Raclette it be…


Happy autumn readers! Yes I know it started ages ago, but what with Covid madness and falling in love with a Frenchman, the ol’ schedule has been a bit disrupted of late. But I hope you’re all healthy and happy, and ready to fill yourselves with melted cheese in the name of French cuisine. For some inspiration, here’s a post from the archives to whet your appetite. A new one coming soon!

When I was young, I was told repeatedly not to play with my food. But that didn’t stop me from constructing elaborate sculptures out of fish fingers, mashed potato and peas, that at the time I thought were worthy of inclusion in whatever was the culinary equivalent of the Louvre.

Whilst having dinner next to a Parisian mother and her child a few months back, it dawned on me that such dinner time creativity is much less tolerated on this side of the Channel, where meal times are a much more civilised affair. For the love of God, this six-year-old fledgling was eating steak tartare and slender fries (minus ketchup I might add) and making a rather organised job of it (i.e. the half-eaten remnants were all still on his plate and not mashed together in a big lump).

IMG_2166Imagine then my surprise when I encountered the DIY, dump-it-on, seemingly-invented-by-a-child melted cheese free-for-all that is raclette; an established French favourite when the weather gets chillier and thoughts turn to snow and skiing. Originally from Switzerland (and named after the cheese with which it’s made), it’s a dish about as far from sophisticated as you could get; a get-your-hands dirty culinary build-’em-up where the main aim is to get as much melted cheese over the assembled accompaniments on your plate as possible. If that’s not playing with your food, I don’t know what is.

IMG_2168Most of us anglophones are far more familiar with fondue, though those slender little fork things don’t insure against drips on the tablecloth or lost bread chunks sacrificed to the bottom of the pan. Raclette is a turbo version of the dish if you like, omitting the wine (which is for drinking, obviously) and the various seasonings, and concentrating on pure, unadulterated melted cheese.

IMG_2171To prove its heavyweight status, you’ll need a piece of special kit to make it happen, though in the olden days all you needed was a massive wadge of cheese, an open fire and something to scrape the melted bits off with (I’d just use my tongue, but etiquette dictates some kind of tool). These days you have an electric machine, akin to a kind of grill, under which you slide individual trays with a thick slice of cheese nestled inside, and wait for it to melt.

Some potatoes are happier than others to be part of the molten glory

Some potatoes are happier than others to be part of the molten glory

Whilst you’re trying to keep your mouth from watering all over the table as you watch the magic slowly happen, the idea is to stack your plate full of boiled potatoes (handily kept warm in the specially-designed place on top), assorted cured meats, gherkins and pickled onions, and pour over the melted cheese-lava as soon as it’s bubbling to your liking, submerging every morsel in its wake. Pop another slice of cheese in to get cooking whilst you’re tucking into the first lot, and repeat until skiing the following morning looks like a near impossibility due to sudden, dramatic weight gain.

The French may still be famed for their foie gras, Champagne and oysters, a holy trio of deliciousness that spells class like nothing else, but at this time of year, I’m living amongst a people who love nothing more than getting down and dirty with as much melted cheese as they can swallow. Now that’s my kind of sophistication.

Post originally published 10/12/2014

Liberation station

As the holiday season draws to a close and la rentrée arrives once more, it’s time to reflect at the start of a new term just what a year it’s been so far. Phew! You couldn’t have written that one…  I trust you’ve all flexed your vacation wings appropriately, and after our lockdown spring, the freedom to roam around unfettered (mask et al) has never felt so sweet. Well that’s what our selfish modern minds would have us believe anyhow, but during the last week of August Paris knows different, as the 25th of the month commemorates the liberation of the city in 1944, when it was freed from the clutches of the Nazis. If we’re talking freedom, liberty doesn’t scream much louder than that.

The occupation had begun in June 1940, and the Nazis set up central commands in the most luxurious hotels, changed the capital’s signage and adjusted the clocks to German time. For four long years Parisians endured shortages of food and supplies, rationing and curfews, with the City of Light turning dark every night at 9pm. Many fled to the provinces if they could, and thousands of Jews were rounded up and sent to concentration camps, remembered via black plaques throughout the city today. All in all, pretty bleak days for old dame Paris.

