Provence Comfort Food Monday, Feb 16 2015 

Those who have spent time out and about in France know that French food is not all super fancy. Some of the best eats in the country are rustic, home-cooked, traditional dishes – no artistic plate arrangements, mod foam concoctions or colorful sauce squiggles in sight. Every French region has its signature ‘comfort food’ such as Burgundy with its hearty boeuf bourguignon and coq au vin, Southwest France with its robust cassoulet and also Provence with its rich bouillabaisse and daube (the southern France version of beef bourguignon), to name a few.

Another favorite comfort food in Provence – and all around the Mediterranean really – is les petits farcis. Literally meaning “little stuffed things,” les petits farcis de Provence is a wonderful dish of roasted, stuffed vegetables.

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This easy and satisfying meal makes the most of the abundance of colorful vegetables that grow so well in France’s garden of Eden – tomates, courgettes, oignons, artichauts, poivrons, choux, et aubergines (tomatoes, zucchini, onions, artichokes, peppers, cabbage and eggplant). Some ground beef and/or pork sausage, breadcrumbs soaked in milk, an egg or two, garlic, herbs, olive oil, salt and pepper compose the stuffing that is placed in the hollowed out vegetables. Traditionally, this dish also allowed thrifty home cooks to maximize their larder by incorporating leftovers such as stale bread, various herbs, bits of meat and so on.

A few months ago, some of our Provence immersion trip group and I took a dinner cooking class from a local chef in Aix-en-Provence. I was happy to see the Provençal menu included les farcis so our group got to experience this robust dish up close. We scooped out the vegetables, mixed the fragrant stuffing, roasted tomatoes for the sauce and then put it all together in large casserole pans. Good tips included par-boiling the thicker vegetables prior to stuffing them. Also recommended was using medium-sized tomatoes so that the meat filling would cook all the way through without overcooking the tomato shell. And we made a point to keep the little courgette caps for a nice touch on the finished plate.

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In France, home cooks will make their own petits farcis or if short on time, they can pick up some at the local open-air market. Sometimes even the neighborhood butcher shop will have them. Here in Carpentras, this market vendor had a variety of stuffed vegetables already prepared – along with some corn on the cob, a rarity in France!

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You’ll also see les petits farcis occasionally on menus at Provence restaurants. The now-closed, very gourmet restaurant Le Clos de la Violette in Aix-en-Provence was well known for its gorgeously-presented, high-end dish of les farcis. So note to the home chef, this recipe can be dressed up or dressed down as you wish.

Which wine to have with this delicious Provence comfort food? If you’re having the meat version of the dish (alternative versions come stuffed with fish or vegetables), a spicy local red wine such as a Côte du Rhône Villages, Rasteau or Vacqueyras would make a great pairing. Or even a hearty Provençal rosé for a more summery touch.

Finally, where to find a good recette (recipe)? Whenever I make les petits farcis, I go straight to a good Provence source – a French cookbook called “Tians et petits farcis” by Andrée Maureau and published by Edisud. Sure enough, it’s an entire cookbook filled with marvelous recipes for Provence-styled gratins and stuffed dishes! She also did an English-version cookbook of Provence recipes, “Recipes from Provence,”  which has all the star southern French dishes including roasted, stuffed vegetables. I also adore another Edisud treasure I found at a French flea market called “La Tomate au Menu.” It has some great variations on the petits farcis theme.

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Despite its sometimes homely appearance, les farcis is one of my favorite French dishes winter or summer. It’s easy and reassuring from kitchen to table. And it brings a touch of Provence chez moi, wherever I am.

French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter

In Provence kitchens, gratins and farcis are often cooked in colorful French pottery or stoneware casseroles for a festive touch. This vendor at the Aix-en-Provence outdoor market regularly has all sizes and colors for sale. The fluted, wavy edges are a signature feature of these fun earthenware pieces.

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To pick up a fluted Provence-style casserole closer to home for U.S. based French Affaires’ readers, BIA Cordon Bleu has these great red bakers on offer. The large rectangle version or the pair of smaller squares would make for good roasting and good presenting of les petits farcis. And for good gifts as well. Bon appétit!

 

Paris’s Palace of Teas Friday, Oct 19 2012 

Tea is chic as ever in Paris, and what better time of year to enjoy it than when fall and winter roll around? To duck into a warm, cozy Parisian tea salon on a chilly afternoon anywhere in la Capitale is a treat. But to sit by the fire in one’s own salon and enjoy one’s own personally chosen teas might be even a notch better.

