You’re so vin…

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I’ve been trying to research the most expensive bottles of wine in the world, all in the name of an informative blog (not by drinking them, obviously). But alas, I have been well and truly foiled, as the worlds wine press can’t seem to make up its mind, quoting vintages here and crazy price tags there, and never settling on a definitive answer.

What my digging has shown though, is that whatever lucky bottles might be, they are most certainly French. There are a few Penfolds Grange (Australia) and Napa Valley (USA) efforts sneaking up the rear like bolshy teenagers, but their kudos is by far surpressed by a sea of French-produced beauties. The wine heritage here is almost impossible to beat.

But every Frenchman loves his paradox, and at the complete opposite side of the scale, amongst the stones and dirt at the bottom of the majestic vine let’s say, the French also produce a dizzying array of super, super cheap offerings, meaning that with even 2 euros in your pocket you can walk away with a bottle of honestly-produced wine.

And the great thing is, even at the bottom of the pile, the stuff you can snap up (if you choose wisely – but more of that later), is actually not that bad. You’ll fall upon bottles of distant relatives of turpentine, bien sur. But equally, for less than a fiver, you can happily find of a whole range of plonk that’s not too shabby at all.

One of these days I’m going to offer a comprehensive guide of wines to choose for those without mustard money to fling around (i.e. 50 euro notes), but for now I’ll leave you with a tip that means you can start your wine quest of discovery all on your own, for less than the price of a pint.

This weekend plays host to the biannual Salons des vins Vignerons Independent (Independent Winemaker Fair), taking place at Espace Champerret in the 17th (metro line 3, Porte de Champerret). For a mere 6 euros, you gain entry into the salon, a free tasting glass thrust at you as you walk in. The idea is you meander at will through the thousands of wine stalls happily set up for your sipping pleasure, maybe having a chat with the ruddy-faced winemakers as you go, sampling, swilling and spitting (not compulsory…) at leisure.

Of course the objective of the whole exercise is that you leave the salon laden down with the good stuff, these guys have to make a living after all (but you’re by no means obliged to buy). You’ll see swathes of punters with trolleys carting boxes and boxes homes to their caves (watch out for your heels), and some of the more up-market stalls (Champagne, Cognac, some of the more expensive Bordeaux wines) won’t give the warmest welcome if you don’t look like a serious buyer. These guys have to make a living after all. Happily though, because you are buying direct from the winemakers, the prices are a fraction of what they would be if you bought the same wine retail.

Given the sheer size of the event, a little strategy is wise if you don’t want to become completely overwhelmed. Head straight to the huge colour-coded stall chart as soon as you get in and identify the wines that you’re keen to try. Start with the bubbles, then switch to the light whites, then heavy whites and rosés, if you’re that way inclined. Then maybe stop for a foie gras and magret de canard sandwich (I’m not joking) if you’re feeling posh, in any case, a mid-fair breather is probably a good idea. Then attack the light reds and the heavy reds, in that order, and if you still have some puff left, finish with the dessert wines and digestifs.

If you do make a purchase (most of the producers are quite happy to sell you just a bottle if that’s all you want), the winemakers take your email address and when the next wine fair swings around (there’s another one at the end of November at Porte de Versailles), they’ll very kindly email you an invitation for you and your wine-drinking wingman to get into the fair for free. If that’s not worth a gigantic cheers, then I don’t know what is.

The salon starts runs from 28th-31st March. For more information, check out http://www.vigneron-independent.com.

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Living in a (match)box

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paris: small capital – it’s all about the small. And when you’re living in an apartment in Paris, any other size just doesn’t come into it (unless you’re just too jammy for words). But looking for the positives is a splendid pastime, and so in the ‘silver lining’ spirit, here’s a list of ten reasons why living in a shoebox is actually pretty cool.

1. The acquisition of ‘stuff’. Quite simply, wherever you live, you’ll buy stuff to fill the space you have. A smaller space means a much reduced need to buy more stuff. Money saved, right there. Plus you automatically disqualify from ever being one of those hoarder people in Channel 4 documentaries who quite literally drowns in their own possessions.

2. ‘Stuff’ changes. Having to be more selective in what you fill your intimate space with, possessions become something to be chosen with care. What you do select will become more precious as a result, simply due to its rarity. Plus, you’ll never get a better lesson on appreciating how little you actually need in life to be content. Life should be about the doing and the being, not the having.

3. Cleaning. The bigger the space, the more nooks and crannies, surfaces and floor space (and sheer ‘stuff’ for that matter), to clean. Chez moi, cleaning takes no time at all. Leaving more time for the cooler things in life.

4. In-built shopping police. Wardrobes in small apartments are fairly limited, forcing you to adopt a one-in-one-out policy. There’s just no room to make bad purchases that sit in the back of the cupboard, never to be parted from their labels.

