Archive for December, 2008

Le fin d’année

Monday, December 29th, 2008 by Paul

Paris has been fairly quiet this past week. Many of stores are shuttered with notes saying they’ll be open after the new year. Other Parisian transplants most likely returned to their home cities and towns, while the rest of the city is huddled inside to avoid the below-freezing temperatures. However, in a bizarre reversal of norms, the Monoprix was open this Sunday.

On Christmas Eve we went to Patricia’s Paris Soirées, where Misty was invited again to sing, having delighted everyone the last time she sang there. On Christmas we made a cuisse de dinde (turkey leg) for dinner with brussel sprouts, some salad salad, and a tarte au fraises. (I also had to have some foie gras, a traditional appetizer on holiday occasions. I enjoyed it: Misty would have none of it.)

This weekend Misty and I took a walk through the ménagerie in the Jardin des Plantes. The animals seemed to be loathing the cold weather about as much as we were, with the possible exception of the snow leopard who appeared to be eyeing the French children a bit too closely. We also had lunch at Breizh Café, where we learned just what a galette should taste like, rather what had passed for one at the tourist café in Le Mont-St-Michel.

On Sunday we had a fantastic time at a cocktail party hosted by our new friend Howard, even if we did stay out a bit late. For Wednesday we’re having dinner at the Bistro Paul Bert, and if we’re lucky we can find a place not completely overrun with crowds to watch the New Year festivities.

I hope everyone has had a wonderful holiday, and I wish everyone a safe and happy nouvelle année!

It’s beginning to look a lot like…Noël

Monday, December 22nd, 2008 by misty

This weekend Paul and I braved the balmy 11C weather (58F) to celebrate the holidays. Mind that I had the flu and a temperature of 40C which is higher than the water temperature I use to do laundry, so our daytripping was curtailed. The weather is cloudy but warm and I did enjoy the fake snow machine at the Swedish Cultural Center for the sense of winter wonderland.

Paris isn’t overflowing with Christmas shoppers. Strasbourg in Alsace with its world famous Christmas Markets hosts over 2 million tourists for the holiday while Paris probably only has somewhere between 1 million and 34 million. Something like that. You really can’t tell the difference.

Tour Eiffel in EU colors

Tour Eiffel in EU colors

We started with drinks at Au Petit fer à Cheval Friday night, a great old zinc bar in the Marais. I then slept for 36 hours or thereabouts and returned to the world for a whirlwind of Paris’ Christmas Markets. The Left Bank stalls were traditional, with the addition of mint tea with pinenuts (my favorite!) to the vin chaud and biere allemande on offer, and Peruvian flute players. Small wooden sheds decked with holiday lights on a bed of astroturf filled with knickknacks, chocolates, and charcuterie.

The disturbing thing we noticed as we hit two more Christmas markets was that all the stalls at all the markets were exactly the same. Each vendor was part of a chain with few exceptions. At St. Surplice, there were hand-made doggie bags. Which is say, someone took stuffed animal dogs, emptied out their insides and put a zipper and strap on them. Dog purse. I would like to see someone put a little yorkie in one of those.

Poodle shaped purse

Poodle shaped purse

Along the Champs-Elysees from the Ferris Wheel at Concorde to Franklin Roosevelt, stalls upon stalls of Christmas cheer await the giant crowd of tourists pushing slowly on to the even bigger crowds in front of Champs’ megastores. Quality of wares decreased and so we have nothing to bring back to our friends – unless you wanted 20 € plush toy eiffel towers with malevolent smiles, santa hats with red spirals going up instead of an actual cap, incredibly ugly jewelry shaped like snakes, or a Christmas back scratcher. Please tell us now if any of those items were on your list, we still have 2 shopping days to go!

We enjoyed it as much for the silliness of the mercandise as the presentation and showmanship (break-dancing Santa in front of drink stall). The vin chaud here is brilliant and the macarons even more so. That’s the thing about Paris, the best gifts are edible and would not last the shipping. Paul and I will happily eat these for you and think of you fondly while we enjoy ;>

How do the French stay thin?

