Day 1: Butter, Bells, and Stolen Glass

We arrived in Paris on Sunday morning, at the very cold and quiet hour of 8am. First things first, and after dropping off the luggage at the hotel, we headed to Eric Kayser’s shop for breakfast. Even though the concept of the best Parisian baguette is heavily debated, and there are annual contests to that effect, Eric Kayser is considered by many to be the best artisanal baker in Paris. Proximity to his shop, as well as two markets, three artisanal cheese shops, etc, and several parks to eat those goodies in, is just one reason to stay in the Latin quarter (5th arrondissement). We already knew coffee in France was going to be unexciting, so our main focus of the breakfast was on the pastries and bread. Traditionally the French just have a croissant (or possibly pain au chocolat, brioche, etc.), or tartine (slice of a baguette with butter and jam). A tartine or any pastry at Eric Kayser is a very luxurious experience, although the weak, milky coffee did little to wake us up. But, since we were not planning on doing any differential equations that morning, we felt like we were off to a good start!

Sunday was a market day at Place Monge, and quite gingerly, we started getting our bearings for market shopping. We had a long first day of eating ahead of us, so there was no reason to get greedy. I drooled over the fresh spring peas, purple artichokes, radishes, sausages, oysters…but stopped myself, and only bought one basil-specked fresh and very, very goaty cheese. We also picked up a small rustic olive bread (fougasse), and had breakfast number 2 in a sunny spot nearby.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As Paris started waking up slowly after the debaucheries of Saturday night, we were making our way down the narrow, windy streets of St. Germain du Pres neighborhood, on our way to Musee D’Orsay. Upon arrival, we saw lines that we eyeballed to be a 2 hour wait just to get in. I did know about the fabulous Degas Nudes exhibition, however, I misjudged the effect of the free entry to the museum on the first Sunday of the month. We thought we would come back another day, and instead went for a long preprandial walk on the Right Bank, passing by what was easily a 4-hour line to get into the Louvre for free. We had been to the Louvre, and instead went to Mariage Freres, arguably the best tea purveyer and shop in the world. No pictures were allowed, so please feel free to visit their website: http://www.mariagefreres.com/

We walked through the upstairs Tea Museum, and afterwards picked up a blue tea from Formosa for us (a tea category that is tricky to find in this country), and a couple of special requests from my mother who had been anxious to try the famous Mariage Freres stuff.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our lunch plans involved true Breton galettes (buckwheat crepes) at the Breizh café in the Marais. We arrived early, and were lucky to snag an outside table, even though we did not make a reservation (a major faux pas, but I was duly apologetic). They have a long, long list of organic artisanal ciders, so we settled on a bottle of a very dry and perfumy Francois Sehedic cider, traditionally served in a bowl, with our crepe complet au jambon cru de Savoie (filled with nutty, melted gruyère and topped with an egg and top-quality ham). For dessert, we chose a simple crepe with sugar and Bordier butter.

A word about Jean-Yves Bordier, an artisanal butter maker from Brittany who over the years has developed a cult-like following.  To achieve the quality of his butter, Bordier uses very traditional techniques and the best possible cream from select herds of Holstein and Norman cows that graze in pastures not far from Rennes, in Brittany. In an interview with France Magazine he said that the last part of the process (the slow, careful kneading) takes the wonderful butter “to a new level of suppleness that industrial butter makers cannot afford to achieve”.

Our next stop took us to La Chocolaterie de Jacques Genin. Monsieur Genin is an incredible pastry chef, chocolatier and food stylist who is responsible for inspiring a new culinary obsession: caramels. His phenomenally luscious caramels made nightly cost 100 euros a kilo (which comes out to about 1 euro per caramel), and come in nature flavor (“plain”, or sea salt butter-flavored), and a variety of infusions, such as mango, ginger, etc.

 

 

 

 

 

In case you are curious about all the chocolate bells, the French happen to believe that on Easter, the chocolate is brought not by a bunny, but by a big bell that flies in from Rome (which I first found out from my favorite David Sedaris story Jesus Shaves a few years back. Here is a link to this hilarious and short piece, in case you are curious: http://scottduncan.free.fr/blog/jesus_shaves.pdf

Groggy from all the butter and caramels, we took a quick nap, and woke up in the late afternoon, at the perfect time to skip the lines and casually walk into the wonderfully quirky Centre Pompidou, a great modern art museum conveniently located on our way to dinner:

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is important to note that few good restaurants are open on Sundays, therefore you have to manage your experience through careful planning. Prior to leaving for France, I had scored a reservation at Le Verre Vole (The Stolen Glass), a wonderful tiny wine bar (cave a manger) in the Marais, with a small, hand-picked selection of bio (organic) wines and a delicious menu.