There are a variety of tea purveyors in Paris where great teas can be purchased for home enjoyment – my current favorite is Le Palais des Thés (The Palace of Teas) which has five boutiques in Paris. Fresh and personal are the buzzwords at Le Palais des Thés and after a few minutes of smelling, tasting and trying, it’s not hard to see why.

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Le Palais des Thés at 61, rue du Cherche-Midi in the 6th arrondissement

In 1987, Frenchman and tea connoisseur François-Xavier Delmas founded the company with the idea of sourcing the freshest and most exceptional teas from around the world. For the past 25 years, he and his team of tea experts have developed relationships with the best tea growers anywhere. Today, they bring the fragrant and delicious results to their nearly 30 boutiques worldwide.

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Founder Francois-Xavier Delmas & Aurélie Bessière selecting a new green tea in China this year

Delmas’ niece, Aurélie Bessière, is President of Le Palais des Thés USA, and for nearly two years, she has devoted herself to sharing her uncle’s passion for tea with the American market. She spoke with me recently about Le Palais des Thés’ special approach to the tea business:

Q: What makes Le Palais des thés unique in the world of teas?

A: Our success comes from direct, personal relationships with all our tea producers. It is a typical practice for tea purveyors go through big marketplaces and intermediaries in Germany and India. However, the team at Le Palais des Thés handles everything directly. We know our growers and producers and visit their tea plantations regularly. We keep a close eye on tea-producing techniques, product quality and working conditions. What comes out of these personal efforts is mutual trust, friendship and access to the world’s best and freshest teas.

Q: Where do you get your teas?

A: We source primarily from China, India, Japan, Taiwan, Nepal and Sri Lanka. For a visual feel of what some of these places look like, my uncle has a great blog called “Discovering Tea” (in French, it’s "Chercheur de the") where he posts gorgeous photos of tea estates in remote places.

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Q: What is your earliest tea memory?

A: I was 10 years old on vacation in France and tasted my uncle’s ‘Thé des Moines’ (Tea of the Monks) for the first time. It is a perfumed green and black tea, and I fell in love with the taste and fragrance. Now, whenever I have it, it makes me nostalgic for that childhood moment.

Q: What is the biggest barrier to people seeking out tea?

A: What we find is that some people don’t know how to make it – or think they don’t. So we try to provide easy-to-follow tips on how to prepare various teas. This has implications for how people enjoy tea. For example, some people think that green tea is bitter and that they don’t like it. We help them see that if green tea is made well, it is wonderful, and they often become a total fan of it. Too, all these exotic and nuanced teas are still quite new to most people so we consider it our mission to educate and help people discover the stunning world of tea.

Q: Where did the name ‘Le Palais des Thés’ come from?

A: Of course, it literally means The Palace of Teas which is a great name for the ‘royal treatment’ we give our teas and our customers! But it is also a play on words in French – ‘le palais’ also means ‘the palate.’ In addition, Le Palais des Thés also sounds like ‘le palais d’été’ which translates as ‘the summer palace’ and is a tribute to the summer palace in Beijing, China.

Q: What are your most popular teas?

A: The top three teas that sell very well are ‘Thé du Hammam,’ a green tea with berries that is wonderful hot or iced; the ‘Thé des Moines,’ a secret green and black tea recipe from Tibet; and the ‘Grand Yunan Impérial’ which is a lovely black tea from China, round and smooth in the mouth and very easy to drink. Coffee lovers like this last tea especially.

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After our conversation and my recent visit to the Palais des Thés boutique on the Left Bank in Paris, I found it easy to see why tea is so popular in France. When you have a culture that is used to appreciating the nuances and characteristics of wines, then the leap to flavorful teas is natural. Le Palais des Thés even has a special line of seasonal teas made in small batches called ‘Grands crus,’ just like wine.

Choosing teas to buy is a pleasure at Le Palais des Thés stores due to the knowledgeable staff and also the chance to taste and smell the various teas. Although there is no place to sit down for a tea-and-pastry moment (several Paris restaurants and tea salons do serve the Palace of Teas’ offerings including Hermès on the Left Bank), the bright and airy boutiques making slow browsing and learning a must. And it’s hard to resist the wonderful teapots and other accessories, many of which are made especially for Le Palais des Thés.

