Le Livre des Huîtres

Some pearls from a year in Paris. Advice and Requests most welcome.

Month: March, 2013

Le sarrasin ou le blé noir

If you were to ask me about my favorite restaurant in Paris, I would take you on an ugly walk through the working class (though still fabulously unaffordable with respect to real estate) 11th arrondissement to a little Breton crêperie called West Country Girl (named after this song).

If you’ve come to visit me, then we’ve been there. If you’re coming to visit, then we shall go.

Yes, I know. A crêperie? Don’t I realize the restaurant was invented in Paris?

There is a blessing and a curse that comes with being an enthusiastic cook. The more you learn to make, the less you are inclined to eat out (and why my favorite restaurant in New York is probably a doughnut shop). And it turns out that galettes, savory buckwheat cakes, take much more careful mastery than their American cousin’s pancakes. The real deal is only buckwheat, water, and salt. Oh yeah, and heaps of lovely Breton butter with which to cook them in. The result when done properly achieves a crispness that should make so called Belgian waffles weep in shame at their floppiness (whatever happened to crisp waffles with small squares? why did they go out of fashion?).

Not only does WCG succeed by mastering a difficult culinary art and offering their wares at a very reasonable cost, but it also passes the “does not exist in New York” test. That is not to say there aren’t crêperies in New York–there are. Some of them even serve buckwheat crêpes (one would think with the recent obsession in gluten-free eating that this would become de rigueur), but none that I can find specialize in the sardines, cider, oysters, and butter that is the food of Brittany.

For someone who on occasion dreams about making food for money in Brooklyn, this is perhaps a worthy cause. The flip side (pun intended!) to such an endeavor would be learning how to make galettes at home. And if I then learned where to buy good cider, well, I might need to find a new favorite restaurant.

 

 

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Pooh sticks à Paris

Paris is famous for many things: poets, fur coats, delicious pastries, old churches, and lovers. But when you have a not so busy river running through town over which wind numerous low lying bridges, well, these seem like perfect environs for a little game called pooh sticks. Perhaps just as good as Königsberg.

To be frank, I have not played pooh sticks in Paris and I may never do so. However, I do like to stand on bridges as large ships pass underneath. It makes me dizzy and disoriented.

You are moving at about 1038 miles per hour–you should feel dizzy and disoriented every now and then.

Plusieurs choses plus délicieux que de crême caramel

Once upon a time almost 8 years ago to the day, I was in a town called Pau in the south of France.

Feeling very grown up and used to the extraordinary expense that is the British pound, I decided to take myself out for a three course prix fix lunch of 12 euros. This was shortly after having what I henceforth dubbed the best meal of my life in Paris, so the majority of the meal passed unremarkably. I imagine it is recorded in full detail in someone’s diary somewhere.

Well, three courses means dessert and upon a first glance at the menu I knew I would like a crême caramel. Why, it sounded just like crême brulée–one of the world’s more perfect foods–with the addition of caramel. Gilding the lily? Mais oui!

Many of you can sense the end of this story. The dessert arrived, but hèlas, it was nought but flan.

Now. I imagine some of you like flan, and there may be one of you out there who loves it. I have nothing against flan, and enjoyed it when served at a dinner party. However, given a range of French desserts to choose from flan would fall somewhere very near the bottom (probably not the very last, since unfortunately I do not like hazelnuts, I wish I did.) I am well aware that the difference between crême brulée and crême caramel is one very thin layer of burnt sugar. Yet it is the best anecdote to a sea of toothless sameness. The cracking of a crême brulée shell is a wondrous experience comparable to laughing out loud and finding a dollar in the street. Crême caramel can be eaten absolutely silently without even chewing.

Okay, okay, you cry in exasperation. We get it, you like crême brulée! But what are these several other delicious things you mentioned in the title?

Let me tell you. That combination of milk, egg yolks, and sugar can go down several different delicious paths. Let me recommend you to a pastel de nata, a Portuguese pastry which is little more than flan in puffed pastry. Two bite-sized and lovely. I also recently sampled a Bordeaux canelé, flan with a bit of flour and rum mixed in and then baked in a very hot (traditionally copper) mold so it gets nice and crisp on the outside while remaining custardy on the inside. There is the texturally similar but much more exciting chocolate mousse. Though one typically does not make chocolate mousse by melting chocolate into a flan recipe, one surely could (and maybe I should…). Finally, remove the sugar, add some cheese, and you could have a mighty fine dish of scrambled eggs.

