French Market Fresh ~ Asparagus Season Wednesday, Jun 4 2014 

On the seasonal food calendar here in France, May and early June are un régal (delight) of fresh goodies. In Aix-en-Provence, I have been wandering the outdoor markets and come upon bunches of ciboulette (chives) with purple flowers intact, hefty bulbs of ail nouveau (new garlic), plump fèves (fava beans) direct from the vendor’s garden, bright green petits pois (spring peas), and the most tender fragrant fraises (strawberries) on the planet. It’s tempting to become a vegetarian with all this gorgeous produce.

P5160308comp

P5130175comp

P5160299comp

P5130168comp

But a real star has been all the asparagus. Cultivated in French potagers (vegetable gardens) since the 15th century, les asperges are so plentiful this time of year that they seem to nearly overtake everything else. Green asparagus, white asparagus, thin stalks, thick stalks. There are mounds of them for sale everywhere. And no matter which type you buy, they’re all very flavorful and tender as vendors make sure to tell you.

P5130164comp

P5130163comp

P5160304comp

You can imagine that these unruly green stalks have just been plucked from the garden. It’s like the wild, wild west of asparagus. Speaking of wild, I have friends in Provence who love to find wild asparagus growing near where they live. They pick it and then sauté it quickly with a little butter or olive oil for a truly rare, seasonal treat.

P5130166comp

In Europe, white asparagus gets just as much attention as the green variety. You’ll see it on restaurant menus steamed and served with hollandaise sauce or roasted in the oven with a nice sauce béchamel. Here is a French market shopper carefully choosing her own white asperges.

P5240470comp

Les asperges vertes also show up on many restaurant menus this time of year. Lately, I’ve seen green asparagus with parma ham and parmesan offered as a starter. Or asparagus with a poached egg – even poached quail eggs! – and parmesan. There’s also the classic asparagus with vinaigrette for a lighter option. And many main dishes have been featuring asparagus somewhere on the plate, including a lovely asparagus risotto. But my favorite asparagus taste this season has been the fabulous asparagus pâté I stumbled upon the other day at the best boucherie (butcher shop) in Aix.

P5200398comp

P5130173comp

It’s not every day that you see this variety of charcuterie due to the short asparagus growing season. Sure enough, the saleslady at La Boucherie du Palais said that once asparagus was over, their pâté aux asperges was done for another year. Immediately, I asked for a nice tranche (slice) which she promptly cut and wrapped in the traditional waxed paper. Later, I spread some on a fluffy fresh baguette. Franchement (frankly), it was one of the best pâtés I’ve ever had. And unless I figure out how to make the pâté myself, I’ll be lining up at their door same time next year for more of this wonderful delicacy.

All that to say, if you’re into fresh, you’ll want to check out the seasonal market offerings while traveling in France. Make a mental note of the top things growing at that moment. Then, try restaurant dishes featuring these items. Also, if you’re not a cook and/or you don’t have a kitchen while visiting, keep your eyes open for somebody close by – such as the Aix butcher shop – who is making something take-out with the latest and greatest in French market fresh. You never know what specialty you’ll find!

 

NB: The French Agricultural Ministry publishes a fantastic monthly guide to what’s fresh in French markets. You can click here to see the seasonal offerings listed for May 2014 (June is not posted yet). Note that it is in French.

 

P5240455comp 

A Short Guide to French Aperitifs Friday, May 2 2014 

Now that spring is officially here and summer is on its way, it is once again possible to enjoy apéritifs outdoors at a French café or on a terrace at someone’s country home. Designating both the beverage and the social moment before lunch or dinner, the apéritif is a time-honored French ritual that encompasses people from all ages and all walks of life, from young to old, from blue-collar workers to aristocrats.

Whether it’s followed by a meal or is just drinks alone, the apéritif moment in France is the chance to slow down, imbibe alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverages with a salty snack and engage in leisurely conversation with friends or colleagues. This apéritif menu from a popular Left Bank café in Paris captures perfectly the French dedication to this social custom: “L’apéritif, c’est la prière du soir des Français.” Translated into English, “The aperitif is the evening prayer of the French.”

P5301352

Not to be confused with the Anglo-Saxon ‘Happy Hour’ where bars try to attract customers to a late afternoon or pre-dinner drink through elaborate cocktails or 2-for-1 specials, the French apéritif time seems to be built into France’s social DNA. In other words, no encouragement is needed to get the French to stop for a convivial drink with friends, colleagues or family. Nonetheless, some Paris cafés are currently capitalizing on the French mania for anything American or British and are trying to tempt customers with happy hour drink deals…

P2150475

Translation: “Happy Hour 4 to 9pm: All cocktails (with or without alcohol) and draft pints 5 euros.”

So what do the French have as apéritifs? Here’s a short description of some typical French beverage offerings of the non-hard alcohol variety:

WINES: Still and sparkling wines are always good options. One can have un vin blanc or un vin rouge – a glass of white or red wine. With so many wine-producing regions in France, the possibilities are endless. Or a sparkling wine from Champagne, Burgundy or the Loire Valley is nice too. Ordering a glass of champagne is done with the expression une coupe de champagne. (You can click here for a previous article on French champagne and a great champagne bar in Paris!) But nothing says French apéritifs more to me than sitting at a cafe in southern France with a glass of wonderful rosé wine. There are terrific rosés found all over Provence but I particularly like those from Bandol, Tavel and around Aix-en-Provence.

P6210604comp

KIR: Originally from Burgundy, a classic kir is a wine cocktail of inexpensive dry white wine and crème de cassis (black currant liqueur). Another variation is to substitute red wine for the white to make a cardinal, so named for its very red color. One can take the regular kir up a notch by adding champagne instead of white wine for a kir royal. I have tried the kir royal with other liqueurs such as crème de pêches (peach), de fraises (strawberry), or de mûres (blackberry). My favorite is a liqueur I buy in Paris at a charming wine shop* specializing in Armagnac, an earthy cousin of Cognac. Their crème de mûres à l’Armagnac (blackberry liqueur with Armagnac) is heavenly when paired with champagne. * The wine shop in Paris is Ryst-Dupeyron, located at 79, rue du Bac in the 7th arrondissement.

