Monday, October 31, 2011

Butternut Squash

If you read my last post, you might think that "butternut squash" has some deeper meaning, like rutabega. It doesn't.  In my continuing quest to conquer domestic tasks here in Paris, I realized recently that making dinner doesn't bother me - it's deciding what to make that does me in.  So I turned that responsibility over to Mr. Oil (he's not complaining) and he asked if I would please make butternut squash soup.

So I went to the verger and bought a whole butternut squash for the first time in my life. I found a delicious-sounding recipe on - creamy butternut squash soup with sherry.  At the store, I asked the man if they had sherry.  Well, I said, "Pardon, avez vous "sherry"?"  He clarified with the French word for sherry (xeres) and I thought I was home free.  I said, "Oui! oui!"  He replied, "Oui? Non."  As in - I know what you want but we just don't have it.  I asked why, and he claimed that the French don't use sherry - they just use wine.  Cook with wine!, he said. As if I was a five year old. I said, can you recommend a wine?  And he said, "Wine! White wine, red wine, in France we cook with wine."  He walked to the back shelf, grabbed a demi-bouteille of cheap cabernet sauvignon and handed it to me.  With a look on his face that said, "you American idiot." 

Red wine or sherry, the soup was amazing. I am not a food blogger (well, I blog a lot about what I eat, of course, but not about cooking) but I will say - make this soup. It is awesome. Using French butter, French leeks and French wine also helped.   Recipe here.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


It's time to face facts - I have more of a potty mouth than I should, and as Baby Oil gets older, I recognize that this needs to change.  It's a problem for Mr. Oil too. I blame summer camp (my friend Elysa and I used to incorporate as many swear words as possible in any given sentence throughout every camp session), and also The Wire.  And we've been watching The Sopranos, which isn't helping.  So we came up with plan Rutabega, in which we insert the word "rutabega" anytime we have the desire to use profanity. 

For example, "What the rutabega is your problem?"  Or, "Holy rutabega! This patisserie looks awesome."  So when I asked Mr. Oil if he was looking forward to our exploration of the 9th arrondissement today, his reply was, "Abso-rutabega-lutely!"

But for the first part of our day, we were underwhelmed.  The neighborhoods we walked through simply didn't seem to have as much personality as other parts of Paris.  We even went to a kosher restaurant for lunch that we had heard was good, and were disappointed.  In what might be the biggest rip-off in Paris, we attempted to buy bagels at a decent looking bagel shop - and then they wanted to charge us 3.40 euros (about $5) for two plain bagels. To go. With nothing on them.  We said, "Rutabega that!"
I did appreciate this sign on Rue Cadet

To make up for our disappointment, we stopped into A La Mere de Famille, a renowned chocolate and candy store.  While this store is now a chain with many locations around Paris, we visited the original shop on Rue Faubourg Montmartre.  I went with a selection of caramels - they have the funkiest flavors, and I'm looking forward to sampling blueberry (myrtille), cherry (cerise), chocolate mint, and others later.  Here are my choices:

Mr. Oil went for the chocolates which, and this is a tough burden to bear, I will also have to sample.  We felt our day improving simply with these purchases.  On Rue des Martyrs we found our favorite place in the 9th - La Chambre Aux Confitures.  Having just opened 5 weeks ago, this is hot-off-the-press info.  They have a fantastic selection of jams, organized by season of fruit.  The jams are made in France, though different flavors come from different locations.  Mr. Oil tried marron (chestnut) which he said was good (but I've already established that I don't like this flavor) and ultimately we went with pear.  Yum. Can't wait to eat it on baguette toast. 

They also have a whole shelf of "confits a fromage" and they provide you with recommendations as to which confit goes best with which cheese.  Plus caramels, chutneys, cocoa, and more.  Now on a roll, we stopped at a boulangerie and picked up a baguette, a mini chocolate cake and a piece of fruit crumble. 