The path to liberty was unlocked by the allied invasion of Normandy on 6th June 1944, which led to an uprising by the French Forces of the Interior (FFI – the military arm of the Resistance) who eventually achieved freedom after a bloody six-day battle with the help of incoming American troops. Germany soon surrendered and it was up to Charles de Gaulle to take the mic and give a rousing speech, followed by four days of much merriment (and wine presumably) and victory parades. Paris was at last free. Viva la France!

Such memories will never fade, but sadly the lives of those present on that joyous day will, so happily there is a dedicated museum in the 14th that relives the event through their voices. Originally opened in 1994 at Montparnasse, in 2018 the collection was moved to a new home at Place Denfert-Rochereau, in a building that used to serve as one of the ancient toll gates for the city, and under which the command headquarters for the liberation of Paris was located. The new Musée de la Liberation de Paris opened its doors in 2019 to much fanfare on the 75th anniversary of the event, bien sûr.

Whereas you might be used to a polyester-suited guide leading you around proceedings in any other museum, here you’re invited to take the arm of two of the time’s greatest figures; key Resistance figure Jean Moulin and military great General Leclerc, or Phillipe Leclerc de Hautecloque (pictured, right) as he was known to his bank manager. Beginning in 1918, the exhibits take you between the two world wars and behind the famous names via photographs, documents, clothing and a whole array of personal artefacts helping you to understand Paris’ journey from peace, to war and back again. Those unafraid of steps can head down below to check out the secret defence bunker occupied by the FFI and serving as a command post for Colonel Rol-Tanguy (after which the Avenue above is named). The museum is free for access to the permanent collection, though a programme of ticketed temporary exhibitions is also available.

While you guys are busy dreaming of being Resistance fighters in the 40s, I’ll be organising my Petit Nicolas pencil case and ironing my PJ bottoms in readiness for a new term at Granny Flat HQ. A bientôt mes amis!

4 Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, 75014

For more info click here.

The dame of the game

Summer is the very Frenchest of times, all things considered. With the 14 juillet celebration as the mid-summer tentpole, the hallowed holiday period showing national devotion in travel form, and the array of summer produce putting good food and endless chat about it at the top of the menu, man it’s quite a time to be French. Or woman, I should exclaim, as it’s the female of the French species that takes centre stage in this post, coming to you from the most peaceful of cities as the vacationing flocks have abandoned the good ship Paris in search of more tropical climes.

Though the French government is more gender-balanced than many, when it comes to the top job,  it’s always been men at the helm, and let’s face it, with far-right Marine Le Pen the only female presidential rival around, let’s hope it stays that way for the time being. But right at the very, very top of the pile, albeit in strictly symbolic form, is a woman that gets often overlooked, though is there lurking around every corner whether you tend to notice her not. Enter stage left in all her finery, sporting her trademark Phrygian hat and generous décolleté, the national personification of France, Marianne.

Gods and Goddesses have represented all sorts of ideas and concepts since classical times, with the female figure of liberty being heartily embraced across the ages, and in particular during the French Revolution (for stunningly obvious reasons). Rather than being adopted as the national symbol directly, the figure picked up some allegorical accessories on the way, with her traditional slave cap being thought to represent freedom and emancipation, and her (often) bare and buxom chest representing motherhood and nourishment. The figures of reason and democracy added their symbolic flavour too, and this mighty emblem of a new revolutionary age was official adopted as the symbol of the new regime in 1792.

It took a while for it to properly catch on, and she’s morphed considerably in line with political priorities of the time, but she is now found all around, in town halls and schools, on stamps, coins, and atop those evil letters from the bank we’d all rather throw away. She also makes up a third of the official government logo along with the red, white and blue of the tricolore, and the national motto Liberté, égalité, fraternité (three really IS the magic number over here it seems). To see her in the ‘flesh’ as it were, head to either the Place Nation or Place République where you’ll find a bronze sculpture and statute respectively, or brave the Louvre and search out Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (above), painted to commemorate the revolution of 1830, depicting her in full battle mode.

As the country’s republican symbol (Joan of Arc her monarchist equivalent) the fact that she’s a woman is in direct opposition to the line of male rulers that dominated for centuries, and her name Marianne is thought to be a nod to the popular working class names of Marie and Anne found at the other end of the social hierarchy to the likes of the ruling elite. For a long time she was a mostly anonymous figure, bending her look to satisfy the issues of the moment, but since 1969 official busts of her have been based on real-life famous females, beginning with Brigitte Bardot, and including the likes of Catherine Deneuve, Letitia Casta and Sophie Marceau.

