**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.
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?
When I was a child, we always had prints of famous paintings on various of the walls at home. It’s little wonder I grew up with a taste for things French (including a certain man), because most of these prints were of works by French painters – from Chardin to Lautrec.
One of my favourites was the depiction of a nineteenth century couple walking along a Paris street in the rain. The man holds up a large black umbrella to shield the pair against the downpour and the streets are cobbled in that tell-tale European way, evoking daydreams of times of yore. I always loved looking at a particular building in the background, which is shaped like a piece of pie, the point of which is aimed directly at the viewer. “Why would an architect make a building that shape?” I’d ask, “To fit the parcel of land, I suppose, but it’s not very practical. How on earth would you furnish the triangular rooms in the point?” No one ever had an answer for me, but it didn’t matter one jot. I loved that painting regardless of the fact that I didn’t understand the reasoning behind triangular buildings, or why the beautiful woman wears black. Had she and her husband been to a funeral? Or perhaps were they in mourning? Regardless, as an artistic device their sombre clothes match well the drizzle of the day. Yes, it was likely that they were sad about something and that gave me yet another mystery to ponder.
Gustave Caillebotte was the artist responsible for this work, named ‘Rue de Paris; temps de pluie’, or ‘Rainy Day in Paris’, the original of which now hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago. Those In The Know refer to Caillebotte as an impressionist, yet there’s a realism in his work that the Seurats and Monets lack. Caillebotte’s paintings are like snapshots of the époque in which he lived. You could almost walk into them, they’re so lifelike.
Given my interest in Caillebotte you can imagine my excitement when Monsieur’s Maman suggested lunch at the Parc Caillebotte in Yerres. Caillebotte had been born into a well-to-do Parisian family that spent many of their summers at the family property in Yerres, a small town on the Yerres River, to the south of Paris. This property has been named Parc Caillebotte for its former owners and appears in various of Caillebotte’s paintings, such as Les Oragers (The Orange Trees).
Le Casin at Parc Caillebotte
The ‘Mairie’, or Mayor’s office, for Yerres has invested much time and effort in restoring the Parc to create a leisure destination which successfully blends culture, relaxation, and natural beauty, whilst celebrating the work of its famous son. Sadly, it was a grey February day when we made our visit to the Parc, but that didn’t detract from its interest. The large, white Caillebotte family house known as ‘le Casin’ stands proud at the entrance to the Parc. It is home to two permanent exhibitions, but was closed when we visited. Outside, there are various buildings of different styles and purposes dotted around the grounds, like the funny little pagoda atop a rockery with grotto beneath. This was also closed but in the summer months it serves as a refreshments kiosk. On a day like this, there was little need for a bottle of something refreshing. The weather was fresh enough.
Down by the river, there’s a long, white orangery with outdoor seats, where a couple of local dames sat and gossiped, quite oblivious to the chill in the air. Monsieur’s Maman told us that further afield lay a chapel and vegetable garden, but we all agreed that, on this occasion, it was too cold to hang about and explore. Warm interiors beckoned.
“It’s true, I swear. Marie-Claude buys the Chinese escargots. Quelle horreur!”
At the Parc I did, however, talk to the animals again. There are hens of all descriptions and a pair of flopsy white rabbits in a large chicken coop behind the Parc’s restaurant, Chalet du Parc, so I clucked at them and they clucked back and Monsieur’s Maman must then have realised that her son is marrying a madwoman. As for Monsieur, well, he’s just used to it. His ears are now deaf to my clucking sounds.
I loved these cotton wool hens with their little blue faces. And so did the four year-old next to me!
One day, when the sun shines and the arctic air has gone, I hope we will all return to the Parc Caillebotte. There are the exhibitions to see, naturally, but on the Halcyon day that I imagine, we won’t want to linger indoors. We’ll buy cold drinks at the Pagoda kiosk, picnic on the broad lawn and then perhaps rent a couple of canoes to paddle up and down the river, just like the man in Caillebotte’s painting, ‘Les Périssoires sur l’Yerres’ (‘Oarsmen on the Yerres). To that day I do look forward, very much indeed, but first I should really tell you all about LUNCH.
