Sunday, March 27, 2011

Paris II: a-marketing we shall go

5 September

Happy Sunday morning!  We woke up early to get an early start on walking down to my beloved marché de la Bastille.  It's a good hike from our hotel, just off of Place de la Nation.  When we started on our way, I was struck by how autumnal the city felt.  In 2008, I was in Paris only for the summer - seeing the leaves on the trees any color but green felt bizarre in a city that is, in my mind, eternally in summer.

On the way to la Bastille, we got distracted by rue d'Aligre, which boasts its own market with a bounty of produce.  We ogled enormous, bright orange wedges of potiron, a cousin of the pumpkin, and piles of thousands of golden-yellow fresh dates.  There's a covered market just off of rue d'Aligre, too, boasting prepared foods and vibrant flowers.

But we had a ways to go yet, and didn't want to pick up any extra weight to carry with us, so after thoroughly poking around the place, we didn't get anything at the marché d'Aligre.  We were holding out for this:

I'm sure you're tired of pictures of the colonne de Juillet in the Place de la Bastille by now, but I can't help it.  There's just something about the blue skies and the gracious, golden, glittering gleams* of the winged figure and the text that sets my heart a-flutter.  Seeing the column brings back so many memories, and though I've fairly well gotten over my urge to photograph, say, the Eiffel tower every time I pass it, it's nearly impossible for me to walk past the column without wanting to snap a quick shot or two.

Having reached our destination, we put off visiting the market in favor of some brunch.  We sat down on the terrace of Café Français with a lovely view of the column and the Place to grab a bite to eat.  I was planning on a pastry of some sort when a waiter walked by carrying a tray loaded with omelets and salads to a nearby table.  That settled it; I needed an omelette au jambon:

The French are no strangers to eggs, what with their custards and flans and quiches and omelets.  But what might surprise an American is that eggs are decidedly not breakfast food in France.  Breakfast is nearly always some variation on a tartine - usually day-old bread with butter and jam - or a pastry, like a croissant.  Omelets are lunch or dinner fare - but never breakfast.  After a month of trying to (mostly) eat authentically French meals, having a brunch-time ham omelet felt deliciously illicit - probably mostly because it was so delicious.  The omelet was cooked perfectly - creamy and toothsome and just what I needed.  The salad was lovely, too, with a beautiful mix of fresh greens and a refreshing, bright vinaigrette.

Finally, with full, happy bellies, we headed into the marché to do some serious shopping.  I was not disappointed.

Those are potiron slices, way in the back

Ooh, I'll have the white fluffy one over there, please!

The selection at the marché was outstanding as usual.  We got some reine de reinettes and mirabelles, carrots, nectarines, a baguette, a small wedge of Brie de Meaux, and some roasted potatoes:

Ooh là là. If you are an extremely observant reader of this blog, and you are blessed with an outstanding memory, you may recall that in 2008 I posted a video of one of the many rotisserie chicken ovens at the market.  The chickens spin and roast and become impossibly delicious, and invariably, the bottom of the oven is covered in a thick layer of small, peeled potatoes, which catch the drippings of fat and juice as the chickens slowly spin and cook.  The resulting potatoes can be bought - and cheaply, I might add - by the kilo, and they are impossibly delicious, heady with rich, succulent chicken fat, and greasy in the best possible way.  These potatoes are utter perfection when hot and fresh, but make sure you've got a napkin - or, better yet, a sink - handy when you eat them.

I was also pleased to notice that the front page of Le Monde, a paper that is to Paris what the New York Times is to NYC, featured an article on the protests I had happened upon the day before:

The headline reads, "Security, Roma people, decline of nationality, retirement: this is the France in protest."  I would have done well to read the first sentence of the article as well, which announces, "Saturday September 4 against hate and xenophobia, Tuesday September 7 against the retirement reform: labor unions, the Left-wing political parties, and several dozen other associations are rallying against the politics of the government."  But alas, I took my photo of the front page without any idea that there might be more strikes to come.  That, however, is a story for another day.

