Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Hottest Ticket in Town

Last Sunday it was actually sunny (sadly, this is becoming more rare as winter sets in. And it doesn't help that the sun doesn't rise until about 8:30am and sets around, oh, 5pm.).  So we decided to walk down to the Champs-Elysees to check out the new Marks & Spencer.  This, of course, is a British department store (ish?) that was once in France, left, and has now returned.  We wandered in the front door and saw a mass of people huddled in front of us.  All around were women's clothes.  We were confused - were they waiting for a dressing room?  Was this a whole confused tourist bus? 

But as we drew closer we realized that the crowd had gathered to wait for the opening of the food section, which apparently opens somewhat later than the clothing parts.  It was a classic French line, in which people were cutting and there was even some early jostling.  Once they opened the gates, however, it was like watching Black Friday meets Supermarket Sweep (remember that TV show where you run up and down the aisles grabbing all the food?).   Old women literally shoving their way in, and other old women yelling at the poor shlub whose job it was to only let so many people in.

We've been in France for five months now, so we knew enough to use our stroller to push our way to the front. Yeah, that's right. And then - and this must be one of those human nature things - we joined in the fray.  Everything was exciting and British and not French!  We should try it!  And so we bought things like English muffins (yum) and mincemeat pies (which have no meat in them) and terrible sandwiches (why, in Paris, would we buy pre-packaged British-style sandwiches?) and gummy candies and some Indian chickpea dish and chocolate.  The last was particularly hilarious, when we later realized that we bought something called "Swiss chocolate" in a British store in France. 

But I do want to give a shout-out to the British for the mincemeat pie situation.  Delish!  It is unclear whether anybody purchases clothing at Marks & Spencer, or just English food.  And why is British food so exciting for the French, you ask?  Seriously, no idea.  Yet as we left the store we saw a huge line of people outside - on the Sunday morning before Christmas, apparently this was the hottest ticket in town.  It's clear we have our finger on the pulse of Parisian culture. 

Tomorrow night we're going to the ballet, which I should be more excited about.  But as all of our English-speaking babysitters have gone home for the holidays, we are hiring our first French (as in, doesn't really speak English) babysitter.  I'm sure it will be fine, especially as I am forcing Mr. Oil to come home early from work in order to explain to the sitter how to put Baby Oil to bed.   I'm also a bit distracted because we are leaving in just a few days for a week in Portugal, which we are very much looking forward to.   So let me just now take a moment to say - happy holidays! Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, Happy Birthday Mr. Oil, and Happy New Year! Let the latke-eating commence!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Fancy Fancy

I wore the nicest dress I brought to France last Saturday night to attend our first Parisian cocktail party.  Now, I have to admit that I don't own any 5 inch heels but actually the shoes at the party were not crazy.  The party was hosted by one of the moms from my playgroup and her husband, who is moderately high up in their country's embassy here in France.  They have a huge apartment paid for by the embassy with the expectation that they will entertain (they also have three children) so, as the mom explained, she felt like having a holiday cocktail party was practically expected. 

The first thing that differentiated this particular party from other friends' parties we have attended in the US is that there were waiters (that's right US friends, it's time to kick it up a notch).  A few came around with lovely passed hors d'oeuvres, but my favorite waiters were the ones with the champagne bottles who would just keep refilling your glass.  There were other drinks too, of course - I believe Mr. Oil enjoyed some nice Jameson as well as Guinness (can you guess the nationality of the hosts?).  But you know me - I'm a champagne girl.

Several other moms from playgroup were there, with their spouses, and we had a great time sipping champagne and not having our babies with us. Of course the next morning I remembered why the waiter refilling your glass again and again might not be such a brilliant idea when your child wakes up the next morning and wants to crawl/walk/fall all day long from the moment he arises to the moment he finally conks out.  But it wasn't raining so we went to the Marche de Richard Lenoir near Bastille. This Sunday morning marche is one of the largest in Paris and although it is true that the products are not markedly different from what we can get in our neighborhood, it's always fun to check out another marche.  Also we had warm, fresh churros - I have no idea why they sell these here but man were they good.

After the market we took the metro all the way out to La Defense - the very end of metro line 1.  I had been talking for weeks about wanting to visit a big Christmas market so I was super disappointed when we got there and it was LAME.  Lamer than lame.  Chintzy, cheesy, full of crap that even tourists don't want to buy. And why do they only play American Christmas carols?  Don't they have French Christmas songs?  I don't even celebrate Christmas and I'm annoyed.

So we ditched the Village de Noel and headed into the big mall at La Defense.  Where we learned how to have an American Sunday in Paris - go to the mall, get a Starbucks latte, and visit Toys R Us.  Yup.  And we totally own the awesomeness of this afternoon.  Just look at how much fun Baby Oil had at Toys R Us!

And just in case you had forgotten how totally fantastic France can be in her own special way, I give you this photo of a card I saw in a store yesterday.  The card is a "Congratulations on your new baby" card, but it really says oh-so-much about France:
Because all French ladies wear sexy lingerie while bottle-feeding their babies.

Friday, December 9, 2011


Last night Mr. Oil and I attended a wine-tasting course offered by WICE, an anglophone organization here in Paris.  The event was about the wines of Bordeaux, with a "wine master" leading the tasting.  This was part of the numerous activities I signed up for in the first month or so of moving here so that we would have things to look forward to.  And also when I was feeling like euros were monopoly money. 

