Doing the daily shop, French-style.
These aubergines are shinier than a militia man’s boots.
The lobster tank was looking a bit empty. I suspect there’d been a rush on lobster for cooling summer seafood platters.
This little piggy went to market, to hang out next to his brothers who are now a pair of delicious dried sausages. Oink oink.
Black-legged chickens with their heads ON, but running about no more.
Counting the chèvres…
Believe it or not, these rolls are called ‘hams’ of duck breast, and are stuffed with foie gras.
A trio of tapenades and other wicked treats to nibble with one’s apéro.
Legs of ham. With hoof or without?
Mimolette cheese (in case you were wondering). ‘Extra old’ says the label. You bet.
Extra old or prehistoric?
And to finish: Charentais melons in the Charente-Maritime.
World over, there are many versions of the Salade Niçoise and much debate over what constitutes the correct serving of this classic dish. Purists insist that no cooked component should be added, apart from the tuna itself, and even then the tuna is either optional or tinned (not in MY kitchen). As you can see from the title of this post, I am not a purist. Here’s my version, with an Oriental twist:
N.B. Ingredients are given per person.
Use any sort of salad leaves (Delia apparently likes rocket, I like spinach, but any sort of mixed leaf will also do. Avoid iceberg – it’s too bland and a bit seventies for my version) – enough to amply cover a dinner plate.
Haricots verts/ green beans - cooked on a rolling boil for just 5 minutes so they retain their crunch and are still bright green. Dunk them in a bowl of cold water to keep their colour bright, then pop them in the oven with a couple of nobs of butter, a shake of salt and pepper and a sprinkling of parmesan cheese. Leave 10 minutes on 150C or until the butter and cheese have melted. Then cool and add the beans to the salad leaves.
1 boiled egg, just warm and halved or quartered. Don’t add hot eggs to the plate as they will wilt the leaves.
A small handful of cherry tomatoes – either whole or halved, toss over the salad.
2-3 salad onions, chopped and dropped liberally across the salad.
Once all the salad ingredients are on the plate, start with the tuna. It needs watching so as not to overcook and become dry.
1 tuna steak, marinated in teriyaki sauce. Cook just a few minutes on each side, so that the centre of the steak is still pink. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and place on top of the salad. Pour any remaining teriyaki sauce over the top as this will provide an automatic dressing.
Some argue that a proper Niçoise salad should have either tuna or anchovies but not both. I’m easy on this score. The only thing I would suggest is that if you decide to add anchovies, make it the fresh, marinated anchovies as these are less salty than the preserved kind and bring a truly zesty tang to the salad.
So, as you can see, this is far from a traditional Niçoise. I blame my Pacific-rim upbringing and a love of teriyaki sauce.
Marseille: an ancient city renowned for many things, among which number its huge commercial port, a small crime problem, the legendary Château d’If and fine bouillabaisse. The city lent its name to the French national anthem, la Marseillaise, pastis was born here and Marcel Pagnol took childhood walks in the lush Parc Borély. I suggest that we add to this hall of fame the Hotel Pullman Marseille Palm Beach, where Monsieur and I splurged for a night of luxury during our South of France ‘vacances’ last year.
Even for we two inveterate travellers, it had been a long day. We’d driven up from the Camargues, lunched at a sleepy Martigues and screeched into the last boat trip of the day around the calanques near the pretty port of Cassis. The driving in the vicinity of such a natural wonder is reputed to be fraught with tempers frayed by battles fought over parking spaces; sadly, we’d found it to be exactly so, yet somehow managed to escape without a single dent in our fender. Leaving the beauty behind as we entered the messy sprawl of the outskirts of Marseille, we were intent on a night of calm and relaxation. Fortunately, once we found the Pullman Hotel, calm and relaxation is exactly what we enjoyed.
