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Category Archives: France

Cooking Class #3: Co-Queen of the Chateau Cuisine

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Trains, planes, and automobiles. I’ve logged time in all three this last week, and today was no different. In fact, I’m on train #2 today after spending the afternoon cooking with Suzanne Bourdais at Chateau Lavergne outside of Bordeaux. My train from Paris arrived early this morning. Quelle chance! And after an amazing day in Suzanne’s enchanting French kitchen overlooking the countryside, I should have known my luck was bound to run thin.The train I’m on now from Bordeaux to Toulouse was delayed for whatever reason. Had I been able to hear the announcement over the coughing, flat-topped seatmates of mine, perhaps I could have deciphered the reasoning in French. The only thing making this delay more manageable is the dog standing in the aisle looking longingly for his owner who just went to the bar car. That’s right–dogs are allowed on the trains in France. Pack your bags, Henri…we’re moving.

Suzanne was the most gracious of gracious hosts and more and more, I feel like I‘m winning the Google lottery with the people I‘ve been meeting on this trip. She picked me up from the train station, and we were at her Chateau in about ten minutes flat. We drove in past a small vineyard, a few out buildings (I’d find out later their purposes), and into the porte cochere at the entrance. I would be co-queen of the chateau’s cuisine for the day. “Cuisine” is French for “kitchen” in case you were curious.

The house was magnificent. It is styled in the manor of Napoleon III from the Second French Empire, which combines functionality with design. As she flung open the door, rooms flowed into adjacent rooms, yet each section had its purpose. It looked like a living museum, although the flat-screen TV was a giveaway that someone resided there. The kitchen, however, was a modern marvel replete with a wood-burning fireplace that stared back at whoever was manning the helm (the stove). Yet the Style Napoleon III was well-preserved in this room as well, as it was in the rest of the buildings on the property. Suzanne has a dedicated building with a demonstration kitchen for her classes, dining space for her students or groups that rent her facilities, an indoor pool, and a rentable space for events. That’s right ladies– you can have your wedding at Chateau Lavergne! Word of caution: it‘s booked about a year in advance.

Inside, Suzanne and I put together an aesthetic lunch salad (vous mangez avec les yeux d’abbord) with concentric circles of carpaccio-style potatoes, mache, sliced mushroms, and paper-thin slices of magré du canard fumé (smoked duck breast). We topped it with a homemade vinaigrette. Simple. Marvelous. The duck wasn’t having much luck in our kitchen today because our plat principal also involved the billed species, only this time, we turned our focus to the legs. Suzanne keeps a mason jar of duck fat on her kitchen counter to cook with; I will be keeping a mason jar on mine from this point forward. Over low heat, she cooked the duck legs in fat until they were tender, not dry.

In the meantime, we sautéed diced red onions in butter with a bit of cinnamon. These were so good. They formed the base in our buttered casserole dish, and the duck legs were proudly perched atop. We deglazed the onion pan with a bit of vinegar (stand back, or you’ll get a horrific smelling facial), and added in two tablespoons of honey. This popped a bit at the beginning, so again, another time to be alert so you don‘t get burned. After the sauce reduced and thickened a bit into a carmelized mixture, we added in some chicken stock, dropped in the dates, and poured it over the casserole. We both agreed that had we added more chicken stock at the pan stage, the sauce would have been a bit better consistency and not have thickened up quite so much as we finished the dish in the oven. She prepared a bit of long-grain rice to accompany our chicken dish, however, potatoes or a root vegetable purée would have been nice too. The dish was finished with a sprinkling of toasted almonds, and although mostly comprised of sweet ingredients, was a perfect mélange of salty and sweet.

I think I’ve eaten more duck this week than I have in my life, but in true culinary argumentation, I learned today that duck fat is proven to be fairly healthy. I hope that’s true, because after one week in France, j’adore le canard. We ended our meal with a sheep’s milk cheese from the Pyrenées region of France, quite near Spain. Traditionally, this cheese is eaten with black cherry jelly, and when you enter fromageries in the region, there are jars of the jelly in corresponding displays. I had mine with some of Suzanne’s homemade fig jam, and it was fresh and fabulous.

