Category Archives: Paris, je t’adore!
Paris – the city, the food, the shopping, the everything
**Health Warning: some parts of this post are love-struck and sentimental. Should you still decide to continue reading this, please ensure that your anti-nausea medication is to hand.
Have you heard of the Love Locks trend in Europe? It’s when you place a padlock on a bridge in the hope that your love will burn forever. Here’s what they look like on the Pont des Arts in Paris:
Most of the locks have names on them. I wonder who all these people are and where they live.
Please don’t shoot me for saying this, but I also wonder how many of these couples have now broken up and purchased new locks for new loves. I’d also like to know what happens to the keys. Do people throw them into the Seine? Or keep one each to wear close to their hearts? Or hide them in a keepsake box? Curiouser and curiouser! says Epic.
I’m tempted to take a lock with us on our next visit to Paris, although on telling Monsieur of my sentimental plan he rolled his eyes and told me that I’m hopelessly corny. Then, whilst pondering our marriage of romantic opposites I was almost run over by a Segway tour. I think Segways are pretty cool, but when you see twenty Segway riders in an orderly row, all wearing safety helmets and staring straight ahead, there’s something quite unnerving about it, like stepping into the parallel universe of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century with the Louvre in the background. Wrong. Really, quite wrong. Before returning to romantic daydreams I make the resolution never to take a Segway tour in Paris. Besides, a bit of exercise never did anyone any harm, and walkers don’t tend to mow you down on a FOOTpath, interrupting the softest of thoughts.
Now that I’m an old, married woman, this is my idea of Serious Eye Candy:
A windowful of beautiful handbags that had me drooling on a recent visit to Paris. If I had a spare €3,000.00 I’d buy six. Oui, I have impeccable taste. They retail at €500 – €600 a piece. Alas, I have Champagne taste and Cava pockets.
Join me in dribbling over French leather goods here: Just Campagne.
Last year, on a visit to the medieval village of Provins I was delighted by this beautiful little carousel:
Sadly, no one was riding the horses or jumping into the hot air balloon basket. The music wasn’t playing and the carousel guardian slouched in his seat, puffing cigarette smoke into the hot afternoon air.
The submarine was straight out of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and the hot air balloon reminded me of Around the World in Eighty Days. Perhaps the carousel was designed in homage to the great Jules Verne?
I have a soft spot for hot air balloons because Monsieur took me on a balloon trip the morning after he popped the question… But he wasn’t too thrilled when I suggested hopping into this one, especially as it wasn’t going anywhere, not even around in circles.
Isn’t this little plane absolutely wonderful? I can imagine the children of Provins fighting over who gets to ‘fly’ it.
Named ‘Le Petit Prince’ it reminded me of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a great aviator in his own time until his plane went missing with him in it. He’s someone I’d like to have met.
Now for the odd one out (no, not the horses): a fire engine? Really? What does that have to do with intrepid exploring? If you can work out why it’s there, please do let me know.
If there’s one thing destined to fill me with frissons of gastronomic excitement, it’s the way the French present their food. It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s in a market or a supermarket or a bakery window, the presentation of food is creative and often so decorative that you might think twice about ruining the artistry by eating it.
To exemplify what I’ve said above, here’s a very special Salmon en Croute that my Belle-Mère (mother-in-law) served to us at Christmas:
Now let’s compare it to the version we get at Mark’s and Spencer:
Both versions taste great, but the pastry fish wins it in the presentation stakes for me. So on this occasion the score is France 1 – England 0.
Paris on 27th December last was cold. Bitterly cold. It was so horribly cold that I figured Jack Frost was out and about, only this time on on steroids. In spite of coats and scarves and gloves with thermal lining it was too cold to venture across town in search of an evening meal; on this, Monsieur and I were agreed. Any sort of food-seeking trek was out of the question, however, in a demonstration of true courage (motivated by hunger) we did eventually manage to leave the hotel, although no further than crossing the street.
Luckily for us, on the rue de l’Isly, where we were staying, there were a few restaurants that had fairly decent internet reviews, including Certa - an informal bar-cum-restaurant. In our big, winter coats we ended up walking out of the warm hotel, several yards across the chilly street and straight into Certa. Our coats came off again mere minutes after we’d put them on.
