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Entries by Christopher (33)

Sunday
Jan022011

Top Five Posts of All Time

At the start of a new year, it's always good to reflect on the past year.

 So here is a recap of the top five articles that I wrote in 2010:

1. TALK LIKE A PARISIAN

Of course, it’s unlikely that anyone can actually “learn to speak French” in the course of planning a holiday vacation to France.  However, you can use a few commonly known words to your advantage.  You just have to use precisely the right word at just the right moment. read more...

2. HOW TO ORDER COFFEE IN PARIS

In France, things aren’t often easy.  As my good friend J always says “Those French, they’ve got a different word for everything” and this is certainly true for coffee.  So here’s a quick primer on how to get a satisfying cup of Joe just like you enjoy on your way to work back home.  read more...

3. SERVICE AND TIPPING IN PARIS RESTAURANTS

In a Paris café or most average restaurants, fast, efficient service is not a highly-prized part of the experience. So expect to have to wait more than you’re used too.  Why would that be, aren't servers supposed to well, "serve?"  read more...

4. CHICKEN OR BEEF?

It's an age old question, but perhaps you never thought it was an important link to French culture.  It was one of the first lessons I learned about the cultural differences between Americans and the French when I moved here in 2001.  read more...

5. WHO CUT THE CHEESE?

France's food culture is one of the most celebrated in the world, but the rules that surround it are not always easy to comprehend.  As an expat living in Paris I've learned the hard way that there are a myriad of French customs related to food that can surprise you when you least expect it.  read more...

Saturday
Jan012011

Missing home -- When home is Paris.

I was talking on the telephone the other day to a friend from Paris who is living in NYC.  We were discussing what we both missed about “home”.  I grew up in Southern California, so I miss Mexican food.  Like an ex-smoker who is never around cigarette smoke, my cravings have diminished greatly since the early years when I smuggled tortillas and other ingredients back to Paris. However, once I’m back in California I can’t get enough.  Much to the disappointment of my friends I stay with there who would rather I cooked for them.  Instead I drag them around looking for my favorite dive Mexican restaurants.  Because, at least in Los Angeles, it seems that the best Mexican restaurants tend to be in an abandoned gas station or a similarly insalubrious location. The staff don’t speak much English and certainly don’t take credit cards.  Keep that in mind if you are looking for Mexican food in LA. 

Not surprisingly, my transplanted Parisian friend -- a young woman working in Fashion-- was missing an entirely different food experience.  She told me she missed the dairy case at her local Monoprix (An upscale chain of grocery stores found in Paris).  Huh?  I’m certainly a fan of the myriad choices of butter, cheese and yougurt one can find in Paris, but I have never really thought too much about it when I am home.  After all, I've been too busy chasing down a burrito truck.

So after we spoke, I decided to go to Monoprix and really look at the dairy case.  I stood in the front of them (there were several) looking the same way I look at a work of art.  Looking very closely at every detail, noting the colors, brands, selection and scale of the entire department.  And sure enough I noticed how really enormous the dairy cases were.  They took up more space than the produce section.  In a small (by US standards) grocery store, it was one of the biggest sections with two aisles of refrigerated cases each about 50 feet long.  There were at least 100 kinds of yogurt in all different sizes, Crème Fraiche, 30 different Butters, Milk (Cow and sheep) fromage blanc, etc.  Then there was another section of milk based desserts and fruit compotes.  Every type of creamy French dessert in the classic flavors, coffee, chocolate, caramel and vanilla.  Along with ready to eat îles Flottants, Crème Brulée, Chocolate Mousse, Pots de Crèmes and Crème aux oeufs (my current obsession.)

