Forget Catherine Deneuve and Carole Bouquet.
The most photographed and revered woman in Paris is Denise Acabo. With her braided pig-tails, necktie, and crisply-pleated kilt, Denise is the sweetest woman in Paris.
Her shop, A l’Etoile d’Or, has an ethereal selection of artisan confections and chocolates from France and whenever I go, I invariably find something new to try, something tasty, something that is so amazing, that I’m compelled to go back for more. What’s a guy to do?
I give myself at least one hour to shop. Minimum. Words fly out of her mouth in rapid-fire French. She’ll often use the tu word, instead of the formal vous, which suggests immediately comradery.
Don’t understand a word of French?
That’s ok, Just nod. She’ll keep going.
…I-T-A, that’s BRITA™!
It lurks in my kitchen, waiting…and waiting. It thirsts for the precious fluid of life. And it will stop at nothing to get it.
It is voracious.
It is unstoppable.
And it doesn’t care who gets in its way.
I can’t leave it alone.
The water level drops, it needs to be filled. It craves it. Seeking completion. It hungers to be satiated. Quickly. I am its slave. What would happen if the filter dried out? There’s dire consequences, too horrible to mention. But there they are, the warnings, buried deep within the paperwork.
But what if I ignore it…it…I can’t, it sits there, mocking. Waiting for me to forget its presence. It’s ghastly presence.
Someday it will make its move. I know it. I sense it.
Do I dare bring bottled water into my house? My first step towards independence.
No. I mustn’t upset it. I mustn’t.
What’s that? No really, I wasn’t thinking about getting rid of you, no, heh-heh, just kidding…really.
I spend my waking hours thinking about it, plotting, making sure to keep it content, brim full with water. I mustn’t upset it. I don’t sleep without making sure it’s full. I won’t leave without checking the water tank. Should I take it with me if I leave? If I leave it behind, I’ll come home to…to…to what? What awaits me if I do?
I’m a prisoner of a water filtration system…
Everyone over here is getting a chuckle over the Oprah vs. Hermès flap.
There seems be a lot of back-and-forth about what happened and who-said-what when Oprah wasn’t allowed into Hermès to buy a watch for her pal Tina Turner (I had the same problem with her as well. Tina is so particular about which brand of watch she’ll wear.)
The kinds folks at Hermès treated Oprah like they would treat anyone who tried to come into the shop –15 minutes after the store had closed.
In France, Closed means Closed. Just like the doors on the Métro. If you’re not in the Métro and the doors are closing, they ain’t holding ‘em open for you. It’s in or out. And if you’re stuck between them…ouch! (Trust me, those doors are strong.)
Hermès didn’t do anything unusual. Why should she get special treatment or an apology? Get over yourself, girlfriend. I had to when I got here. It ain’t all about the customer. She needs to wait until opening hours for a $13,000 Birkin bag just like the rest of us have to.
But don’t get me wrong, I feel the same way about Oprah that Tom feels about Katie. (Truly!…and I don’t even have a movie to promote, but someday I may, so I’d better be nice now just in case.) She is so hip and ‘right-on’ about everything and gives away new cars and cool stuff (and now has fabulous abs on top of everything else, damn her, is there anything she doesn’t have?) But has anyone called her to the mat for promoting junk-food in her magazine while preaching a weight-loss program and doling out “feel-good” lifestyle tips?
“Do not spend another summer fat! Get Oprah’s weight loss secrets and favorite snacks. Beat your chocolate cravings! Get the plan for fab abs. Plus, your questions answered. Portion sizes? Low carb? Low fat? If you need to lose weight, this is the show for you!”
Glancing through her magazine, (and no, I didn’t buy it…someone left me a copy. Honest. Although I did enjoy the articles, “Are You Too PC?” and “This Month, It’s You Time!”…which was helpful, since I was wondering when things were going to get around to being “My” time.)
But I was rather surprised to see who advertised within…
Honey Clusters breakfast cereal, Coke, Fanta and Sprite,
Hi-C, some icky-looking Honey Snack Bars, McDonald’s Egg McMuffins, bottled salad dressing, Keebler Fruit Delights cookies, Quaker Oats Breakfast Squares, Teddy Grahams Cubs “Fun Packs”, Kraft Cheese Nips “Sport Crisps”, Taco Rice mix, Country Crock Microwavable mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese, Jose Cuervo Margarita Minis, and Jell-O Sundae Toppers.
I can’t figure out which of these promotes weight loss…
And can anyone tell me what the heck a ‘sport crisp’ is?
In summertime, I follow Parisians who’re making a mass exodus from the city. We scurry from the city, jamming crowded autoroutes and packing the train stations. The city offers few trees or shade, and the sunlight reflecting off the white buildings means little respite from the withering heat no matter how hard you look-and there’s only so much icy-cold rosé that I can drink!