The front of Certa was for drinking, filled with low, informal clusters of chairs, sometimes with a small table, and generally populated by hip young things with cocktails. As we’d indicated that we were here for dinner, our waitress led us to a table at the rear of the establishment, where the serious sport of eating was dealt with. We were the only tourists (pseudo-tourists at that, as Monsieur is genuine French produce); back here the people ranged in age from six to sixty and there was a happy burble of conversation in the air.
Unfortunately, that same waitress looked after us for most of the evening. If it was cold outside, it grew colder every time she passed by. This girl was so grumpy, surly and devoid of courtesy that by the end of the evening, if I’d seen her crack even the glimmer of a smile, I would have fallen straight off my chair. She seemed to have been born without the pleasant gene. I hate that. Angry wait staff affect my digestion (I kid you not).Thankfully, Monsieur and I were at Certa to eat, not to make friends with the grinch in the apron.
It was happy hour. As all true bar-hoppers know, ‘happy hour’ can mean many things: two for ones, half-price bottles, discounts, free glasses, silly hats and vouchers. At Certa, happy hour meant that Monsieur’s beer was cheaper, and my small glass of house rosé was upgraded from a measly 150ml to a slightly less measly 200ml.
What can I say to that? Quite a lot, actually. France is a land of fine wine, filled to the gunnels with grapes, vines and vintners, but can you ever get a proper English-size 250ml glass of wine? Not on your Nellie. If you want 250ml of your favourite grape, you have to order a pichet or small carafe and if you’re not sharing, you might get a look as if you’ve fallen off the latest twelve step programme. I digress. I’d been looking forward to this particular glass all afternoon and 200ml, even if 50ml of that were free, simply did not cut it. Added to which, the aforementioned happy-happy-waitress prevented me from ordering a second glass through negligence, so 200ml had to last a whole two courses. That’s simply not the way I was raised.
So far, so bad. We had grumpster in charge of our supper and ridiculous happy hour ‘bargains’. Heaven only knew what the food would be like.
Monsieur and I both decided that the Salade Italienne sounded good so ordered a matching pair as starters. We expected a modest selection of salad and antipasti. Instead, our plates arrived piled high with ingredients – like a small Matterhorn of Italian foodstuffs. The price per salad was misleadingly modest for central Paris. What sat on the table before us now was remarkably good value. Perhaps we hadn’t made such a dire mistake by coming here. This Certa place was finally showing promise.
A pillow of crisp, green leaves peeped up at us from beneath a panoply of colours and textures. Folds of paper-thin prosciutto, wedges of avocado pear, grilled rounds of marshmallowy eggplant and a rainbow of marinated capsicum – just looking at the array made me think of Arcimboldo, the artist who invented the vegetable-face portrait. A dollop of creamy ricotta sat on one side of the plate, artichokes hid beneath greenery on the other. It’s not possible to assemble an Italian salad without tomatoes, so they were there, too. A mosaic of slim, hard cheese (parmesan? pecorino?) squares sat like a tumble of upturned scrabble squares atop all, a shower of pinenuts and balsamic vinegar completing the composition.
The presentation of our salades Italiennes might well have been impressive, but Monsieur and I bore the brows of concern. Our plan for a light meal looked as if it had just been blown out of the Seine. These salads were immense and we’d already ordered main courses. Ah well. The diet would have to start tomorrow.
Surprisingly, once our cutlery got busy, we found that the salads were lighter than we’d presumed. I finished every last bite of Italian goodness without a problem. Monsieur also cleaned his plate. And yes, there was still room at the inn. Our mains would not be wasted.
But first, Grumplestiltskin made a rare appearance. She cleared the table, grimacing in her attempt to leave us with our cutlery from the first course, only to realise that it was too covered in olive oil/balsamic/ricotta to rest on the table without causing mess that inevitably she would then have to clean up. With an audible harrumph, she removed the cutlery with the crockery and returned to drop new knives and forks on the table with the careless tingtingting of metal on metal. Grace was definitely not a virtue with which this waitress was endowed.
As a main, Monsieur had carefully selected a beef burger with fries and salad. I’d be lying if I said it looked inspired, but my own, private carnivore declared it excellent – both in the quality of ex-livestock, and the special, spicy sauce which looked disturbingly like thousand island dressing. Burger aside, if Monsieur’s happy, I’m happy, so, as he munched happily on his side of the table, I tucked into a plate of pommes de terre écrasées (roughly translated as squashed potatoes, not to be confused with mash) served with a drizzle of sour cream and a gluttonous spoonful of caviar.