There’s not a lot of incentive for me to get out of bed at 5am on a Tuesday morning, especially in the Northern Hemisphere winter. But when I heard that Australian blogger, Razzbuffnik, and his wife, Engogirl, would be travelling around Europe for a few months, I found that rising at five to go and meet them in Paris wasn’t so bad after all.
Razz and Engo met me at the Gare du Nord and we hugged and fell immediately into easy chatter as if reunited schoolfriends rather than bloggers who’d never before met in person. In spite of the grey skies and drizzle, we forewent museums in favour of a leisurely stroll through le Marais, heading for the Seine.
We popped into a couple of markets, which were disappointing, really, and le Marais was like a ghost town, lacking in its usual buzz. But by the time we reached the Ile Saint Louis, we had decided that spending the afternoon together, eating and talking, was the way forward.
I’d heard about a restaurant called l’Ilôt Vache, filled with cow trinkets from faithful patrons, and we certainly found it, but it was closed. Perhaps that was fortuitous because when Razz spotted a modern-looking frontage with a French-Italian-Spanish fusion menu, we decided to give it a whirl, and how lucky we were that we did.
The restaurant is called Sorza and in spite of it being barely 12.30pm, we were greeted by a warm waitress and took a table in the window. Thus began the longest lunch I’ve had in a while. We were the first to arrive for lunch and the last to leave almost five hours later. Somehow, it didn’t surprise me that Razz, Engo and I could eat and talk for so long – we’ve all come to know each other quite well through Razz’s blog and mine and various e-mails in between posts, so the conversation flowed, just as well as the 2005 Côtes du Rhône that we ordered to see us through the afternoon.
Soon a group of Americans arrived to take tables behind us (Razz thinks that our being in the otherwise empty restaurant must have lured them in) and some locals later joined the fray. As dull as it was outside, we were warm in Sorza’s red interior. Now we just had to get down to the serious business at hand: eating.
Engo and I chose the parmesan soufflé to start. Small and rich, it was served warm and small mouthfuls of the cheesy creaminess lingered. This was not to be rushed; this dish demanded to be savoured. It was served with a long plate of leaves with a pesto dressing, shavings of parmesan and a drizzle of balsamic. The freshness of the salad tempered the rich soufflé and the tang of basil married well with the taste of parmesan.
Between bites, Engogirl practised her food photography with hubby, Razzbuffnik’s smart wide-angle lensed-up camera, as we discussed topics as disparate as the Lord of the Rings trilogy and how much you can tell about a country’s climate from its style of guttering.
Amidst all the talking, it’s a miracle we managed to eat as much as we did. Razzbuffnik’s starter was grilled aubergine with parmesan shavings artfully placed at the centre of the plate, and a sprinkling of pine nuts, olives, sunblushed vine tomatoes and a swirl of pesto completed the dish. We, the small Antipodean triumvirate, out to lunch in the French capital, were thus far impressed.
The mains only convinced us that we had stumbled into a very good establishment indeed.
Razz and I chose the Dorade, or sea bream, with creamy polenta and a small herb garnish. The polenta was the creamiest I’ve ever eaten in my life. When it arrived, it bore a gentle foam, and the bloggers’ consensus was that the texture was reminiscent of the softest scrambled eggs. The fish had been grilled to gently crisp its skin, whilst the fleshy underside remained tender, flaking off the fork as it should. And the bonus? No bones.
By this point, we were all sticking our forks into each other’s plates like old muckers, comparing each dish and making all sorts of lipsmacking sounds of gastronomic satisfaction. Engogirl’s risotto with coquilles Saint Jacques, was particularly good. Razz and I agreed that had we the opportunity to return, we’d definitely have to order it for ourselves because one small taste was definitely not enough.