I say ‘once we found’ because the Pullman is James Bond-esque in the way that it hides behind a curve in the Corniche, sinking its storeys below the coastal thoroughfare so that it’s barely visible from the road. We, as many others must have done before us, drove straight on past the entrance before recognising our mistake and navigating a U turn – no mean feat in the early evening rush of traffic – to return to our abode for the night.
A porter swiftly separated luggage from vehicle as a valet disappeared with the car down a ramp into what could have been Hades for all we knew – via the entrance to what we deduced must be the subterranean car park - very 007 once again. Inside, a vast lobby was populated by three or four staff and one of those life-size sculptures of a cow wearing far splashier colours than might be expected in your average milking shed. Elsewhere, the furniture was über chic in the fashion of a deconstructed Mondrian (read: hard-cornered squares and rectangles in primary colours) but quite uncomfortable looking – the subliminal message being that this was not a place to get cosy, although the view across the bay was spectacular and it would be quite possible to spend a couple of hours sitting here watching ships and yachts navigating the busy bay.
Fortunately, our room had its own, private view out to sea, and a balcony from which to enjoy it at our leisure. It was a hot evening, hazy and vaguely rose-tinted. We watched stand-up paddlers taking advantage of the calm waters.
Looking to our right the Corniche snaked against the coast, a gigantic propeller blade rising in dark silhouette against the sunset; this was the 1971 oeuvre of Marseille’s sculptor son, César, honouring the repatriation of people from North Africa to France.
To wash off the day’s accumulation of salt and sweat, we took a dip in the Pullman’s pool, which looked like this:
It was big enough to accommodate pre-dinner swimmers of all ages, from pre-schooler to retiree, and the water was just the right type of cool.
Later, as Monsieur and I basked in the last of the day’s sun, we flicked through guides in an attempt to decide how and where to dine. In the end, room service won. We would sup in our bathrobes, with the unsurpassable vista visible from our balcony, gathering strength for the serious task of exploring Marseille the next day.
The doorbell rang and our evening meal arrived. Seconds later, Monsieur settled down with comfort food: a burger and plump, golden fries with a verrine of coleslaw in a nod to the possibility of fresh produce, even if it hadn’t been ordered in quantity tonight.
I stuck to lighter fare. The smoked salmon was delicious, served with mini-blinis, a dollop of taramasalata and another of soft, herbed cheese. The salad leaves were unusually unblemished, natural, sans vinaigrette.
Then I allowed myself a small plate of cheese.
A glass of crisp, chilled white wine completed the experience.
And so, when last in Marseille, Monsieur and I unabashedly enjoyed our room service supper in our own time, watching all manner of seafaring vessel criss-crossing the bay as the sun sank in the west. It was the epitome of a holiday dining experience: good, simple food, great view, the privacy of our own room and no glad rags required. Not to mention the double bill of Engrenages (Spiral) on TV. A perfect evening, indeed.
It was nearing the end of our ‘vacances’ in the South of France last summer and we spent our last morning visiting the town famed for brocante: L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. Walking through the picturesque centre-ville, that day brimming with parading brass bands in competition, their supporters and weekend visitors like ourselves, we’d worked up quite an appetite. Rather than stay in town, which offered a fair number of riverside terrace restaurants with postcard views, Monsieur and I drove back into the surrounding countryside, to visit Restaurant La Villa.
Initially, we thought we might have been lost, because the area in which this restaurant is located is so very residential that garden play-sets are visible from the street. We continued with the directions, until we found a gate and a huge, grassy parking area, more like a massive lawn than a place to leave cars. Beyond the car park was another surprise: a large swimming pool, dangerously inviting on such a blistering day, but had we come to the right place? Was this an eatery or was it someone’s home?
At the swimming pool all became clear; to one side lay bronzed patrons, basking on loungers; to the other were tables in the shade of an awning – there, we would dine. Practically all of the terrace tables were taken. There were more seating areas inside, but no one wants to be overly sheltered on such a halcyon day; the interior was devoid of life. Fortunately, the warm waiter who greeted us only shook his head for the briefest of moments when we admitted we had no reservation. Weekend lunches here in summer are usually fully booked, he explained, yet he found us a table and, unbidden, located a fan to keep us cool.
