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Christmas dinner in Paris – The buck stops for the duck

6 Jan

Confit de Canard, the buck stops for the duck at G.Detou Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerVoulez-vous ceci . . . ,” the woman to the side of the counter put her hand in her armpit and waved her elbow around like she was trying to fly.

 “. . .ou cela?” She balanced on one leg and shook the other.

People in the long queue behind me were enjoying the show.

“We don’t need to speak French to provide good service,” she said—or probably something like it—and took a little bow.

I shook my leg and held up 5 fingers, “Pour cinq personnes, s’il vous plait.”

More giggles from the crowd.

My parents and I were at G. Detou (58, rue Tiquetonne), stop number two on a culinary walking tour of Paris drawn up by a good foodie friend. The store’s name is a pun, according to Paris food author and writer Clotilde Dusoulier. “G. Detou” sounds like “J’ai de tout“, meaning “I have everything” and I believe it.

Friendly service at G.Detou Paris Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerThe store is divided into two parts. One was packed to the rafters with weird and wonderful foodstuff and ingredients from all over France. Some of it I recognised: chocolate, mustards, teas, large bags of fresh nuts, fruit in jars, and sardines. Much I did not know existed or how  it might be used: flavoured essences, metallic edible balls, flower petals, a multitude of different sugars and honeys. Fresh food like meat and fish were in the second section located in the store front next door.  

After 15 minutes in the queue, I was finally in front of the counter and, with the help of a few charades, had just ordered the main event of our Christmas dinner: Confit de Canard.

My first exposure to Duck Confit was at my landlady’s house in May. She graciously offered to loan me a scarf for a wedding and make me dinner.

“I think the first one is the best: the white one with the small flowers,” she said.  I looked at the 6 scarves laid across the bed.

“Which one?” I asked.

Sardines at G.Detou Photo by Jennifer Flueckiger“The one with the tiny flowers . . . ,” she said and picked up one of the scarves. “This one.” She handed it to me. It was white, but the blue flowers on the scarf were the size of volleyballs. My landlady functioned so well I often forgot she was almost totally blind.

Misidentifying the scarf was no big deal but I was very concerned about dinner.  Before we went to her room to choose a scarf, she arranged white, frozen duck legs in a pan and said they would only take 10-15 minutes to heat through in the oven. Frozen to cooked in 10-15 minutes? Had she taken the wrong pan out of the fridge and not noticed? Clutching the large patterned scarf to my chest, I was anxious about how to politely handle a situation where we all cut into raw, cold duck legs.

However, they weren’t raw and were steaming hot.  The duck legs hadn’t been frozen at all. The white film I saw as she arranged the legs in the pan was duck fat, not ice crystals. To make Duck Confit, duck legs are salt cured and then slow cooked. To preserve the legs, they are submerged in duck fat and stored in a can/tin. The fat, solid at room temperature, clings to the skin, and melts while the legs heat.

Ahh, my first duck confit—the tender, tender meat and the rich, salty, plumy taste—where had it been all of my life?

Despite my description of heaven, I had a bit of convincing to do when I suggested duck confit to my husband a few months ago. 

“Meat from a tin?” he asked.

It did feel so wrong to venture into a foodWindow at G. Detou Photo by Jennifer Flueckiger area also populated by Spam, corned beef and Vienna sausages, but I had tasted the truth. I knew I needed to be brave and bought a tin of Confit de Canard from Monoprix, an upmarket supermarket. I reasoned that if I paid mre for it, it would have to be good.

I put the tin in a bath of warm water to melt the fat.  I removed the legs and put them skin side down in frying pan. I threw in some sliced potatoes to let them cook in the duck fat.  When the skin was crispy, I served the legs with the fried potatoes and green beans. After one bite, my husband declared with a big smile, “This is Christmas dinner.”

And so it was, and mighty tasty, too! 

I would like to say a special thank you to my parents and  friend who helped make Christmas dinner such a treat.

Mom, Dad and the shop that has everything Photo by Jennifer Flueckiger

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Goodbye Champagne – 10 things to do in Paris for less than 4€

12 Aug

Winter in Paris Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerSome of you may already know this but recently I recently quite literally ‘quit my day job’ in Edinburgh so that I can stay in Paris and write a book.  While I am very excited about this decision and my writing is going well, it has put me in a position where I have to look at Paris in a very different way. 

Paris, like most large cities, can be very expensive. A used book in English can cost 20€ ($US29/£18). A soft drink at a small cafe, away from tourist areas, perfect for writing costs 6€50 ($9/£6). A pretty normal salad in a normal restaurant will set you back 15€-19€ ($22-27/£13-17).  My husband recently paid 116€ ($170/£100) for 7 drinks. Someone else, very kindly, paid for dinner.

