June 2006 archives

The Sales

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There are two periods during the year when stores are allowed to have Les Soldes, or The Sales. They occur once in the winter, beginning shortly after New Years Day, while the summer soldes start in late June. Although Americans think its odd, the government’s official explanation is that les soldes give stores a chance to blow-out all last seasons merchandise quickly by creating a little frenzy. But I think another reason is to give the little stores a break, since as we’ve seen in America, often the smaller merchants get squeezed out by the big guys offering lower prices on things by holding sales all the time.

So onward to the BHV. What is the BHV, you ask? Imagine someone scouring the every corner of the world, looking for the least-helpful people on the planet. Then they hire them and put them in one enormous department store that’s impossible to navigate but full of everything imaginable and necessary for daily life in Paris, so you really have no choice but to shop there.

And those are the people in charge of helping you.

And now, you get the idea of the BHV.

So today is the first day of les soldes and I would say to anyone who has fantasies that Parisians are polite, classy, and sophisticated, hasn’t been elbowed out of the way in front of the bins at the BHV department store, strong-arming anyone who might get between them and something they want.
Or don’t want.

It doesn’t really matter.

And Parisians tend to go a little wild here, since in general, things like clothing and housewares are pretty expensive. I happened to be heading to the BHV this morning, since last night I switched on my desk lamp and blew out some fuses in my apartment. Although I was determined not to get involved in the hubbub, once inside I got caught up in the madness and thought, “Well, I guess I could use a new pair of jeans.” Last week I discovered a bare spot forming in a place where not a lot of people get a close look at, thinking their days are numbered.

To make a long story short, I never made it to the hardware department, but instead got taken in by the stacks and stacks of jeans that were all 30% off. Since you can’t get away with wearing American-style baggy-assed jeans in Paris, you need to wear pants that are well-fitted, snug-tight up against your rear end (no matter what you weigh.)

Our unless you’re under the age of 21. Then you wear jeans hanging halfway down your butt, but only as long as you’re wearing boxer shorts underneath rather than those Euro-sling undies and swimsuits that some men in my age (well above the age of 22) like to wear here.

Not finding what I liked, I left empty-handed. But with my adrenalin (or was it my morning cáfe au lait?) pumping, I raced to the Levi Store in the Bastille. Not quite busy yet (aha!, I beat those young folks wasting their lives away in school), the young salesmen were instantly drawn to me, amazed at the Levis that I was wearing, which were made with a special cut and fabric that I bought in San Francisco. So there I find myself, surrounded by handsome, unshaven, young French men, all oohing and aahing while staring at my butt and crotch, reaching over feeling the fabric, and closing in all around me. I don’t know if it was me, or the summer heat has finally arrived once and for all, but it was surely getting much warmer in there. And naturally, I decided right away that I needed a new pair of Levis, and this was the place I must get them.

Helping me find a style I liked, one of the friendly young men, wearing a well-fitted t-shirt (was it Levis? If so, I want one too.) He kept calling me jeaune homme (young man), while asking me what I thought about the style that he was wearing by running his hands up and down his thighs to emphasize and make sure I understood how good they fit (yes, I did.) So he hands me a few pairs of the same jeans to try on, and transfixed, I head to the dressing room.

Since we’re in France, there’s no need to be shy and he pops right in soon afterwards and starts surveying the fit by yanking and patting and making sure all button-fly’s buttons were laying properly, exclaiming how well they fit. Yes, they’re supposed to be that tight, he told me. And for additional emphasis, in case I didn’t quite get it (yes, I did) he makes doubly-sure with his hands that I know there’s little room in there for anything besides maybe a Euro-sling, and perhaps a few centimes or fuses (…fuses? What fuses?…) But certainly not much else.

Soon all the other boys, er, I mean jeaunes homes, came by and made sure I’m getting properly fitted, admiring my choice in jeans. When I questioned whether I might need a larger size, one turned to show me how his fit him, sliding precariously down his backside, and he asked me if I wanted to same. (Yes, I did.)

