Free culture!

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We all need a bit of cul-cha in our lives, no? And no, going to the cinema doesn’t really count. I mean the historic, artistic, creative, beautiful bona fide culture, the stuff that brings so many millions of visitors to Paris every year just for the sole reason of soaking it up. The architecture, museum, art gallery, stately home kind of culture.

Now, Paris being Paris, entry to such mind-broadening delights can be on the pricey side, the city being keen to profit from, as well as show off, its bounty of cultural treats (and why on earth shouldn’t it?). But to prove its dedication to making sure that culture is accessible to all, the city generously throws open the doors to many of its most popular attractions on the 1st sunday of every month and invites any willing takers in for free.

The list of participating venues is long and varied, catering to most cultural tastes. At this time of year (ie. off-peak season), there’s a whole lot more on offer to see than in the summer, when the programme becomes slightly reduced. So this sunday (2nd Feb) is the time to head to some of Paris’ must-see gems including the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, the towers of Notre Dame, the Pantheon and the Conciergerie, where the entry price, is well, nada.

Just a word of advice though, like an ice-cream stall on a hot sunny day, the queues can be as breathtaking as the culture, so you’re going to want to be a little bit strategic with your timing, and head there at the crack of dawn or at the last minute. And if hanging out with swarms of people really isn’t your thing, then I’d suggest giving the whole thing a miss altogether, or at least trying to select some of the more obscure venues on the list. For a comprehensive list, check out http://www.parisinfo.com.

Used book sale

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It’s cold. NOW it’s cold. This January has been positively tropical so far (my crocuses and snowdrops have already sprouted in my window box if that’s proof enough), but as the month enters its final few days, the cold has finally caught up with us. I don’t know about you, but venturing outside is about as appealing as a post-match ice bath and all I really want to do is curl up in the warm at home with a good book.

If you want to pick up some new paperbacks for the occasion, then you need to hit the monthly used book sale at the American Library (10 Rue du Général Camou, 75007) this weekend (1st and 2nd February) where you can buy second hand books for just a couple of euros. You’ll find fiction, non-fiction and children’s books, to replenish your shelves as they reorganise theirs and sell the old and surplus stock. If your bookshelves at home are already sagging under the weight of too many past literary purchases, then you can also donate. Check out the website for more details.

http://www.americanlibraryinparis.org

Bonne année!

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No, I haven’t just woken up after a new year’s hangover to end all hangovers (though the fact that there still seems to be so many Christmas trees around is messing with my head a little….). The new year in France is given a little more of an extended welcome than in many other countries, where wishes for the year ahead tend to fizzle out the day after you’re back sitting at your desk after the festive break.

Over here, you get a whole month to wish friends, colleagues and acquaintances  a happy new year (bonne année as it were), meaning it’s perfectly acceptable to keep the good wishes coming in case there’s anyone you’ve forgotten, right up until the end of the month. So that means you have one week left to say your piece – there really are no excuses.

If you want to go that extra mile, then sending  a new year’s card might be in order, being far more popular in France than the sending of Christmas cardsStill on sale in stationers, gift shops, major supermarkets and the like, you can pick up a lovely card with some kind of squiggly pattern or robin on, to say those magic words – Bonne année. For those who deserve slightly more formal wishes, pick up a card saying meilleurs voeux (best wishes). 

Instant year-long karma for the price of a greetings card? I’m in.

Bon appétit on Blue Monday

So whether you believe the pseudoscience or not, today is ‘officially’ Blue Monday, the most depressing day of the year. Taking into account the weather, debt, the time since Christmas, failed new year’s resolutions, low motivational levels and the fact that bank holidays and celebration days seem to be a million miles away, we’re all supposed to be at our most melancholy today.

Now, there are many solutions for wrenching ourselves out of the dumps, and a shopping spree at Chanel would probably go quite a long way to putting a smile back on your face. But, my debit card isn’t quite that ready for action, and hell, it’s far too cold to go outside now the temperature is creeping lower and lower. My solution? Cook up a massive batch of onion soup. What could be more French than that?

Now I consider myself pas mal du tout in the kitchen, but even for those who aren’t, onion soup is pretty easy to master. Onions are the main ingredient, bien sur, and the key is in the slow cooking time, making them all caramelised and delicious. Bung a bit of cheesy toast on the top, whack it under the grill, and voila! Winter blues melt into submission like the Gruyère on top.

Now onion soup is a highly subjective undertaking, no two recipes seem to be the same. But here’s a general guide. You’ll need:

4 onions (more if small, and not the red kind)
1 litre of beef stock, though chicken works too, or at a push, good ol’ plain water
Butter
Salt and pepper
Slices of baguette (or any other bread you have to hand, slightly stale is quite ok)
Gruyère cheese, or any other good melting cheese you have to hand if you’re not fussy

Slice the onions and add to the melted butter in a pan on a heat that’s quite low – the key is to cook them slowly for 30 minutes or so (more if you have time), until they’re golden brown. Don’t for get to stir from time to time, or they’ll stick. Add the stock and bring to the boil, simmering for 40 minutes to an hour, generally the longer you cook it for, the better it’ll be. Once it’s ready, ladle into bowls and add a toasted slice of bread covered in grated cheese. Traditionally it’s then finished under the grill to melt the cheese, but you can finish the toast separately if it’s easier. Bon appétit!

In season: January

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The Christmas season generally brings with it an abundance of calories, and for most of January spells regimes, resolutions for a healthier diet, and cutting back on the good stuff. But don’t allow yourself to feel hard done by, learn to embrace the seasons, and you’ll see Parisian markets can offer you all you could need to dine each day like a king (whilst spending like a pauper).