We shared an amazing spring vegetable salad, and each had an entree (mine was a wonderfully comforting boudin noir).

 

 

 

 

The aromatic and food-friendly Cote-Rotie from Domaine Jean-Michel Stephan perfectly guided us from course to course. A country-style apple tart brought our first day in Paris to a satisfying close…

Don’t Fret – Try a Galette

I love most things French, but I have always been much more of an italophile than a francophile. One of the reasons for that is that I find the Italian light-hearted, happy-go-lucky attitude to be very attractive. Same thing goes for cooking: many classic French recipes are not very forgiving, and require strict adherence to the measurement and process. So, whenever I attempt French dishes, I still avoid blindly following a recipe, and try to understand it and make it my own (so that I could deviate from it to suit my fancy). I think of it as applying the Italian attitude to French cooking. For me, cooking is fun, and I don’t want to take it too seriously.

Consistent with my theory of savory food supremacy, I have a serious weakness for savory buckwheat crepes, known in France as galette. They hail from the Northwest of France; more specifically, from Brittany. All-in-all, the batter is not difficult and Bretons themselves don’t use a recipe. Typically, the night before they simply mix buckwheat flour, sea salt, and water to make a paste. The next day, they thin it out until it reaches the consistency of melted ice-cream. As you can see, the true galette is pretty minimalist, and frankly, I feel intimidated by such a simple recipe (because as we know, simpler is more difficult). I perused a bunch of very different recipes (as the version from Normandy is quite a bit richer, and includes eggs, cream, and milk), and trusted my intuition to arrive at the following:

1 cup of buckwheat flour (Arrowhead Mills organic), 1 cup of water, 1 egg, 1 tbs olive oil, and 1 tbs French sea salt. To prepare the batter, you combine the flour and the salt in a large bowl, make a little well in the middle, and put in the oil and the whole egg. Stir the mixture with a wooden spoon to incorporate the wet stuff, and slowly start adding the water. Keep stirring, till the batter is smooth and homogenous, without lumps.  Let it stand for at least an hour. In the meantime, get your fillings ready:

To make galettes, I used a basic non-stick pan. Pour a small ladle-worth into a hot pan primed with a tiny bit of butter, and swirl the batter to distribute it evenly. Cook till light golden brown, flip the galette, and spread the filling on top. Once the other side is cooked, and the filling is nice and melted, slide the crepe onto a plate. Fold it in half, and serve it immediately. It yields about 6 crepes (of course, don’t forget that the first one’s a dud, so plan accordingly). I find it to be an appropriate amount for two piglets two people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To get a good feel for making galettes,I subjected my poor husband to two meals of buckwheat crepes this weekend (albeit with different fillings). I made our galettes with:

– shredded Gruyere, softly fried egg, and chives;

– roasted orange & yellow tomatoes with parsley and goat cheese;

-Turkish-style eggplant & potato salad with onions and parsley;

-smoked wild sockeye salmon, crème fraiche, and chives (if you do not eat fish, a galette with crème fraiche and chives alone is very yummy);

-sauteed shitake mushrooms with thyme and shallots;

– and the most dangerous of them all: lightly smeared with burnt caramel sauce from Recchiuti. (I apologize in advance for introducing everyone to this product :-)).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Galettes are traditionally paired with artisanal French ciders, and so I picked up a couple from Whole Foods for our latest experiment (Etienne Dupont Cidre Triple 2010, and Etienne Dupont Cidre  Bouché Brut de Normandie Bio 2010 (biodynamic, unpasteurized, and unfiltered cider). The latter, a crisp, earthy and funky cider, turned out to be an absolutely amazing accompaniment to all the savory galettes; I simply cannot imagine anything better. The fuller-bodied Triple, with a big nose of both tart green and caramelized apples, was better on its own, and was also a winner with the caramel sauce galette.

As a result, we spent the rest of the afternoon singing French children’s songs such as J’aime la Galette (I Love the Galette), Sur le Pont d’Avignon (On the Avignon Bridge), and the original version of the chicken dance called the Ducks Dance in France and most of Europe (La Danse des Canards). If you are unfamiliar with those, you can easily find them on YouTube sung by puppets, kittens, and penguins.

 

 

See, French cuisine does not have to be serious…