To Market, to Market Monday, Jan 24 2011 

One thing I love about many French cookbooks—and I mean cookbooks about French cooking in French or in English—is that they often include two things:  les menus (suites of dishes that go well together in one meal) and les produits de la saison (lists of seasonal fruits, vegetables, cheeses, meat and fish–yes, cheeses have seasons too!). They are noteworthy reminders of the French talent for balancing flavors and tastes, both within individual dishes and across the various plats (dishes) that make up one meal. These cookbooks also point to the significant culinary rewards of cooking according to the seasons.

Evidemment (obviously), to cook with fresh, seasonal ingredients, one has to shop accordingly. In Paris, every quartier (neighborhood) offers daily and weekly open-air marchés (markets). They are a culinary experience as well as a social one—people from all classes and all walks of life rub elbows in the common pursuit of good cooking and good meals.

Picture1

At these markets, you occasionally see vendors who grow their own produce, raise their own poultry, harvest their own honey, or make their own cheeses and sell these items directly to the public. My nostalgic side wishes that all the vendors would be selling goods they personally produce on their own farms. However, given modern commerce and the sheer volume of Parisian business, ce n’est pas possible (this is not possible). The majority of French market vendors obtain their products from the enormous wholesale food market outside Paris, Rungis (pronounced ruhn-jeesse in French).

PB061401

If the expression ‘wholesale food’ makes you think “bland” or “tired” food, you’re in for a whole other world in France. Rungis prides itself on being ‘le plus grand marché de produits frais du monde’ (the biggest market of fresh products in the world). And during my recent tour of the Rungis market, I would have to say that it’s pretty astonishing how fresh and beautiful all the products are given such an immense operation.

Rungis opened in 1969 after Les Halles, the main food market in Paris, was demolished. It does more than 7 milliards (billion) euros of business every year and is located south of Paris near the Orly airport, covering 232 hectares (nearly 600 acres) of land. There are multiple pavillons (buildings) that house the various food products: les produits laitiers (dairy products), les produits de la mer (seafood), les produits carnés (meat, fowl and game), les fruits et les légumes (fruits and vegetables), and les fleurs et la décoration (flowers and decor). While you will occasionally see a female or two working at the market, it is still primarily a male dominated line of work.

Touring Rungis is spectacular, though I must say it’s not an activity for the faint of heart. To supply daily the numerous food markets, supermarkets and restaurant chefs in the Paris region, the market opens at 2am and is nearly done by 8 or 9am. You have to get up in the wee hours and make the 45 minute or so trek by car from the center of Paris. Then you get to traipse through the cavernous warehouses that are kept chilled to keep products as fresh as possible. In addition, you have to put up with delayed gratification as you can’t buy anything you see. And visits to Rungis have to be specially arranged, so it takes some doing just to get in the place.

Despite the logistics, seeing Rungis is well worth the effort. It is the coming together of food growers, producers and distributors from all over France and from all over the world. And it is the heart of the daily culinary dance in Paris.

For your own visual tour of Rungis, take a look at the photos below. You’ll never think about food in Paris the same way again!

 PB061413

PB061402

PB061409

PB061423

PB061449

PB061461

PB061446

PB061480

PB061420

PB061493

PB061517

French Take-Out™ ~ La France à emporter

French markets are one of the most charming aspects of travel in France. In small towns or large cities, food markets, flower markets, and antique markets contribute to the social fabric of the community. There are also yearly markets or festivals that are worth planning your French trips around such as the Foire aux piments (Pepper Festival) in the Basque country, the Fête du fromage (Goat Cheese Fair) in Provence, and the Journée de la Truffe (Truffle Day) in southern France.

To find out more about specific French markets and festivals to visit all over France, join us for the French Affaires ‘Tour de France’ Lecture Series this spring. In this unique program, we’ll be ‘traveling’ to the best parts of France to discover the history, art, architecture, culture, landscapes, gardens, cuisine, wine, and of course, markets, of various French regions. The richly illustrated lectures, discussions and food tastings will make you feel like you’ve been to France. Our program also includes further reading and film lists, as well as museum, hotel, and restaurant suggestions for all over France.