So with my new, let’s call it ‘leaner’ situation, I decided I come up with a list of 10 things you can do in Paris that cost less than 4€ ($6/£3.50).

  1. Take a bus tour – I am not talking about the hop-on/hop off guided tour bus that will set you back 29€, I am talking the self-guided variety that will cost a mere 1€70.  My current favourite is the No. 69 city bus –You use the same tickets you use for the metro, but this is all above ground.  Arm yourself with a free map and your guidebook you bought at home and keep track of the sights along the way. One end the route starts at Père Lachaise cemetery where Jim Morrison, Gertrude Stein, Colette, Oscar Wilde and many other famous people are buried. The route then heads past the Bastille, through the hip Marais area and past Hotel de Ville. It takes a dramatic turn; the bus has to slow down to literally squeeze under an archway through the Louvre building. You emerge to see, on one side, IM Pei’s amazing pyramid, and on the other, the beautiful Jardin des Tuileries. After you cross the Seine to the left bank, you go past the Musee d’Orsay and then up along fashionable rue St Gremain, rue du Bac and rue de Grenelle. Then past the magnificent Hotel de Invalides and you end up at the feet of Eiffel Tower. That’s a lot of Paris for a 1€70!
  2. Buy a souvenir – What trip to Paris would be complete without one of these? You can get a Paris snow globe for 2€50 at the Galleries Lafayette (the cheapest I’ve seen in town) or an Eiffel Tower key chain (4 to 6 for 1€) available just about everywhere from street vendors.
  3. Buy lunch – You can get a bottle of wine (hey, you’re in Paris) for as little as 1€50 and a baguette for just less than a euro. For the gluten- and wine-allergic like me, a gluten-free crepe de Ble Noir or buckwheat flour crepe is 3€50 and a water .50€.
  4. Take a ride – If staying on a bus cramps your style, rent one of the bicycles on the city’s  Velib scheme. Velib stations are everywhere and you use bikes all day for 1€70.  Rent a bike, take it to where you want to go and park it in the station nearby. When you’re ready to move on, type in your rental code and take another bike. Easy!  My current favourite Velib trip is along Canal St Martin, a hip area with a lot of cute independent shops for window shopping and great stretches for a picnic. I’ve watched locals play petanque (boules or bacchii ball) on a sunny afternoon and I’ve danced to live DJs on a warm evening along this stretch – there is usually something fun going on.
  5. Eat cake – As long as you deny your Marie Antoinette 3euro yummies Photo by Jennifer Flueckigertendencies and steer clear of Le Notre, Laduree or Fauchon, you can get an éclair du chocolate or some other fancy cake at a neighbourhood patisserie for less than 4€.  For the gluten-challenged, a large macaron for 2€90 or a slice of polenta lemon cake from the Rose Bakery at 3€30 will do nicely, thank you.
  6. Get an eyeful of the Eiffel – Why pay to go up the Eiffel tower (13€40) when the tower itself is what you really want to see. The best views of the tower and Paris are free!  Once you get off of the No. 69 bus at the Champs de Mars, you are right there at the iron lady’s feet.  The roof top viewing area at the Galleries Lafayette gives you a wonderful free view.  Plus on your way up you can enjoy the stained-glass rotunda that covers the centre of the store and on level 3 (I think) there is a free rest area and water cooler.  The top of the Pompidou Centre is also an amazing place to take in the view. I like to go to the red lift, to the left of the main door, which is reserved for patrons of the fancy restaurant, George, at the top.  I have actually patronised this restaurant once in more affluent times and, who knows, may someday again, so I feel happy to consider myself a patron and use the lift.  The lift deposits you right at the top. That door opens and wow, Paris is in front of you. I like to walk along the top and then go back down to earth on the escalators. 
  7. Take in a show – As you descend on the Pompidou Centre escalators, shift your attention from the view of the rooftops to the entertainment in the square below. The public space in front of the Centre is always full of people and often street entertainers. We have seen acrobats, jugglers, clowns, and an amazing street dance troupe.  Remember they are artists trying to make a living, so if you enjoy the show leave a little something (2€ -4€).
  8. Decorate your house – Paris flea markets are legendary but some of the big ones can be expensive.  For a little something French and inexpensive for my house back home I would avoid the famous Puces de St Ouen and head to my little neighbourhood Puce d’Aligre.  It’s open every day but Mondays, also sells wonderful produce and, who knows, it might be the place you find a treasure for less than 4€.
  9. Take in some culture – While many of the famous museums in Paris are at least 10€ to enter, there are some really wonderful museums and exhibits that are free. My favourite at the moment is the Musée Carnavalet (see my post on the Musee Carnavalet here).  It features exhibits about the history of the city of Paris and is housed in an amazing Parisian mansion with a beautiful garden. It is almost like getting two museums in one.
  10. Seal your love in the city of love – Believe it or not, you can afford to be wildly romantic, even on this budget.  Buy a padlock at the Bastille Market (3€50).  Take it and your loved one to the Pont de l’Archeveche, the bridge that has the famous and beautiful view of the Seine and the back of Notre Dame.  Declare your love and seal the deal by fixing your padlock, along with those of a thousand other lovers, to the railing of the bridge. Your loved one may prefer a ring from Dior, but they’d have to be cold-hearted not to be charmed by this lovely (and inexpensive) gesture.Love Bridge Photo by Jennifer Flueckiger