Successfully loaded with fresh produce and potatoes, we hopped on the metro to head back to the hotel and drop off our goods.  I love the Bastille metro stop; when waiting for the 1 line, the stop is open to the Place, and the column peeks out over the tracks.

Also visible from the stop is the modern, glass-faced Bastille opera house:

From Bastille, it's just a few quick stops to Nation, where we dropped off our food and scarfed down our potatoes.  But we didn't linger; since it was the first Sunday of the month, admission to all the museums in town was free, and we meant to take advantage of this fact and be thoroughly touristy for the afternoon.  But that, too, will have to wait for another post.

Coming soon: a basic tourist's guide to Paris in 24 hours: museums, churches, and the best savory tart you'll ever taste.

A bientôt,

*Thank you, William Shakespeare (see Pyramus, near the end)

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Paris I: Coucou, old friend !

4 September

After a month traveling around France, I finally reached my final destination: Paris.  It was such a change to be in a familiar city, albeit in relatively unknown surroundings.  Our hotel was close to the Place de la Nation in the 12th.  The only time I made it out to Nation in 2008 was for my cooking class at Printemps.

It was a new part of town, but not so far from familiar territory.  After dropping off our stuff at the hotel, I was ready to visit some of my favorite old haunts.  We set out on foot to visit my favorite monument, la Bastille:

When I saw the golden winged statue finally peek out from above the rooftops, it was such a friendly welcome back to the city I called home for two months.  The column marks the spot where the Bastille was stormed in 1789, setting off the French revolution.  It was one of my favorite spots to visit in 2008 due to its proximity to an enormous open-air market that I frequented nearly every Thursday and Sunday for its an outstanding selection of produce of every type.  It was also just a 20 minute walk from my host family's home in the 11th, and maybe 10 minutes away from my gallery in the 3rd - perfect for a Thursday lunch break.

But why are there so many people in the street in front of the column?  And are there people standing on the base of the column - and with a flag?  Better take a closer look:

Well that wasn't there the last time I was here.  But then, neither were they:

Boulevard Richard Lenoir, which leads from the Place de la République to the Place de la Bastille, was full of marchers - some 12,000 of them.  Turns out we had stumbled across a grève - that is, a strike - welcome to Paris!  On this day, thousands massed in Paris as well as other cities around France to demonstrate against the government's recent expulsion of Roma people.

Unfortunately, we needed to cross the boulevard to head into the Marais, and the demonstrators filled the street for blocks and blocks.  Luckily, though, it wasn't too difficult to weave our way through the crowd.

I popped in briefly to visit Eric, owner of Galerie Eric Mircher, where I did my internship in 2008.  He was busy setting up for a vernissage - after a month of vacation in August, all the galleries in the area were holding the openings of their newest collections on the same night.  It was great to see Eric and the gallery, and to introduce my mom to some of what my daily life had been like when I lived there.

The gallery is across the street from a church, and when we stepped out into rue de Turenne, we were just in time to see a bride arrive to walk into her wedding.  She looked beautiful, and if the music in the church was any indication, it sounded like a joyful ceremony.  All my best wishes to the hopefully happy couple!

Outside the gates of the church, oblivious to the fanfare, a bum slept on a pile of mattresses, snuggling his pink teddy bear.  Oh Paris, how I love you.

Full disclosure - I came back a few days later to be a creeper and take this picture of the bum and bear, since I neglected to capture him sleeping.  But I wanted to give you every opportunity to imagine the scene with me - I am that devoted to you, dear reader.

The gallery is at the northern edge of le Marais, an artsy area of the third and fourth arrondissements filled with narrow streets home to many boutiques and boulangeries.  It is also home to most of Paris' Jewish population.

In the heart of the Marais lies my favorite street in Paris, rue des Rosiers.

After walking for a couple of hours, with me gasping and getting super excited as we turned each corner and my mom trying to pretend for my sake that she was as interested in seeing the back alleys of the Marais as she would have been seeing the Eiffel tower, we decided we wanted some dinner.  We visited a Jewish traiteur/boulangerie/pâtisserie to pick up some wares.