Just to be clear, in our somewhat disappointing day, we managed to purchase the following: 2 bottles of wine, caramels, chocolates, pear jam, and pastries.  I know, it's rough when neighborhoods in Paris are just not up to par.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Norman-Tastic Part Deux

So it turns out that Normandy is more than just D-Day memorials.  It is also the home of camembert.  And neufchatel, and livarot.  All of which I was able to taste during our delicious dinner at Le Pommier in Bayeux.  I went with the cheese plate, and loved every second of the experience when the server brought the most gorgeous and delicious-looking plate of cheeses to my side, explained what they were (in French), I nodded (as if I understood), and I started pointing.  Here's my delicious Norman cheese plate:

The Ninja got a mean mustache from his excellent dessert choice, chocolate ice cream and raspberry sorbet. Definitely blog-worthy, primarily because he did not realize it was there until we all started giggling.

Also in Bayeux we saw the Bayeux tapestry. Which I thought was going to be an old piece of cloth hanging on a wall somewhere.  It is actually 70 meters long (which, fyi, is really, really long), and tells the story of the Norman conquest of England.  Goes like this: Edward is old, he names William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, as his heir. Sends brother-in-law Harold to tell William. Harold delivers the news, and swears loyalty to William. Harold goes back to England, Edward dies, and Harold decides that a better plan is to make himself king.  William agrees with everyone else that Harold is a terrible name for a king, and goes to war to take his throne.  Harold dies, William becomes William the Conqueror and King of England.  And this giant tapestry was commissioned to tell the story to illiterate Normans - it would hang in the Bayeux Cathedral every year for a few weeks.  By the way, this thing is really old - like a thousand years old.  And WAY cooler than it sounds. 

We spent the afternoon in Deauville, which is sort of considered the northern "Riviera" - expensive (I mean, chic) boutiques, expensive (I mean, chic) bistros, etc.  It was cute, though not as cute as Trouville, the town across the street.  Best part of the entire day for me was the apple cider sorbet I had at Martine Lambert.  Martine Lambert has been making ice creams and sorbets since 1975, when she opened her first store in Deauville. Now more widely known and respected, she also has locations in Paris but Deauville remains the heart of the operation.  Normandy is apple country, so in general we had been eating lots of apple-y things.  But this apple sorbet was brilliant - it tasted like fall, like crisp apples and homemade apple cider, and it was just fantastic.

Beautiful apple orchard between Deauville and Honfleur

Our last night was spent outside of Honfleur, definitely in the running for cutest town ever.  It's a harbor town not far from Le Havre (huge international port), and the pictures below sum it up better than words can say.  Samuel Champlain left from Honfleur to explore Canada and ultimately found Quebec City.  You really could almost imagine what it must have been like to sail from this small town one chilly morning into realms unknown.  Love Honfleur. Want to go back.

Before returning to Paris, we spent a few hours in Giverny visiting Monet's home and garden. I know it is even more breathtaking in the spring and summer, but it was pretty darn amazing.  Also, Mr. Oil is an incredible photographer so while in general all the photos on this blog are taken on my shmancy iPhone, most of the Normandy pics were taken by my husband, Mr. "Ansel Adams" Oil (the chocolate mustache shot was all me, thanks).

And that, folks, is the family trip to Normandy.  Two thumbs up - times ten people - that's a lot of thumbs. Dad, here's your blog-worthy moment - thanks for the awesome trip!


The family fun continued with a four day trip to Normandy.  It is hypothetically possible that within 30 seconds of getting the rental car, I managed to scratch and dent the car for which I did not purchase insurance.  I can not verify that in fact I did these things, since I retrieved the car from a dark parking garage, which also happened to be insanely steep and narrow, requiring hard-to-achieve turns as demonstrated by the thick layer of car paint along the walls of the parking garage.  Thank you Avis.

But I decided that ignorance is bliss, and in this case I was going to simply ignore the likely hundreds of euros worth of damage that I *allegedly* and *hypothetically* but not *necessarily* caused.  So our delightful two car caravan of Americans set off from Paris for Mont St Michel.

Mont St Michel looks like a place for fairy tales.  You wind around these country roads off the highway, and you begin to see this magnificent set of steeples, turrets, and rooftops rise out of the sea to greet you.  There is one "street" on the island, and while certainly touristy, is oozing with charm.  Because who doesn't want to stop for lunch on a tiny winding street on a magical island off the French coast.  The fairy tale analogy would be better if it was a castle instead of an abbey, but either way it is old and beautiful.  Only a handful of nuns live there now, though it was once a true monastic abbey.  Turns out that being tourist-central isn't super conducive to the monk life, so they left.