Her current look (pictured above) was unveiled by President Macron in 2018, and she’s soon to appear as part of the official emblem for the 2024 Olympics due to take place in Paris, unless emerging zoonotic viruses have other ideas that is. With so many guises over the years, pick the one which best matches your inner French woman, and roll with it. I’ll be picking out mine whilst embracing another (unofficial) symbol of the country, doing my bit for the nation by helping reduce the Champagne mountain left in the wake of Coronavirus. France, you are WELCOME.

Full steam ahead

And we’re off! Lockdown has been lifted, and the desperate scramble for holiday places begins. Maybe you’ve spent months dreaming of exotic climes, or a germ-free country break away from the confines of a disease-ridden city. Me? I’ll always choose the train as my vacation vehicle to transport me somewhere green, though with the frantic peak holiday months of July and August soon upon us, I think I’ll sit tight for now and scoot off somewhere later in the year.

But you needn’t be tied to a travel itinerary to fully appreciate the beauty of Paris’ railway stations, worth a visit on their own merits. We’ve already dipped our toe in here, but this time we’ll don our curiosity specs and take a look at Gare de l’Est up close. We’re not heading there for a hardcore trainspotting sesh you understand (though if that punches your ticket, go right ahead) but to have a wander around the building itself, appreciating its architectural charm and rich history.

One of the six major stations in the city along with gares du Nord, Lyon, Austerlitz, Montparnasse and Saint-Lazare, it was built by architect François Duquesnay, who wasn’t known for much else. He sadly departed for the platform in the sky at the end of 1849, the year the station opened, so never lived to see it used to its full potential. Originally conceived to serve the Paris-Strasbourg line and called ‘Embarcadère de Strasbourg’, it soon expanded its service to serve the city of Mulhouse near the German/Swiss border, and was renamed ‘Gare de l’Est’ in 1954. Significant further expansion and renovation happened in 1885, 1900 and 1931, and today the station welcomes nearly 38 million passengers a year, carrying them mostly eastwards to major French and European cities.

The intricate mouldings on the façade depict many of the cities it serves, and its crowning glory are two magnificent statues representing Strasbourg on the western side, and Verdun on the east. If you’re hanging outside the main entrance to have a look, you’ll either be standing on the place du 11-Novembre-1918 or further back on the rue du 8-Mai 1945, both so named in memory of the two world wars. And it’s WW1 in particular that’s at the heart of the station’s history, as it facilitated the mobilisation of huge numbers of French troops towards the Western Front (the statue of Verdun remembers the longest and bloodiest battle of the conflict that ended in French victory). Head inside to the main hall to have a look at Albert Herter’s gigantic mural Le Départ des poilus, août 1914 (above), depicting the infantrymen’s departure with the artist’s son centre, holding his cap, rifle and flowers aloft.

In happier times, the station lays claim to having been the starting point for possibly the world’s most famous train journey, the first voyage of the Orient Express in 1883 from Paris to Istanbul (then Constantinople). The luxury service ran from the capital until 2007 (and stopped entirely in 2009) and inspired enough legends, stories, films and documentaries to fill one of its own carriages. There is still a privately-run version in operation using original carriages from the 20s and 30s, though you’ll need serious coin to afford an overnight cabin. Maybe a gold-plated corona mask is included in the price…

However you decide to travel this summer, don’t forget that the journey is just as important as the destination, and keep yourselves and your loved ones safe along the way. Bonnes vacances!

Grain dance

Now that we’re happily saying goodbye to it (permanently let’s hope) we can reflect on the many things lockdown taught us. Proper Zoom etiquette, the superfluous nature of underwear at home, how incredibly hard it is in fact to focus when working from home, undercracker-less at the kitchen table. It also taught us a great deal about the importance of flour, or rather the lack of it (still can’t get any wholemeal for love nor money), and since I’m useless at Zoom etiquette and not enthusiastic about sharing my underwear habits, that’s what I have chosen to talk to you about today. The focus thing? We’ll see…

Living near Montmartre, centuries ago I’d have been well placed to easily solve my flour woes thanks to the 30 or so windmills that littered the village’s hillside at one time or another. As time ticked by and the city swallowed the area up, either buildings or the ravages of years passing destroyed most of them, and only two now remain (though meant as a nod to the area’s milling heritage, the Moulin Rouge one doesn’t count) – the Moulin Blute-fin and the Moulin Radet.