Hours had passed by this point and it was beginning to get dark outside, but we still had to try the desserts. Engogirl tried the pannacotta with two coulis, Razz whizzed through a house tiramisu, and I had the chocolate mousse with crème de menthe. The mousse option arrived in a glass showing its three tidy layers. There was white cream at the bottom, a substantial amount of mousse in the middle, and a glossy cover of chocolate sauce. The surprise was the white cream. It was quite literally delicately sweetened cream with finely chopped fresh mint throughout.
After a digestif or two it was time to thank our lovely waitress, who’d suffered our foreigners’ French with great patience, and hit the road.
Opposite Sorza we checked out the gallery windows, photographing this modern take on Gustav Klimt’s women, and learning glare-avoidance techniques from Razz. Then I looked at my watch. It said 5.20pm. No. It couldn’t be. I thought it was about 4.30pm. Now I had less than an hour to get back to the Gare du Nord and catch my train. Could it be done?
In the end, we caught a metro, got lost changing at Châtelet, found the right line headed north and screeched onto a train bound for the Gare du Nord. Thankfully, when we reached the Eurostar terminal, there were hardly any queues. That, in itself, is truly miraculous.
With a sadly hurried farewell to my two Australian friends, I typically found myself in the slowest-moving customs queues, threw my bags through the x-ray machine and hoofed it down to the platform. I made it into my seat with 4 minutes to spare. Now that’s what I call timing.
Razzbuffnik and Engogirl are my kinda company. They’re feet-on-the ground with a great repertoire of anecdotes, and a love of things that rate highly on my list of passions – namely, food and travel. I wish we lived closer so that Razz could cook for me with that extra-special Weber barbecue of his and so that Engogirl could show me her dams (Engo is an dam-building engineer). For the moment, we’ll just have to be thankful for the wonderful day we shared in Paris, and for the biggest blessing we’ve discovered through blogging: new and international friends.
When I was about eleven, I started home ec classes at school. My classmates and I then spent the next two years fighting over ingredients in these core classes as we perfected the mangling of simple dishes such as scrambled eggs and kedgeree. The worst part of these classes, however, was post-cooking when we had to sit and EAT what we’d just burned, undercooked or over-salted. At this key time in my culinary development I learned precisely how not to cook in class; conversely I learned how better to cook at home, where I’d help in the kitchen and sit with my mother in front of afternoon TV shows of Julia Child slamming food around her studio kitchen amidst what could only be described as a slightly awkward, inelegant presentation. Part of me loved watching her infectious passion for food and admired the results, wishing she could visit our dated home ec kitchen to inspire our prematurely-jaded attempts at food preparation; another part of me sat glued to the set in awe of the hulking woman who obviously knew her onions when it came to food, but whose booming voice and giant stature were more than a little intimidating. In case you need reminding, here’s a clip of La Child in action:
Cue a bout of Julia Child amnesia, until last year, when I bought Julia Child’s memoir, My Life in France, written in conjunction with her great nephew, Alex Prud’homme. I’m embarrassed to say that it sat in my ‘to read’ pile for some time until recently, when I quite literally devoured it. Once more, I was mesmerised by this towering doyenne of cuisine as I learned that there was so much more to her own personal history than is first apparent when you think of an acclaimed author of cookbooks. For a start, she wasn’t born with a wooden spoon in her hand, nor could she bake soufflés before she could walk. Au contraire; Julia Child didn’t start cooking until she was 37 years old, when she moved to post-war France with her adored husband Paul. Once there, her love of eating and a fascination with French food led her to the Cordon Bleu school, where she studied food and its preparation. Julia also spent time getting to know the local market vendors, finding the best produce, learning French and experimenting in her own kitchen in an odd apartment on the ‘rue de Loo’, as she called the rue de l’Université. On top of all of the above, the tireless Julia somehow found the time to socialise with Paris-based foodies. She taught, gave dinner parties, helped a couple of new friends with their attempt at ‘cookbookery’, and it is this latter activity that eventually developed into Child’s weighty mega-oeuvre, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961), which brought truly French methods and cuisine into the American kitchen and subsequently revolutionised many kitchens all around the world.