The next day began the D-Day segment of the trip.  Mr. Oil and I watched Band of Brothers last year, so I was looking forward to seeing some of the places we learned about from that amazing HBO mini-series.  Norman towns have embraced their D-Day heritage and while this is driven by the tourism industry, I'm going to put my cynical self on the shelf for a minute and say that the museums and memorials are genuine, touching, informative, and showcase the courageousness of the Allied soldiers but also the pride of the Norman townspeople who both awaited and helped the Allied cause.  It is difficult when standing on the expansive beauty of Utah Beach to think what the morning of June 6, 1944 must have looked like.  After Utah Beach, we visited Pointe du Hoc, where you see huge bomb-made craters and intensely steep cliffs that were climbed in the night by specially equipped Rangers.  You can walk through the German bunker, and feel some sympathy for young German men sent to live in concrete window-less rooms on the Atlantic coast, waiting for an Allied invasion. 
Utah Beach

Pointe du Hoc

Many people hire private tour guides to provide details about D-Day while visiting the sites.  This wasn't necessary for us, as in addition to my dad, we also had our secret weapon, The Professor.  Which is the name I'm giving to my oldest younger brother (he's 13).  The Professor knows more about D-Day, and military history in general, than I will ever know. His retention of military maneuvers and strategy is mind-blowing, and I am pretty sure he could get a PhD in military history just about now - take that, Doogie Howser.

Now, my next youngest brother I will call The Ninja, because he regularly would provide a stealth attack of knowledge and insight about the places we were visiting, and other topics (such as art in the Louvre), when you least expect it. Also, he's really into ninjas. Finally, we have The Hurricane.  That's my 9 year old brother, who manages to be all over the place all of the time with boundless energy, for instance, almost being hit by a car about 47 times.  He also fell for a classic older sibling maneuver, in which I told him that if he got really dirty at Pointe du Hoc, his dirty pants would be blog-worthy.  Mostly I thought it was funny to watch him try hard to get dirty.  But Hurricane, here's your glory shot:

The American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer was our final stop of the day.  Maybe the most iconic D-Day site, the pristine rows of crosses - and yes, Jewish stars - are a stark reminder of what that crucial victory cost.  All told, there were something like 200,000+ Allied casualties of the Battle of Normandy.  About 9,300 Americans are buried at the Normandy American Cemetery, with another 1500+ names inscribed on the Wall of the Missing.  Families were given a choice to have their loved ones' remains returned to the US, or buried in Normandy.  I'm grateful that so many families chose to make Normandy the final resting place for those who lost their lives there, because it's an important memorial for us all.   I'll move on from this topic now, but let me just say thank you to our soldiers, past and present.  Really.

The Norman-tastic trip continues in my next post.

Sunday, October 23, 2011


It's been a while since my last post, which is due entirely to our first family visit.  That would be my family - my dad, stepmom, three brothers, one pregnant sister and her husband - who were in town for the past 10 days.  The funny thing is, I didn't even really feel like I lived in Paris during their visit - it was more like I was on vacation here as well.  So I neglected the blog, even though my brothers were constantly asking when I would write more, and whether whatever hijinks they had come up with were "blog-worthy." 

So let me recap some of the highlights.  We went to Angelina - I hadn't yet actually sat down in the cafe, and I'd heard great things about both the hot chocolate and their famous dessert, the Mont Blanc.  Well, all I can say is - cafe FAIL.  The hot chocolate was, as my brothers put it, liquid chocolate - and more like liquid baking chocolate at that.  And the Mont Blanc is not for those who do not love chestnut paste.  Which, it turns out, none of us do.
The Mont Blanc