Of course the products were familiar.  For example, I have several favorite brands of yogurt including one brand that varies the flavors following the fruit of the season.  So it’s fun to take the peach in summer, the sour cherry in fall and lemon in the winter.  Another favorite is a yogurt made of sheeps milk along with all the varieties of Fromage Blanc.  A creamy cross between Yogurt and Sour Cream that is always sold unsweetend and is good with a bit of sugar, some fresh fruit or salt and pepper depending on your mood.  It is also sold as a Faiselle when it comes with a sort of strainer inside the container.  This allows the water to separate from the milk solids and it gets thicker over the few days it sits in the fridge.  Asumming you have the restriaint to wait.  My advice, buy the largest container possible to have any hope of seeing the result.

One of my favorite snacks is steamed new potatoes with some salty butter and a big dollop of Faiselle de Fromage Blanc du Chevre.  A goat’s milk fromage blanc that has a slighty stronger flavor.  Some sea salt and coarse ground white pepper with its warm nutty flavor make the dish perfect.

So once I had really thought about the dairy case, I realized that she was right.  It was indeed something worth missing.  And unlike Mexican food, in NYC you can’t simply whip up a goats milk Faiselle when the mood strikes you the way I prepare some makeshift enchiladas or a burrito in Paris.

My thanks to AmateurGourmet.com for the burrito pic - impossible to find in Paris.  We also seem to share the same taste in Mexican food.

 

 

Monday
Dec202010

A Puppy in Paris…

 Our Concierge recently had an unusual request for travel planning assistance.  To help a woman from California transport a rare breed of puppy from Toulouse to her home in San Francisco.

A reasonable request, but not so straightforward as first expected.  Turns out there is a temporary embargo on shipments of unaccompanied animals from France to the USA.  So David from our staff accompanied the dog from Paris to SFO.  

In itself, this is not such an interesting story.  However, once the dog had arrived in California, the family wanted some advice on naming their puppy.  After all, a dog from France should have a French name – mais oui, bien sûr! (but, of course)

So like many of the articles here, it illustrates the remarkable idea that in France, a country with countless social rules and customs, there are actually rules about how to name your dog.

The custom, dating back to 1885, refers to the fact that for purebred dogs to be included in the official listing recording births (called the L.O.F. – Livres des Origines Francaises) they must be have a name that corresponds to the letter of the year they were born.   The current sequence started in 1973 with the letter “I” and exludes the letters  "K", "Q", "W", "X", "Y" and “Z” which are considered too difficult.  So, every twenty years one returns to the same letter.

Apparently, this custom exists in many countries, including the US and Canada, where it is controlled by the AKC and CKC.  However, the sequence of letters differs in each country.  For example in Belgium, 2011 is a “K” year.  Despite the prevalence of the idea, in France people seem to be much more aware and I noticed long ago that when someone mentions a new puppy, this invariably leads to a discussion where people try to figure out what letter it is this year.  In fact, this very thing happened in the office when we were asked to help with a French name.

For example, the puppy we helped “emigrate” to the US was born in 2010, a year corresponding to the letter “F.”  So his birth name was Fakir.  You can understand why the family wanted to change his name.

If you have a new puppy and are looking for a French name, there are countless sites where you can get suggestions for male and female puppy names starting with the right letter.

Names starting with G for 2011:

Another site with more than 6,000 choices starting with all letters.

If you are visiting Paris, don’t be surprised to see a dog under the table at a restaurant or café.  There doesn’t seem to be any rules against it and even if there were, most rules in France were made to be broken.  I have even seen dogs snoozing under chairs on stools in three-star Michelin restaurants.  They are nearly always extremely well-behaved and only once did a small dog leave the comfort of his carry-bag to come over and beg for a treat from my plate.

One other canine anectdote is inspired by my friend J.  A dog lover with a keen interest in the differences between French and English language he has long searched for an equivalent word in French for the game “Fetch.”  The exhausting pastime for dog owners that never ceases to amuse the dogs themselves.  In French, it turns out, there is no word for this game.  It’s simply called “Throwing the ball for the dog.” 

Huh, here is yet another sign that the English language actually has a larger vocabulary than French.  I’ve heard there is a difference of as much as 250,000 words in French to 400,000 in English.  Of course, no self-respecting Frenchman (or woman) would ever agree to such a dramatic difference. 