A traiteur has prepared foods, ready to be taken home to heat up or eat cold.  We picked up a couple of boxes of vegetables: one with artichoke hearts, and one with a number of marinated and roasted summer vegetables, which we ate in my favorite park, the tiny secluded Square Georges Cain, just around the corner.

To go with our tangy, flavorful vegetable, we also got a beigle aux pavots:

This bagel may have been a little fancier than those we usually see in the US, but it was very similar in flavor, if a little sweeter and eggier, kind of like challah.

We had thought we might stop for some dessert at Le Loir dans la Théière, my favorite restaurant that has an amazing dessert buffet and is also, conveniently, located on rue des Rosiers, but it was completely mobbed.  Instead we headed down to Miss Manon for a slice of outstanding flan:

After so many weeks of scouting out the best restaurants in each new city, it was such a comfort to be in a place where I already knew so many great spots to stop for a bite to eat.  The flan was just as I remembered: thick and creamy with just a little bite, sweet with an intense vanilla flavor.  Custard at its very best - how I love dessert in Paris.

Happily sated, we walked down to the banks of the Seine for a brief visit before heading to the hotel to retire for the evening.

So let's just recap briefly.  My first six hours back in Paris:
  • A grève with thousands of demonstrators... check.
  • Wedding party... check.
  • Bum snuggling with pink teddy bear... check.
  • Rue des rosiers... flan... Seine... check, check, check!

Oh my, was it good to be back.

Coming soon: and Sunday comes afterwards, which can only mean one thing: market day!!!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Tours III

3 September

After a morning of châteaux and inventions, by the time we got back to Tours we were ready for lunch.  Having decided a few days earlier that Tours was the closest we'd be getting to Bretagne (unfortunately, that's one région that's quite difficult - and expensive - to reach by train), I decided we'd better take advantage of our proximity and visit a crêperie.  Crêpes are available all over France, especially with nutella and alongside waffles in touristy locations as "fast food" type stands, but a real crêperie is a sit-down restaurant that serves dozens and dozens of varieties of sweet and savory crêpes.

As we traveled further and further North along the Atlantic coast, we saw more and more crêperies.  By the time we got to Tours, there were quite a few.  We opted for La Grange des Celtes, which was almost empty when we got there at the end of the lunch rush.

When I had my first crêpe in France in 2008, I was told that the traditional beverage with a crêpe was, of course, cider.  At the time, I was baffled - why cider?  It made no sense to me.  But what do you know - those silly Bretons know what they're doing after all.  Bretagne is too cold and rainy to make great wine, but there are a lot of apple trees around, so the standard local drink is, indeed, cider.  So naturally, I had to order a glass to go with my galette "celte:"

A galette is a savory crêpe.  The batter is made from buckwheat, and common fillings include ham and cheese, though most crêperies offer all sorts of varieties.  My mom ordered one with ham and spinach, and mine, called the "celte," had butter, raclette (a mild cheese from Switzerland, often included in fondue), onions, potatoes, and lardons - small bits of bacon.

The potatoes were beautifully browned, and the bits of bacon added a lovely smokiness.  The caramelized onions brought a sweet element to the party, while the flavor of the cheese melted into all the other elements and tied everything together.  The galette itself was just a little sour and beautifully crisp on the edges.  And, not surprisingly, the cider was an excellent accompaniment - it cut through the heaviness of the crêpe with a crisp, almost citrusy edge.

The savory crêpes were filling enough that by the time we finished them, we didn't have room for a sweet one.  So we headed back to the hotel briefly before we were off a-marketing again.  On the first and third Friday of each month in summer, there is a "gourmet market" in Tours, so our first stop was there.  After being so impressed with the variety and quality available at Les Halles, we wondered how the gourmet market could be better...  The answer is, it wasn't.  In addition to your standard fruit and vegetable stands, there were a couple of wine vendors and an exotic American selling pâtisseries Américaines (cookies, zucchini muffins...  the kinds of things I'd bake myself!).  The market left us unimpressed, but it did lead us to a cute café called Les Gourmands Disent where we stopped for a pleasant mid-afternoon café au lait.  The walls were a neutral grey, and the espresso cups were among the most adorable I've seen.