Not only was this disappointing, but I also began to worry about whether I'd be able to live up to this blog in terms of showcasing Paris delicious-ness.  Things perked up last Saturday when we attended a festival in the Place de Stalingrad, over where the 11th meets the 19th.  The festival featured foods and wines from all the different regions of France. Except nothing was clearly labeled so while we enjoyed some delicious treats, I don't think I could tell you which region any of it was from.  But the overall impression was certainly that France = yum. 
Giant pan of lard and onions - smelled awesome
big cheese

pot o' praline deliciousness

Another lesson I learned is that getting a group of 6 adults, 3 children, and a baby around takes a long time.  Also, with one vegetarian, 7 kosher eaters, and 1 lactose intolerant, finding something for everyone to eat can be a challenge.  But since I'm pretty sure I gained several pounds in the last 10 days, I think we conquered that obstacle.  With a lot of bread and cheese.  And chocolate. And pastry. And pizza. And bread and cheese. A few macarons as well.

My favorite Paris activity that I hadn't already done was definitely our visit to L'Orangerie, which is a small museum in the Tuileries where Monet's famous water lily paintings hang.  Monet himself imagined the design for this gallery in the aftermath of World War I - he wanted a peaceful place for people to come and take their minds off of war, and all the terrible things that come along with war.  So the first room you enter is simply all white - no paintings, no nothing.  You are supposed to use this moment to clear your mind, and then you walk into the next room, which is the first of two oval-shaped rooms each displaying four large-scale water lily paintings. Baby Oil's favorite part was standing up by holding onto the benches. 

The Paris part of the visit was fairly stressful for me, because I think I was spending too much time worrying about whether everyone else was having a good time.  Also worrying about naptime and lunchtime and diapers and all that stuff.  Once we all left Paris for our four day trip to Normandy (more on that in my next post), I actually felt more relaxed.  Some might contest this statement, but I'm sticking to it.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Special Salt

Among the things that the expat handbooks, websites, discussions, etc really should have included was how to operate a French dishwasher.  We have become used to our glasses looking like this:

On Sunday, we had another family over for a playdate, and when I apologized for the state of our glasses, the wife kindly explained to me that I simply did not have all the appropriate products.  Here's what you need to get your dishes clean in France.

The weirdest product for us, of course, is the dishwasher salt (box on the left).  It acts as an anti-calcium agent, and you are supposed to pour it into a special part of the dishwasher.  Then the liquid stuff, which I always considered optional, is apparently NOT optional in France.  Finally regular ol' dishwasher powder.  Is it possible that tonight we may actually have clean glasses?  We shall see....

And in case you thought life in Paris was getting dull with all this dishwasher chat, please note that we have now entered the stage where I leave the room for a few minutes, and when I come back, Baby Oil is under a chair.
That chair just got a lot cuter.
Let the mobile baby fun begin!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Right Thermometer

Mr. Oil and I had been wanting to go to Kunitoraya for a while (which, since we've been Paris for all of 3 months, can be anywhere from 5 days-3 months).  Our goal is get a sitter once a month so we can go out to dinner, so this month we headed to the place that had been recommended by the blogosphere and by my French teacher.  Also that we had seen crazy long lines at the last time we were on Rue St Anne.

Kunitoraya is a Japanese udon restaurant.  It is small, and several of the seats are right on top of the open kitchen, where you can watch them frying your tempura and dishing up your soup. Of equal excitment is that it is also reasonably priced - you get a hot steaming bowl of delicious noodles in broth with tofu (which is strangely but deliciously sweet), seaweed (too fishy), or different meats for about 12 euros. 
View from our seats

Unfortunately for me, my enjoyment of the dinner didn't last long because I started feeling light-headed as we headed back to the metro.  We got home, I crawled into bed, and the light-headedness morphed into chills.  At about 2am I woke up and said, "Um, I think I have a fever?"  Mr. Oil  said, "Ok, let's take your temperature."  To which I said, "Please don't use the thermometer that has been up Baby Oil's butt." 

He brings in a thermometer, and I asked, "Are you SURE that's the right thermometer? Are you SURE that thermometer hasn't been up our child's butt?" He swore it was the right thermometer, so I let him take my temperature (101.7 - awesome). It was the right thermometer (I double-checked the next morning). Although, at this point, what's a little bit of my own baby's poop in my mouth?  You're retching, but really, I mean, come on. 

