Musings

In the Hot Air Balloon


Well. I don’t even know where to start. It’s been more than a year since last I wrote, and so much has happened, but I didn’t tell you about it because the wanderings were playground related and not museums or historical sites, the sitings were mostly diaper changes and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish and the tastings were composed of steamed carrots and just a lot of burrito bowls. Yes, we had a baby 17 months ago. And it’s just been everything. Like, all the things. It’s so much harder and more wonderful than you think and yada yada, all the clichés are true. So now instead of in a sidecar and motorcycle,  I imagine us all floating together from place to place above the earth in a hot air balloon as a little family of three! 

Since we left Paris oh, wow, about 2 years ago, we’ve lived in Salem, Ma and Cambridge, MA, which I will have little bits to share about, but now we’re back in France for the next several years, in Tarbes which is in the Pyrenees Mountains in the south west. I’m a stranger once more and again everything has a veil over it which I feel the need to lift, peek under, and then tell you all about. Writing this blog began as a way for me to answer the question, from others and myself, “what are you doing here?”at a time when I was moving around the world, and also away from the most important passion of my life and the only career I had ever wanted. It seemed (and, in fact, was) very important to have a goal and purpose. Now, with a toddler, a little part of me walking around, my goal and purpose have never been more clear. And yet, from time to time, now that there’s a bit more breathing room, I hear a small voice inside asking, “but…what are you doing here?” And so here I am. I’m experiencing a culture through food (and sights, and also probably now a child’s eyes) and writing about it. Among other things. And so far, I’ve been here for 2 months and have not had a café gourmand yet, which is a serious travesty.  

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Tastings

A Tale of Two Cheesecakes

I first came across cheesecake here in France when we were in Nantes. We saw it on the menu at several restaurants (at one, specifically “Virginia cheesecake,” whether this means the State or a lady, I don’t know. Does Virginia have excellent cheesecake?), and it came with the café gourmand at L’Industrie. But I thought it was sort of a fluke: a new trend, popular because of the youth of Nantes, like Brooklyn Brewery beer being popular with certain factions in Paris. In the months since, though, I’ve noticed that it is everywhere. At many restaurants, plenty of cafés and even in grocery stores in several incarnations including frozen and what I like to call “potted” desserts. And they are largely the same as the delicious American-style cheesecake that you make at home/get at Junior’s except for one thing: the crust. Graham crackers, arguably the most common, and definitely the most delicious crust material for cheesecake, are not really known here, and “they” (I don’t know, cheesecake police?) have decided that the closest approximation is something called speculoos. Speculoos cookies, or speculaas in Dutch, are thin, lightly sweet and spiced cookies of Belgian, Dutch and German origin. In English they are sometimes called Belgian Spice or Dutch Windmill cookies. They are traditionally made around Christmas using a springerle mold or rolling pin with shapes cut into it to create a pattern or picture on the dough before baking. Speculoos are now commonly sold in the Biscoff or Lotus brand. Although originally a very spiced cookie (with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cardamon, even pepper), a quick glance at the ingredients list tells me that, commercially, they are spiced with mostly cinnamon.

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The first time I heard of speculoos was when that waffle truck, Wafels and Dinges, first came to New York and their speculoos spread began getting press. Then Trader Joe’s came out with a speculoos spread which they call “Cookie Butter”. Speculoos is now becoming a recognizable name in the US; some even rate it as a trend. We like novelty. But speculoos cookies are ubiquitous in France, even sometimes arriving in tiny plastic-wrapped form next to your espresso or coffee at a café, which was the way I was first introduced, without even knowing what I was eating. I would describe the flavor as a mix of graham cracker, gingerbread and snickerdoodle. It’s a nice cookie, crisp, not too sweet. And I will tell you that dipping peanut butter pretzels in the spread makes for a certain kind of snack heaven. But what really surprised me is, with a darker color, more caramelized flavor, and hint of spice, I actually think that speculoos makes a better crust for cheesecake than graham crackers. So they’re doing good work with cheesecake, and I might even try to replicate it when I return to the US. But I still don’t know what they are doing to the cookie and the hot dog.

