I just had to take a picture of this charismatic gentleman sitting outside a cafe. Taken on a Sigma 17-50mm F2.8 EX DC OS lens, focal length 38 mm, ISO 160, 1/125s.
24 hours in Paris? I hear you sigh and the sigh may be that of sympathy at such a short time had in the city of lights or perhaps it's the sigh that says "Oh I love Paris..." Either way, it was a most productive time had there. Taking the three hour train ride from Amsterdam to Paris with Rail Plus, with the "mothership" or monster luggage in tow, we arrive in the city of lights. It will be a day of wine tasting, pastry tasting and macaron making and just when you think it couldn't get more exciting, well then something happens at the end of the day that just floors you. But I digress, please read on Dear Reader...
Have you ever visited a city and wanted to see it as a local does? As far as food is concerned, that's what I hope to do in every city rather than get suckered in by tourist traps. Today, we are seeing things through a local's eyes as we embark on a day "Meeting the French." This concept seeks to connect visitors with a French local who is expert in their field.
I've visited enough vineyards to make my head spin but if you really want to get your head around wine with a French local then a visit to Myriam's apartment is a must. The Parisian who lives in a charming courtyard facing apartment conducts wine and cheese tastings with a difference. She speaks about wine in a way that renews interest in the subject and studying linguistics and working at a wine shop ensures that she verbalises ideas about wine with clarity and logic.
We try two whites and two reds and she hides the bottles so that we don't make any prejudgements about a wine. We tried Sauvignon Vin de France 2010 "Chez Charles", Noella Morantin (100% sauvignon), Loupiac 2007 Château Loupiac Gaudiet (80% semillon + 20% sauvignon), Le Picatier Vin de France 2009 "cuvée 100%" domaine Pialoux (100% gamay) and Côtes du Roussillon 2010 "Georges" Domaine Puig-Parahy (granache + carignan + shyraz in approximately equal proportions). Wine bottles are more straightforward in Australia than they are in France with each grape variety shown. In France, there are three levels of a wine:
Step 1 - Vin de France
Step 2 - Vin de table
Step 3 - AOC (App)ellation d'Origine Controlée)
And how do you know the type of wine that you will buy? From the region of France that it came from with each region specialising in a particular grape. For example Burgundy has pinot noir, Loire Valley Sauvignon and Chenin and the further south you go, the more likely you will be to encounter blends and that is where you find higher alcohol levels.
She shows us the wines under lights to see the difference between them and talks about the characteristics to judging a wine (keeping in mind that as everyone says, there is no wrong answer). Myriam tells us what to look for visually: the dress (la robe), the drops (les larmes ) or legs (jambes) and then once you smell it, you are looking for the nose (le nez). The more legs, the higher the alcohol content and the browner the wine, the older the wine.
A lunch of bread, cheese, salad and wine is served and the three cheeses are wonderful. The comte, a favourite of mine is served alongside a gorgeous Ste Maures goats cheese and a washed rind cheese. The comte is a wonderfully nutty hard cheese that has been aged and the simple soft leaf lettuce salad with a simple oil and vinegar dressing and crusty bread slices make up the perfect lunch.
And before we go, her last piece of advice when it comes to categorising wine is to break it up into one of these five categories:
fruits like citrus fruits, white fruits, red fruits and berries
flowers which are the hardest ones to recognize
vegetal and spices - the smell reminding of a walk in the forest after the rain, moss, grass, mushroom etc
animal - the "foxy" smell for example or body parts ...
grilled/toasted/burned items such as a toasted piece of bread or a flat tire
Our next stop has us taking part in a tour of the Latin Quarter with another Meeting the French guide Roberto who tirelessly trawls the streets of Paris in search of the best chocolates and pastry (now is that a dream job?). He shows us his latest find: Gregory Renard who is a chocolatier who also makes divine macarons.
We try the mango and jasmine, violet & blackcurrant and pistachio and I particularly like the mango and jasmine which has an unexpectedly tropical surprise of luscious sweet mango in the centre. Macaron cones like the ones sold here are usually used for communion whilst the croquembouche is reserved for weddings.
Shelves are lined with giant cocoa pods rendered in chocolate as well as mendiants, caramels, chocolate coated nuts and the signature boxes are brown with white French script writing. We leave with a box of his macaron treasures.
Eclairs at Carl Marletti
Our next shop is heaven to me - cakes!! At Carl Marletti, there is a fashion parade worthy line up of cakes as far as the eye can see in a range of colours and shapes, all looking delectable and chic. Choosing is difficult although the simple citron tart is always going to have a place in the box as well as choux creation Lily Valley which is a violet religieuse and a praline mille feuille and the mont blanc chestnut cake.
