The French really have it right with the five weeks of paid vacation a good number of them get a year. It’s a great way to truly relax and one week isn’t enough. I know, because my stingy boss (…and that would be me) limited my vacation to a measly seven days. But for that one week, I took part in the annual mass exodus of Paris, because as we know, all work and no play make Jacques, or Jules – or David – a dull boy.
Recently in France category
I don’t know why, but almost all the pictures from my Paris-Lausanne culinary tour came out kinda goofy. Out-of-focus, askew, grainy, or there’s odd pictures of sidewalks, one of me lounging in a bathrobe, guests eating and drinking (no one looks great when putting a forkful of food in their mouths so those pictures I’ll keep to myself…and I hope they do likewise), lots of chocolates rolling off conveyor belts, and even those scrumptious, insanely good Swiss meringues with double-cream Gruyère tasted (a lot) better than they look here.
The week passed by as a whirlwind of tastes – we moved from one chocolate shop to the next in Paris – Fouquet, Jacques Genin, Patrick Roger, and Jean-Charles Rochoux. Then, when we hit Lausanne, we switched gears, focusing our attention on cheese, air-dried beef, and white wine.
I now have conclusive proof that I’m not imagining it: There is an international conspiracy to get me to eat squid. Before you say, “You should try it breaded and dipped in spicy sauce!” or “You haven’t tried had my Thai-style squid!” – I should let you know that I’ve installed a special filter on the site that bans the words “You should…” or “You don’t know what you’re missing” just to save folks the trouble.
I was invited to a Chinese lunch, cooked by Da Dong, who is considered one of the best chefs in China. Because I’m from San Francisco, Asian food feels like it’s part of my culture and although more and more good Asian places are opening in Paris, I still miss digging my chopsticks into salt & pepper crab or a big pile of fresh pea shoots sautéed in chicken fat. Paris was a horrible, horrendous mess – one of those crummy days when the wind is blowing sideways, deep puddles are everywhere, and the heavy rain just refuses to stop blasting away at you, and the entire city. I felt sorry for all the tourists lined up in the watery blitz to visit the monument, because just one lone elevator was operating as the rest in the tower were out-of-service.
Fortunately when I reached the Eiffel Tower, there was a canopy for refuge for restaurant patrons and the elevator to the restaurant was functioning fine. I was happy to be inside and making my way up, with a spectacular view of Paris, and ready for a Chinese feast. Lunch was sure to be a bit more refined than the family style Chinese fare that I often wolf down with pals, but I was interested in tasting a few things that I was completely unfamiliar with. I am fairly astute when it comes to knowing ingredients, but I was thrown for a loop by most of what was served, and came face-to-face with my aforementioned nemesis.
Every once in a while, it hits me: I need steak-frites. It’s an infrequent indulgence, but when I do have it, I like my steak with a crisp exterior, pan-seared until saignant (medium-rare), with a large pile of real frites. Most my French friends like their beef bleu, which is close to uncooked, and if you order it that way, when you cut into your steak, it’s raw in the center. (My other half will ask for bleu froid, or “cold” in the middle.) I don’t mind raw beef in carpaccio or tartare, but it’s not really my thing to attack a large block of nearly uncooked meat.
Another difference is that American beef tends to be aged and easier to cut, and I’ve learned to only buy beef from a very good butcher in Paris because the difference if phenomenal. In restaurants, sometimes you’ll be served a piece of French beef that slices nicely, and other times you’re faced with something that even the best steak knife – and sharpest incisors – might have trouble ripping into.
So I tend to be fairly choosy about where I eat beef. Many of the classic Parisian bistros have been scooped up by restaurant chains, so there’s a dwindling number of places where you can find steak-frites done right in this town. But at Aux Tonneaux des Halles, honest bistro fare is still offered, with the daily menu scribbled on the chalkboards. And if you’re looking for a traditional steak-frites, done right, this is the place to get it.