FORTIFIED WINES: Then there is the whole other category of fortified wines, or vins de liqueur. Some French prefer a glass of dry sherry or port as an apéritif. Or they might have some Pineau de Charentes from the Cognac region of France, a lesser known wine blend apéritif that includes cognac brandy. On occasion, I’ll be in the mood for a lightly fortified wine such as a Muscat or Sauternes. Known in the States as ‘dessert wines,’ these are white, slightly sweet and made in many regions of France. Some popular ones include the Muscat des Beaumes de Venise  from Provence and the Muscat du Cap-Corse from Corsica. Or there are some interesting ones from the Dordogne region in southwest France such as Rosette and Montbazillac. I was introduced to Rosette a couple of years ago by some British friends. Roger and Sue invited my husband and me over for apéritifs at their home outside Bergerac and served the local white dessert wine. The Rosette came well chilled and was a delightful surprise with its fruity aromas of apricot and peach. Later, as we took a walk in the countryside near their home, we came upon the hamlet and vineyards of Sainte Foy des Vignes where Rosette is made.

P1010799comp

P1010798comp

P1010812comp

P1010829comp

LILLET: Last but not least in the fortified wines category is the legendary Lillet. Dating from 1872, Lillet is a secret blend of Bordeaux wines, fruit liqueurs and quinine from the village of Podensac in southwest France. Lillet is served very cold –  as the bottle says, “Servir très frais” - and can come straight in a wine glass or served over ice with a twist of orange. Today, there are several versions of Lillet. The mainstays are classic white, red and rosé Lillet, though the rosé version is a new addition to the Lillet stable having just come out in 2012. And there are some new reserve versions that are exceptionally good including Réserve Jean de Lillet Blanc, Réserve Jean de Lillet Rouge and the Magnum Réserve Jean de Lillet Blanc Cuvée 1996. Lillet is proud of its heritage – go to lillet.com and then select “Lillet Visuals” for a great collection of Lillet advertising posters from the late 19th century to the present!

PC280684

PASTIS: This French apéritif  tastes of licorice and herbs and is for me an acquired taste. Still, you could say it has a cult following, especially in the south of France. In fact, pastis is often called the “national drink of Provence.” Transplanted Brit Peter Mayle, Mr. Provence himself, even wrote a novel entitled Hotel Pastis. To be sure, the intense libation is not limited to southern France. In the rest of the country, however, you’re more likely to hear it by the brand names of Ricard or Pernod. Now I wouldn’t put the taste of licorice on my top ten list… EVER…but there IS something about sitting at a café in the shady square of a Provençal village on a really hot day with a shot of pastis in the bottom of a tall glass, a carafe of water and a couple of ice cubes. Here’s how it works: You pour as much or as little water as you wish into the glass of pastis, watch as the clear golden liquid turns milky white, and add the ice cubes. Voilà, you have a drink so thirst-quenching and perfect for the setting that it just might turn into a favorite apéritif.

P2comp

pcomp

A pastis afternoon at Les Deux Garçons in Aix-en-Provence

FRUIT DRINKS: Fruit-based options in France are popular too and may or may not contain alcohol. One can order un jus d’orange (orange juice) or un citron pressé (fresh squeezed lemon juice to which you add water and sugar). There are also a variety of flavored syrups diluted by water. You’ll often see French kids with un menthe à l’eau, or mint syrup with water, hard to miss with its super bright green color. Also popular is the French drink known as un diabolo menthe – mint syrup with limonade (lemon-flavored soda similar to Sprite). On a cultural note, “Diabolo Menthe” also refers to a 70’s French movie of the same name directed by Diane Kurys. This autobiographical film tells the story of two Jewish sisters in a Parisian high school in 1963 against the backdrop of the Algerian war.

To be sure, there are plenty of other drinks out there suitable for the French apéritif moment – including Dubonnet, Campari, vermouth, etc – but this list covers the main characters and will certainly get you started at any café or soirée in France. Cheers!

A NOTE ABOUT APERITIF SNACKS: When having apéritifs, the French don’t overdo in the snack department. Since the point of the ritual is to enjoy conversation and to whet the appetite a bit for the meal to come, something salty but light is often served. Snacks might include some olives, peanuts, crackers or even potato chips. It always surprises me to go to the home of French friends and see a small bowl of potato chips sitting there. However, in recent years, the French have tended to serve more substantial snacks with their cocktails and even turned the moment into what they call a “cocktail dinatoire” where the heavy hors-d’oeuvres are the meal itself.

A GUIDE TO FRENCH CAFES: For a previous article on navigating the French café experience, please click here. 

The French Remember ~ Commemorating WWI and II in 2014 Friday, Apr 25 2014 

Historically speaking, 2014 is a big year in France. June 6th marks the 70th – hard to believe – anniversary of D-Day and the beginning of the liberation of Europe by the Allies in World War II. And this year also observes the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. A propos, the French are making a point to remember both the events and those who lost their lives in these conflicts with a host of special activities and commemorations.

World War I: If you’re in Paris between now and August 4th, you’ll want to check out the moving photo exhibition commemorating the ‘Grande Guerre’ at the Luxembourg Gardens on the Left Bank. British photo-journalist Michael St Maur Sheil spent six years capturing the battlefields of the Great War from the North Sea all the way to Gallipoli. His efforts have culminated in an open-air gallery show entitled “Fields of Battle – Terres de Paix 14 – 18″ which is being shown on the fences on the eastern side of the Luxembourg Gardens.

visuel_fields_of_battle_14-18

Exhibition poster courtesy of the French Senate

The large-scale photos poignantly capture the haunting remains of the devastation and violence that occurred along the front lines as well as the interminable rows of tombs of those who fell during the war. These landscapes also reveal the healing powers of time and nature as the trees, woods, mountains and rivers resumed their peaceful existence in the aftermath of World War I.