Sunday, December 21st, 2008 by Paul

IMG_2355

It’s commonly called “The French Paradox.” The French eat foods high in saturated fat, drink more, eat later, eat chocolate and pastries and baguettes made from refined flour, and yet obesity rates in France are some of the lowest in Europe.

Even as there is evidence that obesity is on the rise in France, it’s still uncommon to see overweight people walking the streets of Paris. So while the nutritionists can point to the lack of processed foods or snacks in the French diet, perhaps it’s also because of the streets themselves.

Imagine yourself shopping along Rue de Rennes in the Montparnasse area of Paris. Or perhaps walking down Rue Faubourg St-Antoine on your way to the Monoprix. While walking you may have to speed up to pass people who are walking slower than you, or stop because there are people who are going in the opposite direction and there isn’t enough sidewalk space for everyone. Perhaps you have to swerve to avoid a scooter, or a car, or a delivery person, or the lovely and plentiful sidewalk hazards left by dogs. You may suddenly stop because the person in front of you who is talking on his cell phone stops and isn’t paying attention to the people around him (and if he were, he wouldn’t care).

When walking on these busy streets, you are never at a constant pace. You are constantly slowing down, speeding up, stopping and moving again. What you end up doing is something close to what athletes call interval training, something many fitness experts recommend as a fast way to lose weight.

This type of walking, of course, is common to many large cities, whether walking the Champs-Élysées in Paris, 5th Avenue in New York, or Leicester Square in London. So perhaps it’s not so much how the French stay thin, but how Parisians stay thin.

If you’re really wanting to stay thin the Parisian way, then take eating seriously: eat unprocessed foods in moderation, cut out the high fructose corn syrup, sit down and enjoy your meal, and don’t snack all the time. Then go for a walk on a really congested sidewalk.

If that doesn’t work, then take up smoking.

Parties in Paris

Wednesday, December 17th, 2008 by misty

Saturday, Paul and I had a few people over to celebrate December. We tried a white elephant gift exchange but I think my guests were too polite to get into the Stealing spirit. Well, I also made the spending limit 10 euros. What can you buy for less than 10 euros?

Bottle of wine from Saumar Champigny
Mini votive candle powered fondue set
Mr. Grumpy hand warmers
Foot long cardboard eiffel tower filled with Lindor milk chocolates
Cardboard form of an elephant for decopatch supplies
Edith Piaf Greatest Hits CD
A Japanese towel specially designed to clean the backs of your faucets. I won this and I have never had a better gift. Truly, I know just what faucets are going to get it!

After our friend Howard was kind enough to take us to a French party. Everyone there had a “detail” like a pin on the back of a shirt, a small toy chick in a pocket, a small cow toy hanging from an earring, one fake sideburn, a clown nose, bangs like Cameron Diaz in There’s Something About Mary, blue hair, etc. The party was super informal, silly string was constantly sprayed. Everyone used the “tu” form which we thought was cool. As we were by far the oldest people there, Paul and I were happy to fit in at all.

Paul was monopolized all night by a man dressed as Vincent Cassel playing Mesrine, the French gangster. The man was either trying to practice his English or get a date with Paul. Meanwhile, I “geeked out” considerably with my IA buddy, Milan, and practiced my French by discussing Vincent Cassel’s other films with another mec named Vincent. No one has seen Eastern Promises. How can that be?

Algerian pastries at La Bague de Kenza

Sunday, December 14th, 2008 by Paul

If you think of the words “Paris” and “pastry,” what comes to mind? A croissant or pain au chocolat? A macaron? How about baklava?

While I don’t think I’ll be able to separate Paris from pain au chocolat, I won’t be able to think about pastries in Paris without also thinking of the Algerian pastries from La Bague de Kenza.

We didn’t even read this article in the New York Times before we happened on La Bague de Kenza on Rue Faubourg St. Antoine, just down the street from us. We were just walking down the street one day and saw through the window a store full of the tiny delicacies stacked into pyramids on silver platters. How could we resist? We walked in, sheepishly, and even with our basic French could only manage to point at what looked good.

