café we came across. Quiche Lorraine, salad, orange juice and a café crème fit the bill quite nicely. We managed a quick trip to the supermarket for a few essentials, then back to l’appartemente to meet up with hubby and MIL.

After a short rest, we all took a stroll around our old stomping grounds near the apartment where we stayed two years ago, stopping in for dinner at Cafe Rempart. Hubby had a traditional French croque monsieur – a devilishly rich open-faced toasted sandwich of ham and cheese with béchamel sauce. MIL enjoyed pomme frites, salad and a delicious-looking burger (which she ate in spite of the cheese. She hates cheese. This does not bode well for her enjoyment of French cuisine, I fear.) I was still somewhat full from my late-lunch quiche, so I went for a lighter dish of entrée Salade Rempart, composed of greens, carrots, tomato, fried potatoes (!), thin slices of proscuitto-ish country ham and cheese toasts. The whole thing was topped very lightly with French salad dressing, which is not at all like the unnaturally orange Kraft stuff you find back home. Here, it’s a light tangy Dijon mustard vinaigrette.

This morning, we headed to another café and partook of coffee served in clever small bowls (LOVE this, I want to find some of these to take home), and stuffed ourselves with all manner of bread and pastries.

the perfect petit dejeuner

 

Gotta love the French… A great way to fortify ourselves for a boat ride on the Seine, a visit to the Eiffel Tower and a walk through Notre Dame. A bientot!

 

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.

Little nibbles

There’s a high-end gourmet shop called Lenotre right around the corner from where we’re staying in Paris. The goodies in the window of this place are so beautiful, I’ve actually been too intimidated to go in there. However, the other day, I was on my way to a playdate at the home of a fellow American mommy and wanted to take something nice along as a hostess gift. I decided this was my excuse to finally venture inside.

Every little tart, cake and cookie inside Lenotre looks like it could be the cover shot for any gourmet magazine on the market today. In addition, they sell beautiful sandwiches, salads, terrines, wine, chocolates and other spectacular fare – every item a culinary work of art. The men and women behind the counter wear smart white button-down shirts, black pants and little black bow-ties. To say this place is classy is an understatement – this place is top-shelf. I believe the company even runs its own pastry classes and culinary school.

I stammered my way through some horribly bad French while browsing the glorious counter, my eyes as wide as a little girl’s on Christmas Day. Hubby had suggested I take macaroons, and I finally settled on a gorgeously packaged box for 25 euros. Ouch. That’s a euro per macaroon – 25 total, 5 each of chocolate, vanilla, berry, pistachio and cappuccino flavors. Still, I mentally argued with myself that hubby and I have been fairly reasonable with our spending throughout this trip, so I felt a splurge was not uncalled for in these circumstances.

The charming hostess immediately recognized the significance of my purchase and I was pleased that she treated the box of macaroons with due reverence. We passed the macaroons around several times at the playdate, and bless her, she sent the remaining uneaten half-box home with me, saying she had plenty of sweets in her home already. I was secretly thrilled. Hubby and I made short shift of the leftovers within the next day and a half, trying our best to savor the delicious cookies with respect as opposed to just wolfing them down as you mindlessly do a bag of chips while you’re watching American Idol.

Now that I’m in the loop, I notice little wrapped packages of multicolored macaroons in the shop windows of almost every patisserie/boulangerie I pass by. Perhaps macaroons are to the French what chocolate chip cookies are to Americans? As I haven’t tasted any others besides those from Lenotre, I can’t speak to the overall quality, but the ones I sampled from Lenotre were amazing. Little melt-in-your-mouth disks about the size of a half-dollar coin, each flavor of macaroon sandwiched with a coordinating filling. The macaroons themselves were light and lovely, almost meringue-like, and shattered teasingly with each bite so that you wondered if you’d actually eaten it or just imagined that it was that good. The richness of the fillings was a perfect foil for the heavenly cookies. All together, every nibble was an ideal blend.

a typical patisserie shop window

a typical patisserie shop window

But enough on the sweet treats… for the past two nights, hubby and I have gone out to dinner with the baby and been treated to small complementary plates of a salty snack at the same time we were presented with our menus for consideration — potato chips! All I can think is that this must be some kind of latest-and-greatest amuse-bouche with lots of eateries jumping on the bandwagon, not to be left behind.