1

© 2014 westernfrontphotography.com / Mary Evans Collection

Also included in the exhibition is a massive memorial map created by the top cartographers at Michelin. Laid out on the east side of the Luxembourg Palace – home of the French Senate who sponsored the exhibition, the  giant map recalls the battlefields and front lines of France, Europe and the world, highlighting the global scale of the conflict. Included are the 50 most important battlefields, nearly 700 kilometres of front lines during the four years of war, and 80 commemorative sites that can be visited today as well as the frontier demarcated by the Armistice signed on November 11, 1918 at 11am.

And when it comes to commemorations, no detail is too small for the French. The wooden railings installed around the giant map are made of 100 year old beechwood from the forests around Epinal. The French National Forest Service helped log the wood and a local workshop created them specifically for the exhibition. It turns out that these forests supplied the wood used to build the infamous trenches of the war. Be sure to click here for a short French video (with English-subtitles) of the installation of the exhibition map and photographs at the Luxembourg Gardens.

After its run in Paris, “Fields of Battle – Terres de Paix 14 – 18″ will travel to London where it will be shown in St. James’s park. The exhibition will then move to Nottingham as part of the city’s ‘Trent to Trenches’ commemorative program. The tour will continue, visiting major cities and towns throughout the UK, until its conclusion on Armistice Day on November 11, 2018.

“Fields of Battle – Terres de Paix 14 – 18″ will be on view in Paris until August, 4, 2014. Admission is free. The Luxembourg Garden fences have been used to host a wide variety of photography exhibitions in recent years, reaching a large urgan audience that might not otherwise visit a museum or gallery. To locate the Luxembourg Gardens outdoor photo exhibition, please see the map below:

plan-expo-grilles

A large number of WWI commemorative events are being held all over northern France this year. Please see the Chemins de Mémoire 14 – 18 website for activities in the Nord-Pas de Calais region. Also of note is the Musée de la Grande Guerre located in Meaux in the Ile de France. Opening there on June 28 and running through December 29, 2014 is the temporary exhibition: “Join Now! L’entrée en guerre de l’Empire britannique” (’Join now! The Entry into the War by the British Empire’). And the war memorial and museum at Belleau Wood is always worth a visit.

World War II: The inhabitants of Normandy, France are pulling out all the stops this year to observe the 70th anniversary of the Allied landings on D-Day. From June 5th to August 21st, 2014, re-enactments, memorial ceremonies, exhibitions and more will be taking place in observance of June 6th, 1944. Adding to the emotion is the fact that this will be the last decennial D-Day celebration in which actors and witnesses to the actual D-Day event will be able to take part given their age.

3comp

Event poster courtesy of the Comité Régional de Tourisme de Normandie

A comprehensive calendar in either French or English can be found on the event’s site. If you are traveling to Normandy soon, please click here to see what’s in store. A couple of things that caught my eye were the concert for peace in the town of Sainte Mère Eglise  on June 6th in the evening and also the grand picnic on Omaha Beach the following day to honor all those who fell there. What a place to be on June 7th, 2014!

LOGO-7~1

If your WWII D-Day history is a little rusty, you can see a terrific recap of the key military events of the Normandy landings on the 70th anniversary website by clicking here. And if you’ve never seen the American film “The Longest Day,” I recommend rushing out to rent or buy a copy. Also not to be missed is the recent documentary by film maker Doug Stebleton on the “Mother of Normandy.” Stebleton stumbled across this riveting untold story while making another documentary in France. He dropped everything and then spent three years in both Normandy and the U.S. tracking down the impact Simone Renaud made on France, American and the world.

Simone Renaud

 Book cover courtesy of Doug Stebleton

Simone Renaud, the wife of the mayor of the Norman town of Sainte Mère Eglise, was there the night that American paratroopers landed as part of the Allied offensive in June, 1944. She, her husband and three sons witnessed the violent battle between the occupying Germans and American soldiers and the deaths of some 60 of their fellow townspeople. In the weeks that followed, makeshift cementeries around the town filled up with graves of the fallen GIs. Rain or shine, Simone Renaud took it upon herself to tend to the graves. When American families heard where their sons, husbands and fathers had died, they sent letters addressed simply to the “Maire” (mayor) of Sainte Mère Eglise to inquire about their graves. Alexandre Renaud passed the letters on to his wife who began to answer them individually, often including a photo of the graveside cross, a bit of dirt or even a pressed flower from the burial service.

After a photograph of Simone Renaud laying flowers on Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr.’s grave was published in Life magazine in August, 1944, even more letters came. From then on until her death in 1988 at the age of 89, Simone Renaud made it her mission to care for these soldiers who had died fighting for liberty and who were buried far from home. She wrote hundreds and hundreds of letters to American families and hosted some of them when they came to visit their loved one’s grave. As part of her efforts to make sure these heros were never forgotten and to express gratitude for the freedom they brought, she began to organize yearly D-Day memorial celebrations and re-enactments. Long story short, her immense legacy earned her the title “Mother of Normandy” and Stebleton’s compelling documentary ensures that her memory will never be forgotten.

Renaud 2

 Simone Renaud tending to GI graves – photo courtesy of Doug Stebleton

The “Mother of Normandy” is a must for those who love France and French history as well as WWII history buffs. To purchase the DVD version of the documentary, you can order it directly through the producer. The DVDs are $20 each, plus $4.00 for shipping, or $24.00 per DVD. Checks can be made out to Doug Stebleton and sent to:

Doug Stebleton
5506 Aurelia St
Simi Valley, CA 93063

Upon receipt of the check, the DVD(s) will be sent to the address provided. To order the accompanying book, please click here for more info.

Notes from Paris 2 Wednesday, Mar 19 2014 

Today’s post is a follow-on to the previous “Notes from Paris” describing current events and activities all over the city. You’ll have to agree, there’s always something happening in Paris!