We pointed at the cute pastries made from almond paste and shaped to look like whatever fruit it’s flavored with: orange, pear, apple, banana, fig. We pointed at the small rolls or “fingers” filled with pistachios. If the woman behind the counter suggested something, what else could we do but nod, unwittingly, knowing that everything would taste wonderful?

We weren’t disappointed. Despite their looks, the pastries aren’t overly sweet. Some of the fruit can be very sugary, but others are softer and more subtle, and remind me more of halva.

La Bague de Kenza has two locations in the 11th arrondissment, one in the 15th, and another in the suburbs. Paris will always have pain au chocolat, but I’ll always have my memories of Algerian pastries.

Paris instructions

Friday, December 12th, 2008 by misty

What I’ve learned from living in Paris

The mice in the metro stations are cute
Bus drivers slow down if they see people running for the bus
People will block your way on the street, subway, store, bar, wherever, they aren’t being rude, they just don’t notice you.
Wine is sooooo good
If you don’t give someone a cigarette, he may spit on you
There is foie gras at the grocery store
You are never very far from a ham sandwich

Magret de canard aux figues

Tuesday, December 9th, 2008 by Paul

In France, you are never very far from the source of your food. The same concept of terroir that goes into wine is also present in the food, from the preparations of the dishes to the places where the food is made and how it is sold in the markets.

At the Market at Place d’Aligre where we shop, there are boucheries selling everything from whole rabbits to lamb’s brains to bifteck de cheval (yes, the French do eat horsemeat). One day we went to one of the poultry sellers: we wanted to make a chicken in the slow cooker, since my ability to make a proper poulet rôti being hampered slightly by the lack of an oven.

At the market, the chickens are sold whole, and I do mean whole. When I ordered one, the man asked me something in French that I didn’t understand, but had the foresight to respond with a polite “oui, monsieur.” The man took his well-used knife, cut off the head and feet of the chicken and gutted it completely, taking care to prepare the liver and giblets before returning them to the cavity. Finally, he took a blowtorch and burned off the excess feather follicles that hadn’t already been removed.

Yes, you can also go to the Monoprix and buy the same plastic shrink-wrapped, processed meat, and you can even buy any number of frozen meats the same way as in the US. There also any number of smaller bio stores that sell organic or other natural products. In most cases, though, there’s little to prevent you from knowing that the meat you eat comes from an animal.

I happen to think that’s a good thing, and so it’s not with any queasiness when I have to spend a few minutes removing some unwanted feather follicles from my magret de canard before making dinner.

Magret is the breast of a Moulard duck that has been raised to produce foie gras, aged on the bone for seven days. Much like foie gras, it’s considered to be more of a delicacy item than a standard fillet de canard. It can be grilled, sauteed, or roasted in the oven. I find it tastes best seared — but that’s me, and people have told me that I like my meat not rare but “frightened.” Your tastes may differ.

A very quick and traditional method of preparation is with fresh figs, when they are available. Clotilde has a recipe with a lavender crust, and you can find other recipes with truffles and the like. This recipe is closest to what I managed to create, and with the pictures it’s easy enough to understand even without knowing French. If you want a translation, just ask 🙂

While they are available in France at any good meat and poultry shop, magrets are hard to come by in the States. D’Artagnan is always good supplier for these types of things. Serve it with a hearty Southwestern French wine like a Madiran or Bordeaux.

Photos on Flickr

Sunday, December 7th, 2008 by Paul

Parma

With the previous week very full with work and French class, at last we had yesterday to enjoy Paris and catch up on things. For instance, I finally had some time to download and edit some of the photos from our London and Parma trips. The Parma set includes some great photos of Castell’Arquato, the hillside village near the city, while the London set is mostly made up of photos from the Hyde Park Christmas Market.

That concoction that I’m holding in a couple of the London pictures? When you’re at a Christmas Market, you’re hungry, and you need to get the taste of some extraordinarily bad mulled wine out of your mouth, what better remedy than the flourescent red ketchup sauce of currywurst?