For good measure they kindly give us some buttery sugar cookies which are a bite sized piece of heaven. Each cake is around 4.80 and we take it to a nearby cafe to eat (usually this is not permitted but Roberto sought permission ahead of time and we also ordered drinks).
The Lily Valley is a choux based confection filled with violet custard with each choux made crispy with baked in sable biscuit. It is finished off with icing and violet shaded squares of caramel. The floral perfume of violet is refreshingly unusual and the crunch and softness of the sable choux and custard a lovely contrast.
The award winning lemon tart is an example of perfect balance. Just the right amount of glossy topped lemon custard with the perfect amount of tang fills a crispy tart base that crunches in the mouth.
The Mont Blanc is a slender chestnut and cream mousse studded with small pieces of chestnut. I adore chestnut and the prolific way that they use it here. This is so very light and not overly sweet.
The last one, a praline mille feuille is flavoured with rich, toasted hazelnut cream and has two caramelised puff pastry layers. Admittedly, I prefer the Pierre Herme mille feuille as that had additional layers of gavotte and a more tightly packed puff pastry.
A little trip to nearby Rue Mouffetard shows a fantastic range of shops, fromageries, fish mongers and fruit and vegetable shops. Asparagus is in season so fat spears of white asparagus sit up proudly in enormous bunches.
Roasted chickens - the potatoes are cooked in the rendered chicken fat
Olivier & Co is an olive oil shop started in 1997 in Provence. Here they sell what they consider to be the creme de la creme of olive oil - from a sample of 600, 25 are sold here (including one Australian brand whose name they can't recall).
On each label they display the farmer's name, the orchard (they don't use blends) and the type of olive used in the oil. They also remind us that olive oils can only age for 2 years before they need to be discarded. We taste an olive oil from Nice which is mild and would pair nicely with fish. We then try another one from Sicily which is bold and grassy and this would pair well with a pasta dish.
He explains the history of argumato olive oils. To clean the olive press they used to use citrus fruits to cut through the oils. Then they realised how good the end result was and started pressing the fruit together with the olive oil to make an infused olive oil. We try a pairing of lime olive oil and mango extract and it is wonderful together, the pure mango hitting the lime olive oil at just the right flavour point and he recommends this for fish.
Our last stop is Mococha started by Marie Helene Gantois. She sells chocolates from three different chocolatiers: Patrice Chapon, Fabrice Gillete and Jacques Bellanger. She also has a range of macarons including an intriguing tomato macaron which is still sweet but with a herby flavour-unusual!
Speaking of macarons...no day is complete without a macaron class. What more could be more quintessentially French than a macaron. These line the displays of patisseries, shops, even supermarkets sell them in the freezer section. Each of these pretty little two sandwiched confections is light as air and as sweet as a first kiss. Admittedly they're easier to make here and in less humid climes than the ones we enjoy in Australia but as I learn at La Cuisine Paris, they're not insurmountable, even if you have a deficit of time.
Today we weigh, sieve and make a syrup using the Italian meringue method which is a more stable method of making macarons where sugar syrup is whipped with egg whites to form a base to combine with tant pour tant which is a 50/50 mix of ground almonds and icing sugar. Our instructor Jenny from Ohio formerly worked at Ladurée where they turn out beautiful, classic macarons. Today we are making two flavours: salted butter caramel and white chocolate and strawberry.
I've done a few macaron classes and it seems that everyone does them quite differently in slight ways although the proportions are very similar. Here, unlike at the Baroque and Adriano Zumbo classes, there isn't any deflating of the macaron mix, instead, Jenny raps the macarons on the counter to remove air bubbles and deflate them.
The bird's beak shape
One interesting tip from Jenny was that the way to know whether your egg white mix is ready is to whip it until it is either 50C and the bowl is not longer too hot and when you remove the whisk and place it to the side, you get a bird's beak shape. To know when your macaron mix is ready before piping it, you lift it and if you wait 10 seconds then a peak should start to flatten out and by 30 seconds it should disappear.
This is an interactive class and I get on with making the caramel while others start melting chocolate for the ganache and sieving. It's a surprisingly quick process as there are five of us rapidly piping and filling the macarons and Jenny tells us that she doesn't leave them to develop a skin.
They actually look lovely and even those piping for the first time without using the silpat with size guides are able to turn out fantastic looking macarons. Alas, like with all macarons, they need to rest in the fridge in order for the shell to absorb the flavour of the filling so we shall have to wait until the next day to eat them!
We have a quick moment back at our hotel room which is the Sofitel Arc de Triomphe. Considered to be somewhat of a secret hotel because it is hidden away near the Arc de Triomphe down one of the eight avenues that branch off from the enormous monument (which I will learn about all too well later tonight), it is undergoing some significant construction.
