Meeting the Producers and Cooks in Paris

Paris Producers Fête - Belgian endive

An anonymous SMS (text) popped up on the screen of my phone late Saturday afternoon, letting me know that there was a journée de rencontre les producteurs on the rue du Nil in Paris, where there would be wine and food, and a chance to meet the producteurs (producers). There was no name attached to it — someday, I will figure out how to sync my iPhone with my contact list so that it doesn’t lose contacts. But I presumed it wasn’t a trap (albeit a tasty one…) or anything. And since the street is known for great food shops that carefully source their ingredients, and good places to eat, I arranged to meet some friends, including Sara, visiting from Italy, to see what was up.

Paris Producers Fête

After figuring out who had sent me the message (whew, it wasn’t some loony-toon, but the chef at Frenchie), we started off with some wine and cheese at Frenchie Wine Bar, which is normally packed solid from the moment the door swings open in the evening. But this afternoon, we just walked in and sat down at one of the many empty tables. (Which didn’t last long.) There were three kinds of cheese: Roquefort, Brie de Meaux, and Saint-Nectaire, a favorite of French people, although it’s not the one that I normally dive into first.

Paris Producers Fête

A great hostess in Paris confided in me once that the secret of a great party is to only serve three things. Basta. And it was, indeed, nice to have an edited selection of fromages to taste, rather than having to pick though dozens of varieties. Which start looking pretty funky once a bunch of people have attacked them from all angles.

Paris Producers Fête

I had a nice slab of pungently creamy Roquefort, a coarse slice of country bread, and butter. (French people often smear butter on bread before eating blue cheese or Roquefort, which sounds kind of crazy, but actually works.) It was hard to leave that table, but after we finished our wine and cheese, we headed back out to the street to see what was up. At this point, our seats had become a valuable commodity. Although unlike at other food events, people were very calm and friendly.

(I tend to avoid food events because people get carried away and it becomes a feeding frenzy. And I don’t particularly enjoying standing in a mob of jostling people, fighting for a postage stamp-size taste of something. I’m fine buying a bite, then sitting down and eating something in a civilized fashion.)

Paris Producers Fête

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Orange-Glazed Polenta Cake

Orange-glazed polenta cake

Apparently I’m not the only one who loves polenta cake. The Italians like it so much that it’s called Amor Polenta. Which means “Polenta Love.”

Well, at least that’s what I thought it meant, because amour in French means “love.” And I assumed that it was the same in Italian. (Another reason for finally getting on that life-long ambition to live in Italy and learn Italian.) But for now, checking in an Italian dictionary, I found out that “amor” means “sake.” (As in, for the purpose of.) So I’m not sure how it got its name, but this cake makes a pretty good argument for the sake of whisking polenta into a cake.

Orange-glazed polenta cake

I’m one of those people who is completely crazy for anything with cornmeal, from corn bread to even a kind of kooky polenta ice cream that I’m sure no one else has ever made, because I used a completely obscure polenta that very, very few people can get their hands on. But I felt compelled to make it, for the sake of using up a little bag of that polenta that I had.

Orange-glazed polenta cake

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La Tuile à Loup

La Tuile a Loup

Zut! Just after I walked into La Tuile à Loup, the owner of the shop was presenting a customer with two cassoles that he’d retrieved from his store-room, to choose from. As the customer scrutinized each one, I also was eyeing them both longingly, with the same feeling that you get when you’re at a flea market and someone is holding something that you really, really want, and gently negotiating with the vendor. But there’s nothing you can do except wait for that precise moment when they set it back on the table and their hand unclenches the object. And it’s fair game, and ripe for the taking.

La Tuile a Loup

No such luck for me, as of the two presented, the guy took the one that I wanted. (The other one that was for sale was just like the one I have. Although thou shall not covet another’s cassole, I wanted the one, shown – that he bought – because it had straighter sides. And because greed is not a sin – at least in my book – I felt it okay to want both.)

La Tuile a Loup

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Cranberry-Glazed Meatballs

Cranberry glazed meatballs recipe

It’s cranberry season! Well, it was back around the holidays a month or so ago. And now that it’s over, as much as I love cranberries, it’s hard to get people enthusiastic all over again. And that’s made even harder when you live in a place where cranberries don’t hold the same sway over Parisians, as they do with Americans.

Cranberry-Glazed Meatballs

People often express dismay that expats exalt certain foods that “foodies” (which doesn’t have a translation in French) would otherwise find reprehensible, such as stuffing mix, canned pumpkin, and tinned cranberry sauce. (I still don’t know why the expat food shelves at stores in Europe have powdered cheesecake mix. Is that really a thing? I’ve never ever seen that back in the states.)

But we all need a break, especially around the holidays – (me especially) – except I think everyone should take a pass on anything labeled “cheesecake mix” – and while kale-sweet potato casseroles and “best-ever”, newfangled ways of roasting (and brining, and deep-frying) turkey invade magazines, newspapers, and websites around the holidays, sometimes you just want to be goofy, and present a little reminder of your past, such as store-bought cranberry sauce.