So perhaps “Those French don’t actually have a different word for everything.”

If you would like help from the Paris Private Guides Concierge, click here.

Opening Photo: Princess Lee Radziwill with Thomas, her pug, by Henry Clarke, August 1960

 

Our Concierge recently had an unusual request for travel planning assistance.  To help a woman from California transport a rare breed of puppy from Toulouse to her home in San Francisco.

We were able to accomplish this with little trouble, but it was no simple feat.  Initially the idea was to send the dog unaccompanied on Air France, but there happens to be an embargo on such shipments from France to the USA.  So someone from our staff accompanied the dog from Paris to San Francisco. 

In itself, this is not such an interesting story.  However, once the dog had arrived in California, the family wanted some advice on naming their puppy.  After all, a dog from France should have a French name – mais oui, bien sûr! (but, of course)

So like many of the articles here, it illustrates the remarkable idea that in France, a country with countless social rules and customs, there are actually rules about how to name your dog.

The custom, dating back to 1885, refers to the fact that for purebred dogs to be included in the official listing recording births (called the L.O.F. – Livres des Origines Francaises) they must be have a name that corresponds to the letter of the year they were born.   The current sequence started in 1973 with the letter “I” and exludes the letters  "K", "Q", "W", "X", "Y" and “Z” which are considered to difficult.  So, every twenty years one returns to the same letter. 

Apparently, this custom exists in many countries, including the US and Canada, where it is controlled by the AKC and CKC.  However, the sequence of letters differs in each country.  For example in Belgium, 2011 is a “K” year.  Despite the prevalence of the idea, in France people seem to be much more aware and I noticed long ago that when someone mentions a new puppy, this invariably leads to a discussion where people try to figure out what letter it is this year.  In fact, this very thing happened in the office when we were asked to help with a French name. 

For example, the puppy we helped “emigrate” to the US was born in 2010, a year corresponding to the letter “F.”  So his birth name was Fakir.  You can understand why the family wanted to change his name.

If you have a new puppy and are looking for a French name, there are countless sites where you can get suggestions for male and female puppy names starting with the right letter.

2011: http://ecoledeschiens.com/prenoms-chiens-2011.html

Another site with more than 6,000 choices: http://www.noms-de-chiens.com/

One last dog anecdote is inspired by my friend J.  A dog lover with a keen interest in the differences between French and English language he has long searched for an equivalent word for the game “Fetch.”  The exhausting pastime for dog owners that never ceases to amuse the dogs themselves.

In French, there is no word for this game.  It’s simply called “Throwing the ball for the dog.”  Huh, yet another sign that the English language has a larger vocabulary.  I’ve heard there is a difference of as much as 250,000 words in French to 400,000 in English.  Of course, no self-respecting Frenchman (or woman) would ever agree to such a dramatic difference.  Perhaps “Those French don’t have a different word for everything.”

Friday
Jul302010

Au Resto - Reading a French Menu

Au Resto, pronounced oh resto, means “at the restaurant.”  Despite all appearances to the contrary, most French people love short cuts, nicknames and, of course, breaking the rules.  Grammatical ones included.  However this is only acceptable if you know you know the rules you are breaking.

So this post will give you a few short cuts and hints to have a better experience eating in France. The goal is to help you figure out the menu and decide what to order.  If you’re looking for hints on tipping and getting the waiters attention, read this previous post.

French food is a vast subject and French menus can be quite puzzling to visitors.  These days, many people in the US and other English-speaking countries are accustomed to restaurants that go out of their way to provide an exhaustive list of ingredients and cooking methods in the short description of each dish. 

For example:

Chicken Provencal – A free-range bonless chicken breast, lightly marked on the grill and seasoned with Herbes de Provence.  Served with an heirloom tomato-eggplant ratatouille spiked with house-made preserved Yuzu and finished in the oven with a toasted parmesan, cracked white pepper crust and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and fresh herbs.