This dragonfly was mesmerising. She clung to the fan to cool herself before flitting off around the pool, only to return moments later for a refresher.
The menu was far from exhaustive, allowing Monsieur and I to make our choices with some speed. We were ravenous by this stage, in spite of the heat. I decided on the seafood salad, while Monsieur probed our waiter about the cut of pork and which part of the beast it hailed from. Taking Monsieur’s shoulder, the waiter caressed it a little too attentively as he explained exactly which body part Monsieur would be eating. From across the table, my husband flashed me a look of bemusement and I stifled a giggle. Our waiter was absolutely lovely, very gay and, now it appeared, rather tactile when it came to explaining the source of his meats. If only all wait-staff could be like him, we’d be very happy diners indeed!
My seafood salad kept me silent for quite some time. It was much larger than I’d anticipated and consisted of powerfully fresh ingredients which were beautifully presented.
The king prawns were succulent in the extreme, anchovies on a perfectly golden crouton were a contrast to the rest of the salad in both texture and saltiness and the scallops had been seared with skill, retaining a silken consistency which gave them bounce in the mouth. No complaints from me. The dragonfly continued to come and go from the fan. I didn’t blame her; it certainly was hot.
Too hot (in my opinion) for what Monsieur chose to eat: a ‘plume’ of pork, from Mont Ventoux,(a regional mountain of note where the pigs must be happy with their lot, making them taste better) served with aubergines and sautéed potatoes.
Monsieur and I cleared our plates, coughed up the requisite Euros, thanked our charming waiter, left the sun worshippers behind and set off for Avignon and our last night of vacation. We had a wonderful evening planned, replete with ‘last supper’, but for now our appetites were sated and we could travel happy.
**In summary: Restaurant La Villa serves excellent food without pretention or attitude. A wonderfully relaxed setting in which to chill out of a weekend. In case of disappointment, I wouldn’t recommend chancing it like we did; definitely book in advance for weekend brunch in the summer.
Restaurant La Villa,A750 Avenue Jean Monnet, 84800 L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, France
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.
To add to the list of restaurants that I really rate, I must write about L’Epicure, a restaurant in Corbeil-Essonne. Located in a traditional stone house that looks as if someone could be living inside it, sitting with cat on lap in front of the fire, the restaurant may be found a short distance from the Seine in Corbeil, to the south-east of Paris, and this is a place worth knowing if you happen to find yourself in the area. Having said that, you really would have to know about it, because its location in a dark street, possibly more appropriately described as an alley, makes it not the easiest of Corbeil’s eateries to track down.
Luckily, we were guided to l’Epicure with Monsieur’s mother, who’d made us a booking for a small family celebration not so long ago and a very pleasant evening ensued.
I’ve spoken French for many years now, but have never lived in France, so I find it quite a mental drain towards the end of the day when we’re across la Manche and my synapses cease to function in multiple languages. It’s like a neurological twister game. I know what I’m saying but it might just come out in the wrong language, or in more than one language, or in a blend of languages that only I comprehend. At times like these, small things have the potential to revive me and one of them was walking into l’Epicure to find a Jamie Oliver cookbook – in English – sitting on a table in the foyer. That table was a bit of a dream for this amateur gourmet. It was covered in cookbooks by the French greats and others. How I would have loved to sit down and flick through them all. But we were here to eat, so stop and read we could not.
The maitre d’ showed us to our table in a room that probably housed half-a-dozen tables, with another room containing several more just adjacent. There was a newish stone and plaster wall at one end of our room, bearing the year 1981, which had been carved deep into the plaster, and a door gave onto a terrace for use in warmer seasons.