Cranberry-Glazed Meatballs

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Baked Marsala Pears

marsala baked pears recipe-

Because it’s one of my common pantry items, shortly after I’d moved to Paris, I went to the supermarket to get Marsala, to stock my larder. Much to my surprise, the supermarket didn’t have it. So I went to another, then another. Then another. Then I went to some liquor stores, where I thought for sure it would be on the shelf, but no one had ever heard of it. They kept trying to sell me Madeira, which is kind of like comparing Champagne to crémant. Both can appear to be similar, but are world’s apart – although I like them both.

I was pretty perplexed because Marsala is something that is sold in almost any American grocery store and since we shared a border with our Italian neighbors, I figured it’d be something easy to find here in France. (Perhaps because of the prevalence of Chicken Marsala in the U.S., one of those sure-fire dishes that has become so popular in red-checkered tableclothed Italian-American restaurants, and with home cooks?)

Marsala-Baked Pears

Marsala is made in Sicily, in the city of Marsala. It’s a naturally sweet, fortified wine with woody, subtle molasses-like flavors, which come from being aged in oak casks. Interestingly, Marsala is a wine perpetuo (perpetual), meaning that as wine is taken out of the casks, more is added. So the wine goes through a natural oxidation process. (You can read more about it here and here.)

Marsala-Baked Pears

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Dessance

Dessence restaurant in Paris

Like Espai Sucre in Barcelona, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to eat at Dessance, in Paris. It’s not that I don’t love dessert (which is a good thing because I think it’s a little late to change careers…), but because the idea of an all-dessert menu – or as Dessance calls it, a meal featuring cuisine du sucré – just didn’t appeal to me.

When I went to Espai Sucre years back, I made sure to stop at a local tapas bar beforehand and fill up on savory foods to prepare/steel myself for the multi-course sweet extravaganza. But instead, I found myself dining on food that skirted the line between sweet and savory, featuring lots of herbs, grains, (there may even been some meat), and vegetables. Nothing was overly sweet, even the desserts. It was a completely satisfying meal and experience, and I was glad I overcame my reluctance to eat there.

Desssance in Paris follows the same pattern and concept: A set menu with multiple courses, the savory courses borrowing a bit from the pastry pantry, with the chef skillfully guiding diners all the way though the meal, culminating in full-on desserts.

Dessance restaurant in Paris

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Pork and Beans

Pork and beans recipe

Cassoulet was probably the first French dishes that really hooked me on French cuisine. I was working at Chez Panisse at the time and when the new Zinfandel wine was released, in a style similar to the annual release of Beaujolais nouveau in France, or the garlic festival on Bastille Day (called 14 juillet, in France – if you called it “Bastille Day,” no one would know what you were talking about), the cooks would often make cassoulet. Because I was working and making dessert, I didn’t have time to actually sit down and eat any – because customers don’t really want to hear that their dessert is being held up because the pastry person is sitting down having dinner – I did get to take a spoon and scrape off, and eat, all the crusty, meaty, chewy bits that were stuck to the rims of the pans. Which, of course, are the best parts.

Making cassoulet is definitely a project. I know, because when I put the recipe in My Paris Kitchen, I made it at least a dozen times, testing all kinds of meats and beans, and playing around with cooking times. (And trying to explain – nicely – that once you’ve made cassoulet, that it’s actually better réchauffé, or left to sit overnight, then reheated.)

And if you’re going to make it, you make it in quantity, as it’s not a dish you’ll find in one of those “Cooking for One” or “Dinner in 5!” cookbooks. You need to gather the meats, fry up the sausages, prepare the beans, and cook the whole thing for several hours.

pork and beans

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2014-2015

Chocolate bars

In a film a while back, there was a line that became famous – “Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” Years later, Apple introduced a music device with the slogan “Life is random,” which referred to the music player that “shuffled” things around for you, randomly (so you never knew what you were going to get), although some speculated that it could have been a metaphor for Steve Jobs’ cancer diagnosis.

Fortunately I’m in good form, perhaps thanks to those antioxidants in all the chocolate that I seem to find myself surrounded by. But as much as we try, we never know what’s going to happen or how things are going to turn out. That’s particularly true when someone uproots and moves somewhere else. You’re not just moving out of your city or town, you’re moving out of your culture into unfamiliar territory – a new unknown.

When I first arrived in Paris, I’d bring people I barely knew treats to share; some chocolates, a couple of pieces of cakes, a tin of cookies, or other recipes that I was working on. From the astonished looks I got, I quickly learned that locals don’t bring edible gifts to shopkeepers and market vendors. However no one seemed to mind. (Although it doesn’t seem to be a trend that’s caught on…) It’s been over a decade since I arrived in Paris and each day is — well — like a box of chocolates. And it’s always amazing. Not always amazing in a “wow – that was great!” kind of way, but not always “amazing” in a bad way either. It’s just that each day is different, and like life in any city, it comes with challenges, an occasional defeat, a number of victories, and (fortunately) some lasting rewards.

Many of us who live in Paris often get emails from people wanting to move here, just like I did eleven years ago when I arrived on a whim. (Although as anyone who gets up and moves around the world knows, it’s not like it just happens. It takes a lot of planning and work.) Like me, most don’t have a clue as to what awaits them. I wasn’t quite prepared for what would happen to me in subsequent years and there were lots of hurdles to overcome. Yet I set up home, snagged a terrific partner (score!), learned the language (yet those French verbs continue to challenge me…), and managed to become, in my own way, a small part of the great city of Paris.

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