Locked in Love Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerIf you know of any other under 4€ treats please let me know.  I’ll see you there – when I’m not busy writing my book, of course.

The restorative quality of pastries – Ladurée

5 Aug

A little bit o' heaven Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerThe first time I was aware of it was when my sister caused a family argument.  She was in her junior year of high school and was getting ready to apply to college when she dropped the bomb – she wasn’t going to ‘normal’ college, she was going to train as a pastry chef.  Being a sceptical older sister, I suspected that this was a ploy to upset my mom and dad. If that had been the intention, the ploy worked and after many ‘family discussions’ she went with plan A, ‘normal’ college.

However when I look back over the years other clues fall into place.  First, my sister can almost always be counted on to order dessert. Second, she has a library-sized collection of cookbooks where all the titles, if not specifically about desserts, definitely cover some aspect of dessert making.  Next, several years ago she made batch after batch after batch of les macarons – the deceptively simple sandwich cookie made with almonds, eggs, sugar and water – hoping to replicate, exactly, the ones she tried on a trip to Paris.

Then I suppose the ‘icing on the cake’ (sorry couldn’t resist) was her weddingSweet couple last year. The wedding cake was more important than the dress. The right baker was essential and she interviewed several that did not make the cut. 

In addition to the wedding cake, she organised a cookie table.  A cookie table is a Pittsburgh, USA wedding tradition that involves guests contributing cookies, homemade or specially purchased, to the wedding reception. These contributions are laid out buffet-style for all guests to sample during the festivities or to take home in specially provided cookie-table carry-out boxes (look at this link to see a video about cookie tables). 

Despite the fact that we are not from Pittsburgh nor do we have any tradition of cookie tables in our family, she not only had a cookie table but also developed a cookie table cookie registry.  Its purpose, like the gift list or registry, was to guide potential cookie-providing guests towards the cookies that the bride and groom would especially like to see and cookies that had some particular meaning to them.  It was important that all the meaningful cookies in their lives were represented.

Finally, the groom, who has a lot of sugar in him anyway, makes chocolate. They are a sweet match.

So, when my sister said she was not having a good day during a recent trip to Paris, I knew immediately what had to be done.  A pastry intervention was necessary and there was only one place to go – Ladurée.

Ladurée is a Parisian institution that has baked sugary delights since 1861 and was one of the first salon de thé in Paris.  The original store is on the rue Royal, however we went to the newer, bigger Champs Élysée location.

Heaven Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerThe light sage green and gold embellished canopy over the door provided only the smallest hint of the pastel and sugar-coated dream that is inside.  Red marble table tops, rich wood panelling, thick drapes lined with gold fringe, Louis XVI style sofas upholstered in white and light blue striped fabric, large gilt mirrors and painted cherubs on the ceilings playing amongst fluffy, pink, sliver-lined clouds. While the decor was not as fresh as it once was, there was no mistaking its luxurious intention to seduce and pamper. We were in the right spot.

The encyclopaedia-sized menu arrived and we set to the serious work of decision-making. Being gluten and dairy free, I resigned myself to the fact that my experience was to be limited to tea and atmosphere.  Before going in, I had even agreed to my sister’s request that I order a pastry anyway so she could have two. However, les macarons are naturally gluten-free and, while most have a dairy filling, they can also be filled with jam. Ladurée had one macaron on the menu filled with jam, so my order was easy – strawberry macaron with strawberry and mint jam and a scoop of strawberry sorbet. 

My sister’s choice was significantly more complicated.  Which one to choose? We were seated in the upstairs dining room, too far from the pastry counter to have a look and choose by sight. She went over the multiple pages of pastry descriptions many times but finally came to a decision – Millefeuille Praline – multiple layers of praline pasty and cream.