Feeling fine now (two days later).  Though both Mr. Oil and myself are not on board with this I-get-sick-once-a-month-in-Paris plan.  Am I not eating enough baguettes? Not drinking enough wine? Not savoring enough macarons?  We all know the answers to these questions.  And I really hope it wasn't the soup, because it was delicious and I want more. Soon.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Cheap Class

Let's get one thing straight - I have never bought or worn perfume.  I always chalked perfume up to one of those girly-girl things, which I was never good at - I was the girl who had never bought make-up before she was 18, and then only because my younger sister said I couldn't go to college without it and I made her pick it out. So the reason I signed up for a walking tour/class on "niche perfume houses in Paris" through an anglophone organization here in Paris was because a) it was the cheapest class offered and b) it was offered on a day when I have my nanny. 

With no expectations, I could not have had a better time.  It turns out perfume is actually interesting!  These "artisan" perfumers are dedicating their lives to creating scents evocative of emotions, seasons, memories, places, in much the same way that artists paint or fashion designers create a new line.  And part of why perfume always intimidated me is because I believed you had to find your one, signature scent, which clearly I had NO chance of doing.  But as it turns out, you are totally allowed to have multiple perfumes and perfume, if stored correctly, never goes bad. 

The first stop on the tour was Divine, a small shop on Rue Scribe that offers just 6 or 7 scents for women and 4 for men.  Divine was started by a perfumer in Dinard, Brittany.  With just one man creating all of the scents, even though each is distinct, they all seem related.  We were a bit awkward on this first stop, a group of six American strangers sniffing perfumes.  As the afternoon progressed, though, we developed a camaraderie, with one of us suggesting that someone else might like this scent, and so on.  Obviously I headed up the let's-all-be-friends-so-I'll-act-like-the-peppy-American-camp-counselor approach.  It totally worked, so I'm owning it.

Montale was our second stop, which was completely different from Divine - think Angelina versus Jennifer.  Montale's perfumes are all inspired by Middle Eastern scents, in particular oud.  Which is some kind of Arabian wood or something.  I did really like this quote that I found while trying to google "oud": A renowned Arab Caliph once said “If I were a merchant, I would only trade in Oud perfume, so that if I did not make a profit, I would have profited from its sensational scent”.   I love the romanticism of it, as if smelling something wonderful would put dinner on the table.
You see how this Angelina compared with Jen above, right?
Montale is apparently huge with tourists from Dubai.  And also Russians, according to the Montale employee who spoke with us, who in particular love their "Chocolate" scent. Which seriously smells like chocolate, so none of us could figure out why anyone would really want to wear it.  Gotta love those Russians for living on the edge like that.  

One of the great ironies about how much I loved my perfume tour was that I have a terrible sense of smell.  Seriously.  Last week there was a piece of rotting fruit in a bag next to my desk that I sit at every day, and I didn't even notice until one night Mr. Oil said, "um, I think something really smells over there?"   But my olfactory nerves seemed to perk up on the tour, and it was fun to use a sense other than my taste buds to explore Paris. 

However much fun I was having, I was not prepared for how much I would simply fall in love with Jovoy, our final stop.  Francois, the founder and owner of the store, spent an hour chatting with us about perfume, the shop, and his story, and he was utterly charming and funny in a very fast-talking-Gerard-Depardieu-without-the-big-shnoz kinda way.  Here's the story.  Jovoy was an old perfume brand that had died out. Francois decided to revive the line, and open up a shop that pays homage to niche perfumers.  So Jovoy, in addition to have their own small line, holds over 600 scents from 35 different perfumers who are all considered "niche".  So if you walk in here looking for Chanel No. 5 or Diorella, it's not clear what kind of reception you'll get.  If you walk in here and you say, "I like scents similar to Chanel No. 5, what can you show me?", then it's a whole other ball game. 

