Friday, June 10, 2011

Treats in Paris

I know Paris is full of fantastic restaurants. It is also full of a lot of not-so-good restaurants; while Brasseries and cafes line sidewalks with tempting bistro tables for people-watching, most of these tables are filled with people drinking and smoking. Very few people are eating. Our experience at some of these places when we were tired and just needed a rest stop is that the food is “fine” but never “good” and definitely never “interesting.” And since we choose not to use our travel budget at high-end restaurants, our favorite way to truly experience fabulous French food is by stopping for treats at specialty stores like the boulangerie (bread bakery), patisserie (pastries), charcuterie (meats), fromagerie (cheeses), and confisseur/chocolatier (candies and chocolates), and the street markets for fresh produce. There is truly nothing like a fresh baguette. Unlike much of what we find in the states, with a dry crust and airy crumb, my favorite baguettes in France have a crisp crust but are so tender that even the butt ends can be simply bit into as you walk out of the store. I like the “traditionelle” which is not “French bread” (the light, white bread) but a denser, richer bread made with part whole wheat. Baguettes are also the perfect low-budget standby. While we can easily spend $20 just trying tastes of two cheeses, a baguette big enough to share with leftovers is only about $1.50.

We have tried 3 cheese so far, and sadly, I don’t know the names of any of them, but I don’t think we could get them in the States anyway. Walking into a fromagerie you will find shelves and shelves of cheese, but not a refrigerator in sight. The large blocks and wheels are simply wrapped in plastic wrap. The shops we went into offered cheeses from all over France, Holland, Switzerland, Spain, and Italy. First we tried two which I know were both from France and both cow’s milk, but I don’t know specifically what region. When we were in the Loire Valley, we tried a local cheese; apparently the only cheese they make there are chevre (a soft, spreadable cheese made from goat’s milk.) The one we tried, on the recommendation of the clerk as her favorite, had an ashy-grey exterior but otherwise a fresh grassy taste with just a hint of earthiness from the mold.

Cow's milk cheeses.

Goat's milk cheese from Loire.
The pastries are an endless source of indecision for me and Will. I try to not have more than the equivalent of one whole pastry a day, and they can be expensive (both economically and calorically!!). Will always wants the fruit based options, where I would prefer chocolate. In fact, we have yet to try and chocolate pastries this trip, mostly because they seem they would travel even less well and be even messier than the fruit ones, and we are usually getting it to go so we can enjoy it in a park somewhere. (There is never anywhere to sit in the bakeries.) On our first day, he had his sights set on a strawberry tart. It was the most impractical choice, but he was delighted by it. It was a work of art, for sure. (As is the way it is wrapped for travel – it is packaged into a seemingly delicate little tent, which actually has quite a bit of structure based on how the paper is folded and tucked around it, and adds the extra delightful element of feeling like you are opening a present when you go to unwrap and eat it!)

Tented, gift-wrapped strawberry tart, during the anticipation of unwrapping.

Unveiled strawberry tart from one of our favorite Parisian bakeriesm, Gosslein.

Each component was completely delicious: a buttery cookie crust, which magically refused to get soggy by the creamy, silky smooth custard filling, and all topped with perfectly ripened fresh strawberries in just the right amount of jelly glaze to make them sparkle like jewels. It is a picture of elegance and sophistication. But go to bite this thing and the elegance is all over. There is no way to eat this and look sophisticated. And actually, I do have to offer a slight bit of criticism, because while each of these parts on their own would make for a delicious dessert: cookies, custard, fresh ripe fruit, in this case they didn’t add a lot to the other components. The textures that made them so good on their own caused them to not really mesh with the others – the custard sort of slips across your tongue off the cookie, and the berries do the same. It is also difficult to cut or bite a mouthful that has a good ratio of each of the ingredients to the others. So, make of that what you will. And enjoy the lovely photo of the pre-consumed version.

This apricot tart was another of Will’s choices… nothing about it makes me want to rush to eat it. True, my photo is not the most flattering, but really it didn’t look much different in real life. However, tasting it is a completely different affair… tart and juicy fruit balanced with sweetened jelly filling and a pastry crust that is delicate without flaking all apart into a mess made for a much more easily consumed treat. These components – because they held together better and were in better proportion to each other – made for a much better pastry in my opinion.

Apicot tart.

Macarons (pronounced mah-ca-rohn with even emphasis on each syllable and distinct and separate from macaroons, the shredded coconut cookies many Americans think of) are a typically French pastry and found in bright and pastel colors in fancy structural displays all around Paris. Each color corresponds to a flavor, but basic varieties are vanilla, chocolate, coffee, pistachio, raspberry. They are basically two meringues baked into precise domed rounds and sandwiched around a thin layer of similarly flavored filling – usually just enough to bind the two cookies together and provide an extra intensity of the flavor without a huge texture difference (to give a cake-related analogy, it’s like glazing a cake to give it extra flavor and moistness, instead of frosting it to give it a completely separate texture and form.) We didn’t actually try any macarons this trip, because we tested many different ones when we were in Paris last year, and there’s so many new things to try.
Macarons in multiple flavors;

For a day when we had a couple of other activities already planned in the Marais, I checked out the New York Times recommendations for that neighborhood. They sent us to a falafel stand, Mi-Va-Mi, and neighboring Jewish bakery, Florence Finkelstein, from the most outrageously delicious sandwich we could have imagined. These fluffy, fresh, warm, and giant pitas were smeared with hummus then positively stuffed with ping-pong ball sized deep fried falafels bright green with fresh cilantro, packed with shredded white and red cabbage, slivered cucumbers, chopped tomatoes, and then topped with the creamiest marinated eggplant, a mild but flavorful roasted red pepper relish, and a house-seasoned tahini dressing. Oh MY! All that for only 5Euros (~$7.50) is surely the best deal in Paris. Will tried the sharwarma which is basically the same sandwich components but with grilled rotisserie meats instead of falafel.