Not surprisingly, we were the youngest people there by quite a bit.  One guy was maybe around 40; everyone else was our parents' age (no, you guys aren't old, really, just oldER).  But perhaps surprisingly, we actually enjoyed ourselves quite a bit. 

At first we were overwhelmed and feeling absolutely out of place, as everyone else discussed previous tastings, and dinners with $70 bottles of wine, and trips to vineyards, and soil.  And when Tom, the wine master, started speaking, it seemed like a foreign language.  Because we simply did not realize that people actually said things like, "We like our wines to be disciplined in our mouths" or "You need to relearn what merlot means when you come to France" or "they oaked the he** out of that wine."  We did manage not to laugh out loud, though I couldn't resist whispering to Mr. Oil, when Tom asked to identify what we smelled in the first glass, "I smell wine?" 

The first two rounds were a bit of a guessing game. We had two samples of wine in two identical glasses in front of us.  One was from the left bank of Bordeaux and one was from the right bank (news flash: there is a left and right bank in Bordeaux! the wines are different!).  Apparently the left bank is more "gravelly", more "black/blue fruit", more "masculine".  Right bank is more "red fruit", more "clay-y", more "roundness." Still I say, smelled like wine to me.  It didn't help that I have possibly the worst sense of smell in the universe.

But by round two of left bank vs right bank, we were hitting our groove.  Words like "deep", "dry", "fruity", and "juicy" starting rolling off our tongues and we were in there with the big kids, debating the merits of the two samples.  I actually got it right, at which I point I may have exclaimed, "YES!" with a certain level of naive enthusiasm that probably underscored again the fact that we had no idea what we were talking about.  I also jumped on a bandwagon of ridiculous analogies to classical music, in which I claimed I got the answer right because I could smell the Beethoven in the one wine (as opposed to Chopin in the other).  Possibly now everyone at the event thinks I know stuff about classical music. 

Tom also told us to make sure to take a moment to "love our wine."  Which basically means - just because we were sitting around over-analyzing in overly intellectual ways the characteristics of these wines doesn't mean we shouldn't also just enjoy them.  And this was nice to hear, since my general approach to wine is - if it tastes good to me, then I like it.

We tasted seven wines, which range in price from 40 euros - 70ish euros a bottle. In other words, more than we spend on wine, for sure.  And while I'm not sure I can tell when the "structure is integrated with the fruit" or predict whether the "new oak will integrate with the flavor" or what "complexifies" a wine, I did learn something about wines from Bordeaux and I also learned that people who talk the wine talk may also be full of bullsh*t half the time (except for Tom).    So there's no reason that we can't talk the wine talk too!

If you're curious, here's a list of the wines we tasted.  6 of the 7 were 2004 wines - "young" wines that are beginning to be drinkable but should improve in the next 6 years.  Oh, Tom also told us not to be afraid to start our own wine cellar - though I did point out to Mr. Oil that this seems to require having, oh I don't know, a cellar?

1. 2004 St Emilion Grand Cru Classe, Chateau La Tour Figeac
2. 2004 Pessac Leognan, Chateau Haut-Bailly
3. 2004 Pauillac 5th Cru Classe, Chatue Haut-Batailley
4. 2004 Pomerol, Chateau Guillot Clauzel
5. 2004 Margaux 3rd Cru Classe, Chateau Ferriere
6. 2004 St Julien 2nd Cru Classe, Chateau Leoville Barton
7. 1998 St Emilion Grand Cru, Vieux Chateau Chauvin

And just a note about this last one. Which was definitely the best.  I mean, that was legit good stuff.  As Tom starting smelling it (because we would take several sniffs before even venturing towards the palate), he started exclaiming, "Figgy! Figgy!"  You have to love and respect anyone who speaks with such unequivocal reverence about their subject matter.  Listening to Tom expound on the smells of the '98 St Emilion - "Carrot!" "Some rust!" - with exuberance and true passion made us feel like we too could shout "Figgy!" to the heavens and happiness would rain down upon us. Or something like that.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Black Hole

I've fallen down a deep, dark black hole and I'm not sure how to get out.  Nor do I especially want to.  This black hole has a name - butter.

That's right. I'm talking real, creamy, salty butter spread thick all by its lonesome on a nice hunk of bread.  Butter.  Oh how I love thee.

My first step down this black hole happened a few weeks ago when I was offered a sample of freshly churned butter.  I thought to myself, "how does one sample butter?"  And I looked on skeptically as the butter man spread butter as thick as the bread itself, and then handed it to me.  Naturally, I ate it despite my skepticism.  And it rocked my world.

Previously, I've seen butter as an additive. You cook with it, you bake with it, occasionally you put it on toast.  And honestly, we usually use "I Can't Believe Its Not Butter" on our toast - or at least we did in the US.  Butter alternatives here are slim.  But this bite of butter forced to realize that I had completely undercut the value of butter.  The flavor. The texture. The everything.

I ventured further into the black hole one night when Mr. Oil was working late and, on my own for dinner, I ended up eating half a baguette - with butter.  For dinner.  That's right.  Now I find myself searching for every opportunity for that butter fix.  I'm even forgoing cheese to eat more butter. Which is how you know this is serious. 

At some point, I believe my waistline and/or arteries will rebel.  Or maybe I will stumble on my next great obsession.  But for now, I'm deep within the black hole of butter - and lovin' every minute of it.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Picasso, Whipped Cream, & Cookie Cutters - just another week in Paris

It is gray most of the time these days.  But its not depressing, at least not yet.  A bit somber, perhaps, but I mostly feel like it is now even easier to imagine Paris as it was in previous eras.  Sunshine in Paris almost feels artificial, like this city is too good to be true when it is beautiful and sunny.  Gray and cloudy is the real Paris.  And with a only a few sprinkles of rain here and there, we have still been out and about.  Adorable baby peacoat and all.
Clouds and chilly weather can't stop Baby Oil

Last week, with grandparents B'nana and Papa P, we saw a fantastic exhibit at the Grand Palais about the art collected by the Steins (as in Gertrude, but also her siblings).  Definitely one of the most phenomenal collections of Matisse, Picasso, and other artists of that time that I've seen in one place.  And one of the things we really liked about the exhibit was that it wasn't just about the art - it was also about the people who bought the art, who talked about it, who held those famous Saturday night salons to debate art and politics and who-knows-what-else.  Don't we all wish we could live in a time when we'd be invited over to a small left bank apartment replete with not-yet-famous Matisse and Picasso works, to drink wine and have lively discussions?  Very Midnight in Paris, I know, but no less true for me anyway.   I have to think that Gertrude Stein did not worry over much about what to make for dinner every night, which seems to be a major topic of "lively discussion" in our house! 

But the highlight of the exhibit was when an older woman came over to me, as I held Baby Oil, and said, in English with an elegant European accent, "Thees baby iz more beautiful than all of theese expenseeve paintings."  I turned to Papa P and said, "Well, I think our work here is done." 

On their last day in Paris, we went to the Jardin du Luxembourg, which is lovely in a different way in the winter than it is in the summer.  There are no flowers in the flower beds, but the flower pots along with the upper level of the main garden hold huge bouquets of brightly-colored mums in orange, yellow, or purple.  We walked through some of the charming small streets of the surrounding neighborhood and made our way to Patisserie Viennoise (hat tip David Lebovitz) to make sure that Papa P could get his whipped cream fix.  And if you like an iceberg of thick whipped cream on top of a not-hardly-sweet, thick-but-not-too-thick hot chocolate, then you too should brave getting side-swiped by a bus on the ridiculously narrow Rue d'Ecole de Medecine.  Only after we got there did I remember the warning that David Lebovitz gave when he wrote this place up (which was basically that you could easily be hit by a bus).  But here was our reward:

And to make sure that the grandparents did not leave France hungry, we went to an excellent dinner at Yayin on their last night.  This kosher restaurant in the 17th opened two years ago and bills itself as "nouvelle cuisine juive."  Duck with an amazing spiced sauce, chicken with savory yet not over-powering Indian flavors, bass served flambe (literally, the waiter lit my mother-in-law's fish on fire at the table - so cool!), veal schnitzel, etc.  Molten chocolate cake for dessert, of course. Yum.

I love being served things in mini Dutch ovens (cocottes)!

Yesterday I checked another item off my ever-growing, ever-changing list with a visit to E. Dehillerin.

If you want to buy (crazy expensive) copper pots or other (crazy expensive) kitchen wares, this is a great place to go.  You walk in, and immediately feel like you are in a store room.  If you walk down into the basement, then you really feel like you are in a store room.  Because why would you send customers into this:

In a few weeks, I am supposed to be hosting a holiday cookie-decorating event for the expat English-speaking moms group. I have no idea if anyone will come.  And Baby Oil doesn't even eat cookies yet (because chouquettes and brioche are totally different, right?).  So naturally I treated myself to some (overly expensive) very authentic cookie cutters from E. Dehillerin.  And really, how could I not buy a cookie cutter shaped like the Eiffel Tower!

Monday, November 28, 2011

So Much Wine, So Little Time

Remember when we went to the wine fair in Colmar and it was a total bust?  We went because Mr. Oil attended a wine fair in Paris 10 years ago and remembered it being the most amazing thing.  Well, the wine fair in Colmar stunk. But I now know what Mr. Oil was talking about, because this weekend we went to the Salon des Vins des Vignerons Independants, which is a huge wine fair for independent vintners in France.  I'm talking more wine in one place than I have EVER seen, or will likely ever see again (at least until next year's event). We are talking about over ONE THOUSAND wineries.

Like Bordeaux?  Over 200 Bordelais wineries were present.  Champagne girl like me?  29 Champagne makers - and then remember that at each station, you could sample multiple wines.  Fancy yourself some Chateauneuf-du-Pape?  25 wineries from that appellation. 

It was a seriously crazy experience.  Held at the Parc des Expositions at the Porte de Versailles, we took our longest metro ride to date and then made our way through this huge exposition center to the wine fair.  The website had said tickets were a reasonable 6 euros each.  Somehow, we got in for free - we wrote our names down on a piece of paper, were handed two tasting glasses, and ushered into the center of the wine universe. Each of the circular white signs you see in the photos was a different winery.  The signs were color-coded by region, so you could, for instance, hunt out all the yellows if you just want to drink champagne.  Or you could make sure that you tasted something from every region - Mr. Oil insisted we simply could not leave until he had tasted a Corsican wine.  And then...does that sign say Savoie?  We need to try that!  Did we try a Jura?  What about Languedoc?  Wait, is that another Champagne? (Am I getting predictable with the champagne bit?)

We spent over 2 hours here, tasting many delicious wines, until they all started to taste...the same.   But of course that didn't really stop us.  Because not only were these really fantastic wines, you could buy them at each stand, directly from the vineyard at ridiculously reasonable prices.  Champagne for 14 euros (about $18).  Grand cru bordeaux for 18 euros, or even less.  Somehow by the time we left, we had acquired six bottles of wine - 3 Bordeaux, 1 Cote du Rhone, and 2 bottles of Champagne (one was for Banana and Papa Pie - Mr. Oil's parents, and really, I didn't even come up with the names - who watched Baby Oil while we drank wine after wine after wine). And while it was fun to seek out Grand Cru and Premier Cru wines - the kind we would never pay for in a store - they weren't necessarily any better than other wines.  You know, because we have such sophisticated palates and all.
Mr. Oil with our purchases

Extraordinarily pleased with ourselves and giddy at calculating our savings as a result of not paying a babysitter, we then treated ourselves to an excellent dinner at Kifune, a truly authentic Japanese restaurant where the hostess and the one and only waitress wear kimonos, where Japanese customers are handed Japanese menus, where the food was fresh and delicious. 
Our boat of sashimi (sorry the photo's blurry, but remember we had just been at a wine fair)

Salon des Vins des Vignerons Independants - your name is a mouthful, but you were unforgettable. Endless thanks to Baby Oil's grandparents for making the night possible!

Thursday, November 24, 2011


Just a quick post to say - happy Thanksgiving!  While there is nothing about this day here in Paris to mark it as different (though I did appreciate the sign in an English-language bookstore: "Thanksgiving is November 24 - an American tradition!"), I do want to give thanks for our family and friends who have been so loving and supportive as we jumped headfirst into the move-abroad-with-a-baby thing, and I also want to give thanks to Paris. Yes, Paris is a city, but she is taking on a personality all her own for me.  She has quirks - like the old woman who cut in front of me at the store earlier this week, despite my screaming child, oh and the other old woman who cut in front of me at the store yesterday despite my non-screaming-yet-very-cute child - but she also has so much to love.  The streets, the buildings, the bread, the butter, the macarons, the chocolates, the moustaches, the cafes, the marches, the parks, and so much more.  We are very lucky to have this opportunity to really get to know this place, but we are definitely thinking of home on this most American of holidays.

And for a Thanksgiving giggle, here's a conversation that took place in my playgroup last week.  It happened that this day, I was the only American along there with 4 British women. If you're not an American and you're reading this, don't take offense.  We don't actually expect everyone to know about our holidays but we can still find this stuff funny.

British Mom 1:  Is today a special American holiday? What's it called? Thanksgiving? Is that a holiday?
Me: Thanksgiving is a holiday, yes, though it is actually next week.
British Mom 1: But it's a holiday? British Mom 2, weren't we just wondering about this?
British Mom 2: Oh, right! Thanksgiving? Is that really a holiday?
Me: Yes, holiday. 
British Mom 2: But what do you do?
Me: Well, mostly we eat. Turkey. Stuffing. Etc.  It's very widely celebrated in the US.
British Mom 1: But why?
British Mom 3: I know! It has something to do with the pilgrims.
British Mom 2: I thought it was the harvest?
Me: [Wracking my brain as I pretty much could not remember why we celebrate Thanksgiving either] Um, right! Both.
British Mom 4: But if you eat turkey on Thanskgiving, what do you eat on Christmas?
Me: Well, actually, we don't celebrate Christmas because we're Jewish but I think...ham? More turkey?
British Mom 1: Wait, you don't celebrate Christmas? But you DO celebrate Thanksgiving?
Me: Yes. Correct. That's right.
British Mom 1: You don't celebrate Christmas AT ALL? Isn't there some way to make that holiday work for the Jews?
Me: Not so much.
British Mom 1: But you have another holiday for presents, right?  Oh, I know - Hoo-na-ka!

But I still give thanks for the playgroup - some weeks they are my only adult interactions!

Happy turkey - and for us, and Mr. Oil's parents who just arrived, it'll be happy bread & cheese!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

So Full

We had a relatively unplanned but no less excellent day in the 20th arrondissement today.  The Newyorkifornians are still in town, and we decided to visit Pere LaChaise, the famous Parisian cemetery.  I have a thing for cemeteries - not in a morbid or macabre way, but simply because I think its amazing to wander through and imagine what life was like for the people and families buried there.  Pere LaChaise has to be one of the most peaceful places in Paris. It is also said to be the most visited cemetery in the world, but it felt like new ground to us.

The cemetery opened in 1804 and is still in use today.  Any number of famous historical figures are buried there - from Chopin to Oscar Wilde to Edith Piaf to Jim Morrison - but visiting the grave sites of the famous isn't of great interest to me.  I like to look at the names and dates of unknown people - to notice who died young during the years of World War I, who passed away after a long life through the Belle Epoque, to imagine what it must have meant to family members to design and dedicate a tombstone in 1847.  It is the history major in me who loves to meander through the evidence of generations, traditions, memories, wars, illnesses, love and respect from the past 200 years of Parisian life.
Pere LaChaise
Mr. Newyorkifornian had a brilliant idea which I would love to see become a reality.  If you've ever visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, you know that when you enter, you are handed an identity card of someone who died in the Holocaust, with a few tidbits of information about their life, their family, etc.  His idea is that when you come to Pere LaChaise, you should be able to pick up a card that would tell you about one regular person or family (regular = not famous), with a little about their life, the times in which they lived, etc.  How amazing would it be to feel like you were able to dig a little deeper into what is already a fascinating experience!  

(As an aside, an unpredicted benefit of the visit was that pushing the stroller on the cobblestone hilly "streets" of the cemetery put Baby Oil right to sleep, and allowed me to burn off some calories that I would promptly replace later that day.)

Following Pere LaChaise, we decided to make our way up to the Belleville area.  We'd heard promising things about this neighborhood on the border of the 19eme and 20eme, plus I had two spots I wanted to visit from David Lebovitz's The Sweet Life in Paris. 
Exploring the 20eme

Belleville was originally a separate village outside of Paris, but was incorporated in 1860.  The main street, Rue de Belleville, is exactly what you want a Parisian street to be - full of boulangeries, fromageries, boucheries, etc - with a splash of New York thrown in - lots of cars, crowded streets, a more urban feel than our neighborhood.  We headed straight for Boulangerie 140 and Brulerie Jourdain.  David Lebovitz wrote that Boulangerie 140 (named for its address, 140 Rue de Belleville) has some of the best bread in Paris, so we picked up a baguette and a loaf of delicious-looking sesame bread for good measure. And some chouquettes.  Also, the Newyorkifornians went with an apple-coconut tart with a blow-your-mind crust. 

While waiting for Brulerie Jourdain to re-open after their afternoon break, we stepped into Fromagerie Beillevaire.  It is everything someone with modern American aesthetic taste would want from a French fromagerie - cheerful signage, bright lights, and over 400 cheeses carefully selected and many in fact ripened in the proprietors' caves.  Two cheeses - one hard (forgot to note the name in my excitement of its perfect flavor!) and a Brillat Savarin (now officially Mr. Oil's favorite French cheese) - went into our bag along with our goodies from Boulangerie 140.

At Brulerie Jourdain, I practically felt the caffeine seeping into my bones from the intense aroma of coffee permeating the store.  Honestly.  It makes me consider the idea of coffee perfume - if I could smell that all day, why wouldn't I!   

They roast their own coffees on the premises.

Our final happy discovery was Patisserie de L'Eglise, just around the corner on rue Jourdain. I absolutely love when the most delicious looking patisseries turn out to have deliciously rich histories.  This particular shop has been around, in the same location, since 1887! Such lovers of history as Mr. Oil and myself had no choice but to leave with mouth-watering, drool-worthy, heart-stoppingly-fabulous pastries - the caradou and the tarte triollo.  The caradou involves a caramel and milk chocolate cream on a hazelnut biscuit - and they manage to make the biscuit soft and inviting without being mushy.  The tarte triollo was our favorite - though you should not underestimate the power of the caradou - fresh figs, almond-pistachio AND white chocolate cream on a vanilla crust.  For a rich, creamy and buttery treat, it actually managed to taste refreshing.  Good thing I pushed that stroller up those hills in Pere LaChaise because I am now so full of bread, cheese and pastry thanks to Belleville. 
Caradou on the left, Triollo on the right

Thursday, November 17, 2011


I'm continuing to reflect on our trip to Lyon - not so much on Lyon itself, but on the whole idea of travel and what it is that I get out of it. 

Of course, it's wonderful to go to places that are home to particular historical sites of interest, or are just so completely different from anywhere you have ever been.  The thing about Lyon is that it isn't different from places I've been. In fact, it's a lot like Paris, though smaller.  And in some ways, a bit like Strasbourg, where we went a few months ago.  Yeah yeah, they have this whole silk industry thing, and the food thing.  But really, isn't all of France a gastronomic delight? (Correct answer - yes).

Part of me thinks that one huge privilege of being able to do all these weekend trips is that some places will be amazing and some places not so much.  Not every trip can be the best trip, right?  There was nothing wrong with Lyon, but I can't say that in 5 years from now, I will remember much about it other than being there with good friends.

Of course, I will remember the cola-flavored macaron

Another part of me thinks that the kind of travel we are doing in France allows us to really focus on getting a sense of what life is like for regular people (unclear whether we are regular people in this particular situation - probably not).  The Lyon Greeter program definitely furthered this idea for me.  It's a brilliant concept - the city, in an effort to promote tourism, allows you to sign up for a free "guide" for an afternoon.  We thought this would be like a free tour guide, but it turned out that Guillaume, our greeter, didn't seem to know all that much more about Lyon's history than what I had read and geekily memorized from the guide book.  But we all loved hanging out with Guillaume (we prefer to call him Guy - pronounced "Ghee" - though we have no idea whether he's okay with that nickname) for the afternoon.  Around our age, he's currently expecting his first child.  So we had some nice conversations about how to travel with kids, and whether traveling must end after you start a family (obviously, we don't think so - or we are just crazy).  We talked about his job (works for a free weekly paper), about why he lives in Lyon, about where he likes to travel, about what is different between Lyon and Paris.  He led us through Vieux Lyon while we had these discussions, and it's not to say that he didn't take us to some nice sights. He did.  By the end, though, it really felt more like we had just spent a few hours hanging out with a cool guy from Lyon as opposed to a tour.  Which was probably preferable, to be honest.