Now, you think yeast science is a complicated subject, but researching these two has been surprisingly tricky, and a bit like looking into the murky pool of history wearing a dough-covered snorkelling mask. First of all sources can’t even agree on which one is which, but I’ve cracked the crust of the problem, and can confirm that Moulin Blute-fin built in 1622 (right) can be found on Rue Lepic (kinda, it’s behind the trees up the slope), and is best seen at the bottom of Rue Tholozé. Whereas it is inaccessible to the public, its sister Moulin Radet built in 1717 (below) is now a restaurant, and can be found at the corner of Rue Girardon and Rue Lepic. You’d be perfectly forgiven for being confused too given that the signs outside each one say ‘Moulin de la Galette’, and here is where we break bread together and find out the real story.

The milling Debray family acquired the two functional mills at the beginning of the 19th century, and they happily whirred away for a while grinding grain, squashing grapes from the neighbourhood vineyard and processing ingredients for the local parfumerie. City folk would come up the hill to the village for a bit of country air, and the Debrays provided them with small rye bread galettes and liquid refreshment as they relaxed and enjoyed the view. So far, so serene.

Fast forward to 1814 and the end of the Napoleonic Wars, when Montmartre was attacked by Russian forces. Three of the four Debray brothers were killed in the initial assault, but the fourth held on only to be killed too, and (allegedly) viciously hacked to pieces, his remains nailed to the mill’s sails as a gruesome warning. Crumbs. Their remains are buried in the nearby cimetière du Calvaire, next to Sacré-Coeur (another time, friends).

His son lived to tell the tale, luckily having survived being stuck with a lance. A keen dancer, in 1834 he moved the Radet closer to its windmill sibling and turned the tranquil family farm and country rest stop into a guinguette, or open-air café and ball. The party venue was quickly popular, and soon became known as the Moulin de la Galette after the small bread the millers were famed for (useful dancing fuel presumably). The punters came in their hordes, along with artists and painters who immortalised the scene, including Van Gogh, Utrillo (buried nearby at cimetière de Saint-Vincent), Picasso, Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec.

Later it morphed into a full-on cabaret (complete with roof) and by 1924 was a dance hall, delighting locals until 1966 when it morphed again into a TV and radio studio. The music finally stopped in the 70s, and the Radet was turned into a restaurant, as it remains today. The Blute-fin was surrounded by residential buildings, and now looks out over the city with its musical ghosts, happily untouched by tourists. Only the two entrances outside on the street explicitly point to their fun-filled past.

Now that exploring the city is back on the menu, make like a local and dance your way over to pray to the party gods that the good times might soon roll again…

PICTURED: (1) Vincent van Gogh, Le Moulin de la Galette (1886), (2) Vieux Montmartre – Les Moulins en 1850, (3) Moulin Blute-fin, (4) Moulin Radet, (5) Moulin de la Galette, 1885, (6) Ball poster, 1900, (7) Vincent van Gogh, Le Blute-Fin Windmill (1886)

Post originally published 01/06/20

Train of thought

Way back in long-forgotten normal times, my favoured mode of transporting myself around the city was on foot. Clad in a pair of comfy adventure shoes, I’d whizz around the streets (no flâneur-ing for me) darting from errand to errand, leaving crowds of dawdlers in my wake. Sometimes though, time and distance would prove too much for even my athletic paws and I’d have to rely on the metro to magic me where I wanted to go instead. Under lockdown law I’ve have no choice but to rely sole-ly (ha!) on my trusty pieds and I’ve already worn out one pair of trainers as a result. A very strange thing has happened my friends, a very strange one indeed. I actually miss the metro.