TRANSPORT NOTE: Even in Paris, good things can have a down side. The sunny, warm and windless weather that recently brought everyone out of doors and into the parks, sidewalks and cafés has also delivered high pollution levels in Paris and northern France. The City has taken drastic measures over the past several days to help decrease particulate matter in the air. Wood-burning fires have been banned, covoiturage (ride-sharing) has been encouraged, car speeds have been reduced by 20 km per hour (about 12 mph), and public transport including the Métro and buses has been free for many days running. To top it off, government officials declared a partial driving ban this past Monday – only cars with odd-numbered license plates were permitted on the roads (electric and hybrid cars and vehicles containing three or more people were exempted). As you might imagine, all this has caused both hurrahs and headaches. Thankfully the wind has picked up and the pollution has abated – but everyone has to pay for public transport again.

P3070104comp

I love the Paris buses that run under the south wing of the Louvre Museum.

BIKE NOTE: On the subject of transportation, bikes are gaining ground as the vehicle of choice in Paris. Loads of my Parisian friends use their bikes to get around the city. And Paris is creating more and more bike lanes – taking parts of regular roads to do so – much to the chagrin of taxi drivers and regular drivers. However, in case bike riders think traffic rules don’t apply to them, there are regulations, marked lanes and even dedicated stoplights to remind riders to stay in line. Bonne route (happy riding)! 

P3070110comp

P3070111comp

EVENT NOTE: You’ve gotta love this cool event that popped up in Paris week before last…hopscotch, or la marelle in French, for everyone. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Argentine writer Julio Cortazar who wrote a novel set in Paris called “La Marelle,” Argentine performance artist Marta Minujin created a Paris hopscotch zone in the Place du Palais Royal. The hopscotch fest lasted three days and drew the participation of kids and adults alike. 

P3070039comp

P3070040comp

P3070047comp

P3070060comp

FOOD NOTE: Just recently, our antiques trip group was treated to a private tour of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs and got to see up close some of the most beautiful French furniture and objets d’art from the 17th and 18th centuries. Following our visit to the “Arts Déco,” we went to the nearby Le Soufflé for lunch. (Click here for a previous post on this classic Paris restaurant.) For dessert, I decided to branch out from the decadent soufflé au chocolat and try the soufflé aux fruits rouges – red berry soufflé. It was divine, tasting like the most sweet and fragrant raspberry you can imagine. But I was more struck by how the big pink soufflé looked like a giant cupcake!

P3070033comp

MUSIC NOTE: There are always fabulous classical music concerts happening in Paris. If you’ve never taken in a musical performance at the Salle Pleyel or the Palais Garnier or one of Paris’s many churches, I would highly recommend putting this on your Paris to-do list. To find a performance, you can look up the venues online ahead of time or when you are there, look for the posters publicizing these great offerings. Tomorrow night and Tuesday night at the stained-glass heaven of La Sainte Chapelle for example, the Orchestre des soloistes français is performing works of Bach, Albinoni and Mozart.

P3070141

BOOK NOTE: Walking down the Left Bank’s Rue Jacob the other day, I was stopped in my tracks by all the women pausing in front of a window display. Intrigued, I went closer to see what they were looking at. It turns out the new Dictionnaire universel des créatrices was just published in France, and the Espace des femmes at 33-35 rue Jacob was sponsoring a photo exhibition to celebrate the event.

P3070138comp

P3070112comp

Upon entering the gallery, I found out this new comprehensive dictionary of creative women – “creative” in every sense – includes more than 10,000 articles on well-known and lesser-known women and their contributions over the centuries. French feminist Antoinette Fouque was one of the driving forces behind the work. According to a recent interview in Le Figaro, she noted that while women make up half the population on the planet, only 5 to 10% of entries in dictionaries of proper names included women. So the idea for “Universal Dictionary of Creative Women” was born.

I spoke with a nice young woman there at the Espace des femmes. She mentioned that for printing reasons, the dictionary does not contain photographs of the women listed. So the gallery was exhibiting photos of many of them along with illustrations by French fashion designer Sonia Rykiel, some of which do appear in the publication. The woman also mentioned that an English translation of the dictionary is in the works and should come out later this year. Click here for more information on the Espace des femmes and this great contribution to the world of dictionaries.

P3070116comp

P3070132comp

P3070133comp

 

Notes from Paris – March, 2014 Tuesday, Mar 4 2014 

What a difference a year makes. Just after I arrived in Paris last March for the annual French Affaires’ antiques trip, the French capital was blanketed with a thick layer of snow. Verrrry chilly temperatures accompanied us for days as we zipped around to the various Paris antiques fairs and flea markets. This year, the wintry weather is back in the U.S., and Paris is set to be sunny and almost balmy this week. To capture the ambiance of Paris at the moment, today’s post includes notes and impressions from the past few days here. Enjoy!

FASHION NOTE: It’s fashion week in Paris and Karl Lagerfeld of Chanel has just made headlines with his “Chanel Supermarket” at le Grand Palais. Under the sparkling glass dome, Lagerfeld accomplished another fashion first as he showed off his fall-winter collection on models roaming grocery store aisles lined with Chanel ‘food products’ and other goodies.  What a spectacle! Click here for a photo series of Chanel’s new supermarket chic.

GP2

~

FOOD NOTE: Speaking of supermarkets and chic, my favorite neighborhood cheese shop was closed Monday so I went to La Grande Epicerie, the gourmet food halls of the Le Bon Marché department store for some good fromage (cheese). After extensive renovations, La Grande Epicerie is more gourmet than ever. They have a fantastic selection of everything food related from France and around the world and it’s all gorgeously presented. However, the store is now so beautiful and mod that it almost feels like a museum. I half expect to see signs – Merci de ne pas toucher (don’t touch). And the prices are not for the faint of heart. Still, the quality is outstanding so I knew I’d get some great cheese.

