#100 ways with a baguette

??????????????????????????????? #4: The Jambon Beurre

Now the French like to pour scorn on British food at every opportunity, turning their noses up at suggestions that it is actually quite good I think you’ll find, whilst extolling the virtues and sheer superiority of their home country’s equivalent. Yes yes, we know that French gastronomy takes some beating and that its worldwide reputation is as easy to bring down as it is the National Front party (ooh, political).

But you can forget your elaborate sauces and posh peasant food that takes blinking ages on the stove to get right (beef boring-yawn anyone?), there’s little the French enjoy more than a moment of sheer simplicity. The English might revel in a pair of teeth sunk enthusiastically in a cheese and pickle sandwich, but over here where it’s a case of ‘between two slices of bread’, only ham and butter will do.

You could be forgiven for thinking that to enjoy good food in Paris, you need to spend a fortune in an independent traiteur or delicatessen. Sure, you can pick up a nice basket-full of foie gras, caviar, vinegars that cost more per bottle than Chanel perfume, and bread with an eye-watering price tag. But one of the things I love about being in France is the unapologetic worship of the simplest foods on the pile.

The humble jambon beurre is nothing short of a national institution, revered almost as much as the baguette itself. It’s apparently eight times more popular than the hamburger, and those who have dined out in brasseries lately know just how ubiquitous those foreign imports are on every menu in town. And the growing national trend of the forsaking the traditional two-hour wine-lubricated lunch break in favour of desk-based dining, means that the sandwich is now the go-to midday choice, with the plain old ‘ham butter’ being the most popular choice.

But this isn’t a case of slapping the first piece of water-injected value brand ham into the margarine coated slot of a day old baguette. Even the simplest ingredients demand a connoisseur’s nose and to experience the humble dish at its very best some of that fancy AOC butter with salt in it goes down especially well, topped off with a slice of farmer’s market ham and a carefully chosen bio baguette.

And ta-da! A lunchtime luxury for a few euros that could knock a plate of foie gras right out of the park (baguettes as weapons and sports equipment coming up in a future 100 ways with a baguette post, I promise).

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The only way to see Paris in a day

IMG_1635I was having a conversation with a friend the other day about our favourite metro lines (amongst waaayyy more interesting topics I might add). I went with 12 due to its lush racing green colour and ease of seat-getting each day on my way to work. She went with 4, that hot pink rollercoaster of a line where hanging on dearly to the nearest pole is extremely advisable (another friend told me that it’s such a stop-start thrill ride due to the fact they train the new metro drivers on it – sure explains a lot).

Before you start pointing at the sheer insanity of her choice (surely only line 13 is a more-hated beast), hear me out – there’s a pretty cool philosophical sentiment behind her choice. “It’s the only line that show you a complete cross-section of Paris”, she said, “from top to bottom”. A good thirty seconds later after I tried to work out how you could ‘see’ the very essence of Paris from a deep, dark underground tube, I realised that she was absolutely right. You’ve just got to pop your head out every few stops and you’ll see all the colours, textures, smells and sounds that the city has to offer.

Porte de Clignancourt, the northerly terminus of the line, starts you off with the flea market to end all flea markets, at the limit of the peripherique. Head downwards and within a couple of stops you’ll hit Marcadet-Poissonniers (literally fish-market, what the area used to be back in the day), where I’m told all the best people in the city live… From here you’re right on the edge of the popular part of the 18th arrondissement, but far enough removed from the tourist treacle to be comfortable.

Continue south and you’ll hit three of the ‘rougher round the edges’ stops (which in the opinion of some is being quite kind); Chateau Rouge, Barbès Rochechouart and Gare du Nord, where you’ll find yourself in one of the poorest parts within the city proper, known as Goutte d’Or. Now despite what Hemingway would have you believe, poverty doesn’t really equal romance, but here you’ll get to see the real multicultural foundations of Paris in their raucous, buzzing glory.

Stop by Strasbourg-Saint Denis to check out one of the old city gates (Porte Saint Denis) and then head to the commercial, pedestrinised centre at Châtelet-Les Halles where you can wander round the wonky buildings overlooking the brand new whatever-it-is-they’re-building above the underground shopping centre, and imagine what is was like when the area was home to a stinky old cemetery.