But instead I went home with the jeans I had on, at 20% off, back to my darker apartment, thinking I’ll go back first thing tomorrow and get fuses.

But perhaps if the BHV took a cue from Levis and hired a few of these helpful young men as salespeople, customers like me might leave their store happily with something more than just a fuse in their pocket.

Levis
47, Faubourg St. Antoine
Tél: 01 44 87 03 06

Currants? Oui, Currents? Non

I am a bad food blogger.
I mean, who would post a picture like this?

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GRRrrrr!Seeing Red…

The most successful and popular food blogs start with a clever idea or beautiful image, and generally follow it with a witty or an emotionally-involving story behind it all.

Instead I’m posting this picture of the room where was to spend the entire weekend locked inside, which was to be my private retreat. Think Edvard Munch and The Scream, and I think you get the idea of my internal torment.

Last week I had left Paris to work on my next book, since it’s impossible to get anything done around here with all the caramels, chocolates, and glasses of red wine interrupting all the time. So off I went to the countryside for the weekend, armed with my laptop, some paperwork, too-little chocolate (which I later discovered, in a panic) and a good book.

So I arrive, start unpacking, and Merde!, I forgot my powercord! No electricity, except for the few hours on my battery, which luckily was new enough to get my through the first day. Since I’m two hours from anywhere civilized, and the hope of finding an Apple retailer is undeniably nil (although there is a nice egg farm & retailer next door) I was stuck doing nothing but reading and baking all weekend. So when you buy my next book, and find the last third of it blank, you’ll know why.

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Seeing Red…Currants

But all was not lost, since the house was surrounded by red currant bushes and the branches were loaded with tiny red berries, I spent a good portion of the weekend picking the little red orbs, relieving the branches of the tiny clusters of gorgeous little fruits.

And as I greedily filling my mouth with the puckery berries, I was overcome with a feeling of having to bake something. So all was not lost, and bake something I did!

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Rhubarb-Red Currant Crisp

For dessert the first night, I made a terrific Rhubarb and Red Currant Crisp with Polenta Topping. I sliced rhubarb into little pieces (about 8 cups), tossed it with some sugar (about 1/2 cup), some flour (about 3 tablespoons), a vanilla bean, and a few big handfuls of freshly-picked red currants, and voila, we had dessert practically right from the garden. Except for the sugar and vanilla and flour, although the house was surrounded by wheat fields, which was too green to pick and mill into flour. And besides, I’m not thatcrazy. Although I did go picked some wheat and cracked it open, but it was too fresh and I’ll sadly have to wait a few more weeks.

Aside from red currants, there were black currants (cassis) too, but they weren’t quite ripe. But the white currants were sweet and lovely but too precious to cook with, so I enjoyed them right off the branches. And next time you, or anyone around you, complains about the price of a basket of berries, go outside and pick a few hundred red currants and tell me what you think each basket is worth.
There’s a few running debates about the price of locally-produced, hand-picked berries, but you’re welcome to post comments here. And if you feel like picking any red and black currants, we’re heading back in a few weeks and could use a few extra hands.
(Warning: The pay stinks, but the rewards are delicious.)

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Seeing White…Currants

Oddly enough, last year I saw a few baskets of white currants in my local convenience store. (You know, the kind of place where you can buy milk or butter or wine on dimanche if you urgently run out.) In their tiny, miserable produce section, just next to the shriveled carrots and brown, wilted lettuce (who buys that?), there were three baskets of plump white currants, so I made a mental note that if it’s ever a Sunday and I need some white currants in an emergency, I’d know exactly where I could get some. But finding a powercord in an emergency?…c’est pas possible.

No, the grapes weren’t quite ripe for picking yet…

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No Wine…Yet.

