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Sunday
May022010

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.

 

 

Tuesday
Mar232010

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!


Monday
Mar222010

Perfume Creation in Paris

French Perfume CreationAnother new project, a Perfume workshop, is especially exciting and unique way to experience Parisian life and French culture. 

Through my friend Patricia I met Victoria, an elegant Parisienne who is a well-respected nez or nose, the French term for a Purfumer.  After ten years working in fashion for Pierre Cardin, Victoria followed her passison for perfume by completing a rigorous four-year course in perfume creation. In 2005, with great acclaim Victoria launched a line of five fragrances to much critical success.  However, she soon realized that the business of perfume was far from her love of creation and decided to focus her efforts on creation as a consultant for several major brands.  She also trains professional perfumers in her Paris Laboratory.

Working exclusively with Paris Private Guides, Victoria has created an entertaining and educational workshop that explores the alchemy of perfume. 

The first of its kind offered in English in Paris, workshop participants will gain an understanding of scent components and the process of creating perfume.  Learn how the top middle and base notes define the unique signature of a perfume.  How to select the perfect personal fragance - your signature scent.

The workshop is held in Patricia's lovely home where she has created an equally inviting ambiance in a classic Paris apartment overlooking the Eiffel Tower.

It’s a wonderful opportunity to better understand perfume and get a glimpse into real Parisian life.  Read more about the perfume workshop

Don't forget to return tomorrow to read about my meeting two Icons of French Fashion and Music.  A demain!

Monday
Mar222010

Mea Culpa - New Paris Walks

Paris Place VendomeIt’s been a while since my last post, and while there’s little excuse for that, I’m going to offer one in hopes that you’ll appreciate my reasons.   Hence the somewhat cryptic title - Mea Culpa...

Winter in Paris is a slow time for my tour business, and a great time to develop new ideas into tours and for me to enjoy some of the special opportunities that exist here. 

Since I last wrote in January, I have researched and written two new walking tours.  I also developed a fun new workshop about Perfume creation with two lovely Parisiennes you'll definitely enjoy meeting.

 I love history, and I’ve been told I’m at my best bringing history to life while exploring the best of paris with visitors.  What's not apparent to guests of my tours is that it takes weeks to research and plan a museum or walking tour, and that the resulting document is 40 – 50 pages. 

Of course, I wouldn’t ever tourture people with such an overload of information, but I’m expected to be ready for questions when people want to know more.   I think you’ll enjoy the results – initial feedback has been quite positive.  

The first is a gourmet walk through the history of Paris.Gourmet Paris Walks

This innovative culinary tour explores the hidden history of Paris, following a varied menu sampling wine, cheese, chocolate, bread and pastries while taking in the beauty and history of the city.   Together we visit parts of Paris that were witness to dramatic events, architectural innovation and scandal.  Places integral to the lives of the Kings, Queens, Knights and revolutionaries who lived and walked in the same streets.

From stories of 11th century knights to seeing the historic ovens of the famed Poilâne bakery, no matter how many times you’ve been to Paris, you’ll finish the walk with a new appreciation of gourmet Paris.  Read more about the Gourmet Walk

The second walk was parepared as part of my new job as the Paris Destination Expert for TripKick. 

TripKick.com is a great resource to ensure you find the best room in a given hotel.  They've researched properties all over the US and now have a new focus on Europe with Paris as a recently added destination.  In a city where many hotel rooms are disappointning, it’s a great resource to ensure you make the most of your stay in Paris.  Check out Tripkick.com

Paris Walking Tours

The “TripKick” walk takes you along the fabulous rue St Honore to the Louvre and the Place Vendome.  While this is a much visited area, this walk offers a unique take the neighborhood.  We’ll explore the intrigues and scandal that have taken place here from the scheming of Catherine de Medicis to a now beloved public artwork initially thought so ugly the Mayor of Paris halted it's construction.  Then we'll arrive at the Louvre the way Louis XIV intended when he was the last resident King of the Palace.

Besides the work on the tours, I had the opportunity to meet two people who have made a major impact on French culture.  But for that, you have to come back tomorrow to read further.

A demain! - See you tomorrow!

Wednesday
Jan062010

Epiphany aka Fête de la Galette

Adoration of the Magi - RubensOriginally Catholic, France officially became a non-religious country in 1906.  But some traditions die hard.  For example, aside from my friends who are Jewish or Muslim, nearly everyone I know in France considers themselves - without hesitation - to be Catholic.   This is, of course, regardless of whether they have been inside a church for decades or not.

The result of this pervasive Catholic influence is a culture that still embraces many religious days, often as public holidays.   After all, who wouldn’t turn down a paid day-off work regardless of which religion happens to be celebrating that day? 

This week, there is an important holiday with a religious origin - Epiphany.  Generally considered by Christians to mark the day that the three Kings visited Jesus to celebrate his nativity, Epiphany has been fixed in France to the 6th of January since 1801.  Celebrated as early as the 5th Century, Epiphany was initially more important to Christians than Christmas day.