The third part of me thinks I am way over-thinking all of this. So Lyon didn't blow my mind. Fine. What I'll take with me from the weekend is images of a lovely city and memories of restaurants with seriously intense food (blood sausage and tripe are just two super meaty items that appeared on almost every menu), some awesome games of Settlers of Catan, a cranky baby, and one luxurious 30 minute bubble bath.

Our next trip will be our first trip to another European country outside of France since we moved - we'll be spending a week in Portugal at the end of December.  The next five weeks will be all about soaking up the Parisian holiday spirit, and feeling inordinately pleased at the cuteness of Baby Oil's new uber-French navy blue pea coat.


I know I said I would write more about Lyon, and I will.  But I want to share with you the grueling, excruciating, ridiculous process it takes to run one errand in France.

Last week I bought an iPhone case for Mr. Oil at Darty.  He didn't like it (surprise, surprise).  So I went back to the store today to a)return the case and b)purchase an immersion blender (gotta support my new soup habit). 

Ready to run an errand with me? Here's what we have to do:

1. Go to cash register. Explain I want to return something.  Get sent to the basement.
2. Go to basement level. See crazy long line. Looks like the same line I know I have to wait in for the blender. 
3. Go get blender. By that I mean, go wander around the blender section until I find an employee willing to talk to me.  Then, point to blender I want.  Get told they are all out. Point to another. Get told they are all out.  Then said employee looks for the cheapest immersion blender in the computer, and lo and behold, informs me that I can purchase only the immersion blender that I originally asked for. 
4. Pay for blender. Get ticket.
5. Return to crazy long line. Wait.
6. Wait, while watching random French rap videos.
7. Get to the front, give in my ticket for the blender and explain about the return.  That employee takes my ticket and promptly disappears. But not before informing me that I have to wait in a separate line at the cash register next to him in order to do the return.
8. Wait for the guy to reappear with my blender.
9. Watch more French rap videos.
10. Wait in the other line to return item. Hand the guy the item, only to get handed a ticket and informed that now I have to go back to the cash register I started at in (1).
11. Wait for my blender.  The guy never comes back but somehow my blender has appeared on the counter. 
12. Take my blender, go back upstairs to the original cash register. Wait in the line. Hand in my ticket for the return. Get my money refunded.

I'm not sure whether this is all part of France's ploy to ensure the maximum number of people are employed at every store, or just to discourage you from doing nice things like trying to buy your husband an iPhone case that he may or may not like. 

Monday, November 14, 2011

Baby in a Closet

We just spent almost four days in Lyon, which is a two-hour TGV ride southeast of Paris.  We chose Lyon because a) we hadn't been there, b) it is relatively close, and c) it is considered the gastronomic capital of France. It's difficult to describe Lyon - it is at the same time an incredibly lovely city and just another city. 

We were thrilled that friends of ours who happened to be in France (as part of a multi-month travel bonanza - they'd already been to Morocco and Israel, and are heading next to South America - amazing) agreed to crash our anniversary trip and come to Lyon with us.  While we love traveling together, we also miss quality time with friends and the arrival of the Newyorkifornians came at a perfect time for us as we've been a bit friend-sick. [Giving them this name because they are traveling between moving from New York to California - and if you ask them where they live, it's hard to get a straight answer.]

On the Newyorkifornians' first night with us in Paris, we stumbled upon the opening of yet another pastry shop in the neighborhood that was celebrating with free champagne and free pastry.  A great way to welcome friends to the city, for sure!
The Newyorkifornians

The truth is, the trip got off to a brutal start for us. Baby Oil was up from 2am-6am the night before we left, which is unusual (perhaps should have been worrisome?) and just sucked.  We boarded the train on no sleep, and while Baby Oil napped on the train, the screaming child in the seats across the aisle prevented either of us from napping. 
We were so tired, we didn't care if our kid crawled around the hotel lobby with no pants on.

We arrived in Lyon on no sleep, couldn't get Baby Oil to nap in the hotel, so Mr. Oil crashed in the hotel and I took Baby Oil for a stroll in order for him to sleep.  But this walk was my first glimpse at the traditional European beauty of Lyon.

By the way, this day of exhausted suckiness was also our fourth wedding anniversary.  Awesome.  But the day picked up with a stroll through Croix Rousse, a funky gentrifying neighborhood with cool shops and great cafes.  We saw a sign advertising hot spiced wine at one cafe, and we knew we were finally getting somewhere with Lyon. Of course, we also made time to stop at a chocolate store where we sampled the "famous" coussin of Lyon.  I say "famous" because the woman told us it was a known specialty but I remain unconvinced.  Basically, it's a rectangular shape candy of almond paste with chocolate in the middle.  Eh. Unimpressed.  I preferred a different version with fruit jelly in the center - I tried blueberry which was sweet and juicy.