Our order arrived and we savoured the first bites. Mission accomplished: my sister had a smile on her face. Everything was going to be all right. Or was it? I could sense that something was still a little wrong. The Millefeuille Praline was great, but what about the others?  Had she ordered the right one? And I, like the evil older sister I am, had promised salvation only to cruelly opt to order my own cake and not a second for her.

Dreamy Take-away Photo by Molly FlueckigerNever fear, Ladurée does take-away.  After we paid the bill we went downstairs and ordered more for later. Paradise was restored. Always remember, the restorative quality of pastries should never be underestimated.

US fan in a foreign land – Women’s World Cup Final

22 Jul Watching Super Abby Photo by Jennifer Flueckiger

Watching Super Abby Photo by Jennifer Flueckiger

On Sunday night I watched the US women’s soccer team lose to Japan in a Scottish pub in France. At half time a large group of drunk/high Australians harassed the bar. With the exception of France, I have lived in each of the countries listed above for at least a year.  The bringing together of all of these nations – Scotland, Japan, Australia, USA, France – in one place, in such a random way was a bit surreal. It was at once familiar, foreign, comforting and confusing.

behind the bar at the Auld Alliance pub paris from http://theauldalliance.com/We watched the game at the Auld Alliance pub, the go-to spot for Scottish TV to show the Tartan Army (the collective name for travelling Scottish sports fans) after a big game in Paris.  The Auld Alliance has 8 screens to watch sport, friendly staff behind the bar, beer from the Caley Brewery on tap, and haggis on the menu. Like many Scottish pubs there was more room for standing than sitting, however there were still a few seats at the small number of tables when we arrived.  We chose a table. My back was to the bar but my husband, sitting on a rickety folding chair, could survey what was going on. 

“This is all very strange,” he said. “It’s like we’ve just stepped out of Paris and into Scotland.  This is just like a real Scottish pub.” He continued to look around searching for what exactly made it feel so un-Parisian. “It’s got an edginess to it …”

“Grittiness?” I volunteered.

“Yeah, gritty, that’s the word. It feels a bit unpredictable, like you just don’t know what might happen.”

I took another look around. It did have a ‘spit and sawdust’ feel that we hadn’t seen since we’d been in France.  You wouldn’t be surprised if the large floor space in front of the bar had been sticky with beer.  A polyester ‘Bonnie Scotland’ flag that still bore fold creases was hung unceremoniously with thumb tacks/push pins over the door.  The slightly rancid, heavy cooking oil smell of the 10 euro burger+chips+beer deal was thick in the air. 

bonnie scotland at the Auld Alliance pub paris from http://theauldalliance.com/However, it was a Sunday night, we were in to see a women’s soccer/football match and it wasn’t that crowded. I thought it was unlikely that there would be any trouble, but my husband seemed less comfortable. Two British guys propping up the bar with their bellies shouted, “When’s the real footy starting?” suggesting they’d rather see a men’s game. Maybe my husband was right.

The match started and I felt a bit sick to my stomach.  I don’t get to be an American fan very often and soccer/football is my game. In the first minute, the US forced the Japanese keeper to make a save.  Then wave after wave of good attacking play by the US resulted in a ball in the outside of the net, a bad miss, a shot off target, 3 more shots off target, an excellent save by the Japanese keeper, a shot that bounced off the goalpost, a corner, a shot that went off the crossbar, another off target shot, and another… but no goals.

Halftime and I was exhausted. We needed to score. One quick counter attack from Japan and all of that good US attacking play would be for nothing.

My husband went to the bar and I noticed the place was really filling up. It was then that the Aussie’s arrived. The fact that they were Australian was really incidental, as the cocktail of youth, alcohol/drugs and being abroad in a large group can reduce normally well-behaved people of any nationality to bad behaviour. In fact I am sure I have behaved badly in similar situations.  While they looked like they were probably nice little rich boys on a college trip when sober, the large size of the young men, their saucer-shaped pupils and their erratic movements made them feel a bit scary.

Being an American fan abroad always makes you a bit more likely to be a target.  While fairly indiscriminate about whom they harassed, several of the young men decided to pick on me.  My husband at the bar heard, “You’re from Ohio” in a loud, mocking American accent, and then turned to see two of these guy’s faces literally in my face. He quickly came over to my defence. It was first time in our 20-year relationship he had felt the need to do so – the gesture was unnecessary, but, I suppose, sweet.

Others in the group had taken over a table occupied in the first half by a US fan.  I told them that the table was taken and they pretended to only understand French.  The US fan came back, started yelling at them in French and the group looked at me and whined, “Do you understand what that lady is saying?”