For example, last night, we walked just down the block to a chain franchise called Hippopotamus. Their catchphrase is “specialiste sur la terrain de la viande,” which I think translates roughly to they know their shit in regard to cooking meat. The menu is a testament to this fact, heavy on steaks and such. When we were seated, we noticed ready-and-waiting plates of potato chips at every table. The chips were a little on the greasy side, but we eagerly devoured them nonetheless as we considered our dinner choices.

Hubby and I haven’t really been in sync food-wise the past few days. He tends to snack in the afternoon and then isn’t hungry for dinner until later in the evening. I, on the other hand, usually avoid mid-meal snacks and prefer to stick to three full meals a day at regular intervals. By the time we got to Hippopotamus at around 6:30 p.m., I was starving, but hubby just wanted an appetizer. He opted for a tomato/mozzarella salad and also requested a small plate of pork kabobs.

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had a good burger, and the offerings on the Hippopotamus menu looked darn enticing. I chose a Hippo Burger Savoyard, a perfectly-sized burger cooked “bien cuit” (well done, having learned my lesson with the entrecote last week) topped with grilled onions and raclette, a mild melty Swiss cheese. A side of fries, a glass of nice Chateauneuf de Pape, and I was happy as a pig in poop. The burger was super juicy, surprisingly so for well done, and I was content to polish off every bite.

Tonight, we strolled around for quite awhile looking for a previously untested cafe to try for dinner, but somewhere that was still casual and comfortable. After perusing posted menus all along Boulevard Henri V and then back over up Rue St. Antoine, we finally settled at a place called Dome that we’d walked by many times before but never stopped into.

Dome proved very spacious and we made ourselves comfortable with high hopes for a nice meal. However, after ordering a glass of wine for me and a beer for hubby and checking out “la carte,” we decided it was the trendy kind of place you have a drink, but don’t necessarily stay to eat. Although Dome was plenty crowded, no one seemed to have food at their tables, just beverages. Not a promising sign. However, we did get a complementary plate of potato chips, which we again made short work of.

Alas, the menu choices at Dome proved a little disappointing and overpriced, so we decided to go back to the devil we know for our dinner – Cafe Rempart.

The people at Cafe Rempart get friendlier every time we go in, and I have no doubt this place would quickly become our regular go-to establishment if we lived here in the Bastille area. Tonight, these nice chaps recognized us, greeted us warmly and went out of their way to accommodate us with the baby. Apparently, this is a very rare occurrence indeed in French cafe culture, but I’m definitely not complaining.

While hubby and I were enjoying our second round of drinks for the evening, a foursome came in with, lo and behold, another stroller! And turns out, they even spoke English, nonetheless! We spent an interesting 15 minutes or so chatting with the other new mommy (her adorable daughter Ella in tow at 4 months old) and comparing notes on living in Paris as an ex-pat.

Tonight’s dinner was another Croque Italien for hubby and a ham and cheese omelet for me, both with green salads. We also shared a plate of frites along the way, and by the time baby started piping up, we were finished, content and happy to wander back to the apartment to relax the rest of the evening away.

Lenotre: http://www.lenotre.fr

Hippopotamus: http://www.hippopotamus.fr

The chicken and the egg

We have certainly enjoyed some frickin’ fantastic food in the past few days – and homecooked, none the less!

Hubby and I have been trying to cut back on our spending and eat chez dollhouse apartment more often this week. This involves a daily shopping excursion.  The French culture does not dictate stocking up on groceries a week at a time at the nearest Walmart Supercenter or Costco. In fact, les Francais would probably be horrified at such an idea. Here, it’s all about buying what’s freshest and most beautiful from a series of local vendors on any given day. Case in point, this afternoon while shopping for tonight’s dinner, I stopped into no less than four different stores. Each a small specialty vendor and conveniently all on the same stretch of street, it actually makes for a pleasant little shopping experience. Plus, this sneaky way of building more physical activity into the day is one of the reasons I’ve been able to enjoy pastries and cafe cremes every morning of this trip and still feel my pants loosening around the waist. 