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Teas can be purchased loose or in muslin tea bags. The tea bag labels include helpful hints such as what time of day the tea can be best enjoyed as well as water temperature and steeping instructions. I am always tempted by the boxed tea selections which come with nine varieties of teas, each with six muslin teabags that are individually wrapped.

Entering a Palais des Thés boutique is a fascinating glimpse into the world of tea. In addition to the Paris shops, Le Palais des Thés has stores in major cities all over France. And two new boutiques are slated to open in New York later this year. If you haven’t tried this French company’s approach to tea, think about sampling some in your salon this winter season.

NB: If you are in Paris this winter, don’t miss the first ever museum exhibition devoted to tea at the Musée Guimet. Entitled “Le thé à Guimet – Histoire d’une boisson millénaire,” the show traces the history of tea over millennia. As part of the exhibition, visitors can taste the commemorative tea developed by Le Palais des Thés for the Guimet. The Guimet Museum is located at 6, place d’Iéna in the 16th arrondissement. The exhibition is on view through through January 7, 2013.

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French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter

Tea lovers in the U.S. can also buy Le Palais des Thés’ teas on their U.S. website. The teabags and loose teas are well displayed and described. And the boxed tea samplers make great gifts for oneself or others who love tea.

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And at ‘The Art of French Cooking with Susan Loomis’ event in Dallas this November, we’ll get to taste an assortment of teas from Le Palais des Thés…it’s just one of the many special tastings and activities at this exceptional culinary experience of France in the U.S.!

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The Art of French Cooking Wednesday, May 23 2012 

It’s been a glorious two weeks of French food fun in Texas. I had the plaisir (pleasure) of teaching some cuisine and culture classes at Central Market’s Cooking School as the gourmet market chain celebrated France’s culinary riches. We had a “Lunch in Paris” celebration as well as a memorable “Lunch in Provence.” One of my favorite dishes demonstrated by the outstanding chef team was the “Tomatoes Stuffed with Goat Cheese” adapted from Anne Willan’s From My Château Kitchen cookbook.

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And the “Shop the French Market” culinary evening was a blast as we loaded our grocery shopping cart the French way – and then donned our aprons for a hands-on cooking class using the best of seasonal ingredients. Merci to all the home cooks and friends who participated!

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At French Affaires, we’re going to celebrate French food again this November with a special cooking class in Dallas featuring guest chef and cookbook author Susan Herrmann Loomis. Susan has lived and cooked her way through France for more than 20 years and has been a regular part of recent French Affaires’ trips to Paris. She has written numerous cookbooks and is the founder of On Rue Tatin cooking school where she offers cooking classes in Paris and Normandy.

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We are excited to host Susan for this three-day hands-on culinary workshop The Art of French Cooking designed to explore various ingredients, dishes and techniques that express the best of France’s extraordinary food culture. Our cooking class includes three days of classes, three multi-course lunches with French wines, a field trip to a local artisan food producer, and multiple tastings of French and local products. Our menus will feature the finest of seasonal ingredients especially chosen by Susan for our class. Of course, we’ll prepare and enjoy an authentic French Tarte tatin, the upside-down caramelized apple tart – one of Susan’s specialties.

As we cook, Susan will share her wealth of culinary knowledge and experience and provide answers to all our cooking and entertaining questions. Then we’ll sit down and enjoy a leisurely French meal with good food, wine and conversation. If you’ve never taken one of Susan’s classes or if you want a short ‘trip’ to France without the jet lag, you won’t want to miss these three days of French foods, wines and cooking lessons. Susan’s deep experience cooking and living in France as well as her fun personality make this an experience of a lifetime!

Our class will be held November 14 to 16, 2012 in a beautiful private kitchen in Dallas. The cost is $1200 per person and includes three days of hands-on cooking classes with Susan, all recipes, various tastings, three multi-course lunches with wine, a field trip to a local food producer, and Susan’s stories of food in France. Our class size is limited and advance registration is required. To sign up, please email us at info.french@frenchaffaires.com.

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My France Shopping List Sunday, Apr 15 2012 

Now that this year’s travel season has begun, many French Affaires’ readers have been asking about special things to see and do while in France. They also have been keen to know the best ways to ‘bring France home,’ i.e. what to shop for while on their French travels. Even though shopping preferences vary from person to person bien sûr, there some tried-and-true tastes of France that are easy to find and transport chez vous. So keep an eye out for these items – and don’t forget to bring along some bubble wrap and ziplock bags for safely getting your treasures home!