Now what’s for dessert?

Le dimanche à 20h45

Inspecteur Barnaby!

I was minding my own business Sunday night, when an all too familiar tune began to drift over from the television in the next room.

Mon dieu! Could it be? Incroyable! C’est l’Inspecteur Barnaby!

If there’s one thing missing in my life it is ridiculous British murder mysteries dubbed in French (and hence educational?) on a weekly basis. Henceforth that lacuna will be filled by channel 3.

À dimanche, Midsomer!

de Pâques

Easter where I come from means there is a pack of Peeps stashed in a cupboard somewhere and half a dozen brightly colored hard boiled eggs in the fridge that someone may or may not someday eat.

One might attribute this to a lack of religion, but one could just as well point to a lack of chocolate shops.

Paris suffers from no such fate. There are two chocolate shops on my block alone,* each boasting elegant to garish chocolate eggs, rabbits, chickens, bells, and fish in honor of the upcoming festivities. If the last two items surprise you let me explain that the bells are flying and thus represent the resurrection of Jesus (obviously) and the fish are poisson d’Avril and only coincidentally linked to Pâques.

Sure, sure one might also note that France is a very Catholic country and everyone who was not a tourist seemed to be carrying around a small branch yesterday. However, the chocolate shops just might outnumber the churches here and unlike churches they have elaborate window displays. As of yet I haven’t seen anyone walk out with a 5 kg chocolate egg, though if that is what you seek there are plenty of options.

Be aware though of the substantial difference between the metric and American weight system. I casually ordered a kilogram of spinach last Tuesday and despite eating it for breakfast and dinner over the past few days am only halfway through.

*Madeleine and I sampled these shops and dubbed them both rather unimpressive.

Les desserts

As I mentioned earlier, Madeleine and I shared quite a healthy (?) number of desserts over the past week (and numerous compensation salads). This morning we both independently compiled lists of our first, second, and third favorites with some small comments. Perhaps such a collection will be of use to someone, somewhere, someday? However, in the interest of full disclosure I must forewarn that this is compiled from a haphazard sampling with places chosen due to proximity, fame, or trustworthy recommendations. And, as all dessert ratings probably are, these results are entirely subjective.

3. For the bronze medal, and the only coincidence between our two lists, matcha flavoured pastries. Madeleine stayed true to the spirit of the exercise and chose the Zen opéra cake from Sadaharu Aoki saying, “An absolutely beautiful pastry. Although the cognac was a bit overwhelming, I loved the green tea layer and toasty sesame seeds.” I cheated and tied this with the matcha macaron from Pierre Hermé, also paired with sesame. If only matcha powder wasn’t so damn expensive (so says the girl who bought her first half gram of saffron today (more expensive than drugs!)), I would be interested in trying out some recipes. A terrific earthiness that marries well with the small size of French pastry servings.

2. For the silver Madeleine opted for her well chosen combination of salted caramel ice cream and raspberry sorbet in a sugar cone from Berthillon. We shared this cone (actually we shared nearly everything) and Madeleine notes, “The perfect amount and the flavors really came through. It was also very refreshing and a nice combo of tart and sweet.” I enjoyed the combination of tart and sweet found in a very simple strawberry cake from l’Institut Suédois, also chosen by Madeleine (there is a pattern here). I should note that it was around 4 pm and I hadn’t yet eaten anything (though being on New York time, this isn’t as desperate as it sounds). The cake was somewhat meringue like and there was divine whipped cream on the side.

1. Amusingly, both gold choices came from Angelina where we spent a lovely morning getting jittery on sugar and caffeine. Madeleine decided upon, “Angelina’s crisp and ever so slightly burned pastry and vanilla bourbon cream in the Millefeuille. Just the right combination of crunch and sweet cream.” I preferred the deceptively humble pistachio financier, which tasted just like my grandmother’s almond cake except with pistachios. The day after eating it I began browsing recipes and pans, which goes to show.