My husband tried to talk these guys into leaving us all alone. The Scottish barman intervened, “I don’t want these drunken children in my bar.” He then asked my husband, “Are you their teacher?”

Shocked by the misunderstanding and wounded that someone could think he was old enough to be this group’s teacher my husband scowled, “No mate, I was trying to help get rid of them. I’m just sitting here watching the game with my wife.”

After being told they were not going to be served and after a few flares of drunken, pathetic bravado the large Aussie crowd started to leave.  As they left, it looked like a group member was stealing a women’s handbag. I grabbed it so he could not get away. It turned out to be a false alarm and I got a lot of abuse from the ‘non-thief’. The whole incident left us a bit riled up and feeling a bit old. I reflected that there was a time when I would have handled the whole thing with much more ‘charm’, and less like a narcy teacher. My husband decided he needed to go out and get new trendier glasses to make him look younger.

Thankfully the second half started and stopped us crying in our pints. It meant more of the same from the US: a shot that went off the post, 2 more off target, a corner, a good save by the Japanese keeper.  Frustration! The US kept knocking at the door with no luck.  Then finally it happened.  After a long ball from the back, substitute Alex Morgan shot from the top of the box, GOOOOOAAAALLLLL  USA!!!!

At last! The sense of relief rolled through me and made me feel a little faint. However, breaking the haze of my euphoria was the sound of the big bellied boys at the end of the bar cynically chanting, “USA! USA!” just so they could make fun of any fans who joined in. Whatever – we’d scored! We were ahead in the World Cup final! (USA 1 – Japan 0)

Before the game, I watched a series of Nike produced videos detailing the US team’s preparation for the World Cup entitled ‘Pressure Makes Us’. Several in the series featured the range of physical tests that the team goes through – agility, tread mill, yo-yo, squat, sprint.  None of them mentioned any mental training that might help a player and a team become a champion.  Yes, soccer/football is physical sport but you must have the mental strength to make good decisions and the concentration and determination to make goals and defend well.  Probably the hardest thing for people who have never played to understand is that you also need mental toughness to be able to hold on to a lead and win.

I wish the US team had done a bit more mental strength training. After they scored, you felt their relief but they lost focus.  It was all Japan. With only 10 minutes left to go, sloppy defending let Japan get a sloppy equaliser.  (USA 1 – Japan 1)

There was a huge cheer. A Canadian man excitedly shouted, “Game on!” At the start of the game, most of the Auld Alliance crowd was neutral or disinterested.  Now however, the large crowd was gripped by the drama and quality of play. Most had chosen to cheer for Japan.

“EEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!”

At the same time a very loud, high-pitched squeal cut through, and almost silenced, the other cheers.  Earlier in the game I’d enjoyed hearing the familiar sound of excited Japanese coming from the woman at the next table. Not so much at that moment.

“HEEEEEEEEEEEEE!” she continued.

I’d seen Japanese soccer fans when I lived there so I was not nearly as surprised as the rest of the bar by the sound that seemed much too big to come from such a small person.

 “We’ve got a squealer at table 18,” said the startled Scottish barman with a wink and a smile to the rest of the bemused spectators.

It quickly became clear that the game was headed for a draw and two 15-minute periods of overtime.  Overtime play started and the US looked focused and dangerous, but they needed a goal. A US corner, a shot, another shot and save, another shot, then Japan on the counter attack.  “EH!EH!” a few more squeals from the next table. Then, the US, the ball down the left, a beautiful cross into the middle – Yes! Yes! Yes! –  the amazing Abby Wambach powered the ball into the back of the net with her head! Yes!

“We’ve got another squealer at 17b, “ said the barman.  This time he was talking about me.  Damn strait I’m squealing! We were back in front! (USA 2 – Japan 1)

But could we hold on this time?

The second fifteen minutes of overtime was predictably all Japan. The US looked a bit more in control at the back than before. Maybe it was going to be the dream win.  Japan shot off target and then a battle in the midfield for possession of the ball.  US substitute.  Japan shoots and is denied by US goal keeper Hope Solo. 3 minutes to go.  Japan corner kick. The kicker takes a few steps back then looks to her teammates in front of the goal. She takes two steps forward, thud, the beautiful cross is in the air and then the ball is off Homare Sawa’s head like a bullet into the back of the net. (USA 2 – Japan 2)

‘EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!’  No one in the Auld Alliance, indeed no one watching the game, could believe what was happening.  Japan, the team that had never once won a single game against a European or American team in its history before this tournament, was back in the game at the World Cup final against multiple world champions, the USA.