This new-found passion for French cuisine changed Julia’s life, but not without hard graft did she become a published household name with her own TV show. I dare not give too much away, as this book is filled with such characters and surprises and inside knowledge of famous restaurants, critics and foods (I yelped with delight at the part where she visits the original Poilâne bakery in the name of breadmaking research) that it demands a reader’s first-hand attention, rather than a second-hand account. However, to whet your appetite, I will say that the complex politics of the time does not escape mention and honest accounts of strain on a workaholic’s interpersonal relationships, a quite unexpected picture of Julia in the bath with her husband and the down-to-earth description of universal frustrations and disappointments can only add to the admiration which Julia fans will feel on reading what she referred to as ‘The French Book’.
My Life in France was the sort of book that pained me to finish. There was only one thing to be done: I’d been bitten by the bug and now simply had to read more Julia. So, as you do, I popped onto Amazon, where Julie and Julia – My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell came to my attention. I’d heard of it; in fact, one of my grub-loving friends had recommended it to me; I just hadn’t bought it yet. One click later and the book was delivered to me at the end of last week, just in time for the May Bank Holiday weekend – a blissful three days of Nothing Planned. Julie and Julia arrived with impeccable timing because on commencing to read this book I experienced the startling result of waking up well before I would normally have roused myself on a long weekend. Why? To read The Book, of course, and for once I’m not complaining about waking early. Not at all.
So, every morning for the past three days, as Monsieur slumbered on next to me, my first waking thought was “I wonder what Julie does next?” as I grabbed the book and read as quietly as possible so that Monsieur wouldn’t wake up and disturb this precious reading time. You see, this Julie Powell person had decided on a whim to cook every single one of the 524 recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a mere 365 days. AND she had a full-time job, AND a tiny kitchen AND lived in Long Island City, which isn’t the best place to find some of the more unusual ingredients commanded by such recipes. To call this book entertaining is quite the culinary understatement. Refreshingly, there’s zero pretension. If the aspic doesn’t set or if murdering lobsters keeps Powell awake at night, we hear about it. Some recipes work, others don’t, and at times Powell enlists a search party to track down some strange foodstuff or other. Oh my Heavens, how I am loving this book, right down to the plumbing issues and day job and the strain that an obsession with cooking can place on a relationship.
As veteran Googlers tend to do, I’ve also spent some time reading the Julie and Julia Project blog, which is the unwitting inspiration for the book. There’s also the current Julie Powell blog to salivate over and on You Tube, there’s a trailer for THE FILM (see end of post), starring none other than Meryl Streep as Julia Child and Amy Adams as frustrated cooking-by-night-to-save-own-sanity government agency temp, Julie Powell. Now we just have to wait until it’s released on 7 August (I’m counting the days and if you know someone who can donate preview tickets to this particularly enthusiastic fan, then please please pretty please would you let me know?).
Believe it or not, you can also follow @Julia_Child on Twitter, only it’s not REALLY Julia (unless there’s a new app allowing us to tweet from beyond the grave), because she passed away in 2004, aged an astonishing 91. Following this sad date on the Child fan’s calenday, The Smithsonian was lucky enough to be given her kitchen, copper pans, units, books ‘n’ all and it’s now a crowd-drawing exhibit. (The Smithsonian has been added to my Bucket List. )
So, to sum up, unless I’m mistaken, it would seem that we’re in a mid-Julia Child revival and we just might have former government drone, Julie Powell to thank for that. Personally, I love the fact that courtesy of Powell I’ve now learned what a gimlet is and have added kattywhompus to my vocabulary.
In the meantime, here’s the trailer for the film of Julie and Julia:
For a while now, Frenchified has been Stultified, i.e. on the back burner whilst I’ve been struggling with unprecedented workload and exhaustion. No longer. I miss writing about France, so I’m dusting off the blog and preparing to give it some renewed OOMPH. Thank you for being patient with my recent lack of posts.