As I waited in line at the cheese counter, an older French gentleman was putting in his order for camembert. So typically French, he began a long discours (speech) about how exactly he liked this Normandy cheeseun demi camembert au lait cru…crémeux mais pas trop fort…et pas de blanc (half of a raw milk camembert, creamy but not too ripe, and no white chalky layer in the middle). The saleswoman opened several of the round boxes to find the right one for monsieur and finally wrapped up one to his liking. Fortunately for me, this is exactly how I prefer my camembert so I then stepped up to buy the other half. Perfect!

Had I had a little more time, I would have taken the escalator down to the snazzy wine department on La Grande Epicerie’s lower level. They are always having great tastings of wines and champagnes. I have a good American friend and long-time resident of Paris who heads to La Grande Epicerie for her Vidalia onions – the only place in Paris that sells them – and also for a nice free glass of champagne at the same time. Only in France.

~

RESTAURANT NOTE: La Grande Epicerie recently opened a gourmet restaurant called “La Table” on the second floor of the store.

P3040008comp

Sleek escalators whisk you up to the glass atrium accented by four full-size trees. This indoor-outdoor space features numerous tables and a bar where lunch and afternoon tea are served. I met a French friend for a mid-day bite this week and the place was packed.

P3040006comp

P3040004comp

We both chose the suggestion du chef (featured dish of the day) which was a delicious beef parmentier – a French specialty of slow cooked beef in a lovely sauce layered with mashed potatoes…and this version was flavored with truffle and served with dressed greens on top. A great choice.

P3040001comp

~

WINE NOTE: I decided to stop in my neighborhood wine shop for a nice red to go with the camembert, incidentally one of the most difficult cheeses to pair with wine. Still, a full-bodied red sounded good so the monsieur gave me some ideas. As he was wrapping up my purchase, I asked about his training in French wines and vineyards. As I expected and hoped he would do, he launched into his own discours in French about how to appreciate and taste wines. He repeated it was crucial to taste wines “avec humilité.” He said to forget about the pretensions of whether this year or that year meant a great wine. Just taste it and let the wine speak for itself, he insisted. Excellent advice.

P3040025comp

~

TV NOTE: There’s good news and bad news about French television. On the plus side, I caught a program the other day where a French family decided to bypass their local charcuterie (deli) and make their own pâté, rillettes et saucisson (pâté, pork spread and sausage). It was fascinating to watch the process and see how a father and daughter mastered what has almost become a lost art. On the down side, current commercials on French TV include Old El Paso and Advil brand products. Seriously? And there was a French version of “The Bachelor” on the air. Were it not in the French language, you would have thought you were in America. Thankfully, one can turn the TV completely off, walk outside and enjoy real French life.

~

PARIS TRANSPORT NOTE: The Paris Métro and Bus system makes getting around the city pretty easy. I hopped on the 63 bus the other night to meet a friend for dinner in the 5th arrondissement. To my dismay, my bus/métro ticket – they can be used for both – had become démagnétisé. In other words, the magnetic strip on the back allowing it to be validated in the bus ticket machine was no longer working. This phenomenon happens when you put the tickets in close proximity to a cell phone or some other magnetic field. In any case, I needed to make a bus transfer to another line to reach my destination and therefore required a validated ticket to continue. I explained the situation to the bus driver who kindly took the time to mark my ticket with the bus number, date and time. I then was able to change to the 47 bus with no issues at all. The French can be very sympathique (nice)!

What’s Happening in Paris Friday, Feb 21 2014 

As a good friend of mine in Paris put it this past week, “we are in one of those doldrum periods for art exhibitions.” Many of the big fall art shows have just closed, and Paris is pausing to take a breath before a host of new exhibitions open for the spring and summer of 2014. If you’re traveling to the French capital anytime soon, you won’t want to miss these great cultural events. Be sure to click on the museum name for more details on each exhibition.

Current Art Exhibitions

Musée du LouvreRestoration of the iconic Greek statue “The Winged Victory of Samothrace” continues at the Louvre Museum. The 2nd-century B.C. sculpture and its monumental staircase will be re-opening this summer. A must-see. Click here to see a video of the restoration project in progress.

Pic2

Image courtesy of the Musée du Louvre

Musée d’Orsay“Vincent Van Gogh / Antonin Artaud, The Man Suicided by Society.” 5, Quai Anatole France, 75007 Paris. Twentieth century writer Antonin Artaud was asked to write a piece on Van Gogh to coincide with a 1947 art exhibition in Paris of his works. Artaud’s provocative thesis delineated how “Van Gogh’s exceptional lucidity made lesser minds uncomfortable.” And according to Artaud, it was these lesser minds that drove Van Gogh to suicide. From March 11 until July 6.

Grand Palais - “I, Augustus, Emperor of Rome.” 3, avenue du Général Eisenhower 75008 Paris. To commemorate the 2000th anniversary of Augustus’ death, the Grand Palais is hosting a fascinating exhibition on his life and Roman times during his reign. A selection of  statues, reliefs, frescoes, furniture, silver as well as the reconstruction of a villa from the slopes of Mount Vesuvius round out this historical exhibition. From March 19 to July 13.

gp

Poster courtesy of the RMN Grand Palais

Musée Jacquemart-André“Watteau to Fragonard, les Fêtes Galantes.” 158 Boulevard Haussmann, 75008 Paris, France.  The jewel-like Jacquemart-André Museum welcomes a fabulous new exhibition of 18th-century French painting focusing on love scenes in lush pastoral settings. A sumptuous ode to a bygone era. From March 14 to July 21.

Musée Marmottan - “The Impressionists in Private: One Hundred Masterpieces from Private Collections.” 2 Rue Louis Boilly, 75016 Paris. This exquisite exhibition at the Marmottan Museum brings together 100 Impressionist works borrowed from private owners. You’ll want to make a point to see these pieces that have never been on view publicly until now. Until July 6.

imp

Poster courtesy of the Musée Marmottan

Musée Rodin“Mapplethorpe-Rodin.” 79, rue de Varenne, 75007 Paris. This intriguing exhibition compares and contrasts the sculpture of Auguste Rodin with the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe. Similarities in themes and subjects abound. From April 8 until September 21.