Click here for complete series details and to register–there are a few seats left for this special French travel experience!

Lecture 1 – Saturday, January 29:  Welcome to the ‘Tour de France’ Lecture Series; Introduction to the Geography of France; Paris, the Ile de France & Champagne

Lecture 2: – Saturday, February 26:  Normandy, Brittany & the Loire Valley

Lecture 3 – Saturday, April 2:  Burgundy, Jura & Savoy

Lecture 4 – Saturday, April 30:  Provence, the Riviera & Corsica

Lecture 5 – Saturday, June 4:  Southwest France – Bordeaux, Médoc & the Pyrenees

Alpilles Roses

Cooking in Paris (aka Meeting the French) Monday, Jan 10 2011 

The trick about traveling is how to go deeper. How to go beyond the guidebook. How to visit but not be a tourist. How to not only see but also really SEE.

In my quarter century of going deeper into France, I have found one of the most rewarding ways to connect with the country is to cook. In the city or in the country. High cuisine or low. With famous chefs or with unsung culinary heroes.

Why? Bien sûr (of course), food and wine are one of the top three conversation topics anytime anywhere in France. Seriously. And then too, participating is always more meaningful than observing. Period. You gather around a common purpose. You have to make an effort. And you have to meet people.

PB040956

A few weeks ago, the French Affaires’ fall trip group ventured off to Paris to enjoy the many delights of la Capitale. Our focus was French cuisine in all its glory and accordingly, we indulged in wonderful food and wine—some of our own making. Two days after our arrival, we jumped into a lunch cooking class at the renowned Ritz Escoffier Cooking School* located in the basement of the luxurious Ritz Hotel.

Our chef instructor was the serious but amusing Madame Robert. She has been teaching both professional chefs and amateurs at the Ritz for several years, and she was a total pro. Our class included ten participants, our group of Americans and the rest French. Madame Robert translated our culinary task of the hour:  To prepare dorade rôtie au sésame et aux poivrons doux avec couscous (gourmet roasted sea bream with sesame seeds, sweet peppers and couscous). And it was all hands on.

The ingredients were laid out for us in the fabulous professional kitchen, and we all had our own work station and tablier (apron). A French woman from La Rochelle who was in town with her husband on business was the first person to arrive. “Cathy” (pronounced kah-tee in French) was perusing our culinary assignments as our group of Americans joined her around the work table. The group was complete when three Ritz marketing managers put on their aprons and took their places.

PB040967

PB040951

Chef Robert (pronounced roh-bair in French) welcomed us to the class and introduced the recipes of the day. She began to demonstrate in both French and English how to prepare each step of the dishes, adding helpful astuces (tips) along the way. While she looked a bit formidable in her chef’s garb complete with the toque hat, she turned out to have a wonderful sense of humor and was very approachable throughout the class.

PB040957

PB040970

Side by side, we Americans and French chopped, seasoned, sautéed and talked our way through our food adventure. Chef Robert kept us on task and was encouraging even when the peppers were not perfectly cut or when our sautéed fish did not look exactly like hers. At the end of an hour, we gathered around the work table to serve and garnish our plates. Then we headed to the dining room to enjoy our feast with wine selected especially to go along with our creations.

PB040993

PB040994

Chef Robert bid us adieu as our cooking group offered her our remerciements (thanks). What followed was a very good lunch along with very good company. Our new French friends were warm and friendly and were as curious about us as we were about them. Cooking side by side had opened the door to wonderful camaraderie and to a palpably authentic French experience.

So the next time you are in France, consider joining a class of some kind–cooking in France of course is almost always a home run. You could pick up a new skill, make a new friend or see a part of French culture you didn’t know existed. It will be more than worth the effort.

IMG_0724