However, Les Halles Paul Bocuse was our first true a-ha moment.  We went early Saturday morning - and then returned with the Newyorkifornians for lunch the same day.  Home to several dozen stands or shops, ranging from the traditional fromageries and boucheries to a number of oyster bars to pastry shops and more, it is a food-lover's paradise. For lunch, I had quenelles-in-a-cup.  A quenelle is a traditional Lyonnais speciality (though served in other places) that is a "sausage" made from fish.  If you're thinking gefilte fish - yes, it's similar, but much lighter and a more neutral flavor.  Quenelles-in-a-cup is gnocci-sized quenelles served, in my case, in a delicious spicy tomato soup. 

Even more up my alley were the unique macaron flavors at Seve. I experienced my first savory macaron - gorgonzola sesame.  Strong flavors, but surprisingly good.  The three sweet macarons I tried were coing (quince), licorice, and cola.  If you want a perfectly formed macaron where the cream literally bursts with the brightness (and almost the fizziness!) of cola, then this is the cookie for you.  We also sampled a praline pastry at another shop, drawn in by the attention-grabbing red glaze.

You know you are traveling with real friends when they give up dining at a Paul Bocuse brasserie because your kid is sick, exhausted, and needs to go to sleep early - and instead, are happily willing to eat burgers (beef, chicken, and fish), drink wine, and play Settlers of Catan in your hotel room while said kid sleeps in the closet.  (The baby-in-a-closet sounds less bad if you know it was a large enough closet that the porta-crib fit with room to spare.)
After a bottle of wine, there's a lot of fun to be had with baby gear.

Fortunately, we were able to make to Le Sud, one of Paul Bocuse's four brasseries, the following night instead.  And were we ever glad to have made it!  The food looked, smelled, and tasted amazing.  Le Sud features flavors of southern France, so there was quite a bit of fish and seafood on the menu.  Mine came with a rich and creamy risotto that was simply fantastic.  Even the ceasar salad dressing was exceptional. 

I plan to post again on Lyon and share a few of Mr. Oil's photos.  I remain both impressed and unimpressed with Lyon, but overall a favorable flavor remains on my tongue (tastes a bit like a cola macaron...). 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Kitchen Tales

I've continued to channel my inner Julia Child following my successful pastry experience at the Cordon Bleu (though, to be honest, I am ready to take a break from eating pastries).  So on Sunday, I made Julia's french onion soup.  I had a brilliant plan in which I would make the soup, including the part where you stand over the stove and stir onions for 30 minutes, while Baby Oil napped.  That plan, naturally, was summarily ruined when Baby Oil woke up super early from his nap.  So then I had to stir onions while wearing the baby on my back.
That's right, I'm wearing my Cordon Bleu apron. Duh. So would you.

Today I tackled another personal challenge - a whole fish!  The guy at the poissonerie told me it would be "tres facile" and actually, it was.  Except for the moment when I took the fish out of the fridge and realized I was going to have to touch the fish. Touching ensued, and it wasn't even as gross as I thought it would be.


For good measure, I whipped up this awesome roasted applesauce for dessert.  I definitely feel like I'm rocking the whole cooking-in-France thing - we've come a long way from burned pie! Mr. Oil brought home pain d'epices from Poilane that we thought would go well with warm roasted apples. Which it would have, if it had not been TERRIBLE.  That's right, I'm hating on Poilane.  David Lebovitz and Dorie Greenspan may love it to no end but we do not feel the love. At all.  Mr. Oil goes there regularly as there's a location near his office and we've tried many of their offerings. Chausson aux pommes - eh.  Pain au seigle - more like pain au sits in your stomach.  The standard Poilane bread is okay.  Good for sandwiches.  But the pain d'epices (aka pain d'pricey) is like eating the dryest, most over-cooked honey cake that someone's mother (but not Greta) made for Rosh Hashanah. We are seriously considering sending Mr. Oil back to Poilane tomorrow and reporting that the loaf was inedible and we want our 12 euros back.  And don't get me started on the fact that Mr. Oil spent 12 euros on this (though, after my caramel expenditures, I can hardly complain) brick of spices. If I dropped it off our balcony, I think I could seriously injure someone.

On the theme of food, Mr. Oil had a memorable experience this weekend.  He went to an outdoor market with some friends, and stopped at the olive stand.  So he sampled a few, and asked for a small amount of a few different kinds of olives. Olive Guy takes his scoop, and digs into a big vat of olives - which happened to be none of the ones that Mr. Oil asked for.  Olive Guy tried to hand Mr. Oil the big bag of olives that he didn't want, and Mr. Oil politely (I'm assuming, I wasn't there) explained that in fact he wanted a few other olives.  And in a true Seinfeld-comes-to-life moment, the Olive Guy dumped out the bag of olives and promptly declared, "Non! I don't sell olives like that."  And then refused to sell Mr. Oil any olives at all.  (Everyone say with me, "No olives for you!").  Mr. Oil left in protest (he says protest, but I could point out that he also had no other recourse). 

Onion soup, whole fish, applesauce - and it's only Tuesday.  We're heading to Lyon this weekend so we have to start making room in our stomachs as it is supposed to be the gastronomic capital of France. Stay tuned...