Market baskets – I have been buying and collecting French market baskets for more than twenty years. They come in a variety of shapes and colors at outdoor markets across France. I use them for food shopping, purses, weekend trips, plant containers, gift wraps…and of course, as a way to get more French purchases back to the U.S.

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Honey – The French make an Art out of so many things in life, including honey. There is nearly always a honey vendor at food markets in France showcasing a collection of fragrant honeys and honey products. You can often find lavender honey, thyme honey, rosemary honey, chestnut tree honey, acacia tree honey, orange tree honey and many more. If you are in Paris, check out the shop La Maison du Miel for a good selection. (Traveler’s note:  Jars of honey count as liquids to airline security personnel so you’ll want to pack them in your checked luggage.)

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Sea Salt – The rugged region of Brittany has been harvesting sea salt for centuries. I never miss a chance to stock up on bags of sel fin de Guérande (finely ground salt from the Guérande salt marshes). It’s wonderful for cooking all sorts of recipes. I also buy gros sel (course salt) – its very salty character makes it perfect for pasta water or soups. And finally, there is the lovely fleur de sel de Guérande which is the delicate top layer of salt used more as a condiment, i.e. for flavoring a dish once it’s cooked.

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Chocolates – The French are huge fans of chocolate as evidenced by all the chocolateries in France. It is usually possible to taste the marvelous flavor combinations before you buy which helps narrow down the choices. And boxes, or ballotins, of milk or dark chocolates make wonderful gifts for others or for oneself. Of course, if you are bringing back chocolates in the summer months, you’ll want to carry them on the plane as they might melt down in the baggage hold.

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Still under the chocolate category is this unique sweet treat found at Da Rosa in Paris – juicy raisins soaked in Sauternes dessert wine and then cloaked in chocolate. The  gourmet boutique Da Rosa has all sorts of other culinary items worth toting home, but these raisins are the real winner. If you don’t believe me, drop by this Left Bank shop and try some for yourself. You’ll be glad you did.

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Soaps – The French also have a way with making lovely soaps in various colors and scents. Open-air markets typically sport a soap vendor or two, particularly in Provence. And perfume boutiques such as Fragonard carry wonderful soaps and bath products. A dear friend just gave me a beautiful bar of Fragonard lavender soap from Provence – I love to use it every day!

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Hose – Hosiery in all manner of patterns and colors is a French forte. I have been fascinated by French stockings since my time as a student in France. Whenever I put them on, it’s a ‘Paris fashion day’ whether I am actually in la Capitale or not. French department stores have good selections as do specialized boutiques such as this one in the Rue du Bac below.

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Linens and Textiles – While marvelous linens can be found all over France, I have found myself drawn to the Left Bank Simrane in Paris since the 1980’s. They have wonderful prints for home and table – but my favorite pieces are the cotton pareos in a host of colors and patterns. It’s hard to choose just one!

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Antiques – I love anything old and since France is old as the hills, you can find incredible antique objects and pieces everywhere. Estate silver, decorative objects, paintings, prints and more are available at flea markets, second hand shops, antique dealers, and sometimes at weekly village food markets.

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Cookware – Julia Child made Dehillerin in Paris her home away from home. And it has tempted many a cook before and after her time. I always find something special and/or practical at this iconic kitchenware shop. I adore my copper moule à tarte tatin (tarte tatin pan) as well as rolling pins, pastry cutters, cooking utensils, Eiffel tower cookie cutters and more.

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Books – Beautiful art and garden books are a must-buy when in France. The photographs are delicious whether or not you read French. Museum gift shops are a good source as well as book shops along the Boulevard St. Germain on the Left Bank in Paris. And my favorite shop for books in Provence is the Maison de la presse located in St. Rémy-de-Provence. They always have something new and interesting on hand.

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Of course, there are so many more things worth picking up when in France. Other gourmet specialties include butter shortbread cookies from Brittany, cannelé cakes from Bordeaux, Flavigny Anis candies from Burgundy, piment d’Espelette spice from the Basque country, almond macarons from Ladurée, and more. French stationery shops offer lovely things for the desk and office. French clothing and scarves have that ‘je ne sais quoi’ of French style. But you might want to pass on bringing back the magnificent French cheeses and pâtés. They’ll earn you some scrutiny from U.S. customs officials even if ‘factory sealed.’ Despite that small caveat, shopping in France is always a pleasure – and there’s always something new to discover. Bon shopping!