Like many Christian holidays, Epiphany has its origins in an earlier pagan festival. The Romans celebrated this day as Saturnalia whose festivities lasted seven days.  Saturn was the Roman God of time so perhaps it was related to the New Year.  On the first day of the celebration the soldiers drew lots, using a bean to determine which death row inmate would become "King" during the week of the festival.  Once the Saturnalia was over, the sentence was executed as was the inmate.  It sounds cruel I know, but don’t forget there have been plenty of real Kings for whom the good times ended in execution.  Louis XVI certainly comes to mind.

Today, the dual ideas of Saturnalia and Epiphany have evolved in France to become an important moment for seasonal food which is commonly celebrated regardless of a family’s religious beliefs.

The importance of this “right” moment in the season became clear to me a few days ago when I stopped by my friend MC’s for an afternoon coffee and chat.  Even though Epiphany was a few days away she had bought an Epiphany cake, called a Galette des Rois (King’s Cake) as a special treat for her children’s after school snack.  We were already enjoying a couple of slices with our coffee when her two young children came home from school.  Like kids everywhere, they were eager for a snack.  A smiling MC revealed the cake to the children, delighted to share the surprise.  For a brief moment both children were smiling too, but when MC asked what size pieces they'd like, their smiles disappeared.   Puzzled, she asked what was up.  Her daughter, who is seven, piped up instantly.  “We can’t eat that today, it’s too early.  We have to wait until the 6th.”  Besides, she continued “there are not enough people for the game - we need more to make it fun.”  Her shy brother, almost five, nodded from behind her in agreement.

So once again, here I am baffled by French culture.  How often have you seen a child turn down a delicious treat simply because it wasn’t the "right time”?  I’d venture to say never.  Even stranger about this is the fact that a very similar dessert exists at other times of the year with a different name – a Pithivier Frangipane.   I wonder, had MC offered her kids a slice of this Pithivier would they have eaten it?

The Galette des Rois is a simple confection made of two layers of puff pastry filled with Frangipane, a fairly dense almond filling.  MC had bought hers at Eric Kayser and it was one of the best I’ve ever tasted with a light, yet brightly flavored layer of Frangipane.

As her daughter mentioned, along with the special cake, there is game that traditionally is played when the cake is served.  Having played many times over the years I understand the game pretty well .  The galette is served at the end of a large meal at home which is most often a family affair or a gathering of close friends.

At just the right moment, after the cheese and before the coffee, the Galette is brought out with much fanfare.  Once placed on the table, the game begins.  The youngest present (hopefully a child) is sent under the table to select who will get the first piece of cake.  The pieces are distributed following the direction of the youngest from under the table.  Once everyone has a piece, the youngest takes his or her place at the table and everyone enjoys their cake.  Note - If you ever participate in a Fete de la Galette be aware that it’s important to chew your Galette des Rois carefully.  You see, inside every cake there is a special Fève (bean) similar to the bean in the story of the Roman Saturnial.  Every bakery has their own version of the Fève, varying from a tiny day-glo plastic baby to a porcelain figure or even a gilded metal bean for the most chic Galettes.  The primary difference between the Galette des Rois and the Pithivier Frangipane is that there isn’t a fève inside a Pithivier.

My friend S also reminded me that since the Galette is fairly easy to make, it’s quite often made at home.  The advantage, if you grew up in a large family like he did, is that Grandmère can “forgetfully” put more than one fève in the cake to ensure more smiling grandchildren.  It’s also not unusual for the person cutting the slices to “stack the deck” by peeking under the top layer of crust to make sure the youngest (who’s under the table) gets the féve.King Oscar - Le Roi de 2010!

If you get the Fève in your slice, you are entitled to choose the King or Queen who must wear the special crown that comes along with the cake.  Made of shiny gold cardboard, it’s much like one you might see at Burger King.  Depending on the ages of the group this can be a way to delight children or embarrass adults, all in good fun of course.

Fortunately, I have never had to do the crawling around under the table.  However, I do remember one memorable Fête de la Galette when I was working for a software company in the suburbs of Paris.  The President of company, who wasn’t French, had the mistaken idea that celebrating the Galette des Rois in the office would be a good team-building exercise.  That fateful afternoon, he gathered the team in the conference room.  The unfortunate guy who happened to be the youngest, despite being in his mid-thirties, was forced under the table in accordance with tradition.  Truly a good sport, he performed his duties as required while the rest of us looked uneasily at one another.  In the end, things didn't turn out so well for the boss.  You see, the woman who got the fève was brave enough to name him King and he was obliged to wear the silly crown the rest of the afternoon.  We were never quite sure if he realized the joke was on him.

While writing this post today, I saw a news story on television about the special Galette des Rois made for l’Elysee (The French equivalent of the White House).  Besides explaining which baker had the honor to make the enormous Galette and how he did it, the highlight of the story was seeing Nicolas Sarkozy, the President of France, cut the first piece.

There wasn’t however, the journalist confirmed, ever a fève placed in this special Galette.   Because France is a republic, no one can name the President King.  Frankly, I think it's much like my experience at the office and actually no one wants to risk seeing the President of the Republic reduced to wearing a silly paper crown.

Click image for video highlights of event