Saturday, April 25, 2009

Je suis tres scones

Here's an unexpected way to impress the French: make them British or American sweets.

Le crumble, les scones, le cheesecake, les cookies, les muffins and les brownies are all the rage in France. (To sound French you have to pronounce the words with a lilting stress on the last syllable). I learned this a few years ago when my mother-in-law asked me for a baked cheesecake recipe; my mother, herself diplomee in French patisserie from Cordon Bleu, passed on my grandmother's recipe but puzzled at why a French person would want to make an American dessert. Weren't the French self-proclaimed (and maybe even self-important?) masters of desserts, the finest desserts in the world?

Next came requests from recipes for le crumble. I told my MIL that I didn't really use a recipe: if I had apples or pears on hand and wanted to make a quick dessert, I would chop and toss them with sugar and cinnamon and bake with a Streusel-esque flour-butter-sugar-oatmeal topping. I also tried to explain that I was more partial to the New England cobbler than the English crumble, but I think the distinction was lost in my (clumsy) translation. Anyway, I can't figure out why the French love our Anglophone treats. They still think that British food is horrendous but have always held British teatime sweets in high esteem. I tried to explain to my students that London actually has fantastic food now, especially with the rise of gastropubs, but they fell over themselves laughing because they thought gastro was short for "gastro-intestinal", not "gastronomic."

I realised that this could be my secret weapon. To me, French culture, especially culinary culture, seems dominated by notions of what is correct: this is the word used to describe things done well, appropriately, correctly. When you are dealing with well-known, well-loved classic dishes that have been made in the same way for centuries, you know if they are correct or not correct. I used to panic about what to say and do when I visited France with MCM before we lived here. He would reassure me and tell me to just be myself and I would respond that he knew very well that France didn't work that way. It didn't matter that I was an educated, well-travelled and cultured person: I would only be judged by the standards of France and, in general, I felt that I was not correcte and meeting with disapproval. It didn't matter that I had a PhD, because I didn't have a Bac! (French national exam that confers high school diploma - a post in its own right). If I rested my bread on my plate instead of on the table, I had poor manners. As I live here longer and my French is better and more confident, I am coming to terms with this. It's a personal challenge: perhaps because I attended a Catholic primary school and study nineteenth-century culture, I love rules and order and I don't like to unwittingly break social codes. (Although I just split an infinitive - I am a rebel deep inside!). But I also recognise that, like in any other culture, French cultural confidence can veer towards chauvinism and I shouldn't to take it too seriously or feel self-conscious.

So, I decided that instead of attempting to make French desserts for French people or trying to conform to codes where I risked not being judged correcte, I would be exotic. I would bring brownies to social functions, make a crumble for dessert for the in-laws, or send blueberry muffins with MCM when he went to visit his parents. The reactions have been very positive. Ahh! J'adore ces petits muffins! It works for me on several levels - I love these desserts and they are easy to make, too.

This reached comic heights when MCM and I were invited to a brunch at one of his colleague's home. Brunch itself is, of course, a North American import - and very trendy with the French. In my experience it is more breakfast than lunch in France: pastries, fruit, sliced ham and cheese, juice, coffee. No bloody maries, either; I got looks of horror and fascination when I suggested that alcohol was served at an American brunch. I recently saw a cookbook on sale at my local Monoprix supermarket for le slunch, a horrific term that has apparently been invented by an enterprising French foodwriter to combine supper and lunch. It's almost as bad as le fooding, a trendy French word that supposedly combines food and feeling. Gag. I need another post how the French are plundering and abusing my beautiful native language. (In fairness, we've done the same to theirs...)

Anyway, I made a bold move and brought homemade orange-cranberry scones to the brunch. I adapted them from this Martha Stewart recipe, adding the grated zest of an orange and substituting whole milk for half-and-half. The French girls gobbled them up! There were squeals of excitement and one of them pronounced confidently, "Oh, tu sais, moi, j'adore les scones. Moi je suis tres scones." I've since told this story to my students and they think it is hilarious. "Je suis tres scones" translates, very approximately into American teen-speak, as "Omigawd, scones are just like, soooo me. I am so into scones."

