The Perfect (New) Macaron

One of the great places for lunch in Paris is Cuisine au Bar (8, rue du Cherche-Midi), which has been touted as the French version of the sushi bar. The servers are welcoming and generous, and the tartines (open-faced sandwiches) are the most inventive and marvelous in all of Paris. A dedicated friend of mine lunches there every day.

I met Pim for lunch, and we both ordered the same thing: the chicken sandwich, a toasted slice of Poilâne levain bread (the bakery’s just next door) moistened with homemade mayonnaise, slices of plump chicken, filets of anchovies and a scattering of capers, which kept rolling off. We both systematically added flecks of coarse sea salt, then consumed. Delicious. Pim, being far more polite than I am, ate her sandwich perfectly reasonably with a knife and fork. I wolfed my down, polishing it off in record time, licking my fingers afterward.

After braving La Poste together afterward, we parted, making plans for eating Thai food with other Paris bloggers in June. However after we parted, I noticed she made a beeline to the astonishing pastry shop of Pierre Hermé on the Rue Bonaparte. So a few days later, I returned as well, and tasted one of the most stunning pastries of my life, his Arabesque macaron, which Pim had rhapsodized over earlier in the week.

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Normally a classicist, I prefer my macarons with chocolate, coffee, or pistachio. But this was an amazing creation. Delicate, crackly pistachio-dusted meringue cookies flavored with apricot. The filling was a melange of apricot cream and caramelized nut praline. Each season, M. Hermé introduces new flavors of macarons, some successful (olive oil-vanilla, rose-lychee, and caramel-beurre-salé) and some less so (his white truffle and ketcup come to mind.) However Arabesque was perfection and I was sorry that I only bought one.

I will be going back tomorrow for another.

Pierre Hermé

72, rue Bonaparte (6th)

184, rue de Vaugirard (15th)

4, rue Cambon (1st)-macarons & chocolates only

58, avenue Paul Doumer (16th)-macarons and chocolates only

Related Links

Pierre Hermé’s Ketchup Macaron Recipe

Sweet and Stinky

French Chocolate Macaron Recipe

I Love Macarons!

Making French Macarons



Tuscan and Torino Treasures

Having returned from my trip to Italy, narrowly escaping the hairy fangs of the too-vigilant EasyJet luggage police, I returned with a suitcase full of great Italian foods: chocolates from Amadei, and Domori, coffee (and more chocolate) from Slitti, jars of bittersweet chestnut honey, 12-year old syrupy Balsamic vinegar, luscious sun-dried tomatoes, and of course, bottles of fruity Tuscan olive oil.

Fresh Dried-Pasta
I’ve seen a lot of noodles in my time, but stopping in Pastificio Defilippis (via Lagrange, #39, in Torino) I had to take a moment to collect myself. Lining the walls were every kind of dried pasta imaginable, all made right there on the premises. Members of my group made a beeline for the pasta al cioccolato, but for some reason they ignored the coiled-up stewed eels available for antipasti.

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Mesmerized, I found these two pastas irresistible. One I nicknamed ‘bellybutton pasta’, which I had to translate for the pasta maker by lifting up my shirt (“Boys Gone Wild: Torino!”), and the other is a whole-wheat pasta. If you haven’t had whole-wheat pasta, it’s great tossed with fresh or good-quality tinned tuna, pitted olives, sun-dried tomatoes, finely-shopped anchovies, fresh thyme leaves, topped with crumbled feta cheese.

Cocoa Beans
Is chocolate good for your health? There’s no easy answer for that (although a simple yes would do.) Some research proves that the antioxidants in chocolate have health benefits. Yet a chocolate-maker that I know says most of the antioxidants disappear during processing.
What I tell people is that any health benefits in chocolate are likely found in the cacao beans. Either way, it’s unlikely you’ll get any health benefits from, um, say, Chocolate Cheesecake. Skip the ‘cheesecake’ part and just go for the chocolate.

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These are cacao beans from Domori that I was blogging about earlier. They are the best beans I’ve tasted.