Palais Galliera - “Coming into Fashion, a Century of Photography at Condé Nast.” 10, Avenue Pierre-1er-de-Serbie, 75116 Paris. The fashion museum of Paris is putting on this wonderful exhibition featuring 100 years of fashion photography. From March 1 to May 25. Then beginning in summer, the Palais Galliera is hosting “Fashion in the 50’s,” a superb show noting the ‘New look’ created by Christian Dior in 1947 and the fashion revolution that followed. From July 3 to November 15.

gal

Poster courtesy of the Palais Galliera

Musée du Luxembourg“Joséphine.” 19, rue de Vaugirard, 75006 Paris. This special exhibition features art and objects relating to the Empress Joséphine, first wife of Napoleon, at the bicentennial of her death. From March 12 until June 29.

ml

Poster courtesy of the Musée du Luxembourg 

Centre Pompidou“Henri Cartier-Bresson.” 19, rue Beaubourg, 75004 Paris. Lovers of photography will enjoy this retrospective devoted to the superbly talented twentieth-century French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. Until June 9.

pic3

Poster courtesy of the Centre Pompidou

Musée d’Histoire Naturelle “Night.” Grande Galerie de l’Évolution, 36 rue Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire 75005 Paris. This year, Paris’s Natural History Museum has put together an amazing interdisciplinary exhibit on the nocturnal world. Visitors will be fascinated by informative and interactive displays around four themes: The Night Sky, Night in Nature, Sleep at Night, and Night Myths and Monsters. Until November 3.

pic6

Poster courtesy of the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle

French Champagne for All Occasions Thursday, Feb 13 2014 

If you are ever invited to a dinner party in France, what you won’t get is a tour of the home. Whether your French hosts’ abode is un appartement en ville (an apartment in town), une maison à la campagne (a house in the country), or une villa au bord de la mer (a house by the sea), you are likely to see only the living room and dining room. No gathering in the kitchen as the meal is being prepared, nor any guided visits of the rest of the house as is often de rigueur (the thing to do) in America. In France, ça ne se fait pas (it just isn’t done).

What you are very likely to experience, at the beginning of the most casual of French meals or at a more formal affair, is a glass of Champagne. The French have figured out that you don’t need a wedding or anniversary or boat baptism to drink the most famous wine in the world. Opening a bottle of Champagne creates a special occasion all its own, transforming an ordinary moment into a festive and memorable event.

Of course, a little bubbly goes beyond the dinner party. When I am in Paris, a must on my social calendar is the refined and intimate Champagne bar at the Hôtel Trocadéro Dokhan’s in the 16th arrondissement. Mood is everything in this cozy space entirely paneled in 18th century gilded boiseries (wood paneling). Tall candles illuminate every table. After a full day of work or visiting friends or taking in art shows or seeking out the latest and greatest in la Capitale (Paris), there is nothing I like better than to sink into one of the deep armchairs and contemplate the special Champagne offerings of the week. Or I let myself be tempted by the regular Champagne menu. As the first Champagne bar in Paris and arguably still the best, Le Dokhan’s Bar pours over 70 varieties of fine Champagne at any given time.

Cd

The ambiance doesn’t stop there. The knowledgeable sommeliers can tell you anything and everything about how Champagne is made. They also can share fascinating details about about the various offerings from the small Champagne houses which are rarely seen in the U.S. And after you have chosen your glass or flight of Champagne, the sommelier then emerges from behind the bar with a dazzling tray of crystal glasses–tulips, coupes, flutes, and goblets of various sizes and shapes. You get to choose your bubbly AND the type of glass you will drink it in. Only in France!

PB071655

On a recent visit to Le Dokhan’s, I chose the featured millésime (vintage) Champagne in a violet crystal flute. My good friend Laura decided on the brut Champagne in a tulip. We sipped our sparkling apéritifs while enjoying the warm and salty gougères (gourmet cheese puffs) that are a specialty of the house. It was an instant fête (party).

Here are a few more festive photos of past Champagne moments at Le Dokhan’s…

P2110088

P6220679

If you happen to be in Paris for Valentine’s Day tomorrow, you won’t want to miss the special romantic evening at Le Dokhan’s Bar starting at 6:30pm. For the very first time, they will be offering a duo tasting of the incredible Billecart Salmon Rosé and the rare Amour de Deutz Champagnes. And they will be welcoming Cathy Kelly for some live jazz. The Champagne and jazz evening is 53 euros per person. As always, advance reservations are recommended at Le Dokhan’s.

As you might imagine, Champagne is plentiful in Paris, and it’s easy to opt for a Champagne moment at this special bar or at any café or restaurant. But sometimes those Champagne occasions find you.

One chilly January night in Paris, an American friend and I were walking to dinner at a restaurant in the 7th arrondissement. As we approached la Tour Eiffel, it was bathed in a golden glow courtesy of the 335 spotlights that come on each day at sunset. We took a flurry of photos of the Iron Lady at marvelous angles.

 

Then it just so happened that I paused directly under the center of the Eiffel Tower as the clock struck 8pm. And voilà, the Tower exploded in a vertical shower of twinkling white lights…and so much did those little white lights feel like sparkling bubbles, I suddenly had the sensation of standing inside a glass of Champagne. It was a mystical experience worthy of Dom Perignon.

After that night, for me, the Eiffel Tower lost its “been there, done that” overtouristed patina. It has even re-earned a place on my Paris favorites list. Now all I have to do is tote a bottle of bubbly one evening to that cherished spot and raise a real glass when the sparling lights Champagne moment comes around again.

Dl

NB: LE Champagne is the sparkling wine made in LA Champagne, the province northeast of Paris. Any sparkling wine made outside this region, whether in France or elsewhere in the world, cannot technically be called Champagne. Vintners will sometimes put la méthode champenoise (the Champagne method) on their wine labels to indicate that their sparkling wine made in the same fashion as true Champagne.