The US couldn’t believe they lost their lead … again.  They needed to score or it was a penalty shot out. They got the ball, shot. A Japanese player was given a red card and sent off for dangerous play. The US shoots again and again. The whistle blows and it is time for penalties. 

I leaned over and said, “Ganbatte ne!” or “Go for it/ Good luck!” to the Japanese woman at the next table just before the penalty kicks … and, I almost meant it. I understood why most of the pub was cheering for Japan.  Discounting the bellies propping up the bar and probably others who weren’t cheering for Japan, but against the US, this was an amazing underdog/come-from-nowhere kind of story that any sports fan would love.  In addition, everyone wishes nothing but good things to happen for Japan after the horrors of the last year.  However, as far as I was concerned, Japan coming in second place would have still been a great sporting story.

It was time for penalties. I didn’t fancy the US’s chances of holding it together for the penalties after seeing them fail to protect their lead twice.  But, I still had hope!

The hope didn’t last long. They fell apart even more than before. First US shot, saved by the goal keeper. Japan scores. Second US shot misses the net! Japan scores. Third US penalty, saved by the goal keeper, again! Japan scores. US player Abby Wambach put the ball in the net to keep the smallest hope alive. Japan scores. Game over. USA 2(1) – Japan 2(3)  Japan – World Champions.  Wow, what a game.

The loneliness of defeat was punctuated by being in a Scottish bar in Paris surrounded by people who enjoyed the game but largely didn’t really care. Even my husband, can’t just take up the American cause with the same passion. I had to phone an ex-teammate in the US for proper commiseration and a wee cry.

I have passionately supported Scotland, Japan, Australia and France in various sporting occasions, and even against US athletes, in some instances.  This is because I love sport generally and love hearing about athletes and team stories. I find these stories much more interesting than nationality.  This game told a great story that will be remembered for a long time for the historic nature of the win but also as a great advertisement for football.  However, no matter how good the story, when it comes to women’s football, for me it will always be USA! USA!  The team are amazing and should be very proud of what they achieved.  Thanks for the wonderful ride ladies!

To see highlights of the match and to get more information about the Women’s World Cup Finals, click here

[Photo credit: Photos of Auld Alliance Pub from http://theauldalliance.com/]

Vegetarians, look away now

11 May

Chicken Lady at Bastille Market Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerSince moving to France, I have had to think about renegotiating my relationship with meat.  Pre–Paris we had an understanding. I didn’t eat much and what I did buy was very good quality. In exchange, the meat came clearly marked, in nice plastic packaging from the supermarket or pre-cut and wrapped in paper from the butcher. Now in Paris, all the rules are being broken.

Last Sunday, I got in the line at the chicken lady’s stand, or poulailler, at the farmer’s market around the corner from our apartment. The number of different types of chickens daunted me. The range extended well beyond the caged, free-range, organic, corn-fed options I am used to. There were different varieties and subsections of these varieties. I just wanted a chicken, chicken. I wanted a normal, well-treated chicken.

I was relieved when a simple “Un poulet, s’il vous plait” was all that was needed for the woman at the front of the line to secure a chicken that looked ok to me.  I could say that. This was going to happen. I was going to get my chicken.

However, when the chicken was removed from the refrigerated case, the neck and full head of the chicken, previously tucked neatly under the bird’s body out of sight, dropped down and swung back and forth. Yes, beak, comb and both beady little eyes – left and right, left and right.

This was a clear violation of our previously negotiated understanding. Heads, feathers, eyes, combs and beaks, for goodness sake, were definitely out-of-bounds. I didn’t know if I could go through with it.

Then the lady in front unknowingly threw me a lifeline. She said something in French that resulted in the chicken lady unceremoniously removing the head – CHOP – and then, taking out the insides.  I’d forgotten about the giblets, but these too can be removed by request. 

The game was on again and it was my turn.

Un poulet, s’il vous plait.” Then I pointed. As before, the chicken body was removed and the neck and head dangled.  However, I was only partially equipped for the next stage. I knew there were magic words that would make the next necessary step happen, but I didn’t know what those words were.

But I had to do it and thank goodness for the onomatopoeia and sign language.

Je voudrais le chop et le scoop.”

These words, accompanied by the corresponding hand movements, got me, some giggles from the chicken lady and the rest of the chicken line, as well as, a chicken I was prepared to cook.

Or so I thought. I got home and unwrapped the chicken. The chicken lady had removed the head but not the rest of the neck.  The chicken and its neck lay stretched out on the cutting board. It lay there and I prepared potatoes. It lay there and I chopped carrots. It lay there and I talked to my sister on the phone. I had to do something about this.  Come on Jennifer, you can do this.  Thankfully, living in a furnished apartment in France, a meat cleaver, the knife needed to perform this job, was in the drawer. Otherwise, I am not sure how it would have all gone down.  Even with the right knife it took several determined blows to do the necessary.  And then I was left with my chicken, which I put in the oven, and a neck that looked a bit too much like, well … let’s just say disgusting. Help!