Falafel sandwich, with falafel and eggplant on the left, and lots of roasted red-pepper sauce.
Shawarma sandwich.

We actually made two bakery stops, one at the recommended for apple streudel. To me, this was the most boring square blob of fruit pastry I could imagine. But as I’ve often found with the best desserts (including many of the ones I made myself!) the plainest looking can be saving all their charm for the tastebuds. The struedel had two fairly thin and soft but buttery top and bottom crusts sandwiching a delectably sweet and lightly cinnamon apply filling. The apples were shredded, sliced, and diced to gie it a really dense texture, and I think they were probably stewed before being packed into the pastry and baked. At the other more Arabic bakery, we got a crescent-shaped butter cookie coated in powdered sugar, and a semolina flour pastry stuffed with a date. It was in a honey glaze that brought out the sweetness of the date and added a delectable moistness to the rough texture of semolina dough.
Apple streudel from Florence Finkelstein's in the Marias.
Semolina cake stuffed with a date, and glazed with honey.

At the farmer’s market, we picked up some cherries and some radishes which we saw in markets ALL over France, but which I had never seen at home; they have a highly decorative red and white two-toned coloration with an oblong shape. I also snagged myself a ridged tomato that I ate at our picnic out of my hand like an apple, with just a little salt. We didn’t actually buy any white asparagus from the market, but we ate it in Amsterdam and Brussels, and saw it in markets there too, so I wanted to include a photo. They are huge around, and a bit stubbier than most green asparagus sold.

Radishes, with some cherries.
Tomato with vertical ridges.

White asparagus in farmers market, with green asparagus visible behind as comparison.

All of the restaurants we’ve been in in Europe ask if you want coffee after your dessert. I’m not sure why they are not served together, except as a way to prolong a meal experience and promote extra inter-personal interaction. So it seems that coffee is quite a part of the culture. Nevertheless, it was not always great coffee, and some of the cappuccinos Will ordered came out of a one-button push machine instead of an actual espresso maker. However, this was one of the better cups of coffee he had, and makes it onto the blog for its decidedly artful presentation.

Cappucino from a creperie near our flat in the 5eme.

Like I said earlier, while some of the top restaurants in the world can be found in Paris, that is not true for travellers in our budget. So rather than seek out mediocre examples of fine French food every night, we also enjoy taking advantage of the fact that Paris is a bustling international metropolis, with people – and therefore foods – from all over the world. Just blocks from our flat were choices of Indian, Indonesian, and Tibetan restaurants. We selected a tiny Tibetan restaurant and after I’d selected the noodle dish that I wanted (stir-fried with vegetables), we asked the server for her recommendation. She promptly directed us to the “marmite” which I have no idea to what that word refers, but there were vegetable, chicken, and pork varieties, which include sauce and vegetables served sizzling and bubbling in an individual crock. It can be accompanied by rice, but the server suggested instead that we have their house-made bread, which I think was made from rice flour and twisted into a cinnamon bun shape. It was soft and spongy and may have been steamed for part of its cooking, but it was not like a dumpling… it was definitely baked in an oven and more breadlike. It had a magical quality of being able to sop up all the brothy sauce from the marmite without becoming soggy.
Tibetan chicken "marmite" stew.

Homemade rice flour bread to accompany the marmite;
my photo doesn't make it look very good, but it was
interesting, delicious, unique, and the
perfect accompaniment.

We also had some good French restaurant experiences as well, particularly at a restaurant on the border between the 3eme and 4eme Arrondissments, called Page 35. It has a nice decorated interior with about 8 tables, but we sat at one of the tiny, awkward, metal bistro tables on the sidewalk where we could enjoy the lovely early summer evening situated directly across a mostly quiet street from a park. We only ordered plats (main dishes – in French, entrĂ©e refers to the appetizer course) because this happened to be the same day as we’d earlier consumed the ginormous falafels and shawarmas. Will ordered duck confit which came with a fresh salade verte and roasted potatoes with a hearty garnish of roasted garlic. I had the special of the day, a cod filet served on a sparkling bed of fresh greens lightly dressed in olive oil and balsamic, with gorgeous tomatoes and a basil gazpacho. The gazpacho was served in a shot glass to be poured over the whole plate before eating. It was such an artful arrangement, clever presentation, and really delightful set of bright fresh flavors, and I was thoroughly impressed.
Cod with green salad, blanched tomatoes,
and basil gazpacho (to pour over all.)

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