For anyone who has not yet tried potatoes with sour cream and caviar, please do so immediately. The combination is Guilty Pleasure with capitals G and P. On the menu, the pommes de terre écrasées were listed as NEW, their description appearing in its own little text box and the proprietor must have been interested to see which of his patrons had ordered this wicked dish, for he appeared table-side, genial in plaid shirt, suggesting that I sprinkle some sel des algues, or seaweed salt, over the potatoes. “Yes, please!” I enthused. My advisor’s face lit up with joy, for he had an adventurous eater at his restaurant. Too soon, he disappeared back into the kitchen, just as I started flailing about like a shipwreck victim at sea, trying to gain the attention of the waitress so I could enjoy another (small) glass of rosé with the potatoes. Apparently quite the invisible woman, I failed in my quest for pink grape juice, but the potatoes were such a success that a smile slowly spread across my face and stayed there for some time after.
It won’t surprise you to hear that we weren’t asked whether we’d like dessert or coffee (we didn’t want either) or that Grumplestiltskin effectively forced us to approach the bar in order to pay (no bill was forthcoming). She managed to charge our card on a machine, return it with paper chit and effectively ignore both Monsieur and me as she carried on a grumpy little conversation with the barmaid. She did not thank us or wish us a good evening. In fact, she was such a fine example of how NOT to treat paying customers in a dining establishment that I’d have to say she’d turned it into an art.
Would we return to Certa? Even though the food was excellent, I’d have to say no. Firstly, Paris is overflowing with opportunities to eat well in environments non-conducive to Grumplestiltskin-style staff, so why go to Certa if you prefer to be treated like a visible human being? Secondly, I have since successfully made my own pommes de terres écrasées with sour cream and caviar, hence removing the need to revisit that meal option at Certa. Admittedly, if you’re stuck for somewhere to eat around the Gare Saint Lazare, Certa will tick a few boxes, but if, like me, you resent feeling like poodle poop on a Christian Louboutin heel when paying for food, this is a place to avoid.
***If you work at Certa and happen to read this, please note that, by the simple act of ignoring my husband and me, Grumplestiltskin shaved a potential of at least 2 desserts, 2 double espressos and a pichet of pale pink wine off your takings from our evening with you. Worse still, she has lost you the value of repeat business from a couple who often stay at the hotel just yards from your door. The bottom line is this: in tough economic times, restaurateurs can’t afford to pay staff who lose them money, even when the quality of what you serve is high. In summary, it’s time to lose the sourpuss. Can you really afford not to?
Even as a child, I didn’t have much patience for sand castles. ‘What’s the point?’ I wondered, ‘in spending painstaking hours building crenellations, filling moats and adorning walls with shells, when all the effort would only be destroyed by (a) someone’s careless foot, (b) a galumphing dog off its lead or (c) the incoming tide?’ I was far happier torturing hermit crabs or sea anemones in rock pools.
Even so, there are some talented folk out there who both possess the patience for sculpting sand and artistic skill. Two such folk create masterpieces of sand far from any beach in Giverny, the village where pilgrims paying homage to the late, great Claude Monet flock in their hundreds of thousands each year. They are Chris Avril and Jean-Pierre Porchez, whose compositions exhibit talent, perseverance and poise. To stumble upon their sculptures is a pleasant surprise in a place like Giverny, where there are altogether too many mediocre art works hanging in galleries designed to lure the tourist.
Here are the artistes:
And this is their new take on The Last Supper:
A close up of Christ and friends:
I think the bulbous items on the ‘table’ may be a carafe of wine and a bread roll, but can’t be certain. In any case, it’s hardly enough to sustain a group of thirteen.
Across the way we spot some more bearded chaps – this time, artistic heroes.
This man with palette in hand is Renoir.
And this is Monsieur Monet, the reason we were all in Giverny that late September day. To the left is Gustave Caillebotte, a great friend and contemporary of Monet, and to the right is the poor, tortured Vincent Van Gogh.
From left to right we have Renoir, Pissaro, Berthe Morisot ( a female impressionist cleverly breaking up all that maleness exuding from the sand), Sisley and Caillebotte again.
