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.