Cité is where the seeds of the city started growing, and is home to its iconic old lady Notre Dame. Head across (well, you’ll be under actually) the river and instant gentrification will be in the air as you head into the 6th and the Latin Quarter, taking in the la-di-da bits of Saint-Germain-des-Prés and Odéon (if you can find strolling space on the pavement), gazing in at the see-and-be-seens lazily grazing at the terraces of some of the city’s most famous cafés.

Montparnasse is dripping with artistic history almost as much as Montmartre, and you can scoot up the tower if you fancy trading your sewer rat’s-eye view for a bird’s-eye one. Denfert Rochereau is probably the last exciting-enough-to-surface-for metro stop what with the catacombs hiding in all their gothic glory below street level, though the markets at Raspail are a bio-lover’s dream (though as pricey as you’d expect). The line ends snaking through the residential comfort of the bottom of the 14th, bringing you to a atop at the new lower terminus, Marie de Montrouge.

So my friend was totally right. Follow the line and you’ll get to see every corner of Paris laid out for you (remember to stick your head above ground though, you’ll see naff-all if you stay on the train); the modern pockets, the way-back famous historical bits, and a complete cross-section of all of the social demographics the city has squeezed into itself. And if you spend a day metro surfing with a Navigo pass, you get to enjoy your Parisian visual cocktail for free. Oh yeah, and don’t forget to hang on (don’t say I didn’t warn you).

Let’s get physical

CIMG7196When thinking of Paris, it’s likely that any conjured images will revolve around food. Cheese, pastries, baguettes stuffed full of sliced animal, pools of rich cream. In essence, food so laden with calories, it’s a wonder that you can actually walk at all after eating it. So you’d think that keeping fit and getting the better of those evil calories would be a Parisian obsession. But no. Think of a typical inhabitant of the city of light, and I can almost guarantee that there’s no sweat-sodden lycra involved (except for two weeks around Tour de France time of year when anyone who’s anyone coats themselves in the stuff and hops on a racing bike). The French paradox takes care of any weight gain that the local diet seems to threaten, and they all remain unfairly slender.

For those of us who don’t seem to repel calories like the French, and need to put in the hard yards to keep them at bay, the gym is of course an obvious prospect, though you’ll need to commit a fair few of your hard-earned euros to the cause. The thought of going to the gym makes me break out into a sweat (but not the good, kilo-burning kind), so here’s few ideas of how to keep your wallet, rather than your body, fat in this fair city of ours.

Run

Arguably the cheapest sport of all. All you need are a pair of decent trainers (head to Decathlon or Go Sport for a very reasonably-priced selection) and your own personal running track. If you live near one of the city’s many parks, all the better, but Paris’ wide boulevards mean you’ll always have a relatively clear path. The real danger is avoiding the dog poo. But hey, that just helps to improve your coordination at the same time.

Ride

At this time of year there really is no excuse. Paris was voted last year the 13th most cycle-friendly city in the world, and there are bike paths and cycle lanes galore. If you don’t have a bike of your very own, then the city has kindly supplied you with one in the form of the velib. Riding up a hill on one of those weighty beasts is probably the best thigh-toning exercise ever invented. A year’s subscription is 29 euros and the first half and hour is free!

Climb

IMG_1603Paris. City of love. City of light. Hardly – city of stairs if we’re going to be brutally honest. Whether you’re trying to surface from the metro, make it up seven flights of a lift-less building to your apartment or take in the sights of Montmartre, if you’re after leg and bottom sculpting activity, then Paris is your best friend. I worked out the other day (when I wasn’t thinking of vegetables), I probably climb between 300 and 500 stairs a day, without even trying. Sweatband and Rocky soundtrack playing in your head whilst you’re doing it are of course optional.

Play

Petanque in the park might not burn the calories, but in many of the city’s parks, there is municipal, free equipment provided for a variety of sports including basketball, table tennis and weights frames. The early bird, of course, catches the worm (though he probably shouldn’t eat it if he wants to keep his figure).