We washed this all down with a 2005 Bordeaux (excellent year for Bordeaux’s, by the way), and then headed out to the city of the same name to look around before my train departed on a schedule all its own. I guess traveling is a bit like cooking in that you have to be flexible because things don’t always go as planned. I’ll get to Toulouse a bit late tonight, but if I know my friend there, he’ll have sangria waiting for me at the train station (if he hasn‘t finished it all himself waiting).

Chateau Lavergne
Suzanne Bourdais

Next Stop: Toulouse

Cooking Class #2: Ecole Ritz Escoffier

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I had my 2nd cooking class yesterday at Ecole Ritz Escoffier. It was abbreviated compared to my course on Saturday, but a great value at €55 and I feel like I learned a lot. It was more demonstration-based than my other class, but also hands-on enough. And while most of the class was conducted in French, which I’m proud to report I understood for the most part, they had another chef translate. Our class consisted of about 10 people, and all but three of us were French. The other two gentlemen were from Mississippi, where I learned that Viking has a cooking school. The Hopscotch may need to head south, it would seem! 
Our menu was Saffron Risotto with Gambas & Parmesan Tiles. What on earth are gambas, you ask? Don’t worry– I asked my French friend the same thing at the lunch table. It looked like a steroidal shrimp, but evidently, it’s probably more closely identified as a crawfish. Where were the men from Mississippi on that one? 
Risotto often scares the daylights out of people. Incidentally, it’s not that difficult, but does require attention. Before I get to that, though, I’ll tell you about our prep work. The nice thing about this course was that our chef focused a bit on knife skills at the start, and after beheading more sea creatures, she taught us the proper way to slice and dice onions. I was pretty elated because my longitudinal/latitudinal method for dicing onions was exactly the way she taught it. What I didn’t realize was that inserting the knife and pulling it towards you makes things ten times easier (instead of rocking forward and pushing down), and also reduces the amount of gases released, which results in onions making people cry. It was a tear-free endeavor. 
After we got everything prepped, we moved over to the stove. Here, we sauteed red onions in olive oil, and salted them so they would sweat. After, we added in the dry, Arborio rice, and toasted it for a bit before adding a rather large jug of white wine (the pot was the size of a traditional paella pan). That reduced, and after, we ladled in chicken stock until it was absorbed, and then finished by seasoning it with salt, pepper, and saffron, and binding it with parmesan cheese. The entire process took about 20 minutes from raw Arborio rice to al dente risotto.
Quick tip: If you’re pressed for time and would like to have risotto at dinner, you can fast forward the cooking by making it earlier in the day. Count for eight minutes after the first ladle of stock, and remove it from the heat and let it cool down. This will result in carry-over cooking. To finish it just before you’re ready to serve it, put it back on the stove and add additional ladles of stock for six minutes. This means you’re only standing at the stove for six minutes before dinner instead of eighteen.

In the background, other students made parmesan tiles for the plating. I’ve made these before, and they’re a simple and elegant way to dress-up a plate of food. You simply spread grated parmesan cheese in thin clusters on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, and bake it at 400F for about five minutes. Remove them from the oven, and before they cool, remove the tiles with a flat spatula and form them on something round, like a bottle of beer. As they cool, they’ll hold their shape, and they’re an edible accoutrement to any plate.
After we learned the proper way to plate our risotto (you eat with your eyes first), we were whisked into a cute little dining room where we nestled in and ate. There was red wine, white wine, sparkling water, and still, and for those caffeine-initiated people, coffee after. It was so much fun to chat in French with the rest of my class (minus the Mississippi men…they were at the other end of the table, so I represented the Francophile U.S.). All in all, the class lasted about 1.5 hours, and after chatting through lunch with an older French gentleman who received the class as a Christmas gift from his son, I said my goodbyes and purchased a gold whisk keychain from the school. 

For a day, I was a student at the famous Ritz. Pretty glamorous, huh? 