I didn’t want to touch it. I felt really wasteful if I threw it away. This chicken had died for my next few meals, the least I could do was treat it all with respect. However, I’d have to touch it even if I did throw it away. Come on Jennifer, be a big girl one more time.  I quickly picked it up with tongs, put it into the pot and covered it with a lid to wait for the carcass to make stock. I felt like I wanted a cigarette.

The chicken wasn’t the only offender. I’ve broken the rules of the agreement too.  In the original rules, I’d agreed to high quality meat, which meant for me, well-treated animals, free-range situations and organic methods, if possible. I’m afraid foie gras falls outside this category.  Force feeding geese to artificially enlarge their livers makes gruesome viewing.

My first offence was outside of my control. We were at a dinner party hosted by one of my husband’s French colleagues.  It was a beautiful meal and perhaps one of the few we might experience in a French home.  Our hosts had gone to enormous trouble to prepare a wonderful French-style meal that complied with all of my food issues (no gluten, no dairy, no fish/seafood). I wasn’t going to say no to the first course.  And I didn’t want to. I knew I liked foie gras and this was delicious.

My second offence was much more flagrant and audacious.  I went to the restaurant knowing that I was going to order a steak burger with foie gras.  The restaurant had been chosen specifically for this dish. The scene of the crime was, the perhaps aptly named, Grizzli Cafe (7 rue Saint-Martin). The medium-rare fillet of beef, sautéed onions, and red wine sauce topped with a slice of foie gras and served with thick-cut fries prepared in beef dripping was lovely.  I enjoyed it so much, but have been feeling really upset about it since. Talking about this meal I find myself apologizing. I don’t think I’ll be ordering foie gras again. My pleasure does not justify bad treatment.

So, after indiscretions on both sides, I am not sure where my agreement with meat stands.  However, looking your food in the eye is a good, and sobering, exercise.

My dinner with Kayne West

29 Apr

 

me outside spring photo by Jennifer Flueckiger

My brother-in-law and I had dinner with Kayne West last Saturday night. Ok, we weren’t exactly at the same table, but he was at the next table over.  We even made eye contact a few times, although he didn’t smile.  I couldn’t decide if this was because he thought I looked too cool for a common acknowledgement or he thought, ‘I wish that crazy woman would stop turning around and looking at me.’ 

Either way, maybe it was best we did not actually converse.   I am not sure I could name a Kanye West song if my life depended on it. Also, MTV recently gave him the honour of having the ‘best tweet of the year’. Here it is:

“I hate when I’m on a flight and I wake up with a water bottle next to me like oh great now I gotta be responsible for this water bottle”

I had thought for a moment that this might be some sort of deep statement about each individual’s environmental responsibility.  Then I read some of his other top tweets:

“dating models I had to learn to like small dogs and cigarettes”

“I specifically ordered Persian rugs with cherub imagery!!! What do I have to do to get a simple Persian rug with cherub imagery uuuuugh.”

Also, if I’m honest, he wasn’t who I hoped to see. When we were seated the server leaned over and told us in a hushed voice that Beyonce was dining there tonight.  This really did excite me.  I am a little embarrassed to admit this but I am a bit of a fan (I actually own several albums) and, it was possible, as I had seen on twitter that Beyonce and her husband Jay Z were in Paris.

When Kanye and his party were seated at the ‘Beyonce’ table, there were two extra seats.  I kept looking round in hope but alas, she did not join them.

However, we didn’t go to this restaurant for star spotting, we came for the food. My brother-in-law was in town for the weekend and asked me to book something special. Given the daunting task of choosing a special restaurant in a city where even a neighbourhood bistro will offer something I have never tasted before, I employed help. Excellent foodie website parisbymouth.com actually lets you choose Paris restaurants by number of Michelin stars, but also has a less daunting list of editor’s picks. Paris-based food writer and pastry chef David Lebowitz also has a list of favourites. Restaurant Spring (6 Rue Bailleul) appeared on both.

Both sites also said that it was necessary to book reservations at least a month in advance.  I was only two days out.  I decided to give them a call just on the off chance that they had a cancellation.  I was in luck. Each sitting they offer a limited number of seats at the bar on a first-come, first-served basis.  The maitre’d advised us that we were to get there no later than 7.30 (on time and early, both things unheard of in France) to get a seat.  He also showed no signs of panic or horror when I let him know about my food ‘issues’. ‘No problem at all, madam.’