Lardo
(If you’re kosher, or vegetarian, skip this section….)
I don’t know what prompted me to try lardo in the first place. It’s pork fat, thinly sliced, and served on warm toast with a flint of rosemary leaves. But it’s one of those things that if you eat it once, you’re hooked and you will never, ever get over the craving for. We don’t get Food Network in Europe, but it seems every time I see it in America, Mario Batali is going on and on (and on) about lardo.
The name alone is a blatant indication that it’s probably not good for you. But imagine grilled Tuscan bread moistened with just-pressed olive oil, draped over it are soft, rich and buttery slices of lardo. MMmmmmm….

Here’s a photo so you can avoid a similar fate:

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Formenton Garfagnana
I love polenta. And it’s impossible to find in France. You have to make do with instant polenta which isn’t bad, if you like baby food. At a lunch in a villa near Lucca, the chef gifted me a sack of artisan polenta, called formenton garfagnana. When I asked him what made it different from polenta, he began getting very excited, explaining it in detail, in rapid-fire Italian. I didn’t have the heart to interrupt and let him know that I had know idea what he was talking about, so I kept nodding, avoiding the deer-in-the-headlights look. So if anyone can edify us all, post it in the comments section here. (Preferably in English!)

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Chestnut Honey
Years ago I innocently dipped my finger in a jar of Italian chestnut honey, anticipating sweet syrup. Instead I recoiled from the bitter taste which lingered way too long in my mouth. Now that I’m all grown up and so much more sophisticated, I begin each morning with a smear of velvety, savory chestnut honey on buttered toast. Yum! Is this stuff good. It can be expensive in the United States, but in Italy, it’s common. Italians use so much of it that I even bought some from a street vendor in Pisa. I ended up lugging home in my carry-on enough jars of chestnut honey to last me for at least a year, I hope.

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Two extraordinary vendors in the Central Market in Florence will mail order authentic Tuscan foods directly from their stands:

And if you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can visit the warehouse of Village Imports, which has open warehouse sales throughout the year.

France 1: American 0

So here I was, about to share with you tales of a market visit and meal I had in Florence, Italy, with my friend Judy, better known as Divina Cucina. We found fragrant, tiny wild strawberries, so she made a terrific Panna Cotta to serve with them, topped with a drizzle of aged, syrupy balsamic vinegar. Then while typing away (and procrastinating at the same time…does that count as multitasking?), I was reading other food blogs and noticed that Amy and Clotilde just posted Panna Cotta stories. Sigh! So I’ll save that for another entry and if you absolutely have to make Panna Cotta right now, one of their recipes should hold you over until then.

Instead, I get to rant.
I wish I had a euro for each time someone said to me,
“What do you do all day in Paris? It must be so exciting!”

Well, let’s look at how I spent yesterday morning, shall we?

I decided to have some friends over and make Braised Duck Legs in red wine. I decided the perfect accompaniment would be Cipolline Agro Dolce, another recipe from Judy. Before you say anything, I know, I know. You’re supposed to, 1) visit the market first, 2) find what’s in season, 3) then decide what to cook. Of course I know that. One of the many things I absorbed in my thirteen years at Chez Panisse. But I am the kind of guy that likes to head out shopping with a list. Otherwise, dinner would have been whatever was in my kitchen: radishes, olives, and Pocket Coffee. (see previous post)

(Judy’s recipe calls for 1 1/2 pounds of peeled boiling onions, which you cook on the stovetop with a cup of so of white wine, enough to cover, a few tablespoons of sugar, vinegar, and olive oil, salt, and a chili pepper. You cook it all until the onions are glazed and caramelized. Delicious!)

Since there are no outdoor markets in Paris on Monday, I figured that I’d simply go to the supermarket and pick up boiling onions (Italians call them cipolline.) I first went to Monoprix, which seems to have everything…except what you went there to get in the first place. Sure enough, no small onions. I then went across the street to Ed, which is a discount supermarket and kind of grim and unsavory. The gate was down: “Closed For Inventory.” Grrr.