In conclusion, as I remarked to my dear sister with respect to muffins most American style pastries might as well be made at home. Except for the glorious old-fashioned doughnut, treats found in stateside sweet shops are usually fairly easy to make for their price point. To the contrary, at about 1 euro per croissant one would be a damn fool to spend the requisite 6 hours at home attempting almost certainly inferior results. That said, I seemed to lean toward the simpler pastry options with some of my enthusiasm springing from the possibility of recreation, once again confirming my homebody (or cheap date) status. Madeleine proved a finer palate and a true appreciation for the engineering marvels and subtle interplay of taste and texture that grace the epitomes of French sweets.

Dream come true

Love libraries, but hate to wait in line?

Check out my new favorite website!

Can’t wait until they extend this service to all the American style brunch cafés on Sunday afternoons…

Une rétraction et quelques photos

Another Pope than this one said, “to err is human, to forgive divine.” So in the spirit of the upcoming holy days I must confess and retract a sentiment from a couple posts back.

But before I do, let me just say how popular retractions were back in the old C19. People were really sorry for a lot of things back then, and not at all afraid to admit it.

Last night after seeing Monna Lisa (two n’s in the French spelling) and Venus de Milo, my sister and I went out for fine de claire, muscadet, and brown bread with butter (early birthday present). Well, as Madeleine put it afterward, it wouldn’t be a dining out experience if we hadn’t been subject to an inappropriate public conversation from a chatty nearby table. The subject of this overheard conversation is really not fit to print. I will just say that we were quite ready to leave in a hurry and not linger over our bivalves.

huitres

Madeleine may look as though she’s enjoying her “Snack Express” oyster, bread, and wine deal but is in fact suffering from the words of the girl behind her.

The clincher (and the reason for a retraction) is that though the girl and her date spoke in English, this was only a common language to them, not a native one.

Hence the fault appears to be not so much in the national vocal chords, but rather in my ears. If I understood more French the tables might be turned and I would realize how eloquent all those American tourists are comparatively. I was wrong and I apologize.

Along with witnessing Madeleine’s discomfort (above), see how many salads I ate (three in one sitting!

feastAnd observe my sister’s casual indifference to the cruel plight of this horse!

horse

 

À votre santé

While enjoying an unnecessary cheese course, I remarked to my sister that given enough literature one can discover that pretty much anything is good for you.

Well, except for soda and trans-fats.

But everything else…butter, red wine, organ meats, chocolate, eggs on toast…well someone somewhere has constructed an argument in favor of each and every one of these. Eat them all! Now! In a blender!

Seriously, though. My sister and I have both shared desserts with our dentists. Mine was tiramisu and hers was some sort of sweet bread (not sweetbreads).

In the past 5 days I have consumed strawberry cake, chocolates, hot chocolate, mille feuille, financiers, opera cake, ice cream, chocolates, baklava, gauffres, and a few instances of whipped cream.

The whipped cream is healthy. It restores calcium to your teeth.

Fermez la bouche!

All you loyal readers (and you are all loyal readers) probably know by now that I don’t often “go out” in Paris. That is not to say I spend my days holed up indoors (which is also not to say I do not spend my days holed up indoors) but rather I tend to choose home cooked meals and good night sleeps over the alternatives.

However, when hosting there are good excuses to try that lovely café I’ve heard so much about or that wine bar where everyone seems to be having so much fun.

Allegedly, when I was younger I used to really make a racket, and teachers would ask me to please use my indoor voice. This was Montessori school, a continental method that seems to have instilled an appreciation of environmental considerations seemingly lacking among the contemporary Anglo-Saxon milieu. We can attribute symptoms such as no attempt at speaking French, wearing sweatpants in public, and shouting personal grievances. In a few days of eating in public I have learned about the botox, divorces, opinions on WASPs, dietary restrictions, and upcoming appointments of my fellow patriots. I wouldn’t mind the unintentional eavesdropping if someone at least had something interesting to say.

Thus in a sea of voluminous Americans (which wash regularly over the shores of Paris), I try to pitch my voice below the common hubbub or wait for a momentary lull (which happens surprisingly little considering there is food being put into mouths). This strategy has mixed results ranging from being wholly misunderstood to maintaining a very thoughtful conversation to nothing but a quiet chewing.

Can I really be angry at my friends and neighbors for bursting their vocal chords and my eardrums. They are, theoretically, used to wide open spaces where a voice must travel far and wide to be heard. Should I feel sorry for them in their ignorance? Sadly, many Americans may never enjoy the sound of silence.

It goes like this: