Friday, July 27, 2012

France, 2012 - Paris

Metro in Place Pigalle
After five fantastic days in the Southwest of France I boarded the TGV in Agen and headed for Paris. A few people have asked me about the train ride, and I have to say - it was one of the most uncomfortable I've ever experienced.  Not only because it was hot and crowded (I chose my car poorly) but there was almost no luggage storage, which may have been partially to blame for the fact that a woman's full-sized suitcase fell down out of the tiny overhead bin and landed squarely on my head about halfway through the trip.  Thankfully it was more shocking than anything else, but I caused quite a ruckus, let me tell you.
Bar du Marche - Paris
I'd been to Paris twice before and I was prepared for crowds and had a pretty good idea of where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do, but I still found it a little oppressive somehow.  I used my first day, which was a national holiday to explore a bit (a lot of places were closed) and on the second day I went "shopping" I put that in quotes because I didn't actually buy anything.  On the third day I was sick - which was a drag, but I was really glad I didn't have to get on a plane, which had been my original plan. I barely made my flight as it was, after the shuttle no-showed, and the Air France bus hit crazy traffic on the way to the airport the next morning.
Les Negociants Cafe - Paris
The other day, I heard a story on NPR about something called "Paris Syndrome."  Apparently when some people go to Paris, they are so disappointed by the reality that they actually suffer a kind of emotional breakdown. Japanese people appear to be particularly susceptible, and it's theorized it's because depictions of Paris in popular culture there idealize Paris so much. My experience wasn't as extreme, but I can see how Paris can let people down.  The expectations are just so high - its Paris, after all!  But it's also a real place, full of real people going about their real business.  Everything is expensive, there are lines wherever you go, there are as many Americans as French people on the streets (at least in the busiest areas) it's expensive, it's not always easy to get around, and the weather is fickle - rainy and gray one day, hot and sunny the next.
The Seine from Pont ConcordeOn past visits I've used the Batobus to get around Central Paris - and I highly recommend it.  It runs up and down the Seine with stops at the Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Musee D'Orsay, Notre Dame, Ile de la Cite, Place Concorde, etc.   It's a great way to see all of those sites in a short period of time. This time I was staying on the left bank in an area near the Latin Quarter, so I used the Velib bikes and the Metro for the most part. To use the Velib bikes without a "chip and pin" credit card, you need to buy your pass in advance on the internet and then activate it when you get there. Jordan of Oh Happy Day! lived in Paris for a year and has a nice little guide here. You'll have to punch in a long pin number when you check out a bike (check the tires, I had one with a flat) but it's not too much of a hassle.   The bikes are better than walking over long distances, but can be a little nerve wracking when you don't know your way around. One thing I was REALLY glad I did was pay in advance for an international data plan for my iPhone, so I could use it for directions.  It saved my bacon a few times. Velib bikes - Paris
I was primarily focused on food on this trip and I had a short list of places I knew I wanted to go.  At the top of my list was Rue Montorgueil and the nearby cookware shop E. Dehillerin.  At E. Dehillerin you wander around and find what you need, then record the item number and look up the price in a large book near the front counter.
E. Dehillerin - Paris
It was crowded and there was a line for the only salesman who spoke English, but I was able to check out the options and they do mail order, so when the time comes I will have that stainless steel lined heavy duty copper sauce pan of my dreams. The prices are very reasonable, even with the exchange rate.
Copper cookware in the window at E. DehillerinRue Montorgueil is a street of food shops located near Les Halles, the original home of the storied wholesale food market of Paris which was relocated to the outskirts of town in the 70s and replaced with a tacky indoor shopping mall.  Rue Montorgueil itself is lined with innumerable cafes, cheese shops, produce stands, bakeries, boucheries, confiseries, chocolatiers and on and on.  David Lebovitz' guide to the area  is full of great tips and information.  I went to most of the places he mentions including Mora, the pastry supply warehouse, where I was taken aback to find a large selection of Wilton brand cake decorating supplies on the shelves - the same stuff you can buy at any old Michaels craft store in the US. I was hoping to find some interesting little things to take home, but the selection at Sur la Table in the States is actually better.
Rue Montorgueil - Paris
Early summer produce was already flowing in - there were mountains of stone fruit, cherries, plums, nectarines and apricots all looking absolutely perfect and beautiful.
Rue Montorgueil - ParisJust about every third or fourth shop on Rue Montorgueil is a fromagerie, all of them carrying a dazzling selection.  In San Diego we have a grand total of three stores like this - all of which are owned by the same company.   By comparison the volume here truly is astounding.  Rue Montorgueil - Paris
Sadly, I was not permitted to take any pictures of the beautiful displays of baked goods in the patisseries and boulangeries.  The picture thing was really a problem in Paris - NOBODY wants you to take pictures inside any kind of store, and most of them have large signs up and will really yell at you if you violate their policy.  They couldn't stop me from taking a few on the outside though - Stohrer has a beautiful shop front and mosaic entry as well as a dazzling display of pastries, breads and sandwiches.
Stohrer on Rue Montorgueil - Paris
A lot of cafes also have these inlaid entries.  These are pretty much a thing of the past in the U.S. - a few have been preserved but they're usually throwbacks to a bygone era when the business had another name.
Stohrer Just around the corner from Rue Montorgueil is La Droguerie - stocking ribbon, yarn, buttons, beads and other accoutrement for sewing projects.  I did snap a photo in there when I thought no one was looking, just before the clerk dove in front of my phone screeching at me.
La Droguerie - Paris One area I would have liked to explore further was the Rue des Martyrs and Oberkampf.  I biked up there on my first day in town, but everything was closed for the holiday.  I had a book with me full of listings for trendy stores called the "eat shop" guide - and it had listings for a lot of fun places in that area - vintage stores, thrift shops, antique shops and cafes - most of which looked to be relatively affordable.   Paris - Rue des MartyrsSpeaking of Hermes, after exploring the Les Halles/Montorgueil area, I hopped on a Velib bike and rode uptown to find Pierre Herme and pay a visit to the Hermes flagship store on Rue Faubourg. (No relation between the two, at least that I know of.) I'm a bit of an Hermes fangirl, but on this occasion I was just window shopping.  I didn't take any pictures at Pierre Herme, because -  guess why - but the shop is a gorgeous little jewel box just a few blocks away.
Hermes - Paris All in all, Paris is great - amazing even. It's something you just have to do, but you just can't expect it to be the be all end all compared to everywhere else in the world.  I've eaten better in San Francisco and New York - maybe in part because I know where to go in those cities and they're a little easier to navigate without the language barrier - but I don't think that's all there is to it.  Other cities have gotten better, while Paris has stayed largely the same, or maybe even become bogged down by all the tourist hordes that descend on a daily basis, looking for the flakiest croissants, the most sublime oysters, and most ethereal bread.  If you look in the right places, I'm sure you can find those things - but you can in most other major cities in the world these days too. In spite of all my complaining, I did manage to eat pretty well while in Paris.  I'm working on a separate post about that - coming soon!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Kale with Baked Eggs & Cherry Tomatoes

I posted this photo over on Instagram earlier this week when I made this for dinner, and it received such an enthusiastic response I thought I'd post the recipe over here.  It was inexpensive, delicious, easy, healthy and quick - all the things you want in a weeknight meal! Hope you are eating well this week!

Kale with Baked Eggs & Cherry Tomatoes
Serves 2

Olive Oil (decent quality, but not necessarily your very best)
1-2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
red pepper flakes

A handful of cherry tomatoes - halved if more than 1/2 inch across
A Head of Kale - thinly sliced crosswise down to the point where the center ribs become thick  (if the center ribs are especially large, remove them before slicing)
4 eggs

Salt, Pepper & fresh Reggiano Parmesan cheese for grating & lemon if desired

Heat the oven to 400 degrees.  In a medium/large oven-safe frying pan, gently heat enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan with a tiny bit of depth - about an eighth of an inch.  Add a few generous shakes of chile flakes and the sliced garlic and cook gently for five minutes over medium heat, to infuse the oil with the flavors.  If the garlic starts to brown, the heat is too high.  (Remove any garlic slices that burn or turn deep brown.)

Add the cherry tomatoes to the hot oil and cook about 3 minutes, until slightly softened.  Add the sliced kale and toss with the hot oil to coat.  When the kale just starts to wilt, crack the eggs into the pan and put the pan into the oven.  Set the timer for 10 minutes and turn the oven light on.  Cook until the eggs are just opaque but still runny (the yolks should jiggle if you shake the pan.)  Remove from the oven and grate a generous amount of parmesan cheese over the whole thing, and season with salt and pepper and a squirt of lemon on the kale.   Serve with toasted baguette or sourdough bread.   (You can also just put a lid on the pan and cook the eggs that way if you don't want to turn on your oven, but the kale may get a little brown.)