5. The toning possibilities. All of that bending around and stepping over furniture pushed together as close as it will go, reaching up into impossibly high cupboards and being able to stretch from the bed to reach almost 50% of your total possessions in one go, well, that’s a new type of domestic yoga that takes no effort at all.

6. Organisation. You don’t have drawers upon drawers to fill with papers you’ll organise later (on that day that will never, ever come…). With the limited space, you have to be organised from the outset. And organised people, as we all know, are just more zen.

7. Out the door! Given that staying in a small space in the warmer, sunnier days of the year isn’t the most fun a person could have, the motivation to leave the house and explore Paris and the surrounding areas is turned up to 11. If you lived in a duplex with a view of the Eiffel Tower, you’d never want to leave, and as a result you’d miss some of the best parts of the city.

8. A real winter warmer. When the nights draw in and the city gets colder, sure you don’t want to go out. You want to stay inside and cuddle up in a cosy space that beats an apartment with vast, vacuous rooms any day. Plus your shoe box will be soooo much cheaper to heat. Bonus!

9. The best relationship test you’ll ever have. Think that current squeeze will last the course? Living in a 25m squared apartment together will soon test that theory. Fail, and it was never meant to be. Survive living together in limited space, and you know you’re onto a winner.

10. Sheer romance. Well you are in Paris after all (and therefore you don’t get much of a choice where size is concerned). Ever seen the Little Paris Kitchen? That would never have worked in a kitchen fit for cooking a meal for 200. Plus, you’ll never get a better opportunity to live out your Hobbit/David the Gnome fantasies, so embrace it.

Feel free to send me any more suggestions. I’m off to cook dinner whilst having a bath.

101 ways with a baguette: #2

#2: The Don

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In life, there are the ones who make it, and the ones who don’t. Paris’ version of this undeniable rivalry of life revolves around the humble baguette. Don’t tell me you didn’t see that one coming…

Each year, a competition takes place that serves to separate the men from the boys, the wheat from the chaff if you prefer, and proclaims one lucky stick the best baguette in Paris. Not only does the winning bakery get to paste the title all over their premises and attract queues that could rival the Louvre, but they also get given the honour of supplying baguettes daily to the President for a whole year. If that’s not kudos, then I don’t know what is.

This year’s recently proclaimed winner is the Aux Délices du Palais bakery in the 14th, and the talented hands that created the magical bread wand belong to 24-year-old Anthony Teixeira. Baking wizardry clearly runs in the family; his father won the same accolade 16 years ago, making the bakery the first in the competition’s history to have ever won twice.

The family’s baguettes are obviously hitting the judges spot somewhere, being the perfect combination of airy, moist and chewy on the inside, and well-cooked, crusty and deliciously fragrant on the outside. Forget those anaemic efforts from the supermarket, the only way to get your daily bread in Paris is to head to a bakery who can rake in the prizes. And now you know exactly where to find it.

Navi-gone: #1: Fontainebleau

The free metro for a weekend was AWESOME no? In the 2nd most expensive city in the world (as Paris was recently declared), doing anything can be fairly pricey, so a few days of free public transport, phew, that’s like getting the keys to the city or something.

For those who are in possession of a Navigo card though (monthly public transport pass similar to the Oyster in London for the uninitiated), it didn’t really make too much of a difference to us given that we’re paid up and ready to go for the whole month anyway, but the gesture is still a wonderful thing to appreciate.

But in non-polluted, normal times, the weekends for Navigo pass holders is a bit like the pesky-pollution-solution-open-barrier policy that we’ve all been privy to for the last couple of days, given that at weekends and a WHOLE MONTH over the summer, Paris becomes entirely zone-less. For folk already living in the outlying areas of Paris, then it might not mean too much, but for those of us living in Paris proper, in possession of a Navigo pass zones 1-2, that means we get to jump on a train and explore the weird and wonderful parts of the Ile-de-France for absolutely FREE.

Now looking at the RER map and deciding on where exactly to head can be riddled with problems, given that the French language makes even the grimiest parts of the outlying suburbs sound like quaint little French villages. Doesn’t Sevran-Beaudottes sound simply charming? It really, really isn’t.

A bit of research and guidance if you’re wanting to head out on a pleasant day trip into the country is extremely useful. So here I am. Now that we’ve exited the cold tunnel of winter misery and entered into a happy, sunny Disney-style spring, then the time for exploring the green fringes of the city is nigh. And the first stop in this balmy March weather you should head for is Fontainebleau, just over an hour away from the city.

