Sightings

E. Dehillerin

“If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it.”

Have you ever been in a store and just legitimately wanted to buy everything in it? Or at the very least have it moved to down the street from where you live so you could shop there whenever you wanted? For me that store is E. Dehillerin, a shop in the 1st arrondissement specializing in “materiel de cuisine”. The shop is a family business, opened in 1820, and looks as though it hasn’t changed much in those years. A dusty wooden floor creaked underfoot as I walked between the towering, oak shelves. More for the professional cook than say, Williams Sonoma, many of the things would be useful in a restaurant kitchen. I am certain, however, that I would find a use for that giant spoon,

that enormous pot. The display of knives of all shapes, sizes, materials; for slicing, dicing, carving, make me long for more drawer space in my kitchen. The knives are all laid out in wooden boxes open to the world, with no protective barriers on the blade and my first thought was, I can’t believe they have them out in the open like this, that is so unsafe! But then my second thought was, I wonder why we feel we have to keep them under lock and key in the States?

I am strange, and will spend all my money on cookware, pots, pans, whisks, honey pots, and cleaning supplies (don’t ask, I don’t know) rather than on shoes or clothes. So I would be perfectly happy buying up all the copper pots and pans, Staub Dutch ovens in every color of the rainbow, wooden spoons, tiny cocottes, and even gigantic strainers made for an army (probably literally), although it would barely fit into my apartment, let alone my sink.

After this store Guillaume and I went to a shop that I had read on some blog was a fun stop. After walking for quite a ways, dodging tourists, buses and bikes, we arrived at a very trendy shop that sold clothes, shoes and knick-knacks. To my eye it was very European, but he said he’s seen the like in, say, Soho. Two floors full of people shopping away and we were left completely cold. After a perfunctory walk around I said, “Let’s get out of here.” We went from two different extremes, and I can safely say that the first is the one that I live in.

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Tastings

Ladurée ooh la la!

Macarons are having a moment. A long moment, and I don’t really get it. The shop at which I work when I’m in Boston is one of the only places in the area where they are available and on Thursdays, when they come in fresh, people are clamoring for the pastel-colored treats. I love the way they look, especially set out on a dessert platter or fancily boxed up, but not so much the way they taste. Macarons, not to be confused with the macaroons of coconut and chocolate, are meringue cookies made with almond flour and a filling of buttercream or ganache and/or jam. I’m not such a fan of meringues to begin with, and I think that has something to do with my feelings. The texture is what most people rave about, a slight crunch on the outside yielding to chewy and then creamy on the inside. I find it pretty unexciting, and the flavors, of which there are many, taste all the same to me, essentially of butter and sugar with just a whiff of hazelnut or strawberry or whatever. However, I decided to reserve judgment. After all, I had only had them from one place, and that place was not in France, and that place particularly was not Ladurée, the birthplace of the French macaron as we know it.
Ladurée is one of those must-go places for visitors to Paris, either to sit in the café or to go to the counter to order pastries or macarons. It’s definitely a tourist trap, but like the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower, for good reason. Macarons are really available everywhere in Paris, from patisseries to supermarkets. Pierre Herme is the other must-go spot for macarons in Paris. He is known for more unusual flavors (Foie Gras, anyone?). I thought it necessary to visit Ladurée, the gold standard, to see first, what I macaron should taste like, and second, if I liked it.
I approached the store (I went to the one on Rue Royale, although there are several) on a rainy Sunday and saw a long line down the block. Luckily, the line led to the dining room of the café, and I was able to go in the next door, which led to the patisserie counter. It was a short line and moved quickly. In French, I asked for six macarons and one madeleine, just to get a taste for the other pastries. The man who helped me was incredibly pleasant and not at all fazed by my attempt at the pronunciation, part of which was shouted at him down the long counter of attendants busily filling box after box. Somehow I communicated that I didn’t need a fancy box, a bag would do. The pricing for getting macarons in a gift box is higher, although I’m not sure about regular boxes, but as I was planning on eating them sooner rather than later, there was no need. Each mini macaron, the size of most macarons I’ve seen in the US, cost 1,70 Euro, about $2.13. Rather than just get a bunch to try, I got a few that I knew I would like, classics that are very popular and two that are more unusual. I ordered Pistache (pistachio), Vanille (vanilla), Caramel a la Fleur de Sel (caramel with sea salt), Petales de Rose (rose) and Réglisse (licorice). Now I know what you’re thinking. I actually hate licorice, but I read in several places that this flavor won over licorice haters and in fact was one of the single best things they had ever eaten, period. Wouldn’t want to miss that!
Vanilla was lovely, delicate, not too sweet.
I think they filled it with a vanilla guimauve,
or marshmallow, which they seem to use for
many of their flavors.
Pistachio was by far the best. A beautiful, natural
shade of green, with a strong but elegant flavor
of the nut, I do not think the filling was buttercream, but
was all or mostly nut paste, with little pieces of pistachio.
Salted Caramel was excellent, with a nice
crisp cookie giving way to a creamy, perfectly
textured caramel.
The rose macaron tasted like a scented candle filled
with butter.  In other words, not something I would like
to eat. I generally call myself a fan of buttercream, but
the buttercream filling these macarons (two of the five
flavors) tasted of only butter.
The licorice macaron also had a buttercream
filling that was pretty revolting. I was expecting
a complex flavor and was disappointed to find this
the least flavorful of the bunch!  Neither the cookie nor
the buttercream tasted of licorice, or indeed anything
but butter and sugar. And not even in a good way.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the madeleine was a day old, it
didn’t taste particularly fresh. It was fine, but not much better
than one from the supermarket. The only thing recommending
it was the faint flavor of lemon, giving the sense that it could
have been something special.