So I often make weekend trips to the village of Coulommiers, where there’s a lively outdoor market selling the most famous cheese in the world: Brie.
Brie is not a town, but a region to the east about one hour away by car or train. The sunday market in Coulommiers is one of my favorites because no where else in the world will you find so many cheese vendors selling all kinds of Brie, many unavailable anywhere else.
There are two true Brie cheeses. The classic is Brie de Meaux (Bree-du-Mohw), about 14-inches across, each disk weighing approximately 5 pounds. Brie de Melun (Brie-du-Meh-Lahn) is slightly smaller, a tad higher, and doesn’t ripen all the way to make a creamy pâte, like Brie de Meaux. Often you’ll cut open Brie de Melun and discover a drier layer of underripe cheese in the middle (at left). These cheeses have the most superb flavor in the late spring-to-early summer, when the cows feast on mustard blossoms, giving the cheese a musty, complex flavor and slight golden tinge.
Brie de Melun is aged longer than Brie de Meaux. It has a firmer texture and many aficionados prefer it because of it’s stronger and more aggressive flavor. Both cheeses can be made with raw or pasteurized milk, although I prefer the raw versions, which are rarely available in the United States due to regulations in the US (where you’re allowed to drive at high-speeds on freeways while talking on a cell phone and drinking a giant latté, but prohibited from eating cheese that has been prepared the same way for centuries.)
These two Brie cheeses are AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) as of 1990, a product designation given by the French authorities, which states that these specific cheeses meet certain criterion for heating, coagulating, and salting the milk, the subsequent ripening, as well as being fabricated within the specific region. Most cheeses you’ll find labeled Brie are not a true Brie unless the AOC label is affixed to the exterior. In the US, you’ll only find it at a specialty cheese store…if you’re lucky to find it at all. In France, a notable exception is Brie de Nangis, which is a young, milder Brie from the region but does not carry the AOC label, but it’s good. The AOC designation has also been given to 34 cheeses as well as other products like the tasty green lentils from Puy, Haricot Tarbais (the dried beans used to make cassoulet), and the free-range Poulet de Bresse.
Although AOC is often a sign of quality, other products don’t carry the appellation, since they may be made in a neighboring region, or a slightly larger size, or stirred a few more times than the regulations allow during production. So as with anything, let your nose and the taste be your guide. No matter where you live, always seek out a good cheese shop and ask the fromager for advice: they’re a wealth of knowledge and should be proud of their cheeses and happy to help you.
Coulommiers is another excellent cheese from the region, and not AOC. It’s a smaller round, about 6-inches in diameter, and not widely known outside of France. Coulommiers has the same barnyard-like smell that is delectably appetizing in Camembert and indicative of a truly ripe Brie, but is a bit more pungent.
Locals in Brie are perhaps the only ones who have developed an appreciation for Brie Noir. Normally Brie cheeses are ripened for between one and two months. Brie Noir is ripened much longer, often 8 to 10 months. It’s such a regional specialty, and only appreciated by people of the region, that you’re likely never to see it anywhere else.
As you can see, Brie Noir is dark, brown, and crumbly. It’s covered with dusty powder and it tastes, well…horrid. After my first eaglerly-anticipated bite, I could not get the vile taste out of my mouth. It’s bitter and acidic. A friend from Coulommiers suggested I dip it into my café au lait at breakfast, which I suspiciously tried, which actually moderated the flavor and made it more palatable. Who knew?
Brie Q & A’s
But my supermarket cheese says Brie…isn’t that Brie?
Real Brie is almost always Brie de Melun or Brie de Meaux. Most of the other cheeses labeled ‘Brie’ are not true Brie. They often won’t ripen properly and taste worlds apart from real Brie.
Should you eat the rind?
The general rule for eating the rind of any cheese is that you may eat it as long as it won’t interfere with the taste or experience of the cheese. For example, something with a lot of mold growth obviously wouldn’t taste very good. A tough rind, like the rind of Parmesan, you wouldn’t want to eat either.
How do I cut Brie?
Think of any round wheel of cheese like a pie or cake. You should slice a triangular wedge out, so that you have a nice portion of cheese.
When presented with a full cheese plate to serve yourself, never cut the ‘nose’ off the cheese, the pointy end: It’s very bad manners!
Can I bring back raw milk cheese into the US?
That depends. Most of the time, I’ve found Customs Officers (oops…I mean ‘Department of Homeland Security’) officers will look the other way as long as you’re bringing in cheese that’s for personal consumption. Obviously if you have 60 wheels of Brie, you will likely get busted. Many fromageries in France will Cryo-vac (sous vide) cheese for transport to contain the fragrance, which I recommend. I once traveled with cheese in zip-top bags and by the end of the flight, the overhead bin totally reeked of cheese.
Luckily the other passengers were French…and for some reason, the US officials quickly waved me through customs.