Here’s a photo of the menu from the restaurant at the top of the Centre Pompidou. It has dazzling views over Paris and features as a location in various films, like le Divorce, starring Kate Hudson. I love that film. Every time I think of it I see images of red Hermes handbags…
Monsieur trots off to Paris for work. I stay in London. Yesterday morning on the way to the tube, Monsieur and I preview our days ahead.
“Darling,” I say, “you’re so lucky. You’re going to Paris for meetings, have a cocktail event in the Louvre tonight, you’re staying in a lovely hotel with very soft beds and really good room service. You’ll even have time to hang out in the Galeries Lafayette food hall!” And yes, I really do jabber like that, which irritates Monsieur first thing in the morning but hey! I’m excited for Monsieur, because if roles had been reversed, I’d certainly be looking forward to some time out of London. Just the mere thought of Paris makes me feel particularly poetic so I’m not prepared for his response.
“The reality is, I’ll be there for work, I won’t know anyone at the cocktail and room service isn’t as good as your cooking.” He looks a little glum and I start to miss him already.
That evening, I decide to have a night off being the master chef of our household and order in. Then the phone rings. It’s Monsieur so I ask him how things are going in Paris. He tells me he’s just left the Louvre, didn’t have time to view the Valentino exhibition because it turns out he did actually know some people at this schmoozing shin-dig, is now walking along the street to his hotel in Concorde and can see all around him Parisians soaking up the evening sun with a verre or two on terraces. “I can see the Eiffel Tower,” he tells me, “and the weather’s great!” I enthuse right along with him, picturing the scene in my head. It’s almost as good as being there myself, but without the confit de canard.
Back in London I console myself with an indulgent night in: a white pizza, a glass of chilled rosé, a couple of chick flicks and a whole lot of blog-reading. It may not be Paris, but these quiet nights are so rare that they’re precious indeed. Later on my brow does crease for a moment, just before bedtime when I wonder whether, without Monsieur, I’ll be able to set the UFO alarm clock? What is it with me and Monsieur’s machines? They must all be French. The minute he leaves, they know it and go on strike.
There are too many people in this world who simply don’t understand the fascination of bandes dessinées (otherwise known as graphic novels). Monsieur and I are not among these people. We still read Tintin, raced madly through a series called XIII (Treize, as in ‘thirteen’) which gripped us with political intrigue and Kennedy-esque family, spent last year’s French holiday addicted to another series called Largo Winch about a billionaire playboy – this meant we made frequent trips to FNAC or roadside supermarkets in search of the next instalment… we even watch documentaries about the life of Tintin’s creator, Hergé. We love it all!
We’d been thinking about having a bandes dessinées weekend for some time now, so finally we stopped talking and started doing. Besides, a bit of distraction was required – Monsieur had spent months with his head in books for professional exams which were finally over and I was stressed out with various other things, so off we went to Paris and Brussels.
In Paris, we stayed near the Gare Lazare in a Hotel Mercure (part of the Accor group of hotels). The room was small but comfortable and had recently been decorated, so there was a whiff of paint in the air. Never mind. The mini bar was incredible. No, it wasn’t stocked with jars of peanuts for £10.00 a pop, or mini bottles of champagne costing as much as a magnum on the street. It was filled with non-alcoholic beverages and they were all free. What a brilliant idea! No more waking up parched from fierce hotel air-con in the middle of the night and reaching for a bottle of evian, only to find in the morning that you’d just consumed a weeny 250ml of water at £6.50 a go.
It was in Paris that we kicked off our BD adventure by going to Parc Astérix, the theme park of the Astérix world. Monsieur had been once as a child but couldn’t remember much about it. Besides, I was keen to see life-size Astérix and Obelix characters walking around Gaul villages. Let’s just say we’re very much in touch with our inner children.
