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Where Are All The Cafés In Paris?

At a recent dinner party here in Paris, I asked a gentleman from New York City how he was enjoying his trip. He responded it was fine, but “I can’t find anywhere to get a coffee in Paris.”

There’s been perhaps 3 times in my life where I’ve been speechless, much to the consternation of anyone within earshot. And this is the first time this century.

How can anyone say there’s nowhere in Paris to drink coffee?
(I’ll forgo any mention of how the same guest began hacking the beautiful artisan cheeses, carefully selected and arranged on a platter, into little bits after the host set it down. “That’ll make things easier!” he proudly announced.)

I still have no idea what he was talking about.
Make what easier?

Anyhow…
Paris is a city filled with cafés.
In fact, the concept of the café was invented here in the 1600’s at the Le Procope in the Latin Quarter, unfortunately a sad victim of a hideaous remodel about a decade ago. Cafés flourished when struggling artists and writers like Hemingway and Picasso (and more recently, Lebovitz) would escape their freezing-cold apartments for cozy heated cafes.
People come to sip coffee, read, argue, and have a smoke. There’s a café on every corner, on every street, in every neighborhood. Because apartments are so small and Parisians are rather private, invitations to homes are rare. Instead people meet in cafés, and many consider them the living rooms of Parisians.

So I scoured the city in search of a café.
After 3 seconds I found one. Then another. And then another! Mon Dieu! These things are everywhere! Just in case you come to Paris and need to find one, this is what a café looks like:

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After giving it more thought (perhaps more than it deserved) I may have figured out what he was talking about. He wanted Starbucks. Ok, so that’s coffee.

They said it couldn’t happen here, but Starbucks has made it’s way to Paris, opening several outlets over the past year. The appeal of Starbucks in America is pretty easy to understand: Starbucks gave Americans permission to sit down for 20 minutes, have a decent cup of coffee, read the Times, and use a bathroom (although unless you’re rather acrobatic, not all at the same time). This concept has been embraced by Americans as neighborhood diners morphed into fast-food outlets in cities and towns, erasing local culture and communities. But do Europeans know what to do when confronted with a giant 20-ounce coffee in a paper cup, ‘les brownies’, and vente-mocha-soy-low-fat-chai lattés?

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Here’s the list of beverages explained for the French clientele. It’s a bit hazy, since the people working in the shop were eyeing me suspiciously, (perhaps with even less comprehension than most French people eye me.)

When I travel to other places, I look forward to experiencing other cultures, and “doing as the locals do”. Living in France has taught me that attempting to “fit in” means learning the language (the verbs are killing me), dressing up (I changed out of sweatpants to take my garbage out last sunday in case I ran into any neighbors), buying my cheese in one shop and my wine in another and my butter in another…and my vegetables in yet another. But in between it all, I take the time to enjoy a coffee in real cafés, one of the pleasures of living in Paris.

But just in case I run into anyone looking for a coffee, I finally found just the place to send them to…

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Note: I’m off to Italy this week to lead a Chocolate Tour from Piemonte to Tuscany. I’ll have lots of pictures and stories when I get back. I hope to post some entries from the road as well.

French Food Stamps

The other day I was waiting on line at La Poste (emphasis on the word ‘waiting’…), I happened to notice a new series of stamps on sale. Of course, I wanted to take a picture right then and there, but I figured everyone would think that was goofy, so I bought a set to show you:

stamps1.jpg

I love these. Stamp dedicated to cane sugar, Cantal cheese and ‘la bouillabaisse’.

And people ask me why I live in France.

The Return Of Salted Butter

Forget everything you’ve been told about salted butter.

Ok.
There, I hope that was easy.

(Now forget my last column.)

I’ve recently reconverted to salted butter.
Most recipe-writers like myself call for unsalted butter because it’s easier to gauge how much salt will be used in the recipe and everyone seems to be on an exactitude kick when baking. Lighten up, home cooks. If people followed traffic rules with the same methodical precision they followed recipes we’d all be a lot safer.

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Kouign Amann took me a few years to learn to pronounce (although I tried to describe this to a French person) it’s pronounced like “shwing” from Wayne’s World, which lost something for better or worse in the translation. It’s perhaps the best known dessert of this region. Driving through villages and cities, you’ll find them piled high in the window of bakeries. Layers of flaky pastry cooked with obscene amounts of salted butter and sugar. When cooked right, the combination of melt-away pastry and salty caramel is unbelievable.

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However since I wrote the last column on getting larger, I figured I’d better hold back on further descriptions of Kouign Amann and switch to gâteaux Bretons and palets Bretons. Both are basically buttery shortcakes with that lip-coating-just-near-the-ocean saltiness that cuts the richness of the butter.

Palets Bretons are small, cake-like confections (shown piled above) that have the consistency of rich cornbread with the exact blend of tender-toughness that Clint Eastwood is beginning to aspire to. Gâteaux Bretons are larger cakes made of rich better, poured into a cake mold, scraped with a fork, then baked until golden brown. When done right it’s perhaps the most delicious thing in the universe. The picture that you see here means that a lot of people will get to experience that delicious-ness themselves.