10 Reasons The Amateur Gourmet Should Come to Paris…
1. They have no idea who Bobby Flay is.
2. The have no idea who Rachel Ray is.
3. They know who Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes are, but don’t care.
4. Scientology is illegal.
5. Since they wouldn’t let Oprah into Hermès, there’s an unclaimed Birkin bag for Adam’s mom.
6. They know who Oprah is, but don’t care.
7. Yes, figs are really in season here.
8. “Brangelina” and “Bennifer” are not in the French vocabulary.
9. Richard Quest has been ‘on assignment’ for a suspiciously long time.
10. We need some New Yorkers here to show Parisians that you can’t just walk right into people and expect not to get slugged.
11. Carrie Bradshaw left.
I’m in heaven with all the sensational fruits that explode at the markets every summer. Each shopping trip, I invariably lug back with way too much fruit. But everything looks so good I can’t resist; rosy nectarines, blushing apricots, and crisp, dark cherries.
So to help you choose the best summer fruits, here’s some shopping tips. Best bets are often at Farmer’s Markets, where the growers take primo care of what they’re selling and often they encourage sampling before you buy.
The most popular sweet cherry varieties are deep-dark red and plump, with moist, perky stems. Bing cherries are reliably excellent. Although some varieties, like Queen Anne and Rainier, are light red and yellow-colored, they have a more delicate taste, which some people prefer. Cherries should be washed, then stored in the refrigerator. Unlike most other fruits, cherries are more appealing when served very cold and crisp.
Avoid cherries that are wrinkled, which means they were picked a while ago. Split apart cherries means they got wet while growing and will mold quickly.
When buying berries that are packed in plastic or cardboard containers, peek underneath: moisture on the bottom indicates the berries below are soggy or moldy.
Strawberries should be uniformly red with no green at the tips or at the stem. (Did you know the cluster of seeds concentrated at the tip is referred to as a ‘cats nose’?)
Strawberries should have a sweet smell. Some berries have been hybridized to be red on the outside, but disappointingly underripe within, so color’s not always an accurate indication. Avoid buying commercial strawberries after rainy weather: since they grow near the earth, they’re often sprayed with a rather nasty chemical to prevent mold. Look for organic strawberries instead.
If you’re not going to eat strawberries the same day, store them on a plate in the refrigerator, in a single-layer, so they don’t mush each other down.
Raspberries, blueberries, and other bushberries should be plump and dry. Blackberries should be inky-black and a bit soft, never rock-hard. There’s nothing worse than a sour blackberry.
Blueberries should be firm. Most have no fragrance. Did you know that each blueberry can contain up to 100 seeds? If you don’t believe me, slice one open and count. I never wash any berries since they’re too fragile-except blueberries and strawberries.
Can you freeze fresh berries or pitted cherries? Yes. Lay the fruits out in an even layer on a non-reactive baking sheet (or line one with parchment paper.) Freeze. Once frozen, store in zip-top freezer bags. Frozen berries and cherries can be used for sauces, or added frozen mixed with other fruits for pies, crisps, and cobblers.
It’s been said that finding a good melon is like falling in love. Sometimes you have to try a lot of them to find the right one.
Judy Rodgers in The Zuni Cafe Cookbook insists that the best melons are the ones with lots of netting and claims not to have picked a bad one since learning that. I always take a good sniff. The most amazing melons I’ve tasted were melons that I could smell before I could see them.
Choose a melon that’s heavy and relatively firm, but not-rock hard (except for honeydew melons.) Any mold by the stem end or mushy spots are indications of it being over-the-hill.
A simple melon dessert can be made by pouring sweet wine, such as Muscat or Sauternes, over slices of melon and berries and chilling them well. Store melons in the refrigerator.
The best peaches have a sweet, perfumed aroma if you sniff the stem end. Peaches need to be picked a day before ripening, then ripened off the tree. Or better yet, the same day. If they’re too green, they were picked too soon and will never taste good. Ditto for nectarines. Find fruits that are mostly red and blushing.
If faced with a bin of underripe fruits, find one that’s rather soft and smell it. If it smells good, chances are the rest will be too, once ripe.
Neither of these fruits boast much aroma, but they make up for it with lots of flavor. Apricots should have an appealing blush and no green. Red-tinged apricots means they’ve received lots of sunlight and will likely be good. Apricots are best when they’re gushy-ripe. They should be very soft, like a water balloon. My favorite variety are the Royal and Blenheim apricots.
Most of the flavor in plums are in the skin, and they make the best jam, especially when mixed with raspberries. Santa Rosa and Elephant Heart plums are reliably good.
Baked apricots are a superb, easy dessert: simply halve ripe, but firm apricots, place face-down in a baking dish, pour in a wine glass of white wine (dry or sweet), and drizzle with a copious amount of honey (use more than you think, as apricots get quite tart when cooked.) You can add a split vanilla bean too. Bake until the apricots are tender and juicy.
Delicious with vanilla ice cream!