Reader, please note: Monsieur and I rarely travel without some sort of adventure happening along the way. By ‘adventure’, we mean hiccup or problem or minor disaster. Our adventure of this particular weekend would prove to be getting to Parc Astérix.
How NOT to travel to Parc Astérix from central Paris
As we’d booked our entry tickets online at the Parc website, we had also printed their detailed instructions on how to get to Parc Astérix from central Paris. We followed them to the letter.
First, we had to get up at 7am (which translates into 6am UK time) – an ungodly hour when travelling for relaxation. We somehow managed breakfast in 15 minutes. (That’s pretty miraculous for us, especially considering the need to coordinate. We’re really not great in the morning; the lights are on but nobody’s home until about 10am.) Then, unsure of how long it would take to walk, we grabbed a taxi to 99, rue Rivoli, as per the Official Directions. 10 Euros later, we were standing outside the Carrousel du Louvre, at number 99, with a group of Astérix fans, happily waiting for the navette (shuttle). It should have been there at 8.45am. It didn’t come.
“Don’t worry, darling. You French are always fashionably late!” I said, optimistically.
“No, we’re not.” Monsieur was adamant ”This isn’t right.”
I didn’t believe him. After all, we were in the midst of a group of day-trippers; kids with backpacks covered in images of toys of the moment all around. We couldn’t all be wrong, could we? Nah, of course not. At 9.20am, no navette in sight, one of the women waiting with us picked up her mobile to call the Parc and find out why we hadn’t been collected yet. Apparently, we’d been waiting in the wrong place. Cue group groan. So much for the Official Directions. Mobile Phone Woman was now ranting. There was a bus park in the Louvre courtyard behind 99 rue Rivoli where the navette had already been, and gone. No, it couldn’t come back for us because it was already full with visitors who’d waited in the right place. How ever did they know? Farts. There was only one morning navette from Paris to the Parc and we’d missed it. Now what?
Pulling out the Official Directions, we found an alternate route, via métro, train and bus. This was going to be far less direct. We took the métro from Carrousel to the Gare du Nord, then jumped on a train to the airport (yes, the airport), from where we could pick up a navette to the Parc. It seemed straightforward enough. Oh, how wrong we were. The metro was fine. The train was fine. The queue for the navette was NOT fine.
Given that we were (misguidedly) visiting Parc Astérix on a French holiday and there was only one navette per half-hour leaving from the airport train station, the queue of a couple of hundred teenagers in front of us meant that we wouldn’t make it to the Parc until closing time. We stood in line pondering the options, shuffling forward a few inches every few minutes. Then we gave up, took a monorail to the airport terminal, walked straight into a taxi and paid yet more Euros to drive down the motorway to the blooming theme park filled with fake Gauls and enough hysterical adolescents with piercings to put you off them for life. And breathe. Why on earth had we thought this would be a good idea? The icing on the cake was the traffic jam on the off ramp leading to the park. Oh joy. Blessedly, that was the last of the problems. This time.
Here’s a life lesson for you: when visiting theme parks, always do so in the morning of a weekday during term time. Why? No queues. We love no queues.
On the way back, Monsieur and I forewent trying out a new ride in order to jump on an early navette back to the airport station. We didn’t want to risk waiting until park closing time to wrestle our way onto a bus out of Gaul. The bus was filled with French chav teenagers, wearing naff tracksuits, the crotches of which hung down to their knees, and those baseball caps which perch on top of the cranium, adding several inches to their height. Isn’t it reassuring to know that there are kids like this everywhere, even if they don’t wear fake Burberry or say “innit”?
On the train, there were more chavs, only older, and a number of dodgy guys wearing enough gold chain to start a market stall. Monsieur nudged me “we’re travelling through one of the roughest areas in Paris,” he whispered. Hmm. Looking around me, I could see what he meant, but it only made me more interested in where we were, who got on or off the train, and how much man-jewellery the guys were wearing. Sadly, there’s not much else to report that would be different from a suburban train trip anywhere else, but I have to admit I was pleased we were travelling in daylight.