Rush hour push-and-shove, unsavoury characters with wandering hands (or mouths; a friend of mine was bitten on the behind on the metro once), urine-scented platforms, or the living hell that is line 13 – what on earth is there to get so sentimental about? Well yes, excellent point, but no one’s perfect. It’s easy to be negative and point out its flaws, but even easier to take the whole thing for granted. Rendering pretty much the whole of Paris (intramuros) accessible within a 40-minute time frame for a mere pittance (er, yes it is compared to many other cities in the world) is nothing short of a luxury when you think about how long the journey would take by car. So here goes a blog-ode to the Paris metro, whose hallowed platforms I have not graced for months on end, and am unlikely to for the foreseeable future (not being essential in my case).

It’s hard to imagine the city without it, but metro-less it was back in 1845 when the first ideas of an underground transport system were being bandied around. The ultimate aim was to extend the existing (overground) rail system, though the powers-that-be fell foul of the charming French habit of endless circular talking about stuff without achieving a single thing, and it wasn’t until, incredibly, 1898 that construction began (hopefully Brexit negotiations will follow a similar pattern). Even the likes of Victor Hugo, Guy de Maupassant and members of the Eiffel Society (yes, the tower guy) weighed in with their two centimes’ worth.

Civil engineer whizz Fulgence Bienvenüe (pictured above) was given the momentous task, later known as Le Père du Metro. (Yes, the Montparnasse metro station is named after him, it doesn’t mean ‘welcome’. You can pay your respects there, or at Père Lachaise cemetery.) He had help from Jean Baptiste-Berlier, the chap responsible for Paris’ pneumatic tube postal system, and well, you can see the connection there. Intense and difficult construction of the initial 10 lines, mainly due to the challenging soils under Paris, was mostly completed by the 1920s, with the first line, line 1 obviously, opening on 19th July 1900.

Line extensions linking the inner suburbs began in the 30s, much to the distaste of true-blue intramuros Parisians (are they ever satisfied?). WWII scuppered further plans, and many stations never reopened after the conflict. Forget your images of plucky Parisians huddled together on metro platforms sheltering from the bombing above, in reality Paris was never bombed much in the first place, and most stations were far too shallow to make efficient bomb shelters anyway. Modernisation and extension began again in the 50s, and in 1977 the metro became a real somebody with its own mascot, Serge the Rabbit, who loves to tell us to ‘mind those fingers!’.

Roll into the station ‘today’ and the 215km-long system comprises of 302 stations (including one of the world’s largest at Châtelet) and 16 lines. The 2nd busiest in Europe, it shunts around 6.5 million people a day (outside of pandemics) and is due to add another 200km of track to its network by 2030(ish) with four new lines as part of the ambitious Grand Paris Express plan. The paper tickets will disappear from daily life next year, and the drivers will soon follow suit.

It might not work as well as you want it to all the time, but we must give credit where credit is due. Not only does it wonderfully spirit us from A to B, but it gave the world the word ‘metro’ (a contraction of its full name La Compagnie du chemin de fer métropolitan de Paris – phew) and exported its rubber-tyre system to build other metro systems all around the world. Plus where would the cityscape be without Guimard’s beautiful metro entrances inviting you into the city’s bowels?

Until I can descend once again, I’ll be watching Youtube videos of metro journeys on my favourite lines from the comfort of the Granny Flat (yes, very much a thing). I’ll also be preparing a post on the wonderful stories behind the metro stations themselves, but hey, it might take a while. In the meantime, remember kids M is for ‘metro’, but also for ‘mask’…

Post originally published 12/05/2020

Montmartre, mon amour

As confinement plods on into mid-May and our stay-at-home resolve gets severely weathered, we’re becoming either increasingly grateful or teeth-clenchingly resentful of where it is we’re stuck for the duration. ‘Jackpot! You’re in Paris!’, you might think. But don’t forget that as abundant as the city’s charms are, life here generally comes with a tiny shoebox-sized home to lay your head in. It isn’t all chic addresses, brasseries and coffee on a terrace every day you know. There’s also a distinct lack of green space, and what little postage stamps there are, are closed for the forseeable future. Plus in France our confinement rules are stricter than many, so forgive us Parisian residents for not waking up each morning filled with the joys of spring for being cooped up in the City of Lights during a global pandemic. Still, there are the fresh croissants

That all aside, and despite the 21m² digs I find myself confined in (complete with annoying neighbours, dingy courtyard view and no outside space) I must count my blessings to at least be nestled within the 18th, even before I moved here my favourite arrondissement of Paris. I might be towards the rougher part of it, but happily contained within my allowed 1km radius (never before have I felt quite like a tethered goat) is a big chunk of the hallowed district of Montmartre, and you bet your ass I’m taking fully advantage of it during my pitiful hour of day release (of course entirely necessary and I’m more than happy to toe the line, plus all the stairs work those buns like nothing else).