The exhibition of sand sculptures was free to view and no one seemed to be guarding the fragile creations, yet thankfully there were no galumphing dogs in sight, and all who stepped in to visit left their careless feet at the gate. In fact, when Monsieur and I were there, all were speechless with awe at the hours of painstaking work on display. The question that nobody dared ask, however, was ‘what’ll happen when it rains?’ and this is Normandy, so rain it will. My guess is that Chris and Jean-Pierre will wait for the storm to pass before quietly fetching their buckets and spades and starting from scratch. Admirable, really, to be that patient, not to mention ingenious to create a gallery of sand in a painter’s village.
Think of some of the world’s record-breaking works of art at point of sale, and paintings from Claude Monet’s Water Lilies series will no doubt feature on the list. Ever since I first saw a Monet in the flesh in the eighties, during a touring exhibition that actually made it the extra xxxx miles to far-flung New Zealand (a rarity at the time), I have always dreamed of visiting Monet’s home at Giverny, to see the artist’s famed gardens for myself. In October just past, that dream came true. I had to pinch myself repeatedly, it was such a thrill to finally be in such an art-lover’s mecca.
Monsieur and I arrived in the small village of Giverny on a dull autumn day, amidst a steady Norman drizzle. I’d always thought that May would be the optimum time to see Monet’s gardens, as they’d be in the prime of spring blossom and bloom, but apparently the little village is overrun with international fans of Impressionism in springtime, so by coming later in the year, we’d wisely sidestepped the push and shove of tourist hordes. Would the effort be worth it? Would we see any flowers? Or would we curse our autumn plans and wish we’d come in spring or summer, with the world, his wife and their dog?
The weather was certainly disappointing on the morning of our visit but, ever the optimists, we still hoped there might be some sort of floral leftovers from the finer seasons just past.
Here’s a sample of what Monsieur and I found in Monet’s garden at Giverny. Our hopes were rewarded with late-bloomers in every direction.
I love pink flowers and these were among my favourites in Monet’s garden.
These fellows were drooping with the rainfall but still managed to remind me of a blazing sunset on a hot summer’s evening (even if I were wrapped up in coat and scarf at the time!)
The path from Monet’s house down to the end of the garden was wild with a carpet of nasturtiums – as a small girl, I used to pick nasturtiums from the school hedge suck ‘honey’ from the point beneath the bloom. Ever since, they’ve remained a favourite flower. At Giverny, their colours only seemed brightened by the grey day.
We wandered down aisles of flourishing flora and through an underground tunnel to reach Monet’s water lily ponds. So this was where the great painter created some of the greatest impressionist artworks known to man.
The artist said of his water lilies: “It took me time to understand my water lilies. I had planted them for the pleasure of it; I grew them without ever thinking of painting them”. Little did he know that through his paintings these would arguably become the most famous water lilies in the world.
It may have been gloomy when we saw them, but the ponds were still beautiful and, believe it or not, there was the occasional freshly-opened flower sitting on the lily pads.
The poor chap in red jacket waited patiently with his tripod as I photographed the ponds, but unfortunately for him, I wasn’t the only one annoying his view.
Imperceptible here are the water-lubbing insects who walk across the water on spindly wee legs. The pond life is happy and rampant.
As we left the ponds, returning to the main gardens, the sun decided to pop its head out from behind the clouds. This flower looked like a sunburst in its own right.
Sunshine on a rainy day…
The perfect lawn for picnicking.
This old wheel barrow must have worked hard in its past life, carrying plants and trees and soil and vegetables from the potager (vege garden). Now it sits in peaceful retirement.
There’s one word for flowers like this: happy. Monet said “I am following Nature without being able to grasp her… I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers.” With floral optimism such as this in one’s garden, it’s little wonder, although the great man started his life as an artist drawing caricatures, not a petal in sight.
This is one of the prettiest exit signs I’ve ever seen.
We were lucky with our Giverny expedition; it may have been raining when we arrived, but the sun appeared for just long enough to give us a taste of what it must be like to visit on a Halcyon day. Claude Monet once said “I am only good at two things, and those are: gardening and painting”.
This is not entirely true. He was also very good at what we were about to do next: eating.