At the Gare du Nord we got stuck trying to reach the right platform on the EM métro line that would take us back to the hotel. First, we found the right line but the trains were heading in the wrong direction, so we took the escalator up to a level that bridged all the platforms but had no down escalators. We then had to return to the entrance to the line (two more escalators going up) and finally found the level (two more escalators going down) from which you could take yet another down escalator to the right platform going in the right direction. Man, could this day be any more of a transportation hell?
When Monsieur and I got off at the Gare St Lazare, we were barely talking with the stress of it all. After a rest at the relatively peaceful hotel with a free minibar filled with cool drinks, it was time to go out again, only this time, we’d walk.
Summary of transport to get to and from Parc Astérix from central Paris:
- 2 taxis
- 2 métros
- 2 trains
- 1 navette
The moral of this story is: drive.
‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’, or so they say, but what about ‘when in Paris, eat as the Mexicans do’? Deciding to turn our backs on canard and moules and other typical French fare, Monsieur and I felt like dining on something different. That’s how we came to experience two very different Mexican restaurants when we were in Paris last week.
Monsieur loves nachos. They’re his comfort food. He has them after a late night out or when there’s a good football match on TV and even during the French election results last year, so it’s no surprise that he wanted to go Mexican in Paris. He googled ‘Mexican restaurants Paris’ and made a list of the top few. On 1 May, Labour Day, lots of places were closed for business as the workers of France enjoyed a holiday in their honour. Fortunately for us, The Studio, the first Mexican on Monsieur’s list, was open so we decided to try it out.
The Studio is located just off the rue du Temple (le Marais) on a cobbled courtyard where patrons can enjoy fine Paris evenings at one of the outdoor tables. As we entered the restaurant, a waiter appeared immediately to seat us and we were happy that everything looked as you’d expect – coloured glass tea-light holders on each table, a Kahlo-esque painting on one wall, the authentic looking bar stocked with requisite selection of tequilas and a big green sculpture of a lizard hung above a door.
The menu was typical Mexican, laden with nachos, enchilladas and fajitas, so as we struggled to decide we quelled a surge in appetite with the corn chips and spicy salsa that had been deposited in front of us. One downside was that the wait for service was very, very long. In fact, it makes me think of a quote that appeared on the Zagat website recently, where someone said:
“I actually pulled out my cell phone and called to ask them to please bring us water.”
We attributed the lack of attention to short staffing on Labour Day and just as we were beginning to wonder if there was anyone at all in the kitchen (several of the other tables hadn’t been served, either), the restaurant’s cogs started whirring and we were eating in no time.
To start, Monsieur ordered nachos, which did not appear as the typical mountain of chips but which was instead presented as an artfully arranged pattern of individually-dressed tortilla chips. Meanwhile, I chowed down on a calorific selection of ‘fritos’: onion rings, peppers stuffed with cheese and deep-fried batons of mozzarella. It was just what I felt like eating, but it did have a bit of that ‘here’s one I froze earlier’ quality to it. Still, if they stocked this food in the freezer section of my local supermarket, I’d definitely buy it for a naughty treat.
As a main course, Monsieur chose a plate of enchilladas, which he polished off in record time in spite of the fact that he was now convinced that everything we were eating had come from the freezer. My prawn-filled quesadilla was tasty but far from remarkable, a little bit cardboardy, in fact, and our margheritas looked like the pre-mix cocktail variety although thankfully more alcoholic. It wasn’t that bad, but it wasn’t great and we ended up paying about 40 Euros each for mediocre, which is hardly a bargain. Confusingly, the reviews on the web had been so positive that my theory is this: the regular kitchen chefs had taken advantage of Labour Day to have some well-earned respite, leaving a freezer or two filled with prepared meals so that the holiday staff could heat them up and arrange them on a plate. Hey, presto! They don’t lose any business.