Montmartre is such an integral part of Paris that it’s often a stand-alone reason to come, though in many people’s minds it doesn’t extend much further than Sacré-Coeur, Place de Tertre and their surrounds. Partly true, though in reality it’s a lot bigger than you might expect (officially established by the City of Paris in 1995) with Rues Clignancourt, Custine and Caulincourt, and Boulevards Barbès and Clichy nicely fencing it off (see hokey picture of my portable paper map, right).

Though as is the case with the wider city itself, it is all too easy to lazily distill it and call it to mind as just a paint-by-numbers sum of its greatest hits and most famous sites. Well it is this, that elevated part of the Paris that was the centre of the Belle Epoque and all of the colour and artistry that went with it, a humble hill where penniless painters found their fame and endless cabarets and nightclubs provided the music. Many tourists head up to the Place de Tertre, take a selfie on the steps of the basilica, and think they’ve done it.

I started this blog with the intention of drawing attention away from the more obvious tourist traps, to try and set fire to that wretched list of things in Paris to do (and Instagram about – ugh the plague) that leads you to believe you’ve really seen the city. Waxing lyrical about one of the top three famous parts seems a complete about-turn from my perspective, but although sky-high property rates have kicked out the penniless painters, this remains one of the best places in the city where you needn’t spend a dime to fully appreciate the magic of Paris.

Strolling along the undulating, wiggly streets makes a wonderful difference to the wide and noisy boulevards elsewhere, and there simply isn’t a part of the city better for strolling around without having pay extortionate entrance fees and queue with a thousand other culture seekers. Most of what there is to see presents itself on the outside, and there are days’ worth of sights to see for free, including (amongst others) the ‘I love You’ wall, Clos Montmartre vineyard, the two cemeteries Saint-Vincent and Montmartre, and the crowning glory of Sacré-Coeur. And the point is that you really don’t need to have an intention to see anything, just walking around the streets and absorbing the unique spirit of the place is as uplifting for the soul as any part of Paris.

It’s certainly keeping my spirits up at this crazy difficult time. Bon courage tout le monde, and see you on the other side!

(We’ll delve properly into the history of the area and various stops along the way in future posts, I hope you’ll join me!)

Inside the Bakery #3: The Puff Daddy

In these difficult and unprecedented times, it’s like we’re relearning how to fully appreciate the simple things around us. Here in France our trips outside are severely limited, but thankfully, our precious bakeries are still open and they offer us valuable solace in lieu of trips to the park, or wine and a meal in a local brasserie with friends. Never before have those crisp, fresh baguettes seemed so essential to daily life, or those neat lines of sweet things and pastries so comforting as confinement treats. So with this long overdue post, it’s off to the bakery we go, and this time we can ignore no further the Billy Big Balls of the bakery gang, the humble croissant.

As French as Camembert right? You’d certainly think so given the citizens’ love affair with the curved and puffy pillow. But hold the phones mes amis! The croissant is, in reality, about as French as the Yorkshire pudding, and nothing but an ex-pat pastry if you will, having set up home in France after moving in from Austria in the 18th century. And as if to rub un peu de sel into the wound, legend has it that the person responsible for its introduction is none other than disgraced queen Marie-Antoinette. It’s a bit like finding out your favourite childhood toy was made by Miss Trunchbull or something.

As is the case with culinary origins, accounts of the true beginnings of the croissant vary as much as the tastes of the people who eat them. But our backward-pointing curiosity telescope tells us that crescent-shaped baked goods have existed since pagan times, as a nod to the goddess of the moon. They were also a regular feature on the menus of monasteries as far back as the 10th century, and were known as panis lunatis, and took the form of a small crescent-shaped bread roll traditionally baked for Easter. Just out of the corner of our lens, we can see ye olde fake news legend of the shape of the bread echoing the crescent found on the Turkish flag, adopted during the Ottoman siege of Vienna, but we’ll throw that in the waste disposal where it belongs.