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For Navigo holders, you can take the transilien out there and jump on a bus from stop Fontainebleau-Avon direct to the Chateau (the palace and the park are on the UNESCO world heritage list), and spend the day either taking in the history and walking around the vast grounds, or head to the delightful town for a spot of sunday market shopping (they even sell kale!). For those who have a more active adventure in mind can explore the vast forest and give your lungs a break from the airborne ills of the big city.

It’s a very popular spot, so even car drivers might want to consider using the public transport option as the queues back into Paris after a sunny day can be a nightmare. More delights to be found along the RER network perfect for a day trip out of the city, coming soon.

For more information, check out http://www.fontainebleau-tourisme.com.

Cycling never felt so good…

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It’s hot (well warm really, but for this time of year, it might as well be 30-odd degrees). Aaand, sadly that means that Paris is currently crazily polluted. That ‘summer haze’, making you feel good? No, that’s not a cosy warm spring weather blanket, that’s pure, French smog. Ah.

Now pollution is a pretty difficult one to solve, but the city authorities have come up with a splendidly green idea. It would be a super idea to get one of those motocrotte things (the big hoover street cleaning contraptions that inhale all of the dog mess – that seem to be making a comeback after their glory days in the 80s and 90s) and point it towards the sky to suck up the offending cloud. But, hey, they’ve got enough work to do as it is.

Instead, the wheezing citizens of Paris, torn between filling their lungs with city goo or foregoing the lovely sunshine, can do their bit for the planet by pootling around on a Velib for a day, with the powers that be picking up the tab. From today (Thursday 13th March) and into Friday, for 24 hours the Velib is free. Free, for a whole day! I simply don’t Velib-it. Ok, so it’s only close to 2 euros you’ll be saving (the price of a day ticket), but it’s usually the authorities taking money from YOU, so appreciate the gesture while it’s here.

The normal Velib rules apply; you get your free day ticket, and the first half an hour is free. But you can plug in and reload as many times as you want, meaning that you can scoot about all day if you so desire. Though you’ll need to be within close distance to a Velib station approaching the end of your free half an hour, so don’t be thinking this is a cheap option for a day trip to Lille or anything like that.

If you’re a brave old soul, then the Autolib is also free (restrictions apply, check their website http://www.autolib.eu), but whizzing round the city in something that looks like one of those old disposable cameras on wheels, simple scares the bejesus out of me. If you do fancy taking up the city’s generous offer and doing your bit to make Paris a greener place in the process, then check out this link http://blog.velib.paris.fr/blog/2014/03/12/pollution-velib-sante/ for more details. They’ll even furnish you with tips on how to stay safe in these polluted times. And remember kids, be safe. The Tour de France isn’t until June.

In season: March

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Now that the winter is definitely behind us, and the warm weather has come to join the party, there’s no excuse not to head out to the market to fill your boots with delicious seasonal fruit and veg. Here’s a list of what’s good to eat now.

Beetroot – betterave
Blood orange – orange sanguine
Brussels sprouts – chou de Bruxelles
Cabbage – chou
Carrot – carrotte
Cauliflower – chou-fleur
Celery – céleri
Chicory – endive
Jerusalem artichoke – topinambour
Leeks – poireau
Potatoes – pomme de terre
Radishes – radis
Spring onion – oignons frais
Turnip – navet

If you fancy getting creative with your spoils, then here’s a recipe for beetroot pie to impress the pants off your friends with, courtesy of the BBC. Enjoy!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/beetroot_pie_89195

Welcome to the Granny Flat!

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An Englishman’s home is his castle. A Parisian’s home on the other hand, is his fanciest shoe box.

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It’s no secret that property prices in Paris are so high they’re almost funny, but more about the plus sides of living in an apartment where it’s barely possible to swing a mouse, coming in another post.

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Since we’ve all got to know each other by now, I thought I’d share with you a few snapshots of my personal postage stamp of Paris, my beloved Granny Flat; where crocuses are grown, cockles are warmed, and creativity flourishes. Readers, this is where the magic happens.

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My compact and bijou residence is lovingly referred to as ‘the Granny Flat’ since I moved into it after its former inhabitant, a 92 year-old French lady, had moved on to a retirement community.

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Such a kind old lady she was, she generously left me a lot of her bits and bobs that she no longer needed, all in smashing nick, and gratefully received. But she had been living here for a while, and being surrounded by her considerate donations has given the flat a very vintage feel.

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From a set of teeny tiny sherry glasses to an old-fashioned non-electronic carpet sweeper (Eddie Izzard fans will be more than familiar with these), a roll-out bidet-on-wheels and a charming chair for afternoon snoozes, I couldn’t be happier surrounded by artefacts from another Parisian experience lived, and hopefully loved.

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I hope you enjoy a glimpse of my Parisian life, as much as I do living it!