Eating what’s in season is better for the environment given that the produce doesn’t have to travel far, meaning the price doesn’t get pushed up by fuel costs too. Plus produce in season is plentiful and therefore less expensive by default, and the cherry on the pie is that seasonal food just tastes better as you’re eating it exactly when nature intended it to be eaten. And we all know that taste comes above everything when we’re talking about French cooking.

Admittedly January isn’t the most exciting of months when it comes to what’s good to eat now, but there are a few gems to take advantage of – think a month of warming root vegetable stews and chunky soups. Below is a list of fruit and vegetables currently in season in France (by no means exhaustive), and I’ll make sure to update you month by month.

If you’re ever in any doubt when you’re at the market of supermarket, have a look at the sign for each produce item and it will show you the country of origin. Anything further afield than France, Spain, Belgian or the Netherlands for example, and you’re likely to be paying much of the price per kilo for your vegetable’s airfare. And remember, meats and seafood have their own seasons too. But more about that later.

Beetroot – betterave
Blood orange – orange sanguine
Brussels sprouts – chou de Bruxelles
Cabbage – chou
Carrot – carotte
Cauliflower – chou-fleur
Celeriac – céleri rave
Celery – céleri
Chard – blette
Chicory – endive
Clementine – clémentine
Jerusalem artichoke – topinambour
Kale – so difficult to find in France, it doesn’t have a translation. But check out http://thekaleproject.wordpress.com/ to find out where you can buy it
Leeks – poireau
Parsnip – panais
Potatoes – pomme de terre
Pumpkin – citrouille/potiron
Swede – rutabaga

For more information, head here: http://www.fruits-legumes.org/

Popcorn at the ready…

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Let’s face it, January isn’t the most exciting month of the year, what with going to back to work after the festive period and all of those ambitious detox plans dictating the social calendar. But you don’t have to retreat to your cave completely and hibernate for the whole month, Janaury is by far the best time of the year to hit the cinema.

Not only is the air thick with the anicipation of the fast approaching awards season (the Golden Globes take place tonight, kicking off the festivities), but cinemas in Paris tempt you through their doors this month with a smashing, great value selection of festivals packed full of awesome films to see.

If you missed any of the best films of 2013, then never fear as they appear once again for a limited time on cinema programmes. UGC’s Les Incontournables programme is in full swing, available to all those in possession of a UGC fidelity card or those who managed to remember to cut out the coupon in Friday’s Le Figaro, where places are 3 euros each.

For those who missed the boat, you can still take advantage of Télérama’s Festival Cinéma where a selection of some of the best films from last year can also be seen for just 3 euros (though you need to buy a copy of Télérama on the 15th Janaury to get a pass). At Gaumont Pathé too, you can find a good deal – until 2nd February, all places are buy one get one free. Just try and exercise some self control when it comes to popcorn though…

Check out:
http://www.ugc.fr
http://www.telerama.fr
http://www.cinemasgaumont.fr

Bargains, Bargains Bargain!

Les soldes arrivent !!!

In the UK, the Christmas period is dominated by the sales that begin religiously on the 26th December in a flurry of post-turkey spending, which certainly burns off those extra Christmas calories quickly enough.

In France though, things happen a little differently and the discounted madness is quite heavily regulated, there being only two ‘sales’ periods a year in winter and summer. The winter sales begin on the 2nd Wednesday of January (this year the 8th), and continue for a strict 5 weeks, until this year, Tuesday 11th February.

You’ll see the word ‘SOLDES’ everywhere you turn during this period – it means ‘sales’. If you have a bit of spare cash to hit the shops, then this is the time of year to do it, whether to treat yourself or to stock up on a few essentials. Granny flat needs a new set of crockery, so I’ll definitely be getting stuck in.

If you don’t manage to find a bargain in the winter sales, then you’ll just have to wait for the summer sales, this year from 25th June to 29th July. But maybe it’s a good idea to bear in mind some sage advice from Joan Collins: “If you don’t love it the moment you try it on, don’t buy it!” Happy shopping!

Photo courtesy of http://www.ecommerce-pictures.com

A baking epiphany

 

If there’s any day to head to the local boulangerie to treat yourself to a tasty morsel for only a couple of euros (if you don’t have any room, find some bloody room!) then January 6th is the day. By rights your Christmas decorations should be down by now and what better way to bid farewell to the festive period by indulging in a galette des rois (literally ‘King’s cake’), a round puff pastry, frangipane-filled delight traditionally enjoyed to celebrate the festival of Epiphany, and sold throughout France for the whole month of January.

And who knew that baked goods could be so interactive? With each galette is sold a paper crown, and the one who gets to wear it is the person who finds the feve hidden in the filling. Traditionally this was an actual broad bean, but these day feves are far more exotic and interesting, and take the form of a little porcelain or plastic trinket in a mind-boggling array of designs, from works of art to cartoon characters. Sink your teeth into the hard little prize, and you get to be king for the day (and maybe earn a trip to the dentist as a bonus). Since over here they’ve officially run out of kings and queens, I’m going to enjoy my slice in front of a few episodes of The Crown…

Welcome!

“Teach us delight in simple things”

Rudyard Kipling, The Children’s Song

Paris. One of the most beautiful cities in the world. And one of the  most eye-wateringly expensive.

Maybe. But it doesn’t have to be. Here’s my guide to getting the most out of the city of light – whether you’re a tourist or a resident – without your bank balance calling the shots.

Because after all, aren’t some of the best things in life free?