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Musings

Souvenirs and Gifts from Paris (that won’t break the bank)

Knowing that I was going back to the US for the holidays, and that I would be seeing almost my entire family during that time, I began to think about some gifts that I could bring back with me. Gifts that could serve as a Christmas present but with a souvenir flair, something that said, “I was thinking about you while I was away in this foreign country”. If money was no/not much of an object, I could think of millions of things that I would bring back: silk scarves and boxes of macarons, decadent chocolates and salted caramels, luxurious face creams, lusciously scented Diptyque candles, vibrant Provençal linens, chic and slightly wacky fashions, beautiful artworks and tiny jars of mustard in exotic flavors. As it is, though, I was forced to stick to a budget. I began researching gifts that were affordable, useful, and beautiful. Above all, these things had to feel French, ideally being things that French people love and use in their daily lives (ultimately landing far away from the items in the souvenir shops plastered with “France” or “Paris”, with one small exception). These are the things I found and not one of them is priced over 10 Euros. They can be combined in many different ways to create gifts at all price points and for various audiences (one such combination below) so that no one is left out. They can even be added to a more luxurious gift as a little something extra. I waited until now to share them since they were the actual gifts my family and friends received. Since my family and friends are unfailingly polite, I don’t know what the real response was, but I’ve seen many of them used, and I stand by all of them!

French Soaps

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I like these soaps because they smell delicious, come in a wide variety of authentic scents that are sure to please a panoply of noses, are so pretty, and the Marseilles region of Provence has been known for its (exacting) soap-making for centuries. These are Compagnie de Provence, but there is a wide range of brands with various packaging, scents and price points, as well as very famous solid laundry soap worth looking into.

Fleur de Sel

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When I said in French class (en français, of course) that I had bought salt as gifts everyone looked at me like I was crazy. I may be, I never know if my proclivities with food are normal (in fact I remember my mother being bemused by Guillaume’s and my excitement about some watermelon radishes that came in our CSA box and that we had pickled. She said, “What is the big deal with radishes?” I say, if one cannot get excited about beautiful concentric circles of hot pink in a giant slice of vegetable, crunchy and tangy from a pickling in vinegar, then I don’t know what one can get excited about. Personally.) Fleur de Sel, like many food items in France, is something that is taken completely seriously, and also completely for granted. It is in everyone’s cupboard, is very affordable, but is harvested in precise locations, with exacting standards, the same way that it always has been. I don’t think many people in the US keep fleur de sel, but it is very useful for finishing dishes, salads, or even desserts. I focused on fleur de sel from Guérande, near where we had been in Nantes, and Camargue.

Vichy Mint Pastilles

These mints, very French, made with Vichy water, and available in most supermarkets, were probably originally made to cure all sorts of ills. Now they just taste nice and freshen breath and are the perfect thing to tuck in to a larger gift or with other items, like the little satchels below, especially when elegantly packaged.

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Early on I came up with the idea of several smaller items wrapped up in another gift as a little parcel. I toyed with scarves, tote bags, tea towels, but then I found these napkins at a popular mid-range French department store, BHV. They are very French Country; a little kitschy while still being something that certain French people would use. I wrapped a soap, a container of fleur de sel and some mints in a napkin with some pretty ribbon in the colors of the French flag to really bring home the theme.

Eiffel Tower Keychains 

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The pièce de résistance (if you will allow a bit of exaggeration), I attached one of these to each of the parcels I gave away. This is definitely a Souvenir with a capital “S” and it even says Paris on it, but I bought my first Eiffel Tower keychain in 2001, and it has been on my keys ever since. It is the perfect size and shape to find in the depths of a bag or pocket, and reminds me of my trip every time. OK, so maybe a person who has not been to Paris would not want a remembrance on their keys, but it’s a little thing, and I think they are so adorable, especially attached to the tie on the parcel. They come in several different colors and designs, including some very kitschy ones, but I prefer this sort of vintage-y color, and simple design. 

Candle from Notre-Dame de Paris

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This might not be for everyone, but I discovered that Notre Dame Cathedral has candles that you can take with you for a suggested donation.

Tote Bags

Tote bags are infinitely useful, are often seen on the shoulders of (especially young) Parisians, and are available in many places. These are from the Rodin Museum, Shakespeare and Company Bookstore and the Compagnie de Provence store, respectively.

Market Baskets

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These market baskets were actually the first thing I purchased in France. I noticed them at the large covered market in Nantes and they looked so French, so utilitarian and un-stuffy, indeed I saw them all around me overflowing with carrots and strawberries and being strapped to the backs of bicycles. They were also very well-priced (not being the very fancy kind that you buy at William-Sonoma) and I couldn’t resist a few for some family members. They definitely proved a bit of a challenge to tote around, especially since I wanted to keep them protected, and I learned a good rule: only buy things that will definitely fit in your suitcase.