I still don’t really get it. The good ones are good cookies, and I do like a good cookie, but for me they are just not something to lust after, or make special trips for, or use up precious suitcase space for. More for everyone else, I guess!

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Tastings

So Tiny!

I love things that are tiny. Specifically things that are tiny versions of something bigger. Like dollhouse furniture, baby shoes, or those tiny little cocottes that hold, like, one egg. I do not think I am alone in this. So when I saw this mango in a Parisian fruit and vegetable market, I did a double take. Look how small it is! And when the smell coming from these little babies was sweeter, more delicious and more mango-tastic than any I have ever smelled, I knew one had to come home with me. I would like to carry it around in my pocket every day, but I had to eat it. It was the best mango I’ve ever had, although I’m certainly not a connoisseur, not living where mangos particularly like to grow. It was hard to cut into pieces and produced very little fruit, but boy was it good.

 

I also found this little stowaway ladybug too, in this beautiful lettuce in the same market.

This bread from the boulangerie caught my eye because it was shaped like a regular loaf, only miniature. But I bought it because it was bread and chocolate. Yes, please! There were also versions with nuts or raisins. I am definitely going to attempt this at home, although needless to say I won’t be able to replicate the wonderful flavor and texture of the bread. The size, beyond being adorable, is perfect for this kind of flavored bread. The perfect snack while standing in front of the Hôtel de Ville de Vincennes.
 

 

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Wanderings

Sometimes you’re in Paris and you get a sore throat. And then you wake up and have a fever and are aching all over. From some combination of jet lag, the change in weather and the time spent in the germ incubator that is the airplane, you are sick. And on such a day the thought of doing the fun things you’d planned is just too much. But a day of walking through town stopping at the bakery, the fruit and vegetable market, having a cup of coffee, is just right. And perfect in its own simple way.

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Musings

"There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign."

The first time Guillaume went to Morocco, it was for ten weeks, and he assured me it was necessary for him to get the language requirement for his PhD. In other words, that there was no other choice. But when he got to Tetouan, a shift happened quite quickly. In our phone calls, his excitement about the Moroccan culture and about the small city of Tetouan was palpable. I’m not sure when he started talking about returning the next summer to continue his study, but I remember that I did not put up any kind of argument. When he said “I can’t wait to show you Morocco. You are going to love it” his excitement was contagious and I couldn’t wait to see all these wonderful places, meet these wonderful people that I heard about.
As the summer continued, and I heard more and more about the city, its people and how all the visitors shared his enthusiasm, a new emotion mingled with my excitement. I felt nervous that I wouldn’t like it, or at least not as much as Guillaume did. He shared an anecdote about a Hawaiian man who came to Tetouan with his wife and fell in love with the city. His wife wasn’t as much of a fan and the man ended up leaving her, staying and taking up with a local woman. Although it certainly wasn’t meant as such, for me it ended up serving as a parable of sorts. The pressure was on.
I have never been to Morocco, or Africa and my head swirls with expectations. I am a planner by nature, and change, although not unwelcome, can make me anxious. So my brain automatically will start to put together a picture of what Moroccan life is like. I’ve found that through the years places take on a sort of aura, as well as being associated with ideas, images, foods etc. These can come from books, movies, restaurants, stories from people who have been there, and also just sort of develop over time in a more ephemeral way. Often, of course, these can verge toward the stereotypical and even just plain wrong. Think about the things tourists have in their head when they visit your city. In my current city, Boston, tourists come in thinking people are going to be rude, and are pleasantly surprised by the friendliness. Although, honestly, the drivers in Boston are really, really as bad as I’d heard they were. I think it’s OK to go in with preconceived notions. After all, there is no way that repeated viewings of Amelie or Casablanca are not going to make some kind of impression. But it’s important to remember that those notions are almost certainly ridiculous and most probably nothing like what you’re going to see. Take, for example, the documented Paris Syndrome, wherein Japanese tourists visiting Paris for the first time expect to find some sort of Steampunk wonderland formulated by anime or to see every person wearing high-fashion cycling by with a baguette under their arm and a beret on their head. Usually disappointed, they present with hallucinations, delusions, anxiety and other psychiatric symptoms.