Ecole Ritz Escoffier

Next Stop: Cooking Class #3 at Chateaux Lavergne in Bordeaux Tomorrow

Can You Meet Me Halfway?

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Part of traveling is meeting people, especially when you’re traveling alone like I am. I’ve had good fortune on this trip to Paris. I met up with a friend in St. Germain for a beer on Monday night, and we talked about his upcoming wedding(s) in Brazil and Loire, among other things. And then, I headed to Buddha Bar and onto Hotel de Crillon to meet up with the fabulous group in the photo.

I met Pranay and Shavanee (they’re just behind me in the photo) in my cooking class last Saturday, just before they got engaged at the Eiffel Tower! Johanna, the other woman in the photo, is friends of someone that Pranay works with in Santa Clara, and her beau is a French photographer. As such, Pranay had arranged to have them inconspicuously photograph the engagement, so they all met to exchange a CD with the pictures, and I joined them. I saw one of the photos on his iPhone; it made me cry. I had known these people for 48 hours, at best, and felt like we were old friends.

My point is: no matter where you are in the world, if you’re open-minded, you will find friends. In fact, just today, I got an email from one of the girls from The Bachelor. She’s in Paris today too, so as we criss-crossed paths in the Marais that I spoke about the other day, we settled on having dinner together tonight. When they say it’s a small world, they mean it. I wonder who I’ll run into next?

Le Marais

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The metro is like a warp zone. I descended in one climate today, and ascended in quite another. Look at the picture on the left…it was tough to capture, but the woman behind me and I could hardly contain our laughter as we ascended to the street on the escalator and saw a blizzard before us. That’s not rain; it’s enormous snowflakes that accompanied me and my umbrella down Blvd. St. Germain until I ducked into a cafe. 

So much for that Fat Tire bike tour today…

Instead, I waited for the storm to pass, and after walking down to Marche St. Germain, I took the metro again up to where the Soundwalk tour I had downloaded for my iPod started. It cost €5, and provided a private tour of shops, restaurants, and historic sites in Le Marais. “Le Marais” in French means “the marsh,” and this area is one of the lowest in the city, and very close to the Seine. As such, it’s predisposed to flooding, which is how it got its name.

It is also the Jewish quarter, which is evidenced by the many falafel shops on Rue des Rosiers. It smelled fantastic. The walk traced the route of a fictitious singer who had an audition at Place de Vosges and had lost her walkman with her tape. With my iPod strapped on, she led me around the Marais to various cafes, bookstores, theatres, and even the bar I had looked up where they do magic tricks. It was closed today or I would have put the tour on pause for a bit.

The tour was impeccably timed, and my walking pace matched the narrator’s to a tee. I would arrive at the intersections when it was time to turn, and often be directly in front of the addresses she was referencing. It was also cool how one of the stops was an enclosed courtyard, but she gave me the code to open it up and get inside. Evidently, it was where her mother lived. Je ne sais pas si il est vrai.

The weather improved as the day went on, and this was a fun way to see a part of the city I was very unfamiliar with…until now. Tonight, I’m meeting a friend for a drink back in St. Germain, and then some friends from my cooking class at the Buddha Bar near Hotel de Crillon. Fingers crossed the ascent at the Mabillon metro is more favorable. 

Tomorrow: Cooking class number two at Ecole Ritz Escoffier.

Just Another Sunday in Paris

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Today was a little bit random. I didn’t have anything solid planned culinary-wise, so I slept in and then blazed my own trail around Paris. For two days now, I’ve been on the prowl for a particular spice shop that has alluded me, so I figured I’d give it one more go. It’s still out there…somewhere. You can run little spice shop, but you can’t hide– I WILL find you. When I finally gave up, I kept walking and bumped into Marche aux Enfants Rouge. It is a pretty small outdoor market with a decent amount of food stalls. I didn’t need anything, but poked around and noticed all of the little enclosures off the stalls with tables. They were all packed, and I presume the patrons were noshing on what they had bought at the market.