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My favorite place for palets Bretons is C. Ferchaux on the rue Général de Gaulle in Ploubazlanec (Bretons have a different language, and many of the names and places are full of “z’s”. You should have heard me trying to give directions.) I practically died walking in the bakery. The overwhelming smell of butter was greater than that of a butter farm I once visited. On the countertop was a big pot of rice pudding that the woman informed me gets cooked in the oven alongside the bread for 4 hours. I took a picture, but it would take a better food stylist than me to get rich pudding to look unctuous in a photo, so I skipped it in favor of the cakes.

Why French Women (and Men) Do Get Fat

Just about everyone coming to Paris asks me if I’ve read “Why French Women Don’t Get Fat” by Mireille Guiliano.
No, I haven’t read it, and I’m kind of sick of hearing about it, because many of the answers just seem all too obvious. Especially one of the reasons; it’s because they smoke.

Is the alarming rise in American obesity aligned to the fact that about 20 or so years ago, people in America began to quit smoking? If you’ve been to Europe, you realize lots of people still smoke. (And I’m not sure any government wants too many to quit smoking, due to the huge taxes on cigarettes.)

But to say that there’s something that the French women know that American women don’t is rather silly. In America, people drive just about everywhere. Think when was the last time you walked to the store to buy groceries (and lugged them home?) And think about the staggering array of candies and fast-food available in ‘drugstores’ in America. And just how many calories are in that jumbo smoothie? (Answer: About 50% of your daily requirement.)

But for some reason, I wonder why Americans think there is some magic reason for the French being so slim? True in cities worldwide (and in American cities as well) many are preoccupied with appearances. But in America, the question remains why diet books are so popular, gyms are everywhere, and none of us are getting any slimmer. I loved the look on a friend’s face here in Paris when I told her that people get up at 5am in America to work out at the gym.

So here are some observations why French women, and men, are (sometimes) in better shape than their American counterparts:

1. There is more of an emphasis on quality, not quantity. Unlike in American, in France, fast-foods and soda are very expensive while fresh foods and wine tend to be cheaper. It’s expensive to eat healthy in America.

2. Meals are much lighter; there is often only one large meal per day. Many French people will have soup or a salad for a meal, unless dining in a restaurant.

3. People walk a lot. Even if you take the métro, there’s plenty of stairs to contend with. For example, these are the stairs to my apartment. Imagine lugging 4 bottles of wine, 6 liters of Badoit water, and 10 kilos of flour up there!

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(Ok, those aren’t really my front stairs…)

But just imagine how much more exercise you’d be getting if you walked to the gym (to use the treadmill) or walked to work (to sit behind a desk all day.) Still, it does add up.

4. Quantities are smaller. I’ve seen French people cutting up a single chicken wing with surgical precision, taking all the time in the world.
And consider a container of yogurt. French yogurt is about 4 ounces, half the size of their American counterparts. And for the most part, French people eat whole-milk yogurt ‘nature’, with no sugar added. Portions in America are huge.

5. There simply isn’t the culture of ‘always eating’ in France. I recently read an article about fast-food restaurants inventing new things for Americans to eat while driving. Are we all that busy? Cookbook author Marion Cunningham once said to me, “Everyone’s always telling me that they’re so busy..but I’d like to know what’s everyone so busy doing?”

6. And finally, people are not all the same size. Thankfully, most women don’t resemble Paris Hilton (scary!) or Anna Nicole-Smith (scarier!) Still, even in France, there’s more and more people that could perhaps walk a bit more, and consume a bit less.

I’m often asked how I manage to stay in shape eating all the fabulous foods around me. Well, for the most part, when I indulge in a croissant, for example, I’ll eat the best croissant I know of (the ones at Au Levain du Marais at 28, blvd Beaumarchais near the Bastille come to mind.) If I want chocolate, I don’t bother with a big, rich chocolate dessert. I’ll eat a few squares of the very best, most bittersweet chocolate I know of.

Ok, off for a walk to Berthillon for ice cream…

Welcome to my web site, DavidLebovitz.com

It’s finally up, my new blog. (Actually I’ve been blogging before it was cool, beginning in ’99) but new software is making this much easier, or so I’ve been told.

We’ve been working months on getting things ready with a vivid new design.

You’ll find lots of new postings, sometimes daily, mostly about things I’m finding to eat, recipes, places I visit, and more.

There’s also a place for readers to post comments, which I read and respond to.

Please be patient with this site for the next few weeks as I learn how to post text and pictures (it’s ain’t as easy as making brownies…)

There may be typos, misspellings, accents missing, and general chaos, but once I get things up and running smoothly, you’ll want to visit often.

Thanks, and ‘a bientôt’

David

DavidLebovitz.com 1999-2005


October 1999