Monday, July 09, 2012

France, 2012 - The Rest of Monflanquin and Villeneuve Sur Lot

Picnic with a view in Monflanquin

When not touring around the local area or taking field trips to Bordeaux, my time in Southwestern France was spent mostly in Monflanquin, a small town in the Lot et Garonne region (#47 to be exact).   This is where my friend Vince has a house that I stayed in for the first half of my trip.  One evening we picnicked at a table perched on the edge of the hill the town sits on - so much so that there is a bench only one side of the table.  The view was incredible and the food simple but perfect.  (Now that I think about it, this was a recurring theme in France.)
On a walk around Monflanquin On other evenings, we went exploring on the trails spiraling down the hill and around the town...
Menu at Terrasse des Arts'cade - Monflanquin
And we ate in the local restaurants.  There are three almost literally within a stones throw of the house.  One is directly next door, with a terrace you can see from the kitchen window (we call it "the bar") as in "I'm going down to the bar for a coffee."  The thing to do here is order the "menu" - a set meal of two courses with a "verre de vin" (glass of wine) and coffee for 12 Euros.
Aldayaa Lebanese Restaurant - MonflanquinThis Lebanese restaurant run by a lovely couple is just across the street from Vince's house.  It is brand new and when we told them it was Vince's birthday they pulled out all the stops.  Eventually we had to tell them to stop bringing us food.  (The fact that it was just across the street was also very handy when I started nodding off after the digestif.)
Aldayaa Lebanese Restaurant - MonflanquinThey had the cutest little dog.  Just one more reason to love France - they treat their dogs like people. Now that I think about it, the dogs act like people too.
The little dog at Aldayaa We had a post dinner love-fest with him in the lounging area of the restaurant - where you take your aperitif, and your digestif or apre dinner coffee.  This would never happen in the U.S.  (Either the lounging area or the dog.)
The little dog at Aldayaa One morning we went to the nearby town of Villeneuve sur Lot - about twenty minutes away.   This is the place for your big box stores, the hospital, police station...  All of those things you need but don't necessarily want to look at.  They have a big market on Saturday mornings, making it a good day for an excursion.
The Market in Villeneuve sur Lot
A large indoor market building houses the prepared foods, charcuterie, meats, seafood and poultry - including hot rotisserie chickens.
Charcuterie at the Market in VilleneuveWe went to a cafe for coffee, and they didn't have pastries but the server pointed Vince in the direction of a nearby bakery called B. Letainturier. Specifically, I think she said, "There is one there, but the good one is over THERE."  The pastries Vince brought back were so good I had to find the bakery and check it out.  They had gorgeous desserts and chocolates. (I got a box for the friend I was staying with in Paris.) I didn't get any good photos of the place itself, but I did manage a nice shot of these little "cochons" in the case.
Pastries at B. Letainturier Patisserie and Boulangerie in VilleneuveWe also snagged a piece of this "crostade" which though simple was fantastic. I was really impressed with this place.
B. Letainturier - Bakery in Villeneuve sur Lot On Sunday, my last morning in Monflanquin before catching the train to Paris, we went to the "Vide Grenier" - a local sale sort of like a flea market - but with individual families selling their wares. It's basically like a massive garage sale, and the prices vary wildly.  I was limited in what I could buy because I could only carry so much home (and I still wound up having to mail a box!) but it was really hard to resist some of this stuff.
At the Vide Grenier - a "boot sale" style flea market - in Monflanquin
I wound up picking up a few things:  a set of stainless steel footed gelato dishes like these that I had been looking for so long I couldn't believe my luck (3 euros!), a couple of Ricard aperitif glasses, a tablecloth, some vintage postcards, a vintage toy accordion, a beautifully illustrated vintage copy of  "Puss in Boots" in French.  I think I walked around the whole time saying "I wish I'd brought an extra suitcase." That would have just been a problem though, since Air France coach only allows one 25 kilo piece of checked baggage per person and I was over as it was.
Vide Grenier - a "boot sale" style flea market - in Monflanquin From the "vide" we went straight to the train station at Agen, where I boarded the TGV for the half day journey to Paris Gare Montparnasse - more on that coming soon!