But the egg farm nearby had lots of fresh eggs, so I made a Tortilla Española with bacon, and pomme de ratte potatoes, which everyone tries to tell me are called ‘fingerling’ potatoes in America, but I don’t think they’re the same thing, since I’ve never tasted any potatoes in the states that were as good as these. But if anyone out there can define what exactly is a fingerling potato, please let me know. Is it just any tiny potato?

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There Was No Apple Store, But There Was An Egg Store

So since this is summer, I’m becoming obsessed with making a lot of fruit crisps (instead of earning a living). One of my favorite ways to top them, and to ensure they live up to their crispy moniker, is to make a topping with polenta, coarsely-ground cornmeal. It can be difficult to find in Paris, and although instant-polenta is available, I bought it once…and that was one time too many. (C’mon folks, we’re friggin’ right next door to Italy!) But I was happy a few years back to find a good source for coarse polenta at the Arab markets that I like to prowl through, which they stock in abundance.

Fruit crisps are perhaps the best and easiest of desserts to make during the summer, when all the great fruits and berries are at their peak. They’re incredibly easy to put together if you’re anything like me and keep a bag of Polenta Crisp Topping in the freezer, so you can make one at a moment’s notice. In general, I find that 2 to 4 tablespoons of sugar, and 1 tablespoon of flour, plus a dash of vanilla is just about right for almost any mix of fruits and berries. Mix it all together and put it in a 2-quart baking dish. Cover with crisp topping and bake in a moderate oven until the fruit is bubbling and the top is crispy and nicely-browned.

If using plums or apricots, double the amount of sugar, since they get rather tangy once baked. Although I used rhubarb and red currants in mine, you can use any mixture of peaches, nectarines, apricots, cherries, and plums. Add a few raspberries or blackberries as well. Although I wouldn’t necessarily use white currants, you’re certainly welcome to. But if it’s Sunday and you’re fresh out, go check at your corner store to see if they have any in stock.
There’s something nice about living in a country where it’s impossible to find a powercord in an emergency, but white currants are available whenever you need them. Talk about priorities!

(More pictures from the country are on my Flickr page.)

Polenta Crisp Topping

Enough for about 8 cups of fruit filling

3/4 cup (105 g) flour
2/3 cup (90 g) polenta
1/2 cup (55 g) almonds or walnuts, lightly toasted
1/2 cup (110 g) firmly packed light brown or cassonade sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
8 tablespoons (115 g) salted butter (chilled), cut into 1/2-inch pieces

Put the flour, polenta, almonds or walnuts, brown sugar, and cinnamon in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse a couple of times to mix everything together.

Add the chilled butter pieces and pulse until the butter is finely broken up. Continue to pulse until the crispy topping no longer looks sandy is just beginning to hold together.

If you don’t have a food processor, chop the nuts finely with a chef’s knife then work the butter in with your hands or use a pastry blender.

Storage: Topping can be made in advance and stored in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Can also be frozen in a zip-top bag for up to one month.

Recipe Adapted From: Ripe For Dessert.

Belt-Tightening

Summer is here in Paris. It arrived without warning last week and was brutal. It was hot, and it hit around 31°(about 88°) and so humid, I faced a real-meltdown of chocolate. And just about everything else around here, including me, suffered the same fate. Just when no one couldn’t bear it anymore, it stopped. Then we had rain and cool weather. It’s so other-worldly (hey…am I back in San Francisco?), but summer arriving means a lot less clothes, and since I’m now European, it’s obligatory that they’re much, much tighter. Damn Europeans and their fine-tailoring. So that means it’s time to pay for the last 8 months of eating too many pastries, tasting too many chocolates, snacking on too many macarons, and drinking perhaps a bit too much vin rouge. I don’t know if I can hold my stomach in consecutively for the next three months, but I’m going to try. I’ve unpacked my shorts for summer and they definitely are un peu serré.