Fast forward a few centuries, and our magic carpet of baking discovery arrives in Vienna in any case, in the 13th century. Here we meet the kipferl, the grandaddy of our precious croissant, a similar curved bread enjoyed throughout the country for breakfast or with coffee. Here the gentle townsfolk enjoyed their simple treat for a few centuries more until a certain young daughter of an Austrian Empress scored a match with French King Louis XVI. Much as I panic buy Marmite when I’m back in the UK, Marie-Antoinette was keen to keep her beloved home comforts close, and thus shipped them over the French court where they were greeted with open mouths and tweaked over the next century until the croissant as we know it came to be.

Named after the waxing moon (second culinary bombshell coming up) there’s quite the debate in France over whether croissants should actually be straight, with some preferring the linear version to the curved original (with the word ‘croissant’ literally meaning ‘crescent’, this is utterly baffling). And get this, rather than a simple treat knocked up in a couple of hours, croissants actually take days to make, with an endless stream of rolling and resting steps the dough has to soldier through. Which is why in most bakeries in France the pastries you buy are actually (shock horror!) frozen and prepared when needed, though the quality is so high, even the Frenchiest French person is unable to tell the difference.

So there’s ‘making croissants from scratch’ struck off the lockdown to do list. Best to save one of those precious daily outings for a special trip to the bakery, and I guarantee in these circumstances, it’s going to be the best croissant you’ve ever had.

*Apologies for the lack of personal pictures, but I’ve actually been putting off a trip to the bakery until I’m utterly desperate, due to a mixture of fear of infection, civic duty and realisation that once I start eating croissants in isolation, there just isn’t any going back, and I may not be able to get out of the door again once it’s all over…

101 ways with a baguette #7: The Winter Warmer

January was the longest year ever. Sadly there’s no reward for enduring it, and cruel February turns up next in line with its capricious weather. But hey, at least it’s short. And it forces us to search for those little moments of pleasure buried deep in the cold, and a steaming bowl of soup has to be one of the most universal (and budget friendly). And what would a bowl of soup be without a baguette as its wingman? Now dunking is all well and good, and if you have time to whip up a batch of those crispy little dice we call croutons, more power to you. But if we’re talking the perfect cold-weather marriage between soup and bread; at this time of year, in this part of the world, there’s only one clear choice. French onion soup.

A favourite of the Romans and Greeks way back when, simple onion soup has been around for donkey’s years due the humble ingredient’s widespread availability, cheap price and restorative and nutritional powers (put those goji berries down!). Originally a chunk of bread was used as a type of absorbent submarine onto which the broth was poured, as with most soups in days of yore (this is where the word ‘soup’ comes from, referring to the ‘sop’ or piece of bread soaked in the liquid). Its promotion to cheese raft status is highly debated so we won’t enter into that, but simply bow down to the person whose ingenuity elevated a humble soup to a quite legendary culinary experience. Merci beaucoup stranger.

A staple of French cooking throughout the centuries, it’s perhaps America we can thank for its enduring popularity today on the world stage, being championed in the 1960s as part of a wider culture celebrating Gallic cuisine. A stalwart on brasserie blackboards throughout the land at this time of year, you’ll have no trouble finding it, but for even the wobbliest of cooks amongst us it’s a breeze to make, and though it technically takes a while on the hob, chef input is happily minimal. Recipe interpretation is as widespread as the soup’s appeal, and much freestyling is encouraged. I’ll give you the basics and you can let your inner Escoffier do all the rest.

Sliced regular yellow/Spanish onions enjoy a long caramelisation (like 45 minutes) followed by the addition of a liquid, be it a good beef, chicken or vegetable stock (or even a spoonful of marmite if you’re me) or for the purists out there (and Raymond Blanc) plain old water. An optional alcoholic element is next in the pan, choose from white wine, cider, Cognac, port, Madeira, Calvados or whatever your booze cabinet dictates. Use flour to thicken, or not, and leave to bubble away whilst you slice the baguette and prepare the cheese rafts (toasted beforehand to make them sturdier). The traditional cheese choice is Gruyère but Emmental works just as well, or even a dog-end of Cheddar or Comté could be put to good use.

