Update: A l’Etoile d’Or

A l'Etoile d'Or

If you’d ever stepped into A l’Etoile d’Or, the candy and chocolate shop located just down the hill from the Moulin Rouge windmill, near Montmartre, it wouldn’t have taken you long to know you had entered somewhere special.

It might have taken a few minutes, especially if Madame Acabo was occupied with other customers. But as soon as her attention was turned on you, you were immediately taken under her wing, and guided around the shop, exploring all the various soft and hard candied in the vintage jars, flavored with everything from bergamot to caramel. You might have learned what was hiding inside the vibrant-colored purple jellies. (It was liquid cassis, and tasted like purple manna from heaven.)

With a snip of her scissors, Madame Acabo might have given you a taste from one of the ropes of marshmallows, scented with Madagascar vanilla bean or fragrant bergamot peel. There were caramel-filled caramels, salted butter caramels by Henri Le Roux, mango-passion fruit caramels from Jacques Genin, crisp caramelized almonds from Montargis, and caramel-filled squares of chocolate, with a wisp of a brown sugar cookie tucked inside.

A l'Etoile d'Or

Speaking of chocolate, if you liked chocolate, this was the shop for you. Lining the shelves were bars from France’s best bean-to-bar chocolate makers, from Bonnat to Bernachon, and she was the only person outside of the original Bernachon shop in Lyon that was given the privilege of carrying their chocolate bars. (She told me she got down on her hands and knees and begged them to let her carry them. Happily for us – it worked!)

With a table heaped with tablets of their chocolate bars, with flavors ranging from Moka (made by grinding coffee beans together with cacao beans), Jour et nuit (half milk chocolate, half dark chocolate), and ivory-colored white chocolate bars, it was rare if I left there without at least two or three bars from one of the stacks, which would always include Kalouga, my gold-standard for caramel-filled chocolate bars, which oozed gooey salted butter caramel when you snapped off the end.

A l'Etoile d'Or

Denise Acabo spent decades sourcing the best chocolates and candies in France, many of which were rare and hard-to-find, which she displayed in polished wooden showcases. Her distinctive handwriting made everything more charming. It didn’t matter, who you were, or where you were from; the minute she caught your attention, you became part of her family.

It wasn’t unusual to find a small crowd in her little shop, with everyone from clusters of tourists, some just wandering in, curious about the shop with all the chocolates and confections in the windows, to famous actors and notable figures who lived in the neighborhood, grabbing a box of chocolate to take to a dinner party. Although it’s rare that chocolatiers heap praise on other people selling chocolates in Paris, the face of every chocolatier would bloom into a wide smile when her name was mentioned.

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Apricot and Cherry Tart with Marzipan Topping

Apricot Cherry Marzipan tart_-7

I once told a crowd that I was preparing a dessert for, that I don’t like sweet things. I didn’t realize it would get such a big laugh – so I guess I should have worked on the delivery of that line a little bit beforehand. But I had to explain that I like things on the tangy and tart side, which is what happens to fresh apricots when baked. While they are great fresh, when cooked, the flesh takes on the puckery characteristics of the skin, which is my favorite part of the fruit (hmm, maybe there’s a market for apricot skins?) – and makes them even more spectacular-tasting in pies and tarts.

Apricot Cherry Marzipan tart recipe

While apricots are in season right now here in France, I’m doing my best to use as many of them as possible; skin, flesh, and even the kernels. But I’m not the only one. I had a lovely apricot tart at Chambelland (gluten-free bakery) recently, a treat from the baker, who wanted to know what I thought of it. It was great – and honestly, better than many of the regular apricot tarts around town.

Apricot Cherry Marzipan tart recipe-3

When I was got up to leave, and he asked me my thoughts, I was reaching to think of other things to do to an apricot tart, since we Americans like to do whatever we can to dial things up, adding flavors and textures to a dish, whereas the French seem to like things more singular, and are happy to have a pristine, little apricot tart, just as is.

Apricot Cherry Marzipan tart recipe-2

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Cherry Compote

Fresh Cherry Compote recipe

I think I have something wrong with me. I seem to be afflicted with a particular malady that forces me to buy way too many summer fruits when they’re in season. It gets particularly dire when faced with apricots and cherries, two fruits whose seasons are much shorter than the others. The first fresh apricots I saw were back in upstate New York, around the 1980s, and I’d never seen them before. Someone brought us a basket of the tender, squishy little orange fruits to the restaurant that I worked at, and I remember being completely taken off guard, as the only apricots I’d ever seen were the dried ones. And while I loved the crinkly dried specimens, those fresh beauties with a red blush were a whole other taste entirely.

Fresh Cherry Compote recipe

Then, when I moved to California, I discovered how abundant fresh apricots are (or can be), as they are in France. But no matter how abundant – or not – cherries are when the season is in full swing, I always consider them extra-special fruits and give a prominent place in my kitchen. At the beginning of the season, they’re incredibly expensive and rarely good. Then, as the season moves along, they start showing up in larger mounds at the market, and the prices get gentler, coaxing me to buy as many as I can heft.