I actually felt a bit embarrassed that everyone was eating my scones and not the other treats the hostess had purchased (yes, purchased). One guest, an Italian woman, actually announced that she would take the 2 leftover scones home with her. I think there were 2 left because no one wanted to take the last one and risk getting scratched. Meow!

So, if you're invited to a French person's house, stand tall, be proud, bring Toll House cookies and don't rest your bread on the edge of your plate.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Budget Bistro Update: Restaurant Reviews, Le P'tit Canon and La Bastide d'Opio

It's the end of the weekend and I feel like I'm ready for another one. Where does the time go? I still haven't answered all my emails, finished cleaning the kitchen, or launched my consultancy business. Or completed Book 2. But I've got priorities and one of those is saving you, dear readers, from overpriced Parisian bistros serving flabby frites.

Restaurant Review: Le P'tit Canon

This is the restaurant we selected for Best Man and Miss Mousse's Parisian visit two weeks ago and I think it was a great choice. In the trendy but actually residential Batignolles neighbourhood (17th arrondissement - not on the tourist track at all but where "real" Parisians live), this is a small bistro with a traditional ambiance: zinc bar, cozy dark woodwork, vinicultural decor and... everyone's favourite... red-checkered tablecloths! Food is mostly traditional but well done: cassoulet, confit de canard, some steaks, sausages with white beans, and a signature steak tartare. We only know about this place because we met a lovely couple who live in the neighbourhood and invited us there. After our meal MCM and I went home and immediately turned on the computer to look at rental apartments in the neighbourhood. (Negatory: we'd be looking at a 40% increase in rent to have the same amount of space as we have here on the border of Paris. Oh well - maybe once I launch that consultancy).

As far as I'm concerned (and it's my blog, so ha!), I think this is a perfect bistro. It's not a Michelin-starred restaurant, that's for sure, but so what? I'm not very impressed by so-called "best" restaurants: most inventive food, maybe, but "best" for me is the restaurant that best suits my mood. As a matter of fact, my favourite dining experience in the whole world involves eating lobster from a plastic takeout dish at a picnic table while watching the summer sun set over Menemsha, Martha's Vineyard. Fine dining? Hardly. But fabulous.

Le P'tit Canon, 36, rue Legendre, Paris 75017
Food: Unpretentious, hearty bistro classics done very well.
Atmosphere/decor: Cozy and traditional.
Service: Warm, friendly, efficient. Bartender is completely bilingual.
Value for money: Very good. Starters and desserts were 5-7 euro; main courses were mostly 11-14 (a bit more for the day's special). Affordable wines. Count on 20-30 per person.
What to wear: casual. Jeans are fine.
Good for: dinner with old friends; adults of all ages - bring your parents or your great auntie; when you want a meltingly soft confit de canard with very garlicky potatoes and a crisp green salad, washed down with a light and easy red. Mmm.
Not good for: Food snobs - it's good but it's not fancy. Vegetarians.
Handicapped access: Toilets are a tight squeeze, but no steps.

Restaurant Review: La Bastide d'Opio

About a month ago MCM and I had dinner with a lovely old friend who was having a relaxing girls' weekend in Paris with her mum. I suggested we meet for drinks at La Garde-Robe and then have dinner at La Bastide d'Opio. This is partly because her mum is a fish-eating vegetarian, and I knew this place would have options.

One lesson learned: if your visiting friend might be pregnant, don't bring her to a wine bar that serves unpasteurised cheese, cured meats and, uhh, wine. I had no idea, but I still felt like an idiot when she told us her exciting news. Congratulations - get this woman some tap water so we can toast!

La Bastide d'Opio is a Provencale place in the 6th arrondissement, south of the market in St Germain des Pres. It's located in a street crowded with little restaurants of widely varying quality - and a few of them are, I know for a fact, tourist traps. So, if you find yourself in the area and hungry, this is a safe bet. It is also, by the way, a special place for MCM and me: we dined here on our first trip to Paris together, in May 2002, and had a long, lovely, last lunch: kir and tapenade toasts, then rabbit with olives for me, my first taste of bunny, which I love, finished with an orange creme brulee. Then MCM brought me to CDG Airport, where we parted for 7 1/2 months and I cried through passport control. (The passport agent just stared at me and handed my passport back silently, looking a bit freaked out: obviously they don't get training in emotional women).