Monsieur was unimpressed. The following morning he informed me that:
“we’re going to a different Mexican place tonight. It’s in the student quarter and it’s authentic,” That got my attention, as do most comments referring to food. “it’ll be interesting to compare it with last night’s food to see which one is better.”
I have to admit, it amuses me to go somewhere like Paris, only to eat Mexican food. Two nights in Paris. Two nights of enchilladas. It’s not the usual approach to eating in the City of Light, but we’re not exactly your usual couple. We do strange stuff like this. A lot.
So off we set, across the river to the 5th, to find The Studio’s Mexican rival, Anahuacalli, which is located on Rue des Bernardins, just off the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Before we even began to eat, everything about the place screamed genuine Mexican at us, and we suspected we’d be safe here because it was already full. Prints of Frida Kahlo self-portraits helped create a Mexican atmosphere and, as her husband, Diego Rivera’s museum is located in Anahuacalli, Mexico, her presence made perfect sense. Mayan sculptures stood on sconces around the room, there were sachets of Mexican food for sale behind the reception desk and the waitresses all wore embroidered blouses of a Central American style.
The menu made for fascinating reading. Apart from salivating at the culinary options, I learned that Anahuacalli is an Aztec word, meaning ‘house by the water’, and that ‘tomato’ comes from ‘tomatl’, another noun of Aztec origin. Our margheritas turned up in chunky glasses with hints of blue and deliciously salted rims. They were generous, genuine and so good that we ignored wine and drank margheritas instead. Then complimentary corn chips arrived in a matte silver bowl with pyramid feet, joined by two little ceramic dishes of salsa, one red (hot) and one green (think mouth-on-fire).
The starters all looked great so we ordered a Tu y Yo (you and me) shared starter, which came on a single blue and white ceramic plate, each dish blending into the next. There was a sweet ceviche of raw white fish, a mound of freshly made guacamole with a coriander bite, small tortilla rolls containing soft cheese or chicken, and a delicious salad called nopalitos, consisting of tomatoes, coriander and cactus. CACTUS! Yes, we ate cactus and it’s my new favourite food. The texture is like a cooked green pepper, the taste is like a jalapeño without the chilli and it works brilliantly in salad. Now I just have to work out where to buy it.
I ummed and ahed over the main course selection. The turkey mole with a cacao and twenty-spice sauce sounded tempting, but in the end I went for Pescado, sea bream poached in a mix of peppers, cactus (again!), onions and tomatoes with citrus juice and capers. It’s probably one of the best fish dishes I’ve ever eaten. Monsieur chose the enchilladas because “I want to compare it with last night’s to see which is better”. You won’t be surprised to hear that Anahuacalli came out tops. Other temptations on the menu included fillet of salmon in a papaya sauce, or duck breast on a bed of courgette flower cream.
As we ate I observed a nearby table, where Mum and Dad were taking twenty-something daughter for dinner. Daughter was blonde with startled-looking blue eyes, so slim that her clavicle stuck out like a shelf. She ate with the gusto of someone who hadn’t seen food in a month, and this included licking her knife on both sides at intervals. I still remember the day when I was taught why people didn’t lick knives. I was five years old, so this display horrified me. I can hand-on-heart say that I haven’t seen a person lick a knife in public since I was a child. No doubt Daughter may have had an eating disorder, as she periodically disappeared to the restaurant conveniences, returning with watery eyes. Her parents looked sensible, however, and I wondered if they noticed their offspring’s erratic behaviour or the fact that she was putting away enough food to fill a pair of hollow legs.
Meanwhile, we called it a night. Deciding to leave Anahuacalli’s dessert list another time, we payed this bill with a smile and the knowledge that we know where to eat proper Mexican in Paris. I’m dying to return and have an entire plate of cactus salad and try their famous Mole.
NB If you do decided to give Anahuacalli a shot, definitely reserve. When we called, they told us they have two sittings: 7.30pm or 9pm so make sure you don’t turn up without a reservation because chances are pretty high that you won’t get in.