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I’ve been wondering lately why I live here.
Winter is freezing cold. You can barely go stay outside for more than a few minutes without the icy blasts (which sound good now) sending you back indoors, to get under the covers, snuggly with a steaming cup of hot chocolate.
Then we have spring.
Which this year lasted 4 days.
Then summer comes, and Paris melts down. You can see it on every face of everyone in the city. From people waiting for the bus, straining to stand in a tiny sliver of shade, to the women fanning themselves furiously on the buses and métro, everyone here is hotter than heck. Yesterday I went to the movies just to get cool, but unfortunately the film (The Squid & The Whale) was a measly 1 hour long. Who makes a 1 hour movie? I was tempted to stay and see it again just to bask in the coolness of the cinema but it was hard to stay awake the first time around.
Anything to escape my rooftop apartment, just under a zinc roof, which yesterday was104 degrees F. A few friends of mine have similar rooftop apartments, and I decided that no one’s allowed to complain to us how hot they are, since we’re invariably 10 degrees hotter than they are. So there.
But this time of year, visitors start coming to Paris in droves. I don’t know why so many people choose to come to Paris in the summer, but everyone’s surprised when I tell them that many of the shops are closed and it’s really hot. And I’m leaving.
But come, they do.
So if you are planning to come to Paris in the next month or so, here are some tips to keep in mind:
1. Drink rosé.
For some reason, Americans are reluctant to drink rosé, which is inexpensive and delightfully served icy-cold. Rosé in France, for the most part, is dry and very drinkable. And it goes down very well in the summer, speaking from recent experience. Order it by the carafe since there’s little difference between that and what comes in the more expensive bottles.
You’ll be drinking it so fast that it doesn’t really matter.
2. Never order anything they call ‘iced coffee’ or ‘iced tea’.
It’s invariably very, very sweet. If you order iced coffee, no matter what you’re thinking it’s going to be, stop before you do. No matter how tempting it sounds to you, just stop.
If you order something called ‘iced coffee’, you’ll be served a very small amount of dark liquid (very sweet) in a large glass, with a straw, and it will be really sweet. And expensive.
Iced tea is inevitably from a can. And flavored.
And very sweet as well.
(Disclaimer: Yes, that was me you saw on the Boulevard St. Michel at, gasp, Starbucks drinking a Frappucino. It was so hot, we had no choice. But I have a question: Is there any coffee in those things? You’d think if they’re gonna charge 4.50€, about $5.50, they would at least taste the slightest bit like coffee. Would it kill them to toss in an extra espresso without charging extra for it?)
3. There is no ice.
You may get a cube or two in your drink, but French people don’t use lots of ice and few places have those jumbo ice machines like in America. When I worked in restaurants in the US, the worst thing that could happen was when the ice machine broke. People freaked. I mean, they really freaked. It was like they couldn’t deal with drinking room-temperature water. And now, some places in America are charging extra if you don’t want ice. It’s like there’s this vast conspiracy to get you to use lots of ice or something in America. Perhaps someone’s putting something in the ice?
(Because whenever I request “No ice” in the US, the waiter gives me this funny look, and I can see him thinking, “Oh great. Why do I get all the ass#%$les in my section?”)
Speaking of drinking: You’ll notice that it’s customary not to fill wine or water glasses to-the-brim full. In France, glasses are generally filled half-full. And in some places or in homes you’re expected to use the same glass for both wine and water, so if you fill it too full with wine, you gotta finish all of it before you get any water.
And vice versa.
4. Don’t expect air-conditioning.
Or I should say, very little is air-conditioned, especially like the icy-cold turbo-blasts experienced in the US. Electricity is very expensive in France. That, coupled with a general dislike of cool breezes (or open windows…or any kind of ventilation in general) but it can get uncomfortably and unbearably hot and people will sit in restaurants and apartments with the windows firmly closed.
That includes the métro, which can be downright intolerable in the summer. Especially when it’s jammed full and your face is directly in some dudes hairy armpit who forgot to take his weekly shower. but you can’t move. Most of the buses aren’t air-conditioned (except I got on the #63 recently, and it was un peu de paradis), nor is the RER from the airport, which is downright miserable in the summer and you should avoid it. Spring for a cab or a shuttle.
5. Spring for some decent sandals.
Parisians do wear sandals and flip-flips (les thongs, except you don’t pronounce the ‘h’) but in general they wear rather sporty ones. If you want to wear rubber flip flops, stop at Pay-Less and get pair that doesn’t look skanky.
(And while you’re at it, make sure your feet look decent. Like mine do.)
5a: Don’t ever wear dark socks with sandals.