Olives at the market in Morocco

The mental picture I have of Morocco involves some view of Moroccan food especially the tagine, a shallow clay pot with a lid that is put in the fire or oven and essentially steams the food. I learned about it while waitressing at a posh upper east side restaurant which had one on the menu. My understanding of it was that it was heavy. Also some sort of Moroccan Chicken, which I had seen on many a restaurant menu. In fact, I frequented a hip North African restaurant for a bit, making me think that “Moroccan cuisine” or some American interpretation of it, was in vogue five or so years ago. This chicken was stewed with an assortment of spices, probably cinnamon and raisins, maybe some other dried fruits or nuts. We shall see how accurate that is, even the chicken part sounds suspect to me. I now instantly think of mint tea when I think of Morocco because of Guillaume speaking of drinking the hot, super sweet drink made with mint picked minutes before. But even before that I had an image of patterned, colorful tea glasses. I see rich, geometric patterns on everything, particularly mosaic tiles. Low, white buildings, climbing up the hills toward the sun. I also think of leather poufs and foot stools, from how much I’ve read about them they must be on every street corner. This is what I think of when I hear the word “Morocco”. Not what I know about it, necessarily, but just the instant, gut reaction. Maybe it’s similar for you, or maybe you’ve had different influences. Or maybe your picture isn’t a visual picture, but a word picture. Or, ooh, a sound picture. Whatever that picture happens to be, for me one of the best parts of traveling is when the idea I have of the place- incomplete, imperfect and hazy- dissolves and gives way to how it really is.

Quote in title by Robert Louis Stevenson

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Musings

Mint Tea and Macarons

The tickets were booked months ago. The lists (the lists, the copious lists) made, checked and checked again. The bags are packed. Zooey Bananafish the cat is safely ensconced at summer camp, AKA my parent’s house. Preparations are fully underway for, ahem, a summer abroad.  That phrase makes me think I will be leaning on the balcony of a steam boat with a huge trunk, sunhat and red lips, and I’ve just made the acquaintance of a Monsieur Poirot and there’s about to be a murder up in here. Well, the truth is much less glamorous. The facts are that I am flying coach on a long flight, stopping in Iceland only long enough to catch a connection, not long enough to see any fjords. (I’ve heard Iceland is awesome. Won’t get to find out.) From there to Paris, where I will meet up with my boyfriend, the PhD candidate in History, who will hopefully have gotten enough research done so that he can play tourist with me a bit. The big, dramatic arc of the first week? Will I get him to a museum! After that, on to Morocco, where he will study Arabic and I will “study” Arabic. We will be staying for two months in Tetouana city just across the Mediterranean Sea from Spain. (Yes, it makes me think of Tatooine, too). I didn’t exactly get to choose these particular adventures, but rather am along for the ride, in a ridiculously awesome sidecar, if you will. And I’m wearing goggles. You know, for panache, and bug protection.
The idea that I am accompanying my boyfriend while he studies seems to bring up issues of feminism and self-identity for some people that I speak to.  But truthfully, I feel incredibly lucky to be able to spend a summer traveling in wonderful and new places. I plan to take full advantage, learning as much language and experiencing as much culture as possible in a relatively short time. Since food is, and has been, the defining quality of all my days since I was a wee one (I used to want to be a caterer when I grew up) it makes sense to me to view Morocco (and Paris, for a few weeks) as an outsider through the lens of food and eating.  I’ve always thought that food is the most interesting (and delicious) window into any culture, country or time period. What I’m ultimately hoping for is to have a seat at the Moroccan table –and I hope you’ll pull up a chair next to me!

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