I then walked over to Franprix, another supermarket. No onions. How can this be? One of the greatest food cities in the world, and no boiling onions? I decided to try Picard which specializes in frozen foods. People here rave about Picard (although I wonder, “Who the heck buys frozen baguettes when there are 1263 bakeries in Paris?”…and yes, I do know those kinds of things.) Picard has everything frozen; sacks of red currants, figs, and sour cherries, pigeons stuffed with foie gras and chocolate-glazed ice cream profiteroles. I scanned the freezers passing over frozen baby artichoke hearts, sliced leeks, minced sorrel, and fava beans.
But, of course, no onions.

After two hours of searching from supermarket to supermarket, I decided to call it quits. Heading home, I wanted to at least stop at Nicolas and get some wine, since I didn’t want to go home dejected and empty-handed. As I approached, the door wouldn’t budge.

“Open Monday, 4pm-8pm.”

Defeat.
France 1: American 0.

Late yesterday afternoon, on my way to yoga, I stopped at Shopi, another supermarket and my last resort. Sure enough, there were little filets (mesh sacks) of boiling onions buried within the produce section.

The label read, “Produit d’Argentine”.
It was a very long journey…for both of us.

As you can imagine, I was very careful not to burn them.

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So, to answer your question…That’s what I do all day.

Pocket Coffee Haiku

Trim cube of chocolate

Gush out liquid espresso!

Clever caffeine cloak

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Domori Chocolate

Gianluca Franzoni is the master chocolatier at Domori. He’s the person who is responsible for selecting the beans and roasting them to perfection. Cacao beans, like coffee, need to be roasted to bring out their flavor. Domori uses no vanilla in their chocolate, unlike other chocolate companies, since Gianluca believes that vanilla masks some of the flavors he coaxes out of the beans to make his chocolate. I immediately liked him because of his dedication to making truly fine chocolate….(and perhaps because his shirt would match the colors of my web site.) Aside from making great chocolate, the Italians really know how to dress.

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As you can imagine, Domori is a chocolate company that is rather revolutionary…and in a country that’s no stranger to revolutions. If you’ve been to Italy, you know the Italians are lively, creative, wonderful people. And they’re not afraid to do things a bit differently.

When Gianluca told me that Domori chocolates were so smooth that even the 100% bar of unsweetened chocolate, called Puro, was not the least bit bitter, (even without the sugar,) I frankly didn’t believe him. But Puro was indeed great. It’s made from 100% Sur Del Lago beans, which is used in some of the best chocolates I’ve tasted. For the hard-core chocolophiles, crunchy dark Ocumare cacao beans, known as Kashaya, are roasted whole and meant to be eaten just as they are. I mean, what kind of people pack up whole roasted cocoa beans and for hard-core chocolate-lovers to eat? The same people who brought us gelato, gianduiotti, and panna cotta.

As you can probably tell by now, I love Italians!

Domori is one of the few chocolate companies that actually owns their own plantations in Venezuela. Most of their beans are criollo hybrids, which is considered the best cacao available today. (The term ‘cacao’ refers to the beans used to make chocolate, and ‘cocoa’ usually refers to the powder made from the beans after they’re roasted and pulverized.)

We tried a sample of all of their chocolates, guided by Gianluca….

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Esmereladas is their chocolate made from Ecuadorian cacao, that had a surprising tropical banana-like aroma and flavor. Rio Caribe, from their Venezuelan plantation, had an earthy, musky character while the Sambirano from the island of Madagascar (where a lot of vanilla is grown) had a raisin-sweet taste and a gorgeous red hue. Perhaps the most intriguing was the Puertofino, which was made from a rare, pure Ocumare cacao, which we all agreed had a delightful creamy taste, even though it was pure bittersweet chocolate with no dairy added.

If this is making you crave Domori chocolate, you can order their chocolate (as well as Tuscan chocolates from Slitti and Amadei) online at Chocosphere.