All the talk about beans on the London Bloggers network recently made me do some odd things. Well, odd for most people but probably quite normal for me. This includes taking photographs of BEANS in a French supermarket, planning extra beans into our weekly diet (they’re very good for you – slow energy release), checking the glycemic index of beans (mostly somewhere in the 30s but BROAD beans are naughty with 79) and opening a certain kitchen cupboard door to gaze longingly at our emergency stash of ready-to-go French flageolets…
The bean talk also brought to mind a little Epicurienne anecdote, which hopefully will amuse.
It’s no secret that the French love to believe that English food is little better than pig swill. In fact, I recently fought hard to defend the cuisine of Old Blighty in a family ‘discussion’ in France. Contrary to French belief, England’s positive attitude to food has skyrocketed since I moved here 16 years ago. We have fantastic ingredients at our disposal, the media has helped increase public interest in what they’re cooking and eating, we can enjoy a different ethnic cuisine every night of the month if we feel like it and regional flavours are enjoying the support of increasing numbers of farmers’ markets and eateries that favour local produce. Certainly, it’s still easy to find pork pies filled with more gelatine than pork, and if you’re not careful, you’ll come home from the supermarket with a bag full of tomatoes that taste of cardboard (that’s why you’ll find me sniffing tomatoes in the aisles – more perfume equals more flavour), but it really isn’t fair to say that the English don’t know how to eat and in my experience it remains hard work trying to convince the French otherwise.
So when I was stopped at the X-ray machine at Eurostar in the Gare du Nord I was interested to see which product from a French supermarket shopping binge had piqued the interest of the two uniformed guards now glaring at me with suspicion. You see, there really wasn’t much in my suitcase apart from food and on unzipping the case it was obvious that Monsieur and I had enjoyed our recent trip to the supermarket. Out spilled our favourite soaps and packs of spaetzle, half a dozen bottles of persillade, delicious wine vinegars and various other items that are either hard to find (albeit not impossible) or over-the-top expensive to buy on the other side of the channel. Then they spotted the food criminal that had caused them concern.
“Qu’est-ce que c’est?” asked one, rattling a box of mogettes – a white bean which is popular in the Vendée region of France.
“They’re mogettes.” I replied
“What?” asked the uniform,
“Mogettes,” I answered.
Uniform 1 turned to Uniform 2.
“Do you know zese sings?” he asked his colleague.
“Yes, zey’re delicious. Some of ze best beans in France.” he said, nodding sagely. Then the uniforms turned back to me.
“What we want to know is ‘ow YOU English know about zese beans.” Ah. So I’d confused them. I wasn’t French yet I knew more about a regional French bean than a certain uniformed Frenchman. What an enigma. Perhaps now they’d realise that Anglo Saxon(e)s CAN cook and DO care about their food. Then again, perhaps they were going to arrest me for attempting to remove a French food treasure from their country. Two pairs of eyes narrowed as they focussed on me. It was obvious that they were confused to find that someone living in England actually liked to cook.
“My father-in-law is French and he introduced me to them. I saw them in the supermarket and thought I’d take some home.”
“Ah, yes. Of course. Because in England ze food is so bad.” Uniform 2 was laughing now. “So you have to come to France to buy REAL food. Hahaha.” That wasn’t quite accurate, although I wasn’t about to argue with two men carrying guns.
During the course of the examination of my mogettes quite a queue had built up behind us, but the uniforms didn’t care. They were now interested in how I was going to cook my mogettes.
“My father-in-law said I should soak them overnight and then cook them with a bouquet garni, a little onion and some carrots. I’ll probably serve them with chicken or duck.”
“Ah, yes.” Uniform 2 was practically dribbling. “I love ze mogettes.”
“So why ‘ave I not ‘eard of zem?” asked Uniform 1. “You say you can buy zem in ze supermarket?” he asked me. Suddenly, the ‘ENGLISH’ was the expert on French beans instead of a suspected terrorist with explosive in her shopping.
“Yes,” I said, trying to zip up my bag and make way for the grumbling travellers behind me, “You can buy them in the supermarket.”
As I walked away from the Uniforms, they were still discussing mogettes, which just goes to show that even though the prevalent French attitude to English eating habits needs some correcting, it’s true when they say that if you want to enjoy a really passionate discussion in France, just start talking about food. And hopefully now there exist at least two more Frenchmen who know that sometimes, just sometimes, those folk across La Manche might know a bit more than just their onions when it comes to food.