5b: Don’t ever wear dark knee socks with sandals.
5c: Don’t wear socks with sandals, period.
And remember, you can only wear two of the following at the same time: sandals, shorts, or a tank top. Never all three (if you do, then it’s obligatory to add a fanny pack and carry a Rick Steve’s guidebook.)
6. Spring for some nice shorts.
Parisians do wear shorts, in spite of what you hear, but do not wear them if you’re planning to go into sophisticated places or nice shops.
Do not wear your ultra-short shorts, or anything that looks like something Mariah Carey would wear…unless you’re trolling for les clients on the rue St. Denis.
(And men: If you’re planning on doing any shoe shopping during les soldes, please remember to wear undershorts. A friend of mine was a shoe salesperson and was always amazed how few men didn’t wear undies and whenever she looked up to ask about the fit, she was greeted with an eyeful.)
7. Take time to relax.
I’ve seen too many people coming to Paris who want to take in six museums in one day, rush from place to place with a rigid schedule, and generally make themselves and their friends crazy. You’ll notice that Parisians sit in cafés for lo-o-o-ong periods of time, thinking, reading, or doing absolutely nothing. It’s a skill I’ve finally mastered.
Just sit around and watch the world go by. Remember that citron pressée that you paid 6€ for? It’s for the privilege of doing just that. And it’s hot, so just relax. Or go to the movies. Paris is a great movie city. And most cinemas are air-conditioned.
8. Get out of the Left Bank.
While there’s lots of interesting things to do in Paris; fabulous chocolate shops, great bakeries, and shopping galore, there’s other neighborhoods in Paris worth exploring besides the Boulevard St. Germain-des-Pres.
Have you been to Belleville and Boulangerie 140 at Place Jourdain?
What about the Canal St. Martin for a stroll in the evening?
9. Parisians eat much later in the summer.
The sun doesn’t go down until around 11pm, so things happen later. No one will be eating dinner at 7 or 7:30pm, and many restaurants won’t even be open before that.
So plan accordingly.
If you want a seat outside (en terrasse, make sure to specify that when you reserve, as they’re the first to go. Otherwise, if you want a seat near the window, those go second and it’s best to show up earlier in the evening rather than later.
And if you’re staying in a hotel in a popular neighborhood, and need to keep the windows open, bring ear plugs to block out noisy Brits getting pissed or the Aussies and their birds drinking cans of 1664 under your window.
10. Prepare for les vacances.
Realize that lots of places close for a month, mostly in August but starting in mid-July. It’s said that Americans “live to work” and Europeans “work to live”, which is rather true, and they are outta here.
The upside is that you’ll have Paris much to yourselves and it’s very pleasant and uncrowded. But expect many, many places to be closed.
Any other tips?
Paris is always full of little surprises, like any major city. It’s always fun to poke around and find something new and unusual. And there’s plenty of the unusual in a big city like Paris, as I often report. I think of Paris as a big village, full of colorful characters with lots of stories to tell and unusual offerings. And getting the know the people in your neighborhood, especially the vendors selling fine foods and drink, can be especially rewarding since often if you stay for a while and talk to them, there’s always something fascinating to learn.And, of course, taste!
I’ve been meaning to take you to visit one on my favorite shops in Paris for quite a while: Vert d’Absinthe. This little shop is located in the Marais, but a bit removed from the busy tourist streets, just off the Place St. Catherine. Owner Luc-Santiago Rodriguez tells me his shop was the first boutique anywhere dedicated just for the purpose of selling absinthe, that wickedly suspicious elixir that’s recently been getting a lot of attention lately.
Although the drink was originally produced as a cure-all medical tonic in 1792, Absinthe became a rather popular drink amongst Parisians in the late 1800’s, mainly with hedonists living in Montmarte who would sip it in cafés and clubs, like Le Moulin Rouge, before it was ultimately banned by the French government in 1915.
Although experts are as unclear as a cloudy glass of absinthe on exactly why it was banned, the most colorful theory was that people went mad drinking absinthe due to the rotten wormwood used to make the drink. It was dubbed le fé’e verte or ‘the green fairy’, since it was said to inspire hallucinations as well.
(Absinthe was banned in the US in 1912, and so far, it’s still technically illegal to import into the US.)
But nowadays, most people, including Luc-Santiago, agree that the powerful French wine industry at the time was upset that people, especially the artsy bohemians who lived in the north of Paris, were drinking cheap, hi-test absinthe (at 70% alcohol) instead of pricey wine (around 12% alcohol), in an attempt to get a better buzz for their buck. Since the French wine industry had suffered a severe set-back from the phylloxera infestation which killed most of the grapevines in France, the price of wine had gone up enormously. So it’s thought that the wine industry pressured the French government to put the kabosh on absinthe production.