First up on my list of stops — the supermarche, as much as it can be called one here, it’s really more like a glorified quick-stop mart. There, I bought toothpaste, baby food and a bottle of wine. The wine shopping here is really kinda ridiculous, in the best possible way. There are the specialty wine vendors up and down the streets who I’m sure sell nice wines, better than supermarket quality in any case. If we lived here, I would seek one out and build a relationship with him, asking his personal advice on what to buy for any given occasion or meal. However, I have had absolutely no problem with the supermarket wines I’ve had here whatsoever. We’re talking about wines on par with anything you’d get back home for more than a tenner and up. Only here, they cost about $3 or $4 a bottle. NICE. 

Next stop was the butcher for one of those aromatic temptress rotisserie chickens we’ve been admiring since we got here. At 10 euros a pop, this bird was a little pricier than the rotisserie chickens you’d get back home, but whatever. We couldn’t spend two weeks here and not try one. Then came a jaunt into the fresh produce corner stand for some super-skinny haricot verts (petite green beans), which set me back about $2. A final run into the boulangerie for the evening’s baguette (about a dollar) and a big slice of mouthwatering pear charlotte cake for hubby and I to split for our dessert. Et voila. The evening meal. It may get old shopping this way every single day, but for now, it’s really quite interesting, educational and fun.

When I got home and unpacked the groceries, hubby and I decided to walk out with the baby for a pre-dinner beverage at Cafe Rempart on the corner. Hubby’s been here a couple times lately and is becoming something of a regular. The guys who work there recognize him now and are jovial and friendly to us, a comforting bonus in a city legendary for its rudeness. I’m always sort of surprised when the locals aren’t complete jerks to us, but then again, we are making an effort to speak the language. From what I can tell, it’s all about your attitude. Paris is a perfect place to fake it ’til you make it. Even if you’re not in the inner circle, if you can act like you belong there just as much as anyone else, chances are you’ll do just fine. 

After two glasses of wine for me (my first white of the trip – a fragrant light Sancerre) and a couple beers for hubby, we returned to the apartment where I heated up the chicken, boiled the green beans for a few minutes until tender and topped them with a small spoonful of butter and a light sprinkling of salt, sliced some baguette and cheese and threw it all onto the tiny table. Delicious. The chicken was every bit as juicy and tasty as we’d imagined it would be, and the green beans succulent, cooked just to al dente.

 

me cooking in the dollhouse kitchen!

me cooking in the dollhouse kitchen!

 

Again, the French culture seems to dictate that less is more in these instances. When you start out with quality ingredients right from the get-go, they are already so delicious that they really don’t need much, if any, adornment to maximize their full potential.

 

who'd eat KFC when you could have this??

who'd eat KFC when you could have this??

 

Last night’s dinner was another example. Hubby did the shopping and came home with some farm fresh eggs and ham for an omelet. (With the requisite baguette, of course. Natch). With only two small temperamental electric burners on the cooktop, one big-ass pan and no spatula to work with, I must admit I was a little nervous about how it would all work out. I had some mushroom and zucchini left over from our pasta dinner the night before, so I sauteed it all up with some ham and shredded some lovely Emmentaler cheese for the omelet. The eggs themselves were huge with gorgeous bright sunshiny yellow yolks. I cracked four into a bowl with just the lightest splash of milk and whipped it all together. 

Having discovered that the best way to work the cooktop is to crank both burners up to high and hope for the best, I got the pan as close as I could to steaming, then dumped in the eggs. They cooked slowly, but seemed to set up just fine and by the time I scattered on the fillings and folded the whole concoction in two steps, the omelet looked great! I was thrilled. The end result – YUM. 

I don’t know if it’s the French methods of cultivation or what, but simple food items are so much more flavorful than the same versions back home. The eggs and the chicken are perfect examples. They both are so flavorful, I don’t know how to describe it. It’s like they are a much more authentic version of themselves. I’m sure mass production and FDA requirements take something away from the end product in America, as well as our penchant for drowning foods in salt, butter, ketchup, gravy and whatever else we can get our hands on. All I know is that the eggs here in France are the most delicious I’ve ever had. Hubby and I have agreed to try the omelet again this weekend with a little cheese as the only accompaniment. Again, I have no doubt that simple is the way to go to ensure a stellar result.

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.