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Speaking of tightening my belt, last week I got to spend the morning at my favorite place in Paris, getting rid of a few excess US dollars I had lying around. My favorite place isn’t the Eiffel Tower nor the Louvre (they don’t take dollars), nor was it the Museé d’Orsay or the Jardin du Luxembourg. Yes, I got to go to the American Embassy, my favorite place in Paris! I like hanging out there, since everyone there understands me, unconditionally, and without judgment. There’s no raised eyebrows or startled expressions, like last week when I recently ordered ‘Big Turd Jam’ (confiture des grosse selles), when I meant red currant (confiture des groseilles). Luckily they were out of the first one.

But the American Embassy is great: I can argue back with impunity and get huffy with them. Hey, why not? I’m on equal turf, and I’m an American and my English is just as good as theirs.
And I can argue with anyone all I want and make perfectly-formed sentences with correctly-placed pronouns and not worry if this verb is masculine to I need to match the adjective to the gender as well, or decide if I need to decide which of the gazillion French verbs I need to conjugate correctly, unlike I have to do at the Préfécture.
What are they going to do if I screw it up my English at the US Embassy? Kick me out? Or in?

So there I was, on the rue St. Florentin, where I waited, stood in line, got scanned, went through the metal detector, then had my water bottle confiscated (I guess it’s a threat to national security), then headed to the IRS office. Being a foreign resident you get an automatic extension for paying your taxes, which comes in handy when the mail isn’t very reliable. I guess somehow they caught on and give us expats a break.

So in my bid to help fight the war on terror and make the world a safer place (though things don’t quite appear to be quite heading in that direction) I sat under the over-sized, overly-glossy, and over-polished pictures of George and Dick (whose has a rather curious smirk on his face for an ‘official’ portrait), and wrote my checks.

And prayed things wouldn’t get any worse.
And in fact, for me, they were about to get better.

A whole lot better.

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Since I was in the neighborhood (well, not really, but since I left my neighborhood, I’m gonna stretch it), I decided to visit chocolatier Jacques Genin. A lot of people talk about M. Genin with a hushed reverence and most of it is directed at his terrific chocolates. But one bite of his Passion Fruit Caramels and I’m singing a different tune. And you’ll be too.

I had stopped at a bakery down the street for bread and noticed les palets Breton, delicate buttery cookies made from salted butter, so I bought a stack. Four was the minimum for some reason… this from the country where you can buy half a baguette for 42 centimes, and when madame wants to buy one fig, madame will be given the same courtesy and service (and take as much time) as, say, an American pastry chef trying to race through the market buying a flat of figs or a few kilos of nectarines to test recipes.

So I bought four, but M. Genin was happy to relieve me of half of them. In exchange, he swooped his hands into the tray he was wrapping of caramels and stuffed them in my bag (and those caramels are as precious as gold, since you can’t buy them in stores.) As you can see, each caramel is buttery, tender, and keeps its shape just long enough to get it into your mouth, where it dissolves into an explosion of creamy-smooth sweet goo, slightly tangy from the passion fruit, with exactly enough of the tropical pulp to offset the restrained sweetness of the caramel.

So I can’t say I’m going to get any thinner, or my shorts will soon fit better, or when I hit the beach in August, I’ll be turning any heads. But when you have a guy like Jacques Genin feeding you chocolates and handing you caramels, who cares if your belt needs to be loosened out a notch.

Or two.

Jacques Genin
133, rue de Turenne
Tel: 01 45 77 29 01

NOTE: This post was updated in 2009, and now M. Genin has his own boutique in Paris, at the address above, which is open to the public.

A Visit To Richart Chocolate

Want to know what’s it like to visit one of the finest chocolate shops in Paris?

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Les Itinéraires des Beaux Jours: Richart’s Exquisite Upcoming Chocolate Collection

Richart Chocolate
258, blvd St. Germain
Paris
Tél: 01 45 55 66 00

Chocolate That’s “Too Good To Use”

Once upon a time, I worked in a restaurant that was well-known for using ingredients of exceptional quality. The most magnificent fruits and vegetables would come barreling through our kitchen door every day, from plump, rare black raspberries to teeny-tiny wild strawberries, fraises des bois.