And that was that.
In 1988 absinthe made a comeback and the French government once again made it legal to sell and drink the anise-scented exilir, absinthe attaining a bit of a cult status in the process. With all the ceremony of pouring something previously forbidden in a fancy glass, pouring water over a sugar cube to make it cloudy (called louching), then slowly sipping it while staring into space in a deserted café…how could anyone not be entranced by the romance of absinthe?
If you come to France and want to try or purchase absinthe, be aware that not all drinks that look and sound like absinthe are indeed absinthe. You’ll come across ‘absente’ (missing the ‘h’), which has a bleary picture of Van Gogh on the packaging (it was said he went mad drinking absinthe and cut off his ear because of it, which to me is a rather iffy marketing move), but these impostors use a wormwood that’s different than the variety of wormwood (artemisia absinthium) used in true absinthe.
The wormwood used to make true absinthe contains thujone, the most important compound in real absinthe.
Anyone interested in absinthe should make the trip to visit Luc-Santiago’s little shop Vert d’Absinthe, where 25 different kinds of absinthe are stocked. All are French except for one, which is made in Switzerland, and most of the French absinthe varieties are made near the Swiss border. Monsieur Rodriguez stocks all the proper paraphernalia for properly preparing and drinking a glass of absinthe, from vintage to contemporary; spoons, glasses, fontaines, and, of course, the bottles themselves.
And perhaps you’ll get a demonstration and a taste-test. Although drinking absinthe French-style means louching the drink by pouring water over a sugar cube through the special spoon before it clouds up the absinthe, the more flamboyant Czech-style method involves lighting the cube of sugar dramatically on fire, which I’ve yet to see him do.
11 rue d’Ormesson
Tél: 01 42 71 69 73
Open daily, from 11am to 8pm (closed Monday)
A few unusual places for absinthe in, or near, Paris:
-Hotel Royal Fromentin (11 rue Fromentin, Paris, tel. 01 42 81 02 33) serves absinthe at their historic bar, a former cabaret at the foot of Montmartre.
-Musée de l’Absinthe (44 rue Alphonse Calle, 95430 Auvers-sur-Oise, tel. 01 30 36 83 26, about fifteen minutes outside Paris) is open on the weekends and holidays and sports all sorts of memorabilia and paraphernalia from absinthe’s heyday. Take the train from the Gare du Nord.
-Cantada is a heavy metal bar, and one of the few bars in Paris to serve a wide selection of absinthe.
-La Fée Verte (108, rue de la Roquette), is a neighborhood café with absinthe on offer.
This sad news arrived in my inbox this morning:
The Pillsbury Doughboy died yesterday of a yeast infection and trauma from complications from repeated pokes in the belly. He was 71.
Doughboy was buried in a lightly-greased coffin. Dozens of celebrities in the food community turned out to pay their respects, including Mrs. Butterworth, Hungry Jack, the California Raisins, Betty Crocker, the Hostess Twinkies, and Captain Crunch.
The grave site was piled high with flours.
Aunt Jemimah delivered the eulogy and lovingly described Doughboy as a man who never knew how much he was kneaded. Doughboy rose quickly in show business, but his later life was filled with turnovers. He was not considered a very smart cookie, wasting much of his dough on half-baked schemes. Despite being a little flaky at times he still was a crusty old man and was considered a positive roll model for millions.
Doughboy is survived by his wife, Play Dough, two children, John Dough and Jane Dough, plus they had one in the oven.
He is also survived by his father, Pop Tart.
A funeral was held at 3:30 for about 20 minutes, or until done.
I recently attended a dinner here in Paris, at a well-known hotel, where the first course was Caesar Salad.
That was the Caesar Salad.
Yes, it has lettuce.
And anchovies (speared around skewers).
But, like, what is with those batter-fried Chinese shrimp?
Who gave the ok to put batter-fried shrimp on a Caesar Salad?
Mon Deui, what is so friggin’ hard about making American food?
Take Caesar Salad, for example. It’s simply torn leaves of Romain lettuce with a mustardy dressing seasoned with anchovies and a touch of worcestershire sauce. All balanced so no ingredient dominates the other. A handful of croûtons get tossed in, some Parmesan grated over the top, and voila!
That, ladies and gentleman, is a Caesar Salad.
Will someone please explain how hard that is to me?
Unlike French food, American food has few fancy sauces and is really pretty straightforward. While admittedly a lot of American food isn’t spectacular, I fail to understand why it’s so impossible to replicate. I’ve had the best cassoulet of my life in Berkeley, amazing Lebanese food in Mexico, marvelous French desserts in Tokyo, superb Moroccan food in France, and terrific Japanese food in Hawaii. So why is it so hard to make American food anywhere else but in America?