Notebooks

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Who can’t use a notebook? Cute, useful, evocative.

Pottery Cups

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Is it cheating that these are sort of free? These absolutely adorable pots come filled with yogurt at the supermarket. Only one brand that I’ve found still uses colored clay pots, although many still use glass, and they change colors and flavors as the seasons do. Right now the flavor is vanilla, and the pots are this gorgeous red color with “Joyeuses fêtes” (Happy Holidays) scrolled in the clay. I cannot think of a single person who would be, if not delighted by this piece of French crockery, at the very least find some clever use for it. Pencil cup? Bud vase? Custard cup? To hold salt on the countertop? Coffee cup? Shot glass in a pinch?

Herbes de Provence

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A traditional French spice blend from, as the name suggests, Provence. Oftentimes containing lavender, a staple product of the area, I learned that they only began including it when the tourists requested it. With or without the lavender, a nice choice for the chefs in your life.

Gift Tags

Finally, I knew I was looking for some tags or labels to distinguish the packages, and I thought I wanted them to say “Merry Christmas” in French. After a lot of searching I found these absolutely perfect ones at BHV, at Hôtel de Ville. I also liked the old-fashioned tags as well, which have a certain “je ne sais quoi”.

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Tastings

December First

On the first day of December I decided we needed a little treat. In the form of chocolate. Preferably melted and hot chocolate. I just finished a month of French classes that I squeezed in between the trip to London and journeying back to the US for much of December and January. With class over and the sun shining I thought we’d head over to the Marais, get a bit of souvenir/holiday gift shopping done, and then wander our way up to Jacques Genin chocolate shop. I had read about this shop in various spots on the web as being notable for caramels, chocolates and also pastry. I happened to walk by it one day last week and the quiet and relaxed yet chic café set just beyond the vending counters put in my mind the idea of chocolat chaud and it proved to be a tenacious little thought. The shop is large for Paris and though it is spare and mostly cream and  glass, it gives a homey impression, that of being in a salon, or living room. There are a few counters set out with his famous caramels, in different flavors that appear to be seasonal, and a few different chocolate treats in bags, such as mendiants, small discs of chocolate inlaid with nuts and dried fruit. A glass case held a variety of chocolate bon bons in a multitude of flavors: tea, cinnamon, vanilla, etc.  I went looking for lavender, my favorite, but with no luck. They were all shaped the same, as a “palet” which is popular with French chocolatiers in my experience: square and flat with a cocoa butter transfer sheet on top to designate flavor. There seemed to be a plate out for sampling, which is the mark of a good and proud chocolatier. Down a few stairs there is a cluster of large round tables, about 8, surrounded by squashy chairs or sofas. We arrived just before a long line began forming between a set of velvet ropes placed for the purpose, giving a discordant night club air. The menu presented various cold drinks, as well as tea and coffee, but we knew we were after the hot chocolate, which was available as is, with whipped cream, and as a mocha concoction. One could order a selection of caramels, an assortment of chocolates and several pastries of the day. We ordered a vanilla mille‑feuille and a St. Honoré as well as a hot chocolate each. The goodies came from the upstairs kitchen, on a tray carried by a waiter with impressive speed down a wide circular staircase. Continue reading