French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter

This May, French Affaires’ readers in Texas will have a wealth of French goodies to choose from – no overseas transport required. Central Market gourmet grocery stores are hosting “Passport France” from May 9 to 22 in Dallas, Ft. Worth, Houston, Austin and San Antonio. Their stores will be transformed into French culinary and cultural extravaganzas with new food products, wines, events, cultural experiences and more. Check out the Central Market web site in the weeks to come for more information and to sign up for some of the fun French events near you!

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French Figs in January Saturday, Feb 4 2012 

If you haven’t heard, France is experiencing quite a cold snap at the moment. Siberia-like temperatures have overtaken the country (and much of Europe) for the last several days. Today, the high in Paris was 29 degrees and Provence only reached a high of 32 degrees.

While the winter weather has been pretty mild in Texas so far, I still found myself last week wishing for summer sun and all the fruits of its labors. Including figs for some reason. One of my favorite summer pastimes in southern France is to take long walks in the countryside and pick figs from the wild fig trees that grow by the side of the road.

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The other perfectly good alternative is to buy une barquette of French figs at the open-air market. They are so sweet and juicy that it’s hard to resist eating them on the spot.

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In the spirit of bringing French figs to the ‘off-season,’ I proceeded to pull out a lovely French tablecloth covered with the colorful fruit and put it on the breakfast room table. It was instant summer inside my house, and the figs were a welcome sight after weeks of Christmas holiday decor.

Figs aren’t the only way to bring the outdoors in. Various French tablecloth makers have been putting the French countryside, flowers and other nature motifs on their linens for quite some time. You can find their wares in shops in Provence, at some Provence markets, in Paris, and in this era of the internet, online as well.

I picked up my fig nappe et serviettes (tablecloth and napkins) in Provence village near St. Rémy a few years ago. They are designed by the French company Couleur Nature and its creative genius Bruno Lamy. I once had the opportunity to meet Monsieur Lamy at the immense French home decor tradeshow in Paris. He was quiet and soft-spoken, yet passionate about putting the beauties of French nature on display.

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Another company that captures the spirit of Provence in its linens is Souleiado. They began putting the sun and colors of southern France on tablecloths in Tarascon, France, nearly 200 years ago. Now with boutiques all over Provence and even one in Paris near the Luxembourg Gardens, Souleiado is synonymous with beautiful linens and other items for the home. They also have a museum in Tarascon which displays the history of Provençal linens and how they were made.

One other French linen maker that I particularly like is Le Jacquard Francais. A little ‘dressier’ than Couleur Nature or Souleiado, LJF has been around since 1888 and takes great pride in the quality of its linens and its special ‘jacquard’ technique which allows the design motif to be seen on both sides of the cloth. If you are in Paris, they have a shop on the Left Bank and also a wonderful collection of their linens at the department store Le Bon Marché (also on the Left Bank).

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If this has inspired you to pull out or obtain some French linens of your own, here are a few key French words to facilitate the process:

La nappe  - the tablecloth

La serviette – the napkin

Le set de table – the placemat

Le chemin de table – the tablerunner

Le linge de table – table linens

Of course, it will be quite some time before I can find good fresh figs to go along with my fig tablecloth. But for now, the sight of French figs in winter–in whatever form–is welcome indeed.

French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter

Today’s “French Take-Out” has several things to offer…

To purchase some of the French table linens mentioned above and bring some France linen countryside into your own home, click on the links here… Couleur nature , Souleiado , Le Jacquard français.

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You may have heard about the new book about French parents’ superior parenting skills. It’s called “Bringing up bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting”. It seems that French parents’ ability to say ‘no’ with firmness results in French children who are above average on the well-behaved scale. And it allows French parents to have their own adult life as well. Click here for a recent French Affaires’ posting on children and their behavior in France.

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Last but not least, music lovers in Dallas, Texas, will want to catch the upcoming performance of Chamber Music and Dance from Versailles and London by the Dallas Bach Society and The New York Baroque Dance Company. It will take place on February 12 at 7pm at SMU’s Caruth Auditorium. For tickets and more information, click here.