And what a delight! We were also freed from actually thinking about and choosing what we wanted to eat and drink. The chef prepares a new, seasonal menu each night and the sommelier chooses the best wines to go with each course.  (If you need proof that each night’s menu is a one off here it is: I went back to the restaurant yesterday to confirm my memory of the menu and they had to think hard about what they’d served for dinner on Saturday as they’d served 4 other different menus after it).

They asked us at the start if we wanted to know what was coming or enjoy the surprise.  We loved each dish being unveiled to us.

  • Potato croquettes with cheese and anchovy paste (champagne, for me)
  • Morel mushrooms, radish and carrot in chicken consumme with a leaf of a French wild herb
  • Langoustine (hot fennel salad, for me)
  • Pigeon with marinated grapefruit in a pigeon jus
  • Strawberries and rhubarb with Normandy cream and strawberry syrup
  • Creme fraiche sorbet with lemon (double helpings of the chocolate for me)
  • Chocolate sorbet

Yes, three desserts! And, champagne and wine to match all the way through. Special food, excellent service and good company. What a great night.

(Another reason to be glad we weren’t at Kayne’s table: apparently there was a small problem with the bill at the end of the night. One of the servers had to chase him into his limo.  I am sure that whipping out a credit card might cramp his style and he has people to handle these things.  The meal, I’m told, has been added to his hotel bill.)

The first lady of Pletzl

21 Apr

Sacha Finkelsztajn bakery, rue des RosiersWhat my landlady lacks in height, she makes up for in energy. When I met her for a promised tour of the neighbourhood, her kitten-heeled sling backs brought her up to a mighty 5’1’’.  They also powered a three-hour purposeful march through the history of the Marais and Pletzl areas of Paris, stories of her childhood, book advice, where I was to buy the best baked goods and even the best gay cruising spots.

After a nearly 60 years in the area she knows the labyrinth like streets of the Marais well and she had a story for every corner, every shop.  She darted down alleys, into courtyards, I was lucky to keep up.  I was also lucky to come out alive. She says she doesn’t use her white stick because she claims it makes her a target and invites unwanted help. I felt like a target as she literally led us blind into the middle of crowds and into the middle of traffic, but always on course.

‘They say that I am the lady who sees everything,’ she said of the would-be shoplifters at store she owns with her husband. ‘I stand and move my eyes around the store.  But, they could steal a suitcase from in front of me and I would not know.’

She said she hates what she has become.  She was a surgeon before her sight started to deteriorate and I am sure her life has changed in innumerable ways that a sighted person cannot understand.  However, as with the would-be thieves, how one approaches the world has a lot to do with how people respond, and we were on a mission.

The village of Saint Paul (off rue St Paul) was her first top tip. A series of courtyards filled with cute antiques shops, artist’s workshops and cafes. The weekend seems to be the best time to catch the action at St Paul. We could only window shop as nothing was open at 11.30 on a Friday morning. By way of explanation my guide said this was because they were run by ‘BoBos’ who didn’t feel the need to get up and do a day’s work like the rest of us.  She assured me that this was an affectionate term and she was a fan of this area, but according to my landlady this group seemed to be at the root of many of the changes to the neighbourhood that she chronicled during our walk.

Bourgeois Bohemians are just the latest of many groups that have seen this neighbourhood change over hundreds of years. The aristocrats who first developed the area with beautiful mansions moved out in the late 17th and early 18th centuries and working people gradually moved into their palaces. A Jewish community has been in the area for hundreds of years and there are still kosher stores, bakeries and Jewish bookstores.

She showed me where many Jewish stores used to be, now trendy clothing stores. You can see some of this history as original signs  have been conserved when the spaces have been converted.  Of the stores that remain, the L’As du Felafel (34 rue des Rosiers) restaurant and the Sacha Finkelsztajn (27 rue des Rosiers) bakery were favourites.

She remembered the neighbourhood of her childhood, where it felt like a real community and people looked after each other.  She said that her family did not have a lot of money, but talked of living in a house that had a grand sweeping staircase and French doors between rooms with high ceilings. With the new wave of people coming into the area, house prices went up and people who had lived here all of their lives could no longer afford to do so.

Even with all of the changes, she would not live anywhere else. The renaissance courtyard of the Hotel de Sully (62 rue Saint-Antoine) and the Musee Carnavalet (23 rue de Sévigne), a free museum dedicated to the history of Paris, are some of her favourite places in the world.

‘Everything is here,’ she said.  However, she recommends coming on weekday mornings before all of the BoBos wake up and you can’t move for people.