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Just Call Me Julia

Child, of course.  It is cliche, but since I'm living in France and all, I have to lay claim to this legacy at least once.  And wouldn't you feel like Julia Child if you spent a day learning how to make fresh pastries at Le Cordon Bleu?  That's what I thought.

I wasn't sure what to expect from the six-hour, one-time class. I knew it was for folks on vacation and wanna-be cooks, and I wasn't sure if we would really learn or do much.  Of course I was prepared to spin it as amazing either way, but I'm happy to report that it was just really, completely, totally great.

Le Cordon Bleu is located in an unassuming building deep in the 15th arrondissement, in a fairly middle-class neighborhood with no reason for tourists to come.  Upon arriving, I was handed an apron and shown into breakfast, where coffee and, duh, fresh pastries awaited.  I probably should have thought ahead to my total pastry consumption for the day when I dug into breakfast, but I did not.  Sorry waistline.

The class was taught by Chef Daniel Walter, who is absolutely everything a French pastry chef should be.  He's in his late 60s, with that French charm that surpasses any language barrier.  The class was translated into English by a vivacious woman who seemed to know a lot about pastry and had a warm, teasing relationship with the Chef that made for a very entertaining day.
The chef is the guy in the chef's hat. Tricky, I know.

Our first task was to roll out the croissant dough for the first turn.  The dough has to be made the day before, so that was the one piece we didn't do ourselves although they did teach us how to make the dough later in the afternoon.  So you roll out your croissant dough into a big circle.  Then take a giant slab of butter.  Give it a few good whacks with your rolling pin to soften it.
Me, whacking my butter
 Put the giant soft slab of butter in the middle of your dough circle, and fold the edges over to envelope the butter completely.  Roll it out.  Fold it (if you really want the details on how to fold, I'll tell you but it's not worth explaining right now).  Stick it in fridge to rest.

While the croissant dough was resting, we moved on to work with our brioche dough.  Which is similar to croissant dough, except it has eggs and more butter. Also croissant dough has a bit of milk in it.  Because of the high butter content, you have to avoid playing with the dough or it becomes gooey and really hard to work with.  We made a few different types of brioche - small brioche tete, large brioche tete, brioche nanterre (fancy name for "in a rectangular pan") and kugelhopf.

What the small ones were supposed to look like
What mine looked like

After forming the brioche, we set them aside in a special machine for them to rise in a controlled environment.  We pulled out the croissant dough, and moved on to the fun stuff - more turning (pastry code for "folding") and the actual formation of croissants and pain au chocolat.

You roll out the dough again - and it isn't supposed to thicker than 3mm when you're done rolling - and then you cut it into triangles. At the base of each triangle, cut a small vertical slit. Then roll from the base up, with your hands angled out.  Look, I drew a picture.

Forming the croissants was really fun, though more difficult than Chef made it look.  Also, the other side of the giant granite island seemed to be full of ringers whose croissants were looking eerily perfect. At one point I mustered the courage to ask one girl if she had any experience baking and she explained that she was here from the Czech Republic where her family owns and operates a bakery.  Ha! Ringer! I knew it.
These are Chef's croissants.

Lunch was none too shabby either.  It's a cold buffet, and based on reading other bloggers' Cordon Bleu experiences, they pretty much always serve the same thing. Which is smart, cuz its delicious. Here's my lunch plate.
Might have looked better if I ate the ham with cantaloupe, and the shrimp salad that goes inside the avocado.

After lunch, we worked as a group to make pain aux raisins and the Chef's favorite pastry, kouign-amann. Here's my glory shot spreading the pastry cream for the pain aux raisins.
I'm so intense!
Kouign-amann (or as I like to call it, "mmmmm....oh my god amazing.") is a speciality in Brittany. In a country that has an ongoing love affair with butter, this treat is considered by many Parisians and other French regions to have too much butter. Seriously.  So in Paris, they've reduced the amount of butter and sugar used. Essentially you take croissant dough, but when you roll it and turn it, you incorporate generous handfuls of sugar.  You end up with a long rectangular piece of dough glistening with sugar.  Lay one end on a baking sheet, and place thinly sliced apples in neat columns across the tray. Fold the dough over the apples so they are completely enclosed by dough. Bake. Eat. Love.

The finished product - warm, buttery, sweet with the warm apples....mmmm. I would add a little cinnamon. But it was pretty perfect.

By the end of the day, we had more pastries that any of us knew what to do with. The counters were simply lined with them and I can't begin to describe the smell in the room.

My finished product looked pretty awesome.
That's right. These are mine.

It took two full paper bags to bring home all the goods to Mr. Oil.  We promptly began fielding them out - first to friends J & M visiting from London, and then we brought some over to Mr and Mrs Magnum in return for them feeding us dinner.  Sadly I don't think we'll get to eat them all before staleness hits.  As for recreating this at home - I'm sure I will try when we're back in the US.  Because why would I spend hours and hours doing this in our tiny kitchen when I can walk two blocks and buy a fresh croissant!  I feel certain I will purchase a kugelhopf mold before we leave Paris.  And of course I will be searching out kouign-amman at every possible opportunity!  It was good to be Julia, even just for a day. 
My kugelhopf

Look how happy this made me