Uncharacteristically, I’ll spare you the specifics, but I need to catch up on about 147 hours of sleep. And while we’re at it, I could use a hug. And since the former isn’t necessarily easy to come by here, as is the latter, I was embrassé by dinner at Alain Ducasse restaurant. While it’s been tempting to remove the “sweet life” byline from my header until things return to normal, since one of the sweeter sides of Paris is an occasional foray into fine dining, I dusted off my lone, non-dusty outfit, and rode the métro to a swankier part of town.
When I was in Monaco and I went to visit the chefs and the kitchen at Alain Ducasse’s restaurant, Louis XV, the pastry chef asked if I could possibly stay and taste their lovely desserts. Unfortunately I had to catch a ride back to Paris because I didn’t want to miss, well..nothing – I couldn’t stay. Then a few weeks later, a lovely invitation to his Paris restaurant arrived in my mailbox and I cleaned myself up, then headed into the aquarium.
I’m tired. Or as Madeleine Kahn more bluntly put it in Blazing Saddles, “G-ddammit, I’m exhausted.” The last few weeks I’ve been racing around Paris in my dusty clothes, trying to find things like electrical switches, bathroom shelves, and making a decision about kitchen cabinet knobs for much longer than any sane person would consider prudent. And I’ve been averaging about three hours of sleep a night. (I’m actually in bed for eight hours, but five of those hours are spent worrying about things.) Everything of mine is still piled up in boxes, including important tax documents (hello, April 15th..in just two weeks…), prescriptions that need refilling (hello, sanity…), and most importantly, a much-needed change of clothes.
I’d been invited to Monaco for the one hundredth anniversary of Martell’s Cordon Bleu cognac, which I had accepted, then wrote a message declining. But something in me prevented my twitching finger, which normally hovers over the “Delete” key, from hitting the “Send” button. And when I finally got to the point where I had to make an absolutely certain decision (with substantial prodding from Hélène), I hit that all-important delete key and instead confirmed that I would attend.
Someone recently asked me if people in Paris have started raising chickens in their backyard. I had to pause for a minute, and wanted to remind folks that Paris wasn’t Brooklyn, nor does anyone have – at least in my circles – a backyard in Paris. And if they did, they could afford a country house and would raise their chickens out there. But French people also don’t celebrate “the pig” with the same enthusiasm as the current craze in America, England, and other anglophone cultures.
There’s no overpraising meat, fat, or pork products; things like pâté, rosette (salami), saucisson sec, and even museau (head cheese) because in France, they’re all extremely common. Although things have changed a bit and nowadays, I would venture to say that many young folks would wrinkle their noses up at a plate of head cheese or tête de veau, and I was recently at a dinner party with a mix of French, Swiss, and Italian friends and everyone squirmed when the subject of consuming rabbit came up; I was the only one who said that I sometimes do eat it.
“Three weeks?! Is that all?” they laughed uproariously, as a response to my telling folks at a dinner party the other night about how much trouble I was having finding things like sinks, tiles, light fixtures, and so forth, for the renovations of my apartment. I literally spent weeks and weeks combing plumbing catalogs, scoping out a myriad of stores devoted to kitchen fixtures, and relying heavily on our friend, the internet, in search of a plain, large, white sink.
I don’t want swoops and swirls, (and I only have one more Ikea visit left in me, and I’m banking that for something really important) – I want a generous basin that’s large enough to hold a few pots and pans. And I’m not interested in a purple or green one. You wouldn’t think it would be all that hard – and neither did I – but after three solid weeks (and I mean, twenty-one days and twenty-one nights), I finally found one in France. The only problem? It was in Lille.
As I’ve shown many friends here, tout est possible, so we decided to make a day trip up to the city in the North, just a few hours from Paris, and while there, eat some of the local fare. Because things are so frantic right now — imagine if I took me three weeks to find a sink…then I really need to get cracking on a toilet, a towel bar, kitchen cabinet handles, a soap dish, and light bulbs — so I don’t have a huge amount of time.