From there, I continued on my way. After figuring I was nowhere near the spice shop (that‘s just a guess), I turned around and saw Cirque D’Hiver in the distance. It was time for it to start, so I walked down and got a ticket for €10. The ring was micro compared to Ringling Bros, where I haven’t been in probably 20 years, but the talent was phenomenal. My palms started to sweat when the trapeze artists did their thing, and these three acrobat men did a bit that required the strength of a bevy of Clydesdales. That would be them in the picture on the left. I digress…this has nothing to do with food.

After the circus, I pulled up Google Maps and discovered I was really close to Breizh Café. I knew it was open on Sundays, and despite telling myself I wouldn’t buy any food today, I couldn’t resist. Breizh is rumored to have some of the best buckwheat crepes in all of Paris, and I would completely agree. I had a jambon (ham) and fromage (cheese) crepe and a glass of white wine, and stopping in was a wise decision. Further validating this detour was the fact that Pain de Sucre was just around the corner. 

In December, Budget Travel ran a culinary advent calendar of Paris where they featured a different place each day. That’s how I found out about Pain de Sucre, and also about the boulangerie later on. Here, they have macarons and gourmet marshmallows, and while I’ve managed to restrain myself from the macarons (salted carmel and chocolate mint), I couldn’t resist biting into the pistachio marshmallow I purchased. O.M.D (Dieu). Silky. Savory. Sweet.

Update: I inhaled the salted carmel macaron after dinner tonight, and it was the best portable dessert I’ve ever tasted.

Heading back to Montmartre, I exited the metro at Abbesses. It’s one of the oldest and deepest metros in Paris, and still has the original Guimard style glass covering. It’s one of only two left that do, Port Dauphine being the other. It’s also a hop, skip and a jump from Coqueliocot, a fantastic boulangerie also featured on Budget Travel’s Paris blog. There, I picked up a piccola baguette, and promptly ate half of it on the walk home. It was fluffy on the inside, and crusty on the outside. In other words, parfait.

People always wonder how French women eat like they do (and I did today) and don’t get fat. Let me tell you…it’s the stairs in the metros and in Montmartre. So much for not buying anything today. After all that walking (and climbing), I decided, I earned it.

Tomorrow: Fat Tire Bike Tour

Cooking Class #1: Brangelina. Broccoflower. And Sausage Cheese.

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Paris is literally bustling around me right now. A certain someone suggested I head to Place de la Concorde and type my next blog from here. So, here I am…sitting in the park off Place de la Concorde (I opted out of dodging traffic to get to the fountain) writing. It’s a clear and brisk day in Paris, but the sun keeps making an appearance. Sitting on park bench being flanked by Hotel Crillon to the left, where my new favorite cookbook is from, and the Eiffel Tower to the right is hardly torture.

Yesterday, I survived my first cooking class in Montmartre. I woke up and walked down to the Jules Joffrin metro to meet up with my class, and found my instructor (from Los Angeles) with her green shopping cart, three other Americans, and two Aussies. It was a fantastic group! We got started right away on a super market sweep like that of my last blog post, only this time, our Sherpa provided tons of inside information, truly breaking down the last bit of apprehension that any of us had shopping in this style.

We visited a traditional boucher where we bought our meat (we also stopped for a brief moment in front of a horse meat butcher…there are only about 40 left in Paris), a cheese shop where we learned about the layout of the store (it’s intentional…the strongest cheeses are kept at the front for ventilation reasons), a fishmonger, a fruit and vegetable market, and finally, a boulangerie with an oven so old, when it breaks, the stores closes down for weeks at a time while the part is retrieved from some obscure place in France. The bread was to die for.

The menu was completely up to our group, and we decided on some things that were outside of our cooking comfort zones. To start, we beheaded and cleaned langoustines, and removed the nerve and egg sacks from fresh scallops. We seered the scallops and sautéed the langoustines, and served those with a confit of fennel and onions, alongside a sauce we made from the langoustine shells and cream (have no fear– we strained them out). Delicious.