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Musings

Fall back

This morning we woke up before the alarm went off, which hardly ever happens, and then noticed that the clock on the oven and the clock on the wall were different from our phones and computers. It took a few minutes and a few sips of coffee before Guillaume mentioned it might be daylight savings time. And it was. In Europe, daylight savings time ends at the end of October. Surprise! An extra hour of sleep!  We had some more time to make it to the Sunday market, which closes up shop around noon. Autumn makes me think of certain things, and although apples and pumpkins and spice are not ALL OVER EVERYWHERE in Paris as they are in the US (which I love, by the way, I had to go all the way to London for a pumpkin spice latte, and reading the Trader Joe’s fall circular to see what new products pumpkin or pumpkin spice has been shoved into is a favorite pastime), they are available for the most part and I was looking forward to stocking up on some seasonal fruits and veggies: Brussels sprouts, apples, Swiss chard, hopefully. We found some green Swiss chard at the market and we asked about rainbow chard, which I think is prettier and tastes better. The grocer said he had heard about it somewhere, but it was very exotic, and the woman next to us actually laughed and looked at us like we were crazy. Well, lady, you are missing out. As I’ve said before, in this post about Morocco, when I’m in a new place I like to eat how the locals eat. It’s more practical and cheaper not to mention giving a better sense of culture. Living in Paris, I wouldn’t necessarily even think twice about this; beyond eating more and better cheese, wine, pastries and bread, how different would my diet be from how it is in the US? But the truth is, there are many, mostly subtle differences. I’ve been cooking a certain way for almost 20 years and it’s a bit hard to change. I have favorite recipes, and go-to dinners that we make regularly, as well as eating vegetarian for much of the week. Slowly and hitting up a variety of ethnic, natural and regular grocery stores, we’ve been able to find our basics: tofu, soy sauce, vanilla, flour, baking powder, brown sugar. Other things we happily replaced with other different/better products (have you SEEN the yogurt aisle here?) But there are some things that I can’t find or can’t find affordably that put a tiny wrench in things I regularly eat, recipes I was planning to make, or cravings that I had : baking soda (hard to find), kale (making progress,), a nice bedtime tea, filo dough, canned pumpkin, half and half (I’m currently creating my own combo with a light cream/milk. It is sad), peanut butter (super expensive), vegetable or chicken stock and black beans.

My goal, ultimately, is instead of trying to eat like we do in the US, to cook like a Parisian. They eat, and eat very well, so we should be able to do the same. They have very specific ideas about their food (i.e. kale is to feed rabbits), and although I may not agree with all of them, learning about them and trying them out is a good idea. I admit that my brain doesn’t immediately know what to do with the huge piles of golden trumpety mushrooms, long sandy leeks, chestnuts, fresh figs, and plums of every color, but I also know it is my challenge, and one that will be fun to meet, especially now that it will start getting dark at 5.

 

 

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Tastings

Dinner in Nantes

When in Paris, we eat at home almost every night. We like to cook, and it’s much cheaper and probably healthier than eating out all the time. But, as a food lover and appreciator of restaurants, it’s fun to eat out sometimes. Nantes offered the perfect opportunity to do this. For the duration of our visit, we stayed in apartments with kitchenettes, decent enough to make simple meals, which we did about half the time. But the rest of the time, we were able to explore the culinary offerings of this cool city. Some high end (the riverside Le 1, which had decent food and an even better location, but was trying a little too hard) some low (Quick, the Belgian fast food chain and crepes), some not so good (the moules that I wrote about here) and some really great (the fantastic birthday meal we had at L’U.Ni). We discovered some of the best Chinese food we’ve ever had at a teeeeny place with a Chinese-French chef. We had very spicy Indian food, and also what Guillaume actually called the best burger he’s ever tasted at a place called L’Industrie.

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As a foodie and a planner, I had done the research about the best restaurants in Nantes, and this place ranked number 2 on a certain online list (L’U.Ni was #1), and happened to be right by our hotel, so we ended up there our very first night in Nantes. A relaxed, small-ish spot housed in the bottom floor of a larger building, we found 6 or 7 tables outside on the sidewalk where people (looked like neighborhood folks) were enjoying L’apero*. L’Industrie features fresh, local food as well as vegetarian options, which is really quite rare in France. In general, menus in France are much smaller than the binder sized documents we are sometimes used to in the US. Often a restaurant will have only two choices each for entrée (appetizer), plat (main course) and dessert. Sometimes they will have one set menu with no choices at all. And at your local café or bistro, they might have a few choices, but more people will probably order the special, whatever that may be. Less offerings allows the chef to do those few things better. At L’Industrie their take on this idea is to have three basic “proteins”-duck, beef and vegetarian and produce them in a few different ways- carpaccio, salad, steak and burger. This cuts down on the supplies they have to order and that may go to waste, and the amount of prep necessary, but still gives the diner several choices for a delicious meal, especially when factoring in a few extra appetizers (a seasonal soup etc.) and yummy desserts. The burger, served with beet pickles, barbecue sauce, nice stinky local cheese and the first really great French fries I’ve eaten in France, was excellent. The cheesecake we ate after was perfect too. Cheesecake is quite popular in France, and for the crust they use Speculoos biscuits, which is comparable to graham cracker, in my opinion. On a different visit, when I decided I had eaten more ham in the last month than I had in my whole life, I went for the vegetarian salad and was served a delicious mixture of greens, lentils, grains, sprouts and the pickled beets that appeared in several dishes. This seems to be a sustainable way to run a restaurant and as long as you don’t eat there every night, you’d be able to find something that hits the spot.