They had a nice menu of lunch-like fare posted on the wall: soups, salads, tarts.  If I were in town for another few days, this is exactly the kind of place I'd want to pop into for lunch.

Sufficiently caffeinated, we continued on to pick up some supplies for dinner.  We passed a Hardouin boulangerie on the street, and popped in for more fantastic bread samples as well as a baguette à la tradition.

Boulangeries often offer multiple types of baguettes, each slightly different.  One common variety is the baguette à la tradition, which is mandated by law to be made only of wheat flour, kitchen salt, water, and natural yeast leavening.  (Gotta love a country that mandates by law what ingredients may be used to bake certain types of breads!)   This was one of the best baguettes I have ever tasted: it had a perfectly crisp, thick but not hard crust that crackled beautiful when ripped open.  The crumb was soft and complex and flavorful.  This was a baguette as they were meant to be - and what a pleasure it was to eat!

We also got a pavé au chocolat:

Pavé means brick, which tells us this was a dense, small, rectangular loaf.  It was studded with dozens of chunks of dark chocolate and was, unsurprisingly, quite delicious.

After getting out bread, we headed on to les Halles.  I visited a number of Halles on my trip, some of which were architecturally stunning.  In Tours, les Halles are a little more streamlined and a little less spectacular than in some other cities.

But the produce for sale is top notch, and that's what counts.  We got some reine de reinettes:

Reine de reinette, which means queen of the little queens, is a variety of apple we don't have in the US, which is a real pity.  It's crisp and slightly tart with a good Apple flavor.  To go with our apples, we also got some mirabelles:

Mirabelles are a tiny variety of plum, about the size of a large grape, with a mostly yellow color.  They are sweet and the pits pop right out as you eat them.  And if you didn't already know, they are beyond fantastic when cooked and served over brioche perdue.

After getting our fruit and making a quick stop at Monoprix for some yogurt, we headed back to the hotel for the evening to relax.

4 September

Our last morning in Tours was spent heading back to, of course, les Halles one last time for supplies for lunch on the train.  Not surprisingly, perhaps, les Halles are much busier on Saturday mornings than Thursday afternoons, and this time all the shops were open and there were many shoppers milling about with bags on their arms or in their ubiquitous rolling grocery bags.  Included in our purchases was a tomate-pesto from Hardouin:

This crispy bread was filled with a fantastic pesto and sweet tomatoes and made an excellent lunch and reminder of Tours as we headed, finally, to Paris.

Earlier, I had booked two spots on the TGV, which takes just over an hour to go from Tours to Paris.  But before getting on the train, we'll take one last look at the Hôtel de Ville:

It was a strange feeling to head to Paris, a city I already knew and loved, after spending so long heading to a new, unfamiliar city every couple of days.  The part of my trip focused on eating new regional cuisines and seeing the French countryside was all but over, but I still had another nine days in France before I would return to the US.

Coming soon: revisiting old friends and neighborhoods, and the 20,000 citizens who came out to welcome me.

A bientôt,

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Chenonceau & Le Clos Lucé

3 September

When picking where I wanted to visit in France, there were a number of factors to consider.  The first, of course, was where I could find fantastic regional cuisine.  Some picks were easy: how could I go to France to taste regional cuisines without visiting Provence or Alsace?  Others, unfortunately, had to be eliminated due to the difficulty in getting there by train.  I had hoped I might visit Périgord for foie gras and truffles, and Bretagne for crêpes, but complicated, expensive train connections ruled them out as possibilities for this trip.  Of course, after visiting so many cities and regions in just over a month, it was also something of a relief to cut out day-long train trips in favor of an extra day in a region I was already visiting, such as Touraine.

After all, some decisions about where to visit were based on sights to be seen, too, and what would the point be of coming to the Loire valley without seeing a few of its stunning châteaux?  When we decided to spend three nights in Tours, we knew we wanted to get out of the town and see some of the countryside and royal residences.  We debated the relative merits of being total tourists and booking tickets with a tour group versus figuring out train schedules and new locations on our own, and decided that the tour group was the best way to go.  After all, it's all tourists at the châteaux anyway.