Back in 2009, main courses included a lamb "crumble" for me (really a gratin - the French flirtation with crumble needs its own post), a delicate sea bass dish for Granny-to-be, and juicy chicken with herbes de provence for our friend. The flavours were strong and well-balanced. Desserts were tasty and straightforward. I suspected that my moelleux was from Picard: now I do love Picard's moelleux, but it doesn't belong in a restaurant. Service was brisk but not unfriendly and the restaurant is a bit noisy; we were tucked happily into a cozy corner, but the middle of the room would have been too lively for us.

La Bastide d'Opio
Food: Straightforward Provencale cooking.
Atmosphere/decor: Traditional, rustic, bustling.
Service: Efficient. Maybe too efficient. It's a small place in a high-rent area - they probably need to turn their tables to make money. We did, however, have to ask for water quite a few times.
Value for money: Good. Choices of menus at 23 or 27 euro in the evening. Wine available by the pitcher.
What to wear: casual.
Good for: vegetarians; affordable and tasty eating in a touristy, often pricey area.
Not good for: a romantic dinner (too hectic).
Handicapped access: Toilets on first floor (up a flight of stairs).

So, these are my thoughts. What about you? Got thoughts? Let me know. I've had half a dozen emails from people saying, "But ahh! Commenting is too hard!" These have all been from college-educated, intelligent adult women - women who understand tax codes, or teach children how to read, or speak several languages, or who are published authors. Commenting on my blog is much, much easier than doing any of these things! Just click on the "comments" button and follow the instructions. If you accidentally send a comment you don't want, I can delete it for you. You can post anonymously or by using a nifty nickname, like me... and Mel Gibson.

Friday, April 17, 2009


The past ten days have been surprisingly busy and I've missed my blog. MCM and I had a lovely Easter, complete with lots of chocolate cloches. (Instead of the Easter bunny, French kids learn that huge church bells - cloches - leave Rome on Easter Sunday and fly out over the world, clanging and chiming and dropping chocolates. If only.) I metroed into town on Sunday morning and met Mazarine for Mass in the posh St Germain des Pres neighbourhood. We went to St Sulpice, an 18th century church that has become famous for featuring in the Da Vinci Code. On the side walls there are small signs that say "That silly book is wrong and full of lies and there is absolutely nothing weird about this place, so don't believe it, okay?" (I'm paraphrasing slightly).

St Sulpice is also famous for its enormous organ, and thus the 10.30am Organ Mass seemed like a lovely idea. But I'd forgotten that St Sulpice, though beautiful, is a dark, looming church built of greying stone, the altar weighed down with thick gold candlesticks and heavy ornamentation. Then BAAAAAM BAM BAM BAM BAM BAAAMMM.... the organ. I recalled the delicate negotiations I had last year with the primo uomo organist at the church where MCM and I got married: he really wanted to play the organ through our nuptial mass, and I wanted piano: organ, I argued, wasn't right for a fresh, light, happy occasion in the summer. We ended up having to compromise - organ for processional and recessional, piano for the rest.

"This is like funeral music," Mazarine whispered. And it was, all through the Mass, altogether more Lenten than Paschal. Plus, it's very difficult to sing along to an organ. Especially in Latin, and there was a lot of Latin. Or French. French is not sung the way it is spoken - the endings of words are pronounced (Ha! I thought when I first learned that, So you admit that they are there!) and I'm always suprised by where the singer puts the stress on the words.

One hour and fifteen minutes later we filed out into the Parisian sunshine. "This is the kind of Mass that Catholics are embarrassed to show Protestants," I said to Mazarine. "Really? I've never been to a Catholic Mass that wasn't like that," she replied. Oh, the horror! And people wonder why Mass attendance is down in France; the experience, for me at least, was one of tradition without passion. I usually find Easter joyful and uplifting; this was ponderous and left me feeling a bit empty. That might just be me. Oh well.