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*L’apero is another one of those things that is just basic, but that I didn’t hear of until my French teacher in Boston mentioned it in class. Also known as l’heure de l’apéro, it’s a pre-dinner drink, almost always with a little nibble. Coming from “aperitif”, the drink is often wine, beer or a cocktail, but just as easily a soda or sparkling water. Grocery stores even have a special l’apero section with nuts, small crackers and potato chips. Much calmer and relaxed and less focused on inebriation than our “happy hour”, it can be enjoyed at a café or restaurant or at home. I just love walking outside in nicer weather and seeing café terraces full of people partaking of this tradition in the rosy glow of the setting sun.

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Sightings

world enough, and time

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The first time I visited the Musée d’Orsay in Paris I was spending my junior year abroad in London. I was taking an art history class taught by Pat Utermohlen, an elegantly eccentric older woman with giant glasses, handfuls of rings and a love for art that was contagious. I had never taken an art history class, didn’t (and don’t) really “get” art beyond what I find enjoyable to look at, but I wanted to make the most of my time abroad, and I made sure that the two elective classes that I was able to choose would have plenty of cultural offerings. Once a week Pat Utermohlen led us through a London museum (some many more than once), and we would also have a weekly lecture about what we would see. My first experience with art theory, actually discussing art, and writing about it, was truly interesting, although it admittedly was a bit of a struggle. There is a saying that writing about painting is like dancing about architecture*. That’s not to say that there is no value in it, just that it feels a bit awkward. Pat Utermohlen also took us on a weekend trip to Paris, to see the great works there. The trip is quite a blur; I think we visited every major museum with works relevant to the period we were studying (late 19th to early 20th century) including the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, the Picasso museum, the Marmottan museum as well as a trip to Giverny to see Monet’s house and gardens that he famously depicted in his water lily paintings. At the Louvre all I really remember is running by renaissance painting after renaissance painting to get to the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo, which were mostly memorable themselves for the mass of tourists all trying to get a picture of themselves with the artworks (so bizarre.) But the Musée d’Orsay, which I hadn’t even known existed, felt like a museum that was made just for me. It was the art I liked, (impressionism, mostly) in one place, and that place happened to be a gorgeous Beaux-Arts style former train station, and it wasn’t too crowded or huge.

The second time I visited the Musée d’Orsay was last Sunday, and it was just as perfect as I remembered. Since I will be in Paris for a bit of time, I was able to purchase a Carte Blanche, a membership card for both the Orsay and the L’Orangerie, for about the cost of 3 visits. This way I can go as many times as I like, spreading out the trips so that I can leave before I stop really seeing the art (museum overload, is what I call it, for me it can set in as early as two hours into a trip). And the discount ticket for young people was capped at age 35. I love that art institutions tend to peg “young” as under 35. The Orsay doesn’t seem to be as popular or as busy as the Louvre or, to be sure, the Eiffel Tower, but I think there is so much more value in it. The museum houses some very famous paintings, such as Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone, some of Monet’s water lily paintings, Renoir’s very large dancer series, Whistler’s Mother, as well as others, and some great paintings by possibly less-well known artists, Berthe Morisot, Millet, Courbet and Caillebotte. (That links to one of my favorite paintings). I took the picture above of one of the giant clocks on the top floor through which you can see the city below. The museum being a former train station, there are several clocks of different design throughout the museum.

Lately, the time I spent in London is at the front of my mind, because I am lucky enough to be spending two weeks there very soon. It has been 12 years exactly since I was in London and, as is the way with time, it feels impossibly long ago, and just a breath away. I am hoping to revisit old haunts in that way that we do to try to grasp hold of the past. We are staying on the opposite side of the city from where I lived last time, so I am excited to discover new parts of the city as well.

*This saying, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”, as well as the very similar “writing about painting is like dancing about architecture”, is believed to have been first used in 1979, and although the first quote has been attributed to several different people, they were most likely both first used by Martin Mull, a musician, comedian, and artist (and Colonel Mustard in the film Clue, for those to whom that may mean something). However, similar similes have been found as early as 1918, and it may just have been one of those maxims that were in the air. Now, it is not uncommon to hear talking or writing about various art forms to be compared to dancing or singing about math, football etc.

**The title of this post is from an Andrew Marvell poem, To His Coy Mistress.

 

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