While I didn’t move to Paris expecting hamburgers and pizza, I fail to understand what possesses any rational person to spoon canned corn over a pizza. (Why would a country that shuns corn on the cob embrace its frozen kernel-y counterpart?)
Who the heck gave anyone permission to top a hamburger (or pizza) with a runny fried egg?
And if I get one more Salade Niçoise with a big scoop of white rice on top, I’m going to drag the chef down to Nice, force him to stand in the center of town holding their Salade Niçoise avec du riz in hand, and invite the townsfolk for a look-see.
And stand back.
It’s like those insane people, worldwide, that put cream in their pesto sauce.
For the love of humanity: Please stop!
Thanks. I feel better now.
Like many things in French, there can be several names for the same thing. Chicken breasts can be blanc de poulet, suprême de poulet, or poitrine de poulet. And there are 7 different ways to say “because of” (a cause de, grace a, car, parce que, etc…) When people ask me how long it took to learn French, I tell them that even the French don’t know how to speak French! They’re always learning more, consulting their dictionaries and checking their verb guides. Some French business people actually go back to school to improve their language skills. (Hmm, on second thought, I can think of a few Americans who could use a couple of language lessons too.)
Griottes, for example, are sour cherries. Yet there’s also Montmorency which are slightly smaller cherries, but can’t they just call them all sour cherries for bakers who are trying to learn the language?
So I bought a nice little sack of them to make Adam’s Sour Cherry Frozen Yogurt. If you’re lucky enough to live somewhere that sour cherries are available, I suggest you take advantage of them. They don’t last very long and should be used within a day of purchase. Most of the time, they’ll look kinda funky, somewhat dinged up, and a bit dark, which is normal and since most Americans stopped making fresh sour cherry pie (and the French don’t make pies), they can be hard to find.
Many year ago, trying to figure out what to do with the surplus, an enterprising man from a company called American Spoon Foods decided to dry the excess, hence the proliferation of dried sour cherries. I bring hoards back to Paris when I return to the states. We’re just beginning to see them here, but they’re pricey. My French friends love ‘em and I use them for special occasions. If you ever want to bring a gift to a French friend, or to me, I recommend dried sour cherries.
I also like caramel corn (thanks M.N.!)
Life doesn’t get any better than this. Look at all that salt! Every pore of this hunk of butter is oozing salt. To those of us who’ve been trained to use only unsalted butter, we forget how much better salted butter tastes. A chocolatier friend who just visited New York City to meet with investors who wanted him to open a chocolate shop, came back to Paris and told me he didn’t know if he could do it since the butter was so lame.
This is called beurre salé, and whenever I see those big streaks of Breton salt embedded in a mound at a fromagerie, I always end up taking a slab home. The smell is incredible. I can only describe it as similar to the smell that comes from when you melt butter on the stovetop, and there’s that lovely sweet-cream, dewy scent.
I can’t wait for breakfast tomorrow! In fact, maybe I’ll dig in right now.
I used to make my own tapenade, thinking that my own…um, well…something doesn’t stink. That my homemade tapenade was always better. But I’ve been buying mine from a great olive vendor and it’s excellent. I eat it simply spread on bread, like a baguette tradition from Eric Kayser, a favorite bakery of mine.
Brugnons look like white nectarines, but are considered a cross between a nectarine and a peach, which originated in France. There seems to be a lot of conflicting information about how they were hybridized, but I’ll leave that up to other foodies to argue. All I know if that they sure are good. They taste like a full-flavored white nectarine but are more complex and not as sweet, with a rather nectar-like taste.
Arbequina Olive Oil
I’m gonna channel Rachel Ray and say… yum! (sorry). I was visiting one of my favorite huileries in Paris (Allicante at 26 Blvd Beaumarchais), and tasting a few of the new olive oils that she just received. This Arbequina olive oil from Spain was sensational; super-fruity, buttery, aromatic…everything a guy could want in an olive oil.
So yesterday I made a salad of tomatoes, roquette, flat-leaf parsley, and ricotta salatta that I got from the Italian épicerie, which my French friends had never tasted. If you’ve never had it, it’s a dried sheep’s-milk cheese similar to feta, but without all the salt and milder. I love it in the summer and crumble it recklessly over pastas and salads. Or bake tiny fingerling-like potatoes in it. I can’t wait to play around with my new oil.
Although people seem to associate French with haricots verts, I can’t resist their paler, and sometimes more curious, cousins.