Walk

Flaneur-ing (that’s the Parisian art of strolling for those not in the know) might not get you out of breath, but do it for long enough and you’ll cover a few kilometres without even realising it. In a city as small and as beautiful as Paris, there really is no excuse for not pounding the pavements and bathing in all of its glory. What, you actually like the smell of the metro?? For some real green indulgence, head to the two book-end woods on the edges of Paris (Boulogne and Vincennes) and explore, or follow the Seine as far as your legs will carry you right out into the leafy suburbs.

Swim

Gyms, yoga classes and other assorted specialised exercise/sport classes can easily swallow cash, glamorous as they are. But don’t overlook the old school option and head to one of Paris’ 38 municipal swimming pools. A 3-month pass (for as many visits as you like) costs 37 euros for an adult. The only downside is that you’ll be forced to wear one of those blood-vessel-flattening rubber swimming caps. No pain, no gain, right?

Join

We’re all on a health kick these days, aren’t we? So let’s hook up and get all sweaty together whilst secretly comparing our non-existent abs. I’m not a member of a sports team myself (so you’ll never see mine), but I know of a few friends and acquaintances that have joined various sports team in the city whether through their work or through the ex-pat community. Keep your eyes to the ground and it’s highly likely you’ll find something out there.

So there you have it. With summer fast approaching and the rain finally leaving us alone, there’s no excuse not to don the gym shorts and hit the road. Enjoy!

In season: May

IMG_1630It’s fair to say I’m a big lover of vegetables. I even had a vegetable sandwich today (not I didn’t get squished between two carrots if that’s what you’re thinking, I put some peppers, spinach and a couple of our orange friends between two slices of bread – mmm mmm). And in terms of being a vegetable lover, things don’t get much better than May. One word for you. Asparagus.

Now allow me to digress. I used to frequently visit family who lived in the middle of deepest, darkest Norfok, where little green spears were very much appreciated. Weaving round the windy bends near their house in spring meant that you’d be greeted by an old farm cart, dominated with a sign saying ‘asparagus’ in big green letters. Ok, I can’t actually remember if they were green, but if they weren’t then they damn well should have been.

Now underneath was a less permanent sign that for most of spring, read in tantalising script ‘coming soon!’, as if it was promoting some kind of vegetable movie blockbuster. (Imagine if you will that gruff-voiced movie trailer guy… ‘In a field. In Norfolk. A tale of two spears, trying to make it in the world’). You could almost feel the fields in the vicinity buzzing in anticipation.

One day, when the farmer thought noone was looking, he would change the sign to read ‘NOW!’, and it would stay that way for the short few weeks that asparagus was in season. My sheer joy at being greeted with the latter as opposed to the former was quite simply way out of the proportion it should have been. But hey, I did state early on in the piece that I’m a massive fan of vegetables. (If said love of vegetables were in fact a epitomised in vegetable form, I think we can all safely assume that it would be a marrow). We’d head to the farmer’s patch of land and grab as many bunches as our eager fists could carry, and dine in style.

See, asparagus is a bit like the coolest of your cousins; the one who lives the furthest away, who you never see nearly as much as you’d like to. When you see him though, it’s so worth it. You hang off his every word as he recounts tales of his hip neighbourhood, awesome friends and charmed life. You know deep down however, that if he did come more often, the sheen would immediate fade, and somehow all of his tales would all of a sudden seem phoney and contrived.

And so it is with asparagus. The season for it is blink-and-you-miss-it short, usually only around six weeks. Thus it carries with it a certain amount of exclusive charm as you realise you’d better enjoy its fleeting presence on the nation’s market stalls before it’s usurped by average-joe summer berries. And just like your hipster cousin, spring’s king of legumes is delightfully low maintenance. In fact, the less you mess around with it, the better. Just snap off the woody ends, whip up a self-saucing poached egg, add a sprinkling of your finest salt and you’ve got perfection on a plate.

For those inexplicably adverse to a plate of delicious spears, here are some other fruit and veg good to eat now.

Broccoli – brocoli
Carrots – carottes
Chicory – endive
Lettuce – laitue
New potatoes – pomme de terres nouvelles
Peas – petits pois
Radishes – radis
Rocket – roquette
Spinach – epinards
Spring onions – oignons blancs
Watercress – cresson
White asparagus – asperges blanches (I’ve wittered on about the green version, but the white is good too – if you can be bothered to peel it…)

What’s your langtitude?