While I can’t really guess the psychology behind it, we would often treat these marvels like precious jewels, reserving them for the perfect moment.

Or we’d just forget about them, then throw them away.

Unfortunately, because they were so fragile, they’d often last no longer than a day or so, and we’d arrive the next morning to find they hadn’t been used the previous evening and had to be tossed. While I don’t want to apologize or make excuses for this inexcusable behavior, restaurants are odd places full of strange people acting unusual…and no, it’s not just the customers. There’s mis-communications, too much going on all at once, and frankly, things don’t always happen like they should. And don’t tell me that you haven’t let something accidentally spoil in under your eagle-eye either.

Because I’m not buying it.

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So one day, one of the other cooks started to dub things as they came through the door, “Too good to use.”
He used the phrase to refer to things that were so special, that we just couldn’t bear to use them. And soon, the rest of us picked up the phrase too, and when something beautiful would arrive, it became the joke to label it as being something that was “too good to use.”

So, last year when I led an Italian Chocolate Tour through Tuscany and Torino, we stopped at Slitti in the tiny town of Monsummano Terme. Although Slitti started out in 1969 as a coffee-roasting company, Andrea Slitti (the son of the founder) started applying his roasting expertise to chocolate-making and now Slitti is regarded as one of the top chocolate-makers in the world. After our visit, on the way out, Palmira Slitti (Andrea’s wife who runs the shop) pressed a jar of their Crema da spalmare al Cioccolato Fondente ricca di nocciole into my already loaded-up bag of chocolates with a cheerful ciao bella.

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When I got home, I put the jar on my kitchen shelf so I could admire it, and it sat there day-after-day. Each day I would gaze up, all glassy-eyed, imagining the chocolate-y goodness through the glass of the jar, and I could practically taste the tiny bits of roasted Piedmontese hazelnuts, embedded in a rich, dark chocolate paste that were speckled throughout.

One day I decided it was no longer “too good to use” and abruptly pulled the jar down from its perch, opened it up, and with knife poised, got ready to spread.

Ugh!
Instead of dipping into the tasty spread, I peered inside first and saw that the entire surface was covered with green, dusty mold. Ick! So at 6:30am, I had the unenviable task of cleaning moldy chocolate. Not a pretty thing to wake up to. I managed to get all visible signs of mold off, then I poured in a shot of Jack Daniels (which around here is definitely not too-good-to-use) and swished it around to kill any microscopic traces of green hairiness.

Thankfully I didn’t toss it, and the hazelnut-chocolate paste was the best I’ve ever tasted. Unlike commercial hazelnut and chocolate spreads, this crema da spalmare from Slitti was made from the best, just-blended chocolate imaginable, studded with the world-famous Piedmontese hazelnuts from Langhe. And I’ve been enjoying it for the past few weeks, the warm weather in Paris makes it the perfect spreadable (ie: heap-able) consistency for my morning toast.

So maybe you have something in your cabinet, something you picked up on a trip that you’re holding on to. Or do you have a bottle of wine you’ve been saving for a special occasion? Or is there something else that’s so special that you can’t bear to open it?

Do you have something that’s “too good to use”?


Slitti
Cioccolato e Caffè
Via Francesca Sud, 1268
Monsummano Terme
Italy
Tel: 0572.640240


Note: Slitti chocolate but you might want to try the Askinosie Chocolate-Hazelnut Spread, or try my Chocolate Hazelnut Spread recipe.

The Rules: Bringing Food Home From France

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“Can I bring it back?”

Answering many of the questions visitors have about what’s allowable to be brought back into the United States (legally), here are some articles and posts about what can and can’t be brought back into the United States:

Think Twice Before Stuffing Your Suitcase (USA Today)

-Transportation Security Administration

-Importing Food Products into the United States (FDA)

-Travelers Bringing Food Into the US for Personal Use (US Customs & Border Protection)



(Please note that rules and regulations are subject to change and revision, and it’s always best to consult with the US government websites for the most current information.)