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Hyères, Provence

Hyères, Provence (France)

I had no sooner returned from Sicily, then I unpacked my suitcase, re-packed my suitcase, and headed back out, to Provence. Even though I’d just returned from a ten-day trip, my other half was doing a project in the city I went along for the ride because, 1) Who wants to be sitting in a hot apartment, alone, in the summer, when you could be by the sea? And 2) The icy rosé of the south was calling. (And drinking alone raises other issues.) So I went.

Our hotel was very basic, but I loved the bathroom colors, holdovers from France in the 70s, or perhaps the 80s? Or someone was exceptionally good at recreating vintage French bathroom fixtures and colors. As I was happily lathering myself up after the humid train ride, I kept thinking that I’ve finally mastered the French curtainless hotel shower, and gotten it down.

Hyères, Provence (France)

Except when it was time to stop soaping up one side, and move to the other. And I realized that it’s that switch that I’ve yet to master; the moment when you need to swap the soap-holding hand with the hand holding the pommeau de douche (nozzle head), and a fountain-like spray of water breaks loose all over the bathroom. I’m not sure how one does it, especially when there is no holder for the shower nozzle. But I guess that’s why they load hotel rooms up with towels.

Hyères, Provence (France)

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Vietnamese Rice Noodle Salad Bowl

Vietnamese Rice Noodle Salad-9

One thing I love about traveling is that I get to read. As much as we all love to be connected, it’s nice to be somewhere – like 5000 feet up in the air, where your biggest concern is who gets the armrest – where that isn’t usually a possibility. (Although I also spend a considerable amount of time up there wondering if whoever designed those airplane seats ever had to spend twelve hours in one.) After plowing through a formidable stack of New Yorkers (my goodness, those writers are prolific!) that I’ve amassed over the last few months, during some recent travels, I attacked a few of the books that I had stacked up on my nightstand.

Vietnamese Rice Noodle Salad

I had gotten a preview copy of Delancy: A man, a woman, a restaurant, a marriage, and had read the nearly finished book in galley form, to provide a quote. But it was a different – and more pleasurable experience – to curl up (as best I could, in a plane seat) with the actual book, and relive the story of how Molly Wizenberg, and her husband Brandon, opened a pizza restaurant in Seattle, and lived to tell the story. Which was not without lots of angst, and a bit of anger.

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Pantelleria

Pantelleria, Sicily (Italy)

Well, what can I say? After everyone telling me so much about Pantelleria. I didn’t quite get it when I arrived. But when it was time to leave, it was hard to go.

Pantelleria, Sicily (Italy)

Pantelleria, Sicily (Italy)

On the day after I landed, by the time afternoon rolled around, I had curled myself up on a cushioned chair with a book I’d been looking forward to delving into. Then suddenly, I found myself waking up a few hours later, realizing that I had collapsed into a deep, profound sleep.

Pantelleria, Sicily (Italy)

It was the combination of silence that’s nearly impossible to find nowadays, and soft sunshine with a lazy breeze, which were no match for my hyperactive nature. It was one of the soundest slumbers I’ve had in the last few years.

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Chickpea, Lemon and Mint Salad

Chickpea, lemon, mint salad recipe

I was reminded in Sicily how good freshly dried chickpeas can be. Usually, I cook whatever I can get my hands on, and add them to soups or make a batch of hummus. But I don’t sit around eating them, as they are, unadorned. So when someone asked me to taste a few from a batch of chickpeas dried by a local farm in Sicily, that had just been cooked, I found myself dipping a spoon (yes, a clean one each time…) back into the big bowl of chickpeas. And decided, when I get home, to give chickpeas a more prominent place on my plate.

Chickpea, lemon and mint salad

At the risk of sounding like the annoying dinner guest who has lived in Europe (which I’m sure I will be, at some point…if I’m not already), I dressed them with Sicilian olive oil and juice squeezed from lemons that I picked myself. The organic chickpeas are from the market in Gascony. I added hand-harvested French sea salt, and fresh mint that I get from the Arab fellow at my market, who lets me rifle through all the bunches at this stand to snag the best one.

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Capers in Pantelleria

Pantelleria Capers, in Sicily

There were two things I heard repeatedly about Pantelleria before I got there. First: every person in Sicily told me I would love it; second: I had to try the capers, which wasn’t difficult, considering they were everywhere.

Pantelleria Capers, in Sicily

And I don’t mean in shops or on restaurant menus. I mean, they’re growing everywhere on Pantelleria; on the sides of roads, around stores and buildings, on craggy pathways, and next to the stone walls that run up and down the hills of the island.

Pantelleria Capers, in Sicily

A long time ago, an uncle in New England told me a pretty funny story. He was making a recipe that called for “pickled capers.” But he decided that he’d improve the recipe by using fresh. He looked in shops and grocers for fresh capers all over town, and couldn’t find any.

Pantelleria Capers, in Sicily

While capers grow in several countries around the world, and there may indeed be a plant tucked away in some greenhouse in Connecticut, I don’t think you’ll have much luck finding them fresh, as you so easily can, in Pantelleria.

Pantelleria Capers, in Sicily

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