We got American tourists (a family from California toting a bag of Pierre Herme goodies, a blonde college student in a pink Lily Pulitzer skirt) to take pictures of us in our Easter dresses in front of the fountains outside St Sulpice. After we strolled down to Cafe Flore, one of the famous "literary" cafes in St Germain. Neither of us had ever been there before - it seemed too touristy, too obvious. We sat outside in the lovely enclosed terrace and, I am amazed to report, their coffee is really, really good. Pricey (10 euro for two coffees), but excellent. Such a famous place could easily scrimp on quality, but they don't. I also got the faintest of sunburns on my exposed collarbone. I felt great.

MCM made a lovely lunch, featuring a roast leg of lamb and gratin dauphinois, followed by a strawberry tart with vanilla pastry cream. Wow, I love my husband. I had thought about choosing a Puisseguin St Emilion (Bordeaux) wine to go with the lamb, but my local wine guy had talked me out of it and told me that I needed a stronger Bordeaux wine - a Medoc. Yikes. I think my instincts had been right on this one. The Medoc was great - heavy, tannic, complex, a bit musty - but overwhelming. It was demanding: drinking this wine and trying to eat at the same time was totally freaking out my tastebuds. It mellowed after it had been open and breathing for a while but it was still too strong for our delicate spring lamb. I drank it anyway (yes, what a sacrifice).

Monday, April 6, 2009

Beyond Rapport Qualite-Prix

I am struggling to find a restaurant for tomorrow night.

Our old friends Miss Mousse and Best Man are visiting and, quite naturally, they'd like to dine out one night at an affordable French restaurant. Easy, you'd think - Paris is heaving with bistros! But where to begin? I've had quite a few bad meals in Paris. When bistros stick to simple, classic dishes*, it's not difficult to tell the good from the bad (mostly determined by the quality of the meat. I am also on a personal crusade against limp frites, having been let down too many times).

As I've noted before, many of the Parisian bistros serving more inventive, exciting food offer three course meals at 31-34 euro per person. These restaurants score very high in what the French call le rapport qualite-prix: the relationship between quality and price, or value for money. (Thanks to Dr Mmm for explaining this to me when I arrived in Paris).

Three courses of fantastic food for 31 euro, in Paris, is certainly great value for money. But what if you just don't want to, or can't, pay the prix, if you don't want to spend 80-100 euro on an evening meal for 2, delicious though it may be? Mazarine and I were discussing how awkward this can be with visitors, too: you want to advise people on where they can have great food, but you can't forget that a meal that costs more than $100 for two is, in most parts of the USA, a very special meal indeed. At the lower end of the price range, the RQP is more elusive. If you're a budget diner who loves to cook, you may feel doubly cheated by a disappointing meal, considering that you could have made it much better yourself.

Of course, we have to be realistic. Paris is a big city and it's expensive. Repeat visitors may also need to adjust their memories for inflation: yes, you may have found a great steak frites for 9 euro the last time you were here, but when was that? 2001? Have prices gone up since then where you live, too? Thought so.

One of the best restaurant bargains in Paris is undoubtedly a couscous, served at one of the many North African Restaurants in Paris. MCM and I recently went to Le Bec Fin, supposedly one of Paris's best, where we ordered Couscous Super Royal for 2 and had more than we could possibly eat, and wine, for 35 euro. Our meal had a variety of barbecued meats (lamb, chicken and spicy merguez sausages), a tomato-based sauce full of vegetables (turnip, zucchini, peppers, carrots) the semolina couscous itself, and garnishes of harissa, golden raisins and chickpeas. Absolutely delicious, an important part of the French culinary and cultural landscape, and highly recommended if you are visiting Paris and dining out for a few nights.

But, in terms of bistro food, the search continues. I'll update you on my results, and I also welcome comments on affordable bistros in Paris and the surrounding suburbs. If you know of a good place with a pleasant atmosphere where you can get hearty, honest bistro food, and where two people can have a filling meal with wine for, say, 60 euro for two, please let me know.

*The Bistro main course classics that you'll find on most bistro menus (served with fries, sauteed potatoes or a salad):
Steaks: une bavette (a chewy cut - from the word "baver," to drool!), une pave, un rumsteak, un onglet, une tartare (that's the raw one - don't knock it till you've tried it!)
Confit de canard
Andouilette, a tripe sausage. (The most revolting and stinky dish in the world, IMHO, but MCM loves it).
Salmon, usually simply broiled, often with an oseille (sorrel) sauce