The room is simple and not as luxurious as other Sofitels although there are nice touches like Hermes toiletries, a nice robe and slippers. There is also a tiny Juliet style balcony, and the location right outside the 4th floor elevator is not ideal as you can hear groups of people bidding each other good night constantly during the night.
Two pluses are the bed, which is very comfortable and the fact that you can have your included breakfast in your room or in the salon downstairs. Breakfast is a nice affair too with a pastry basket included as well as proper loose leaf tea, a range of Lenôtre jams and honeys and a choice of egg dishes. I chose an egg white omelette with bacon, mushroom and tomato but it only came with bacon. The omelette itself wasn't bad and had a good amount of flavour to it where some egg white omelettes lack this.
Following from the meeting the French theme, dinner tonight is at La Brasserie de l'Isle Saint-Louis, chosen because it was former Paris local Rafael's family brasserie. On the Île St Louis, perhaps my favourite place in Paris, it sits on a busy intersection alongside the Seine River. Here, the waiters are friendly and there is a giant poster of choucroute looking down on us. There is an English version of the menu and we examine it trying to decide what to order.
Inspired by the smell of the choucroute that wafted past and the poster facing I had to order it. What was surprising was how enormous it was and how it looked just like the one in the poster. There was a chicken and herb sausage, a kransky, a knackwurst, a slice of bacon, a slice of simmered pork, black pudding, potatoes and an enormous mound of sauerkraut. The black pudding and the simmered pork were my favourites and it was impossible to finish at a serving this size! Canny travel writer P. Bella took one of the sausages and some bread for the long train ride the next day.
The cassoulet with the range of meats, sausages, bacon and white beans was fragrant with thyme and wonderfully rich and rib sticking.
Steak avec sauce au poivre
I tried some of the steak with pepper sauce and it was very good, perfectly cooked medium rare and with a copious amount of well seasoned fries.
Dessert was some scoops of Berthillon ice cream in pistachio, salted caramel and raspberry. My favourite was the raspberry in lieu of my favourite flavour being out (apricot).
But my encounters with Parisian locals haven't finished there. I'm tired so opt out of going out to a bar. Instead I hop into a taxi assuming that Rafael has told the taxi driver the address as he was told to (wrong...and you know what they say about assumptions). However the taxi driver has no idea where the Sofitel Arc de Triomphe is and once we reach the Arc de Triomphe he asks me which street to go down. It looks entirely different from the night before when we arrived so I look around confused. "Are you sure we are at the right side of the Arc de Triomphe?" he asks. He speeds down one street looking for the telltale scaffolding but like a tauntingly cruel mirage, it appears that several hotels in the area are undergoing construction.
The fare to the hotel should have only been 10-12 and I only had a 20 note and some change so I am watchful of the fare and I tell him that I only have 20 and tell him that I should get out and walk because I don't have any more money. He tells me not to worry about it and says that we will find the hotel. He looks up the address is his French search engine to no avail as there are four Sofitels in Paris and the results only return one which is the wrong one. I try and text someone but bewilderingly, my text won't send nor will any phone calls work.
I search the room key and slip for any trace of the address and there is nothing apart from the name Sofitel. He stops at several hotels asking if they know of the hotel's address and none of them know (see, it really is secret!). He calls his friend while I sit in the back seat cursing having forgotten my itinerary with the address (the first and last time that happens). He sits in the front calling my escort Rafael all sorts of names for not telling him the address (and I'm sure there were some curses for the tres stupid girl for not bringing the address with her). Everything looks oh so different late at night - I had even found the way home from the station a few hours earlier.
Finally, he stops. By the process of elimination we've finally reach the correct Sofitel and there's the smiling doorman completely unaware of our exhaustion and the last hour spent in the taxi screeching down all of the nearby streets. I thank him profusely and he turns around in his seat and asks if I know why he helped me. He fixes me with a sombre look. "Tomorrow" he says swallowing deeply, a serious look on his face "or maybe tonight, I will lose my friend to cancer" he says close to tears. "I wanted to do this gesture for him, to please him" he says before screeching off into the night.
So tell me Dear Reader, have you ever been lost in a city? And if you had to choose what you prefer, would it be: wine, cheese, chocolate, macarons or cake?
NQN visited France as a guest of Accor hotels, Skyteam and Rail Plus
Sofitel Arc de Triomphe
14 rue Beaujon, 75008 Paris, France
Meeting the French
La Brasserie de l'Isle Saint-Louis
55, Quai de Bourbon, 75004, Paris
Tel: +33 (01) 43 54 02 59
No reservations, ferme le mercredi