A version of this article was first published on May 14, 2008

French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter

You can find a variety of French Champagnes at your local U.S. wine shops and grocery stores. If you want a French bubbly for Valentine’s Day but without the Champagne prices, you might try a nice sparkling Crémant de Bourgogne or Crémant de Loire. Both Burgundy and the Loire valley produce lovely sparkling wines that are often available in the U.S. - at half the price of typical Champagnes.

cdb

Whatever your choice of sparkling wine, be sure and have a nice toast together French style – make eye contact and wish everyone “Santé” (to your health) or “Tchin-Tchin” (pronounced ‘chin-chin,’ it’s an onomatopoeia intended to mimic the clinking sound glasses make when they touch). In other words, “Cheers!”

My Favorite French Sandwich Wednesday, Jan 29 2014 

Even with all their gourmet and ultra-gourmet cuisine, the French do have a sandwich culture. They eat sandwiches for many of the same reasons Americans do – they’re quick, they’re portable and sometimes, you just don’t need a full fork-and-knife meal. Still, like so many cultures, the French have their way of doing sandwiches.

In last week’s article on fabulous French butter (click here to read), we mentioned the very common but so good sandwich jambon-beurre – the classic ham and butter on baguette. From there, the French might add to it a hard cheese such as emmenthal for an even nuttier flavor. A good American friend of mine who goes regularly to France says the jambon-fromage is his preferred French sandwich – though minus the butter. Nowadays, in addition to these classics, you’ll find a bit more variety including baguette sandwiches with brie cheese, or a mozzarella-tomato combo or a tuna-lettuce-tomato offering. You can buy these baguette sandwiches in France at most boulangeries (bakeries), at open-air markets, and at sandwich stands at train stations, gas stations, airports and special events. They’ll be handed to you wrapped in paper along with one napkin – yes, just one napkin?!

PA050198comp

A French sandwich shop at the Gare de Lyon in Paris

At the festive open-air market in Vaison-la-Romaine in Provence a few months ago, I saw an enterprising salami vendor wanting to make his enormous selection of saucissons secs and cured meats more accessible to potential customers. He had lined up mini baguette sandwiches ready to emporter (take away). In addition to a mini jambon-fromage, he had a small salami version so you didn’t even have to wait to get home to cut your own saucisson for a sandwich.

P9170474comp

P9170472comp

A runner up for my favorite French sandwich would be the traditional but pretty amazing croque-monsieur. What’s not to like about ham, gruyère cheese and béchamel sauce layered on white bread and served piping hot? Accompanied by a small green salad with vinaigrette, the croque-monsieur is perfect lunchtime (and inexpensive) meal option at French cafés and brasseries all over the country.

Cafe 3 compressed

There are also intriguing variations on the typical croque monsieur. The popular Le Comptoir restaurant in Paris’s 6th arrondissement serves a smoked salmon croque monsieur with a touch of caviar on top. C’est absolument délicieux!

My all time favorite French sandwich, however, would have to be the tartine. The tartine is actually not a specific sandwich but a type of French sandwich. It’s basically an open-face model that can come with a large range of toppings and is served warm. Some think the tartine – note this is not tarte which means “tart” or “pie” in French – hearkens back to an earlier time when people would reheat leftovers by putting them on sliced bread and then toasting or grilling the bread over an open fire. Personally, I find the tartine simple, interesting and maybe a little less heavy since it only has one slice of bread.

P2160646

In any case, you’ll often see les tartines on casual restaurant menus in Paris and elsewhere. And very often, you’ll see these Parisian establishments touting les tartines served on pain Poilâne. For those not familiar, the Poilâne family bakery is the most famous in Paris and arguably one of the best. (Feel free to click here for a little background on this special boulangerie.) Slices of Poilâne’s large sourdough loaves make a perfect base for tartines.

P3300077comp

So it’s no wonder that Poilâne opened a chic little restaurant next to their Left Bank flagship bakery on the rue du Cherche-Midi in the 6th arrondissement featuring les tartines. Called Cuisine de bar, the restaurant is the perfect place to grab a nice but quick lunch in Paris. They offer about 15 different types of tartines – both vegetarian and otherwise – all day until 7pm. And while the French normally eat most everything with a knife and fork, they tell their customers that hands are perfectly ok for tartines. These lunchtime sandwiches are a bargain as well, running from 10 to 15 euros per tartine.

So the next time you’re in Paris or France, forget the American Subway sandwich shops that have invaded Europe and give les tartines a try. Add a nice glass of wine, and they make for a tasty, quick and very French meal. You’re sure to find some with toppings you like and that Poilâne bread in Paris is certainly not to be missed. Bon appétit!

French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter

French tartines are super easy to make at home. For inspiration, the Poilâne bakery has a couple of wonderful little cookbooks for both savory and sweet tartines. I bought both at the Left Bank shop years ago – the savory version is entitled Les Meilleures Tartines de Lionel Poilâne and the sweet one is Les Meilleures Tartines Sucrées de Lionel Poilâne. You can purchase them at the Paris bakeries; there are two other outlets in Paris, one near the Eiffel Tower and one in the Marais. There are also two Poilâne boutiques in London if you happen to be there. Or you can order them online at www.poilane.com. They run about 15 euros apiece. Note that they come in French and English but sometimes stocks run low on either so be sure to inquire. Enjoy!

Cvr2

Cvr1 

 

Divine French Butter Sunday, Jan 19 2014 

If you’re fresh into New Year’s diet resolutions, you may not want to read this week’s post since it’s all about le beurre – that’s right, butter. The French adore butter. They use it to cook. They spread it on toasted baguettes for breakfast. They count on it in pastries and desserts. Simply put, the French know there’s no substitute for butter’s rich taste and flavor. But then, the French are not dealing with just any old butter – they use French butter.

PC260436comp

It’s hard to imagine that something as quotidien as butter would be worth noticing, even in France. You have to hand it to the French, though. They have that “je ne sais quoi” about so many things, including their beurre which is divine.

What is it that sets butter in France apart?