Green Almonds

Unless you live in an almond-growing region in the US, I’m sorry to tell you that it’s rather unlikely you’ll come across green almonds in your market. They don’t seem to be as popular in America as they are here in France. And right now in Paris, they’re heaped up in big mounds at the outdoor markets.

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In San Francisco, I would find green almonds at certain markets, and they were plentiful and abundant in the late spring. What is a green almond? They’re unripe almonds, picked before the shell has a chance to harden, and before the almond has had a chance to become crisp and mature (I’m still waiting for both, myself. Does that make me ‘green’ too?)

To extract the almond meat, take a large knife and embed the blade in the fuzzy green outer husk. Lift the knife and the almond and crack both down with modest force on a cutting board, making sure your fingers are safely out of the way. The Italian woman at my market cracks green almonds using her teeth, a method countless dentists probably don’t recommend. Her teeth are not exactly a stellar advertisement for that method either. But do watch your fingers and keep them away from the blade of the knife. You’ll find typing very difficult with just 9 fingers.

Once split open, pluck out the little almond in the center with the tip of a knife and peel back the rubbery, shiny-smooth skin, a task which many people find pleasurable. I sprinkle green almonds over summer fresh-fruit compotes that include sliced nectarines, tart apricots, and juicy berries. They also liven up a simple scoop of ice cream as well, but I know many French people that just snack on them as they are, a nibble before dinner with an aperitif accompanied by a glass of icy-cold, fruity rosé.

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If a French cooks makes you a gift of a jar of homemade jam, you’ll often find a few green almonds tucked in, as I did yesterday when I made a few jars of Peach Jam. If you’d like to taste green almonds, visit your local farmer’s market and see if they’re available. If not, ask any nuts farmers there to bring you some. Otherwise, you’ll have to come to Paris.

But don’t wait too long; the season is short and they’ll only be around another few weeks.

Pain Auvergnate

Wandering the streets of Paris, I feel fortunate when I stumble across a great boulangerie. In a city with 1263 bakeries (at last count) many of them are good, a few great, and some are disappointingly ordinary.
So when I come one that looks, and smells, like it’s gonna be a great one, I hurry inside.

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Located on a plain, fairly-deserted side street in the vast 15th arrondissement, my nose filled with the unmistakable scent of yeast and wheat mingling in the air, tinged with an obligatory bit of butter, which I could smell from the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street.Traversing the street (which is always a dangerous proposition, since no one seems to have told Parisian drivers that when you see a pedestrian, you’re supposed to slow down, not speed up) I joined the line of hungry Parisians queuing up for their daily bread.

While I waited, I craned my neck to look at their beautiful breads on display. In Paris, once it’s you’re turn in line, if you haven’t figured out what you want, you’re messing up the whole system, since indecision is not a Parisian trait. But I honed in immediately on this pain Auvergnate, a dense, dark loaf dusted heavily with flour. Sliced open, the dense mie, or crumb, smelled rich, sour and medieval. I would imagine it going well with a full-flavored mountain cheese, like Comté or Cantal, or a tangy, fresh goat cheese with a dribble of dark chestnut honey.

I also bought several palets Breton, crumbly butter cookies, a specialty of Brittany where butter rules…especially butter flecked with fleur de sel. Unfortunately I made a stop to visit a local chocolatier, who helped himself to my stash. And before I knew it, they were gone and I had nothing but a bag of crumbs (which, by the way, were rather good.)

Luckily, he made up for it in spades, which I’ll write about soon.

Le Quartier du Pain
Boulangerie Artisanale
74, rue St. Charles
Tel: 01 45 78 87 23

(other location)
270, rue Vaugirard
Tel: 01 48 28 78 42