So onward in my pursuit of more great chocolate here in Tuscany.
Next I’ll visit Slitti, which aside from blending their superb chocolates, they roast amazing coffee…which says a lot, since each time I sip an espresso in Italy, I fall into a deep trance-like state.
In the walled city of Lucca, where we’re staying, I’ve had a chance to stock up on Amadei chocolate as well. Amedei specializes in very rare cacaos, such as Chuao and Porcelana and is another of the world’s great chocolates.

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Eating in Tuscany includes focaccia flatbread permeated with olive oil and sprinkled generously with coarse salt, soup made with the Lucchese wholegrain known as farro, and I’m stockpiling delightfully bitter chestnut honey that I drizzle over toasted and buttered (salted butter, of course) levain bread. If you should ever visit Lucca, the best place to buy Tuscan foodstuffs is Antica Bodega at 31, via Santa Lucia. The wine, of course, is excellent, inexpensive, and generously poured in restaurants and enotecas.

Tomorrow I’m taking my group to a villa in the mountains for a wine and olive oil tasting before we return to Lucca to shop for local specialties at Antica Bodega, including sharp, sheeps-milk Pecorino cheese and well-aged, syrupy Balsamic vinegar, Parmesano-Reggiano and olive oil.

And of course, lots more chocolate.

Related Chocolate Links

Chocolatiers and Chocolate Makers

Theo Chocolate

Valrhona Chocolate

Chocolate FAQs

John-Charles Rochoux

Regis Chocolate

Patrick Roger

La Maison du Chocolat

Gianduja and Gelato

Here I am in Torino, or Turin, if you’re familiar with the shroud.
Being on the road means that I’m in unfamiliar hotels with less-than-ideal access. When I attempted to change the thermostat in my hotel room, the digital display read ‘PARTY’. I don’t know what the ‘party’ mode is, but when I pressed the switch again nothing exciting happened.

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I’m leading a fabulous chocolate tour as I write. Torino is not on the tourist route. But it should be if you’re into chocolate. Gianduja is the star chocolate attraction here, a blend of milk chocolate and hazelnuts ground until smooth then formed into a paste. Hazelnuts are a specialty of the Piedmonte region and during wartime, cocoa beans were scarce so someone had the great idea to blend them with chocolate, and gianduja was born. (If you’ve had Nutella, you know what a terrific alliance chocolate and hazelnuts can be.)

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Once the gianduja paste is made, it’s formed into mounds that are molded into a flat peak, then wrapped in gold foil. I’m not much of a fan of milk chocolate, but when mixed with hazelnuts, it’s dreamy and truly delicious. The best gianduja that I’ve had was at A. Giordano (Piazza Carol Felice, 69.)

The other chocolate treats of Torino are Bicerin and gelato. Bicerin is great, and something that deserves to be better known outside of Torino. It’s a hot drink made with espresso, chocolate, and just enough whipped cream to make is smooth and creamy. It’s a fabulous combination, and each afternoon residents of Torino line up at bars for a warm Bicerin.

The gelato here is thick, gooey, and delicious. Like nothing you’ve had in your life. Flavors include caffe, gianduja (my favorite, of course), pistacio, tangy yogurt, and torrone loaded with almonds and sweetened with honey. Here’s my favorite gelato maker at the Caffe San Carlo (Piazza San Carlo, 156). He is perhaps my new favorite person in the world.
At least in Italy.

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Italians in Torino walks down the street eating gelato all hours of the day. Businessmen at lunchtime slurp cones while avoiding dripping on their Armani suits. Afternoons, swarms of teenagers with low-slung jeans send text-messages in between licks, and elderly women wander through the passages and window shop savoring gelato.

So I’m off tomorrow with my group for the mountains of Biella, where we’ll dine at an Agriturismo, a farm that serves meals made from ingredients only grown on the land. Then onward to Genoa, where we’ll stop along the way at Domori chocolate, one of the world’s great chocolate manufacturers.

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:

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

And people ask me why I live in France.