First, French butters just taste better. They have a depth of flavor and a nuttiness that’s missing in American butter. There is also a bit of a tang due to the cultured nature of French butter. More important, butters made in France have a higher butterfat content – and lower water content – than their counterparts in America. French butter has 82% or higher compared to just 80% in the U.S. It’s hard to believe a few points of butterfat would make a big difference but they do. Just ask any pastry chef on either side of the Atlantic.

There’s more to the French butter story, however.

You probably know that many of those amazing French cheeses are still made using traditional methods. Similarly, some French butters continue to be made the old-fashioned way. Take the Beurre d’Echiré for example. This sublime French butter is produced à l’ancienne (as in olden days) in the village of Echiré southwest of Poitiers in the Deux-Sèvres region of France. The stellar quality of the milk – due to the care taken with the cows that graze nearby, the slow pasteurization at low temperatures, the culturing process and resulting acidity, and the traditional churning methods in les barattes (oak barrels) produce a butter like no other. As one might expect, the Beurre d’Echiré has AOC / AOP status in recognition of its finesse and taste of the terroir, i.e. the particular place where it is made. Other AOC / AOP butters in France include the beurre d’Isigny from Normandy, butters from Charentes-Poitou (the region around Echiré) such as Celles-sur-Belle, and the beurre de Bresse from eastern France.

French butters come unsalted – or doux – and salted – either sel or demi-sel. Salted butter in France contains 3% salt which is added after churning. And half-salted butter, le beurre demi-sel, has between .5 and 3% salt. In Brittany, cooks often use salted butter in recipes – even in cakes – no doubt due to the abundance of wonderful sea salt gathered nearby, whereas the majority of French chefs and home cooks tend to use unsalted butter. Sometimes butter makers even add sea salt in large crystals which give the butter a slightly crunchy texture. I adore this variety on baguettes for breakfast. And if I’ve somehow bought beurre doux, I will sprinkle a bit of loose fleur de sel myself on top of the buttered baguette!

You can buy French butter at the supermarket where you’ll find a large selection typically wrapped in foil or waxed paper. Nowadays, they even have beurre allégé or léger (light butter) for those watching their waistlines. Note that this type of butter is ok for spreading on toast but not very good for cooking due to its high water content and additives. Alternatively, you can buy butter in bulk from cheese vendors at French open-air markets. On the amount, you can gesture how much you want or feel free give the metric system a try – half a kil0 or 500 grammes de beurre would be about a pound of butter, 250 grammes would equal about half a pound, and so on.

PC050111comp

For some reason, while the French slather butter on their baguettes for breakfast, they don’t tend to butter their bread at lunch or dinner. So unless you’re at an upscale restaurant in France, yummy French butter won’t automatically come with your basket of bread. You’ll have to ask for it. After getting your waiter’s attention with a nice “Monsieur!,” you can request butter by saying “Du beurre, s’il vous plaît.” You will be brought a small slab of butter or if you’re really lucky and your restaurant goes for the best, a small disk of beurre d’Echiré still wrapped in its gold foil. And at Ladurée’s restaurants in Paris, the French butter arrives in a special signature wrapper with twists at both ends so that it almost looks like candy.

P2120125comp

PC040002comp

There are a couple of other French idiosyncrasies when it comes to butter. One of the most common sandwiches found in France is the jambon-beurre. It’s part of a baguette cut in half lengthwise, then spread with butter inside and layered with slices of ham. No mayo, no lettuce, no tomato. Just baguette and butter and ham. I also have dined with French friends who serve butter with the cheese course. I watched them as they first put butter on their bread and then added a nice chunk of Camembert or Brie or even Roquefort. Talk about over the top. I tried my cheese this way, and of course, it’s fantastically good. Let’s just hope that red wine really does cancel out the side effects of all that fat!

You may know that the unofficial symbol or mascot of France is the Gallic rooster. I have to think, though, that the real unofficial symbol of the country is la vache, or the cow. France is blessed with a geography and climate that favor cows and their tremendous milk production. Couple this with the special French savoir-faire for making glorious butter, cream and cheeses and you have a match made in heaven.

French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter

Thanks to global trade, Americans can find several French butters at gourmet shops and upscale supermarkets across the country. I did a quick tour of some shops in Texas recently and saw some good offerings. Celles-sur-Belle and the beurre d’Isigny would be my top choices for spreading on baguettes or making cakes and pastries. There was even a butter with coarse sea salt from the Camargue in southern France. And the cost? Even though these butters are not cheap, their prices are fairly reasonable given that they are imported all the way from France.

Butter1jpg

Butter3

One butter that I see everywhere in France and quite often in the U.S. is the mass-produced Beurre Président. While it’s definitely a step up from American butter, le Beurre Président is pretty basic for France. So if you’re going to go for French butter, consider one of the top-notch versions. Or conduct a taste test at home and see which one(s) you prefer. After all, “A chacun son goût” which means ‘To each his own,’ or more literally, ‘Everyone to his taste’!

Butter2

NB: These days, there are a variety of American-made butters which are produced more according to French methods and have a higher butterfat content. Plugra would be one. Be sure to check your local markets for various options. 

Happy New Year ~ Bonne Année 2014! Tuesday, Dec 31 2013 

Bonjour, friends! As 2013 draws to a close and 2014 unfolds, I want to thank you for being a part of French Affaires this year. Whether you have joined us for French language classes or the French Cookbook Club or French travel and culture seminars or trips to France or personalized French travel planning or a little armchair travel via ‘French Affaires Weekly’ articles, your participation and enthusiasm mean a lot. I invite you to rester en ligne – “to stay tuned” as the French say - as there are even more wonderful things planned for the coming year. 

On that note, je vous souhaite tous une très bonne année 2014 pleine d’amour, de joie, de paix et de bonheur – I wish you all a very Happy New Year 2014, full of love, joy, peace and happiness!

P2100781

Love Paris-style at Ladurée on the Left Bank 

Merci et à bientôt (thanks and see you soon)!

Elizabeth New Seitz

French Affaires ~ www.frenchaffaires.com

Next Page »