We considered a few different tour companies, and opted for Acco-Dispo.  They offer full-day or half-day tours that allowed us to see different châteaux on different days.  On the Friday morning tour we chose, we saw Chenonceau, the most visited of all Loire châteaux, and then had a choice of visiting the royal châteaux d'Amboise, home to François I and two other French kings, or Le Clos Lucé, home to Leonado da Vinci during the last three years of his life.

We met our guide, Cécile, at the Tours tourist office around 8:45 am, and once the rest of our tour group arrived (a Japanese mother-daughter pair with limited English and very little French, and an "Australian" woman of Asian descent who spoke good English as a second language), we were off.  On the drive, Cécile entertained us in carefully-enunciated English with stories of queens and kings and mistresses and the affairs that built Chenonceau.  When she was done, she played a recording of the same information in Japanese.  Knowing more about the people who lived there made the experience of visiting the château richer.

The path to Chenonceau is lined with tall, stately, shady trees.  The three women seen headed down the path were on the tour with us.

When we got to the château, we discovered that the front was being restored.

Good thing no one comes to see that side of the château.  At Chenonceau, it's all about the view from the river banks.

Chenonceau is constructed across the Cher river.  While she lived there, Diane de Poitiers, mistress to Henri II, decided she didn't want to have to walk to the bridge to cross the river - she wanted to be able to cross the river without leaving the comfort of her home.  Diane built gardens around the château, such as this one:

The interior of the château was, for the most part, fairly typical - richly decorated rooms filled with tapestries and paintings and elaborate furniture.  I wonder how much of what is shown to be in Diane's bedroom today was actually hers - I would guess almost nothing.

Awkward fact: when Henri II died, his widow, Catherine de' Medici, ousted Diane de Poitiers and took up residence at Chenonceau herself.  Her room was at least as fancy as Diane's.

The bridge over the river is a beautiful, light, airy room with plenty of windows for admiring the view.

But my favorite part of the château was the kitchens.  You descend down a stone staircase to see the larder, pantry, butchery, and a servants' dining quarters.

Oh, and did I mention the bread oven, complete with baskets for baking bread?  I want one of these in my house!

Our time at Chenonceau was limited - we had about an hour to see all of the grounds and interior.  I would have liked to spend a little more time in the gardens, but instead we'll have to make do with one last look out over the river.

And then it was on to the town of Amboise!  The crown jewel of the town is the royal Château d'Amboise, which overlooks the village from its hilltop perch.

While François I was king, he invited Leonardo da Vinci to visit him at Amboise, and in 1516 the king gave Leonardo Le Clos Lucé, a manor house just 500 meters from the château.  Leonardo lived here until his death in 1519.  (It is because of Leonardo's residence in France at the end of his life that his most famous painting - and perhaps the most famous painting in the world - resides in the Louvre in Paris.)  Today, the house is a museum devoted primarily to Leonardo's extensive genius for invention.  The basement is filled with dozens of models based on some of his most innovative sketches, including the first helicopter, the first hang glider, the first ball bearings, a turning draw bridge, paddle boats, Achimedes' screw, inflatable life savers... It's pretty astounding what he came up with.  Le Clos Lucé has a few animations available online to show off some of his ideas.  And all this in addition to his painting!

Unfortunately, the manor house does not allow photography, so you'll have to go to see his genius for yourself - it's well worth the visit.  The only image I have of the premises was taken from the extensive grounds, showing a model of his helicopter and the house:

The helicopter is attached to the ground and definitely not flying away any time soon, but it does spin, much to the delight of babies and onlookers alike.

Our time in Le Clos Lucé was very limited as well - it would have been great to have a little more time to see more of the extensive grounds surrounding the house, which feature many life-size models of Leonardo's inventions.  I would have liked to see a little of the town of Amboise, too, which looked decidedly cute during the quick drive through town to the manor house.  But it was not to be on this trip.  The other three ladies on our tour were off to see another three châteaux that afternoon, and for our part, we were back to Tours for the remainder of the day.

Coming soon: crêpes and reine de reinettes and mirabelles and every good thing on our last day in Tours.

A bientôt,