The final steps are as divisive as the rest, and the simplest is probably to place pre-grilled or baked cheese rafts on top of a full bowl and leave it at that. The renegades take it one step further by placing the toasts on top and covering the whole thing in grated cheese with reckless abandon, then baking bowl and all in the oven until bubbly and delicious. Though this option includes a 30 minute wait staring at said delicious bowl of soup before it cools down enough for your mouth to enjoy it. In Lyon they go off piste further and get a blender and egg yolks involved, choosing it specifically as an after-pub crawl snack. I’ll leave you and your googling skills to find the recipe that suits you and your own particular culinary persuasions.

If we’re talking Valentine’s Day on a budget, cook up a batch of this steamy stuff served alongside a bottle of non-Champagne fizz (see here for a quick guide) and any self-respecting partner will be putty in your hands. Plus it works excellently as a hangover cure apparently so save a bit for the morning after, if you can muster the willpower. Or what better way to administer a self-hug in you’re riding solo? Retro onion soup bowl à la Granny Flat, optional.

China in your hand

So far, what with bushfires, strikes and general planetary malaise, 2020 hasn’t exactly given us the best start. But in the cooling embers of January, we have the perfect excuse to wipe the last few weeks off the whiteboard, slap those bad habits round the chops once more, and begin again in the vain hope of turning our fortunes around.

Yes, Chinese New Year is upon us again (officially Saturday 25th January though festivities continue until 8th February) this year bowing to the first animal of the zodiac, the rat. Our rodent friend might not be the most obvious of celebratory mascots, but in fact signifies the beginning of a new day, and wealth and prosperity (and couldn’t we all do with a big dollop of all of that). As a resident of Paris and a huge fan of Roland Rat as a child (yeaaaah!) it seems rather fitting to me.

Celebrated by billions worldwide, the festivities in Paris naturally centre in the 13th arrondissement (check here for event details) known as the city’s ‘Chinatown’, and the largest in Europe. But to set the ‘rat’ amongst the pigeons as it were, here are two fun facts: (1) this is only one of three Chinatowns in Paris, and (2) it’s not really a Chinatown at all, but more accurately the ‘Asian Quarter’ or Petite Asie, home to significant numbers of other Asian populations most notably Laotian, Vietnamese and Cambodian.

Settled first by Vietnamese immigrants fleeing the war in the late 70s and forming a triangle bordered by avenues d’Ivry and Choissy, the area isn’t the prettiest part of town (see above) with distinctly un-Chinese architecture. But never fear, you’ll find plenty of colour in bowls of pho, displays of exotic fruit and veg, and plenty of shops selling lucky paw-waving cats and tea paraphernalia. Add your own colour to various pop hits at ‘Karaoke Laservision’ (I’m so intrigued), green-up the shoebox with a couple of sprigs of bamboo, or brighten up your crockery collection with some beautiful Chinese bowls.

If 70s tower block chic doesn’t light your fireworks, head over to the Chinatown at Belleville (where the 10th, 11th, 19th and 20th arrondissements meet) settled since the 1860s with residents mostly hailing from the eastern Zhejiang province in China, though a great many other nationalities have chosen this spot as their home too, including Armenian, Algerian, Tunisian, Greek and Vietnamese. It would be rude (and nigh on impossible) to leave without stuffing your face, and you’ll be utterly spoiled for choice with restaurants at every two paces. Satisfy your inner Ken Hom at a gourmet version of the famous Tang Frères retail chain, or stock up on noodles and nam pla at sister supermarket Paristore, not forgetting to purchase a cute animal bowl to put your culinary creations in.

The final chopstick in the Chinatown trio is the much smaller Chinese community found at Arts and Métiers in the Marais (3rd arrondissement), occupying just a couple of streets (head for rue au Marie). Originally settled in the 1900s making it the oldest in the city, Chinese workers came over from the Zhejiang province and set up leather and porcelain workshops, particularly during the interwar years, though it’s the restaurant scene that dominates today.

Whilst the rats amongst us will be using their paws to nibble away at the noodle dregs in the alley, you’ll be à table discovering your powers of incoordination whilst wrestling with a pair of chopsticks. Which in French, translates as baguettes. Mind well and truly blown.

Gong Xi Fa Cai rat fans!