IMG_1619

Ah, learning a new language. Communicating with the locals is just a question of talking a bit louder in your own language, right? They’ll understand, eventually.

Well, not quite. If you want to live a fulfilled life in a foreign country, then you’d probably do well to pick up a few more words than just your favourite foods, and ‘two beers, please’. And especially in France, given that attempting to complete any kind of paperwork is a lesson in jumping through the smallest, weirdest-shaped hoops in the world, and ones that keep on moving or just plain disappearing to boot. And that’s just if you speak perfect French already. With language skills under your belt, life just gets that little bit easier. And just, well richer.

Now I’m not a master of French in any sense of the word (I’m intermediate at best), though I’m a very willing student, constantly looking for ways to make those foreign words stick in my head. Piles of cash and endless hours of free time would make the process easier, and I could pay for one of those intensive courses, or luxury of luxuries a month-long home stay with a French family in rural France where I’d be forced to speak nothing but the lingo as I bonded with my hosts as they taught me to make goat’s cheese.

But my pockets just aren’t that deep. I’m looking for the resources that don’t cost the world, hell, don’t cost even a solitary bean if preferable. And the good news is, there is plenty out there. Super! (That means ‘really great’ in French. See, learning already!)

1. Motivation

In the language game, you don’t get every far without this. Putting a copy of 1000 French Verbs under your pillow at night and expecting the words to magically leap into your head just isn’t going to happen. Regardless of whether you’re one of those sickening people who has a freakish aptitude for languages, learning French is hard. It will take work. And your accent will suck constantly. But so does mine, so we’re all in the same bateau. (See? Another one!)

2. TV or not TV…

Yes, yes, French television isn’t the greatest in the world, but it’s an important resource all the same. If you have a TV at home, work out how to put the subtitles on (in French is better), and get watching. Have a pen and paper handy and note down any new words that crop up, grab your dictionary (or the dictionary app if you’re a slave to your smartphone) and find out the meaning. If you’re a higher level, just watching programmes in French is a great way to get your ears dancing to the right linguistic rhythm. Bizarrely, the French seem to adore game shows, there’s heaps on the box, and programmes that play with words and ask questions are language learning gold in my book.

2b. Touch that dial

Plus most satellite boxes have radio channels too if you fancy going more old school. You can choose the talking ones if French pop music gives you the heebie jeebies.

3. Be a slave to the page

Or, even more than that, words in general. They’re everywhere – on billboards, menus, signs telling you not to do things, chock-full in those free papers you get on the metro… Read them all. Get to know what they mean. If you want to chance a full novel, you can pick them up at many a second hand bookshop for next to nothing (or even at Guerrisol, they normally have a few hanging around). Be random if you want, or better, choose something you’ve read before and enjoyed. Even if it’s ‘Arry Pott-air (as the French would say). Though the word for the spells will probably be the same.

4. Find a friend

Maybe you have a collection of French friends already, which is great. Talk to them in French. A no-brainer. If you don’t, find some. Interacting with the locals is a great way to boost your language skills. For those who already have more friends that they can count, head to craigslist or the FUSAC website and see if you can find a conversation exchange buddy. The idea is that you find a French speaker in need of some English practice, and you sit in a cafe (or a on a park bench if you so wish), and speak for an hour or so, half in English and half in French. Though it pays to be a bit cautious – some folks see this is a good way of getting a date. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

5. Be curious

TV’s not your thing. The background buzz of a radio annoys you like an errant fly. You’re allergic to making friends. It’s important to find something that you’re into, if not the whole thing becomes a chore and you’ll get nowhere. You like cooking? Then find recipes on the internet in French and boost your skills that way. You’re mad about the cinema? Then try a French film once in a while. Celebrity gossip your thing? Then do it in French and learn what horribly pointless things Miley Cyrus is doing these days, in French (so they’ll probably sound a great deal more exotic than they really are). Easy!

All that remains for me to say is, bonne chance! (Now you’ve learned four new words, you could practically write a French essay!*)

 

*If it was called ‘good luck really great boat’.