Our main meal was constructed from lamb shoulder. As I mentioned before, it’s cold in Paris (it actually snowed during class yesterday), so a stew was the way to go. We browned the lamb, and deglazed the pan with Calvados, an apple liquor, and then into the pool went onions, shallots, carrots, garlic and white wine. The stew simmered for about two hours while we got busy with other things, like the celeriac puree and sautéed romanesco served alongside it. If you’re not familiar with romanesco, check out the picture. It tastes like a cross between broccoli and cauliflower, and is sometimes aptly called, broccoflower.

For our second protein, we chose duck breast, since most of us weren’t familiar with how to cook it. We cleaned up each piece of meat, including trimming away some of the fat and scoring the fatty underside so the fat didn’t bubble up and pucker. Then, we browned them in a dry pan; you wouldn’t believe how much fat rendered off each one. They went into the oven for about seven minutes to finish cooking, resulting in medium rare duck that we served with a red wine reduction. The fat was so crispy and delicious, and the duck tender and mild. It was, in most of our opinions, the star of the show, and I will never shy away from making duck again.

While the stew simmered in the background, we polished off our starters, but not before we separated eggs and extracted vanilla beans for crème brulee. Wowsers. I don’t know what was better: eating it or getting to torch the top. Who says cooking isn’t fun? We also learned about the cheeses we had selected, and the order in which to eat them. It seems rather obvious, but some people forget that you should always eat your strongest cheese (in our case, a bleu) last. That way, the fortitude of the flavor doesn’t alter the taste of the other cheeses. We enjoyed these with our breads from the boulangerie.

I honestly don’t think I have ever eaten so much in my life. There was wine and champagne involved too, and lots of great conversation about Paris, culinary delights, restaurants, Costco, celebrity chefs, and the lives we lead elsewhere. After class, a few of us popped up to the Sacre Coeur to walk off our lunch. It was beyond necessary. The views over Paris from the butte were magnificent, much like our lunch was, and I had fun showing a few of my new friends around Montmartre.

While I knew a lot of what was taught, I also learned a lot in this class, chief among them not to be timid of new ingredients. Adventure is part of a successful kitchen experience, and being able to adapt and roll with the punches is a lesson for life. 

Cookn with Class
18th Arrond.- Montmartre
€160/4 Hours Including Market Tour

Next class: Tuesday at L’Ecole Ritz Escoffier

To Market, To Market

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One of the great (and obvious) things about renting an apartment while traveling is the availability of a kitchen. It allows you to take control of your culinary destiny, and also act like a local. Take yesterday for example. Upon arriving, I knew I’d need to make a trip out for food, but what I forgot was how different the experience would be.

In high school French class, I remember learning the words “boulangerie” (bread bakery), “poissonerie” (fish monger), “boucher” (butcher), “fromagerie” (cheese shop), “patisserie” (sweets bakery), and “marche aux legumes et fruits” (vegetable and fruit market). These are all independent entities in France. It seemed so silly at the time–to think that someone would gallivant down the street stopping into each of these different places to purchase their food items. Why wouldn’t they just go to Ralphs or something?

The truth is, while it may be a bit more time-consuming to shop this way, it’s really quite charming and enjoyable, and the food seems to be fresher. The shops are all tiny, and in some cases, have standing room only, but that’s all you need as you pop in for a baguette, a bag of potatoes, or a portion of brie. It also means they don’t have enough back-stock to compensate should something nuclear occur, hence, the farm to market phenomenon, whereby the farm ends up on your table and the prices remain affordable. Sure, they have “supermarkets” here, but it’s a loose translation and they more closely resemble a 7-11, in my opinion. Charming? Hardly. In fact, normal “supermarkets” are not allowed in the 20 arrondisements at all. Charming? Indeed.

My shopping trip yesterday resulted in a dinner of carmelized onions and brussel sprouts with potatoes, a sautéed breast of chicken, sliced tomato salad, and a glass of rosé. If I had to estimate, I’d say the entire dinner (including wine) set me back about €5 (just shy of $7). Stopping into the markets was fun, and I was also able to practice my French. Schlepping the bags up the vertical stairs in Montmartre in the rain, well, that’s another story. 

The fruits of my labor…simple and delicious. My kind of meal, indeed.