I just made that dish up, but you get the idea.  Well, in France the menu would most likely say, Poulet Provençal et sa ratatouille.  Nothing more.  The English translations are often not much more help, something like “Provençal Style Chicken and its Ratatouille Vegetables.”

Like so many other things here, you’re just supposed to know how this dish is made.  But for visitors this causes two levels of distress.  If you already know some French food vocabulary, that helps enormously.  But if you don’t know how to decipher the hints about the preparations you can still be lost deciding what to order. 

Once you have figured out the meat, in this case Poulet = Chicken, the first clue is to think about the origin of the word describing the chicken.  French food is often a mix of regional specialties:  Provençal = Provence, Normand = Normandy, Bourguignon = Burgundy. 

So when you see the word Provençal think of Provence.  Near the border of Italy, expect tomatoes, basil and other Mediterranean herbs, olive oil and of course garlic.  Albeit in very small doses, most French people seem to have an aversion to Garlic.

Normand.  In Normandy they are famous for milk and cream, apples and Calvados, a strong alcohol made from apples that is the regional equivelant to a Cognac or an Armagnac.  One classic is Sauté de Porc Normand - sautéed tenderloin of Pork with a cream sauce.

Bourguignon.  The dish most most commonly known outside France is Beef Bourguignon.  Slowly-cooked from fatty cuts of beef and made with lots of red wine from Burgundy.

So back to the case of our Poulet Provencale et sa Ratatouille, this is chicken dish cooked Provençal style with tomatoes, Mediterranean herbs, garlic and olive oil.  "Sa ratatouille" means the Ratatouille that goes along with it.  

No Provencal meal would be complete without this slow-cooked  preparation of Eggplant, Tomato, Onions, Garlic and herbs drizzled with Olive Oil.  You get the idea.  Sometimes the classic ingredients are changed to include Zucchini aka Courgette instead of eggplant.  In this case the menu would say “Ratatouille au Courgette.”  This is my preference since I’m not a fan of Eggplant. 

BTW, a garlicy Ratatouille aux Courgettes makes a great accompaniment for seared Beef, especially Black Pepper-marinated Flank Steak sliced thin across the grain of the meat.  This would be great with a hearty red wine from the Rhone - made primarily of Syrah.

When I was quite young and started to visit France, I didn’t speak any French and was a less adventurous eater than the one I evolved into.   We were deep in the countryside and stopped along the way at a small village restaurant.  I was travelling with a friend who knew a little French.  Quite helpful as no one in this small place spoke any English.  He helped translate the more common words and since it was a chilly night I decided to take the hearty-sounding Veal and Rice Stew called “Riz de Veau.”  When it arrived there was no sign of stew and just a few small wrinkled pieces of tender meat.  Slowly we realized that this was not Veal and Rice, but Veal thalamus glands, called Riz de Veau, commonly called Sweetbreads in English.  That’s what is referred to a Faux Ami – a False Friend.  This describes a word or words that sound like they should be one thing in English and are actually something completely different.  Needless to say, J and I were hunting for a sandwich after that meal.

This is just a start on helping you order in French, so I promise to keep posting about how to translate French menus and offer helpful tips for making the most of your visit to Paris.

Here is a menu of the primary meats found on Menus in French restaurants with English translations. I have also included some of the more common cuts:

Poulet                             Chicken

                Supreme                            Breast

                Cuisse                                  Thigh

                Aile                                       Wing

Boeuf                               Beef

                Piece de Boeuf                Roast Beef

                Onglet                             Steak cut from the back

                L’Entrecôte                     Steak cut from the ribs

                Tournados                      Similar to Filet Mignon (but usually cut thinner)

