Our Tour de France

Goat cheeses

The French often say, “There’s no need to leave France – we have everything here!” While it’s easy to brush it off as chauvinism, it’s true — for a country that could fit inside of Texas, there is a huge diversity of climates and terrains in one, single country. You can find everything in l’hexagone, from the windy shores of Brittany (where we’ve huddled around the fireplace, wearing sweaters in Augusts of yore), to the sunny south, where beaches are clogged with tourists and the few locals that choose to stay in town, to bask in the abundant sun of the Mediterranean.

The Lot

After living in France for a while, I sometimes get the feeling that the country never gets a break on the summer weather. While it can be gorgeous, we were told that the day after we left Paris, the weather turned grey and cool. And while we had some nice days during our two weeks of travel, we hit quite a bit of uncooperative weather ourselves, that always seemed to be creeping up on us.

France

Being from San Francisco, I never look at forecasts and simply plan for everything. And anything. (And you’ll see that in spite of my best efforts with photo editing software, I was unable to add in sunshine to the shots.)

gazpacho

Since we were mostly éponging (sponging) off friends, by staying with them as we traveled, I had to brush up on my morning small-talk skills. I’m hopelessly terrible at responding to enthusiastic greetings of “Good morning!!” or “Hi! How did you sleep?” first thing in the morning.

Boucherie

It doesn’t help that Romain is so talkative first thing in the morning that I often check his back, to see if I can take the batteries out. I need at least thirty minutes, minimum, to adjust to the new day – preferably without any commentary.

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Chermoula

chermoula recipe-9

The editor for My Paris Kitchen came to Paris last week. Since we’d spent two years working together on a book about my kitchen, I figured – at long last – we’d be able to dine tête-a-tête, in my actual Paris kitchen. So I invited her for dinner.

Chermoula

We were in touch nearly every day for the last few months as I raced toward the finish line, and went had plenty of back-and-forths about every little detail. And since the dinner was somewhat of a celebration of finally leaning back after all that work and relaxing together, I wanted to make her something from the book. (Although I did think it might have been funny if I’d ordered a take-away pizza, and served that to her. But I thought better of it.)

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Ricotta Ice Cream

Ricotta ice cream recipe

When I was in Sicily, either it slipped my mind, or my mind is slipping, because for one evening, I was supposed to be responsible for making something for dessert. I was offered a number of beautiful things to cook or bake with, and my mind kept wandering back to the heavenly ricotta cheese that we’d seen being made earlier that day.

Since we brought home a few big strainers of the just-set ricotta, I couldn’t resist putting one to use in ice cream. I blended up the cheese with some milk, a few spoonfuls of local honey, and made a luxurious pine nut brittle to crumble into the ice cream, called a croccante. I figured, “Heck, we’re in Sicily. I’m dumping a whole bunch of pine nuts into ice cream. Whee! Here I go…!”, assuming they were not so expensive there.

candied citron

My gracious hostess didn’t say anything, but I didn’t realize until later that I used what was probably the equivalent of the monthly mortgage on the house to mix into my single batch of ice cream. Fortunately everyone ate every last spoonful of ice cream, so they didn’t go to waste. (Whew!) But when I got home, I decided when I shared to recipe, to take an easier…and less-costly…route.

Sicilian gelato is traditionally made with milk and no eggs, but I decided to go with cream when I got home because the ice cream would become very hard to scoop otherwise. (After the recipe, I give guidelines to make the version I made without eggs, although I recommend using half-and-half or cream for a better texture.) Gelaterias get around that problem by storing their ice cream in freezers that aren’t as cold as home freezers, so the ice cream is scoopable.

pistachio nuts

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Corsica

Corsica

I finally got to Corsica. I’d heard so much about it. But somehow, I’d never made it there. Corsica is a large island off the Mediterranean coast of France, which has had a rather back-and-forth relationship with France. But the short story is that it was back under French rule in 1796, where it’s firmly (although to some, precariously) remained.

Corsica

Its most famous resident was – and still is – Napoléon Bonaparte. And the airport in Ajaccio, where we flew into from Paris is named after him. since he was born there.

Corsica

Our friend who we were rendez-vous-ing with was arriving in the early evening, so we had some time to stroll around the city. We started at the excellent Musée Fesch, named for the uncle of Napoléon, who was a collector of Italian art. The current exhibition featured classic paintings, paired with recent work by Andres Serrano, an artist most famous for submerging a crucifix in pipi.

Corsica

The photograph of that was the only work in the museum that was protected by Plexiglas and there was an interesting few paragraphs that accompanied it, offering a little explanation, ending with “typical American culture….politically correct.”

When I arrived in France, my second French teacher asked me, “Why are Americans so politically correct?” It’s been over a decade and I’m still not sure I have an answer. (Or, being from San Francisco, know why that is even a question.) But a reader noted that there was an attack on the photo in France as well. So even if it’s not typique, I guess I should be glad to know we share the title, at times, for being PC. Or whatever you want to call it when it comes to religious icons. However perhaps in this case, it’s best to leave the “P” out of it.

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Le Servan

Le Servan Paris chocolate caramel tart

I’m not always in agreement with those that say dining out in Paris is expensive. For example, last week I found myself with a rare moment of free time at lunch, and I pinged a neighbor, who unfortunately replied that he was out of town, like the rest of Paris in the summer. So I decided to go to Le Servan by myself, a restaurant I’d been hearing a lot about. And since it’s “hot”, I figured lunch would be the perfect time to go. And I was right. Although it filled after I got there, I managed to get there during the “sweet spot”, and grab a stool at the counter, where I had a terrific lunch for €23, all by my lonesome.

If you think about it, that’s three courses of food made with fresh ingredients, prepared by a highly competent staff. The price includes tax and tip, which in the states, would mean that about one-third of that total would be earmarked for those extras, and the meal itself would cost roughly €15. Yikes. Of course, one often adds a glass of wine – I had a nice Vouvray for €6 – so my meal deal clocked in at €29. But either way, I can’t imagine getting a meal like I had in, say…New York, London, or San Francisco. Because I liked it so much, I went back the next day with Romain.

aargh

Unfortunately the next day didn’t start off very well. Like, at all. But as Gloria Gaynor famously said — or sang — “I will survive.” (Although she didn’t sing it in French.) But good food, and wine, heals a lot – although not all – and it was nice to get a particularly bad taste from the morning affairs out of our mouths.

Two glasses of surprisingly inky rosé from the Loire did the trick. They were deeply colored, with the slightly maderized (sherry-like) taste that one often finds in natural wines, which have been left to their own devices.

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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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