The most fascinating aspect of this store for me were the perfumes that had been recreated to mirror scents used by famous people from the past - notably Queen Mary, Napoleon, and Josephine (Napoleon's wife, of course).  While most of these historical scents don't blend well with our 21st century noses, these is something singular about experiencing the smells of a different age.  We can see what people wore, we can eat what they ate (if we wanted to eat mutton leg, or whatever), we can imagine all sorts of things, but the smells seem harder to experience.  One perfume we were shown had to be the most foul smelling thing - literally smelled like a latrine.  I don't know why you would market such a thing but it was actually fun to stand in a fancy store surrounded by expensive perfumes and smell a toilet.   The Queen Mary perfume was actually the perfume she wore to her betrothal, and Francois had us smell that, followed by smelling the perfume that Kate Middleton wore to her wedding to Prince William.  Queen Mary's perfume was very heavy and intense (though they did have to cover up for their lack of bathing, right?) whereas Kate's was, of course, perfectly elegant and subtle.  

I don't know that I'll ever be a regular perfume wearer.  But I have much more appreciation for the idea of what a scent can be, and how you can use perfume to have fun, or lighten your mood, or make you think of summertime.  Hooray for picking the cheap class!

PS Don't keep your perfume in the bathroom. It should be kept somewhere dark and relatively cool, like a cupboard or a closet. Then it will last forever. And then one day your grandkids can say, "Hey, Grandma, why do you smell like a toilet?"  And you can say, "I went perfume-shopping in Paris..."


Monday, October 3, 2011

Blame the Chocolate

I've been trying to be a more responsible parent lately - prioritizing being home for Baby Oil's nap times and all that jazz.  But today was so warm and sunny, it reminded me of those halcyon days of August (all of two months ago, I know) in which I wandered the streets of Paris in search of delicious surprises.  Fortunately, my friend Mira back in DC chose today to issue me a challenge of sorts - visit the six chocolate shops featured in this Food & Wine article.  Like I would say no. 

The truth is that I've thought for a while, and I think reflected here before, that I really haven't done chocolate justice.  I've focused on pastry and, of course, les macarons, and I really haven't explored the world of French chocolate.  Dually inspired by the weather and this new challenge, Baby Oil and I set out to experience Jean-Paul Hevin.

Except, really, when have I ever gone out in Paris and only eaten at one place?  En route to the store, I started getting a little hungry.  I even considered getting something here:

What's so wrong with that, you ask?  Looks pretty good, right?  There's really nothing wrong with it, except that it's actually McDonald's.  Seriously. And even I have standards. 

But I did succumb to temptation when I passed Michel Cluizel just a few blocks away from my destination.  Michel Cluizel is a cornerstone of French chocolate, having been in business for over 60 years.  One of the places on my challenge list is actually his son's shop, so naturally I felt that I needed to pay homage to the father.  Or whatever excuse I came up with in the moment to entire this beautiful shop.

I ordered two macarons - chocolate and cassis - both of which were outstanding.  I'm talking I-want-to-go-back-there-and-eat-myself-silly excellent.  I also picked up a few small chocolates which I'm saving to share with Mr. Oil. 

I underestimated exactly how warm it was going to be today, so by the time I finally arrived at Jean-Paul Hevin, I was hot, sweaty, and really wishing for some nice cool ice cream.  I think when the Food & Wine folks did their research, they probably did not have a 9 month old who woke up from his nap right when they arrived.  So they probably didn't have to get the intimidating chocolate girl to agree to put the stroller in the back so they could check out the cafe, only to realize that this cafe was not intended for children, what with steep stone stairs and no high chairs.  Also, it was a thousand degrees up there. 
That's a chocolate shoe on the left!

Plus, chocolate is more fun to share. So I picked out two dessert items - they have fancy chocolate shop names but I'll just call them Delicious Thing On the Left and Delicious Thing On the Right - and brought them home. Here they are.

Sorry for terrible picture quality - but you really should be drooling now

Delicious Thing on the Right wins. Big time.  Very rich and chocolate-y, leaves your mouth with that chocolate tingle.  DTotL was also delicious, a little heavier and slightly less sweet.  

My brain is all over the place tonight, and I think I'm largely distracted by the book I'm currently reading - Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo.  I thought I should read some French literature, and I got this for free on my Kindle.  Total page-turner!  Plus, whenever I think of Alexandre Dumas, I think of the 1990s movie The Three Musketeers, with Chris O'Donnell playing an adorable D'Artagnen, and that also makes me happy. Just saying - brain all over the place. Blame the chocolate.