Porc                                 Pork

                Filet Mignon                    Pork Tenderloin

                Côte du                          Pork Chop

Canard                            Duck

                Cuisse                              Thigh

                Magret                              Breast

Biche                               Vennison                         

                Selle                                 Saddle

                Gigot                                 Leg

L’Agneau                           Lamb

                Gigot                                Leg

                Cote                                 Chop

                Cotelettes                        Little chops

                Selle                                 Saddle

Veau                                  Veal

Poisson                              Fish

Rouget                               Red Mullet (Often very small filets)

Thon                                  Tuna

L’Espadon                         Swordfish

Lotte                                 Sea Bass

St Pierre                            John Dory

Cabillaud or Morue            Cod

Maquereaux                      Mackerel

Sole                                   Sole

Escargot                            Snails

Grenouille                          Frog

Coquilles St Jacques          Scallops

Riz de Veau                       Sweetbreads

Lapin                                 Rabbit

Liève                                 Wild Hare

 

Photo Credits:

Chicken Provencal - Gourmet Magazine via epicurious.com

Sauté of Pork Normand - Courtesy of Plat de Jour

Ratatouille - La Petit Gourmande Blog

Wednesday
Jul282010

Close Encounters with French Culture

My friends here often say I have an uncanny way of meeting people.  Especially in a city where I am not a native and in France there are often cultural barriers. 

Over the years, I've realized that in France things work by introduction, and one person leads to another.  So for me, there's a seamless connection between everyone I've met over nearly ten years in Paris.  My friend MC, who loves to hear about all of the people I cross paths with, has convinced me that you might like to hear these stories too.  So here's a couple of recent meetings that illustrate how this works.  Let me know if you are interested in hearing more about the cultural factors in friendship in France further and share other stories of the interesting people I've met in Paris. 

Through my friend Caroline, who was visiting from LA, I got the chance to meet a long-popular French singer.  A true Parisienne who left for sunny Los Angeles nearly ten years ago, Caroline still maintains strong family ties to Paris. 

A few weeks ago, we met for a coffee one afternoon during a visit to Paris with her daughter.  In an offhanded way, she mentioned that she was going to a private concert that evening given by Marc Lavoine.  He's a French pop star with a consistent string of hits back to the 1980s, who has an especially poetic way of writing songs.  In the same style as Seal who is better known outside of France.  He's also managed to succesfully make the leap to the big screen, starring in several successful films.  When I told Caroline he was one of my favorites, she kindly offered to take me as her guest. 

I discovered the Marc lavoine's music in 2001, when first learning French.  I would listen to his soulful ballads while following along with the words.  I eventually memorized many of his songs and remain convinced that music is a great tool to master a language.  Read about his career as a musician and actor.

Marc Lavoine in ConcertThe concert was fantastic, there were less than 200 people at the event which was the launch of his concert tour, where he would play in front of thousands of spectators.   Afterwards at dinner, Caroline ran into another French friend of hers who was also visiting from LA.  It turns out he's Marc’s brother-in-law, so he introduced us to Marc who was eating with his wife on the other side of the same restaurant.  Very fun - except I didn't have my camera and Caroline who is not such a fan refused to delete any photos of her daughter from her camera to take my picture with Marc.  Oh well, still a nice memory.

A few weeks later, through Victoria, who leads our Perfume Workshops, I got to meet someone who doesn't need any introduction - fashion designer Pierre Cardin. 

She invited me to join her at a cocktail party celebrating sixty years of Pierre Cardin's career as a designer.  Victoria has known Pierre for some time, having worked with him for ten years befrore she changed careers to focus on her passion, Perfume.  Pierre CardinIt was held in the private rooms of Maxim’s which house his remarkable collection of Art Nouveau furniture.  At 87, he’s still in great shape and continues to run his company and have a hand in the design process.  One of the few remaining legends in French Fashion, he’s an iconic part of French culture.  If you'd like a private tour of Pierre Cardin’s furniture collection, I can arrange that for you.

So between writing new tours and meeting French icons it’s been a busy two months. LOL

I'm glad life has gotten back to normal and I look forward to meeting some of you this summer in Paris!