We ordered an apero each of champagne with peach liqueur, and our drinks were presented to us by an immaculately-presented lad of about thirteen. He wore the traditional waiter’s garb of black trousers with white shirt, black waistcoat and bow-tie, and had spiked his shock of dark hair with gel. Throughout the evening, he presented drinks and collected plates without a single mishap, and when the senior waiting staff spoke to him, he listened intently. We wondered if he was being trained into his family’s metier, or if he was some sort of protege who knew he wanted to be a restaurateur already and was working his way through the ranks. Either way, he was a charming addition to the staff.
We were brought an amuse-bouche (cappuccino of mushroom, served in an espresso cup) to tickle our tastebuds into action, and I followed that with a starter of tartare and carpaccio of scallops, swordfish and salmon, marinated in spices, with cream of lime and chives. It was laudably fresh but the swordfish tasted a little bitter so I couldn’t eat it all. Also, anyone who thinks that fish carpaccio is a light dish hasn’t been travelling with me recently. This was huge!
Monsieur and Belle-Mere went for a house special of avocado and lobster, which appeared on dark plates, arranged in a beautiful display of green and orange with artistically-placed claws. It was the sort of dish that makes one sad to begin. One mouthful and the art disappears into the usual mish-mash of food on a plate.
Foie gras features regularly on the menu at l’Epicure – in papillottes, seared, with magret de canard, in ravioli, tossed through salad and as a warm accompaniment to veal. It therefore wasn’t a huge surprise to find a piece of delicate foie gras on top of a tuna steak for my main course. It was an unusual, yet successful combination. However, I was filling up fast and yet again could not finish the generous helping.
Meanwhile, Monsieur and his mother polished off steaks, served with foie gras yet again, and the room, which had been a little empty when we arrived, was filling up. There was a family with an impeccably behaved pair of young boys at one table, a pair of young lovebirds at another, and in one corner sat a chic blonde woman with her male partner, both effortlessly presented in designer jeans, tailored shirts and boxy jackets. Her grooming was expensive – perfect highlighted hair, flawless skin and a splash of natural make-up. She reminded me of a more relaxed version of Caprice, causing me to wonder if it was indeed her. Sipping away at their flutes of champagne, they ordered liberally from the menu and each of their plates was clean when removed. How on earth can it be that they remain so slim whilst Monsieur and I battle to keep our waistlines in check? For now, I’ll call it genetics.
We finished the evening with a chocolate fondant pudding… oozing calories all over our plates and into expanding tums, and waddled out just after coffee. It’s a bit of a trek if you don’t live in the area, but I can unreservedly recommend l’Epicure to anyone visiting Corbeil. Just be sure to bring an appetite.
Place de l’Hotel de ville, 5 et 7, rue du Grand Pignon, 91100 Corbeil Essonne
Tel 01 60 88 28 38
For a truly Parisian experience, I love to explore the area surrounding rue Saint-Dominique. The length of this shop-lined street running from Saint Germain, past les Invalides to the Champ de Mars, provides plenty of opportunity to fill up a suitcase without the challenge of the Big Avenue crowds and, if one suitcase proves insufficient, there are a couple of wonderful wholesale bag shops where you can pick up another for a fraction of what you’d pay in Galeries Lafayette.
Bags are to me as shoes are to Carrie Bradshaw. Many years ago I sniffed out a shop in the rue Saint-Dominique called Stock-Sacs. There are bags of varied styles and colours hanging off every patch of wall in this Aladdin’s Cave of leather products, which will have bag-lovers salivating over the red calf-leather totes within seconds. There is also every type of accessory one could ever conceive of putting in a handbag: mobile phone holders, passport covers, key rings, driver’s licence wallets, chequebook covers, travel wallets, coin purses and more. If you do splurge on a bag at Stock-Sacs and then run up to the department stores, chances are you’ll find exactly the same bag for a great deal more euros. That sort of smug satisfaction makes a visit to this shop even more worthwhile.
Stock Sacs, 109 bis, rue Saint-Dominique, 75007 tel 01 45 51 42 12
Further along the rue towards the Eiffel Tower is a second bag shop where great bargains may be found. Called the Champ de Fleurs, it’s far less organised than Stock-Sacs and has a few manufacturer mistakes such as a lurid fuschia thing I saw in their window recently, but, if you dare to enter, there are some wonderful examples of French-made accessories to be had for a song. Monsieur’s briefcase came from this little shop and I am currently breaking in a third purchase from the Champ de Fleurs. Well worth a visit, even if the uninspired window display and dusty corners are a little off-putting.
Across the street from the Champ de Fleurs is a wonderful restaurant called La Fontaine de Mars. It warrants an entry in its own right, but suffice to say that their confit de canard is the best I’ve ever eaten, the menu is traditional with a few pleasant surprises and the atmosphere is efficient French at its best.
La Fontaine de Mars, 129 rue Saint-Dominique 75007
Tel 01 47 05 46 44 firstname.lastname@example.org
At 108, rue Saint-Dominique (or rue Saint-Dom, as my hairdresser called it) you will find l’Esprit du Sud-Ouest,a tiny rugby shop selling all manner of rugby shirts, balls, bandes dessinées, DVDs and All Black teddy bears. It’s a typical example of the myriad specialist boutiques to be found in the area, along with a bespoke printer, antique sport and travel poster gallery, perfumers, confectioners, shoe shops, children’s clothing stores and coffee purveyors. In that inimitable French way, the neighbourhood boulangeries somehow make bread look fashionable, so much so that it’s easy to forget that it’s just bread and, for the fashion-conscious, there are plenty of interesting boutiques with little windows displaying chic tops draped with dramatic scarves and just the right set of beads.
All that shopping will work up an appetite but it’s impossible to go hungry on the rue Saint-Dom. Nearby rue Cler is another great place to grab a bite. It boasts a daily market, delicatessans, a fromagerie, fish shop and greengrocers where the bright colours of the produce make shopping for dinner an altogether uplifting French experience compared with popping along to a sterile urban supermarket. The locals (rumoured to include diplomats, politicians and senior embassy staff) shop here alongside foreigners who’ve recognised the area’s charm and bought into it, and there are some great places to eat. Café du Marché is almost always full, serving traditional French food, and is so popular that you’re likely to be bumping elbows with patrons sitting at adjacent tables. Don’t go there if you like uninterrupted personal space. In its favour, however, is its prime position for people-watching and practically everyone who knows the area will have dined there at least once, if not dozens of times.
Next door to Café du Marchée is an Italian eatery with broad terrace opening onto the pedestrianised street, where insalata Caprese is layered, drizzled with pesto dressing and served chilled in a preserving jar with the lid popped open. The salads here are great, reasonably priced and hearty in size, so if you want to grab a bite but save some room for dinner, this is the place to go. There are fine-looking pizzas and generous plates of pasta to choose from and the efficient service gets 5 stars, too.
If you feel like something more ethnic, there are Chinese, Japanese and Korean restaurants in the vicinity, or if you fancy a picnic in the Champ de Mars, perhaps you could pop into La Maison du Jambon, where there’s a perennial queue of people waiting to buy gourmet treats. The deli window, filled with freshly-prepared dishes, is art in itself. For picnic accoutrements, there is the Franprix supermarket down on the corner of rue de Grenelle. All that’s left is to select a bottle of wine from Nicolas to wash it all down. Mmm, délicieux!
There is plenty to do in the area if you’d like to dip into Parisian art and culture: the Eiffel Tower, les Invalides, the Ecole Militaire and the Musée Rodin are all within easy walking distance, as is the Musée du Quai Branly. However, the main reason to visit the rue Saint-Dom and rue Cler is to get a taste of real Paris: part day-to-day life, part chic inspiration, part village in the middle of the City of Light. Besides, who can say no to exploring the rue Saint-Dom when the Eiffel Tower stands beckoning at one end? Not me.