I’m forever drinking bubbles

Kim NYE2It’s a wonder my sausagey fingers have managed to write this blog post, given how many calories I’ve consumed over the holidays. I may be small, but when it comes to my sister’s finest turkey and sprouts, I assure you, I sure can put it away. And we’re not just talking about the solids either, I’m English, and therefore able to raise as many glasses as the next person.

And isn’t it just the time of year to be doing just that? That precarious bridge between one year and the next, when the slate is wiped clean and the shiny new list of objectives is framed and hung on the wall until at least, well, January 12th. New Year’s Eve might not have the same magic as Christmas (and they don’t even know Auld Lang Syne in France), but it’s important to send 2014 off with a fitting tribute.

Kim NYE 5Champagne is surely the way to do it, but after a few too many festive blowouts, your bank balance maybe looking as though it’s had a visit from Father Spanker (if you don’t know what I mean, do your homework and read last week’s post), and so expensive bubbles are but a distant dream. But those Frenchies aren’t just one-trick ponies you know, there are bubbles upon bubbles that you just don’t know about, for a fraction of the price of a bottle of their finest. Let your festive paunch rest awhile whilst I educate you.

France’s most famous sparkle is merely the tip of the iceberg, and rudely overshadows the other effervescent offerings the country has to offer. The name Champagne is just a matter of geography you understand; it’s a regional moniker, and many would argue that the pedestal of luxury it’s placed upon is a merely question of marketing. Blind tastings by wine experts that fail to put Champagne at the top of the pile are surprisingly common.

IMG_2313Using the same production methods, but usually different grapes varieties, are a group of eight AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) sparkling wines known as Crémants, from the regions of Alsace, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Die, Jura, Limoux, Loire and Savoie. They’re all slightly gentler in their fizz given a slightly lower bottle pressure to Champagne (a sign of the style rather than of lesser quality), but with all of the grapes harvested by hand and the wine aged for a minimum of one year, there’s as much love and care put into every bottle as the pricier stuff.

Keep your eyes peeled too for the word mousseux, literally meaning ‘sparkling’, which points to another category of sparkles made using different production methods AND different grapes, from regions such as Vouvray, Anjou, Saumur and Touraine. And don’t forget our European neighbours either, there are bubbles galore to be found elsewhere, like Prosecco from the Italians, Cava from Spain, and even sparkling wine from England (yes I have tried it and it’s pretty darn good). Looking further afield, America and Australia produce some super efforts, but finding them in Paris is more of a struggle.

Cheers!

Cheers!

Champagne has by no means had its day, but for New Year’s Eve this year, I’ll be spending less than ten euros on a bottle of bubbles to drink with my nearest and dearest. After all, those folks in that most famous of wine regions must be quaking in their grape-picking wellies at just how well other regions in the world have started producing bottles of fizz.

To toast in the new year, and to celebrate one whole year of Paris Small Capital (hooray!) I’ll be raising a glass to them, and to all of you loyal readers, and hope to see you all for a simple delight-filled 2015. Santé!

Deck ze ‘alls…

…wiz bows of ‘olly, oh la la la la la la la la (as the Franglais version might sound). Joyeuses Fêtes! is the sound currently resonating through the country, though I can’t hear it as I’m across the pond happily tucked up at Momma Bear’s house awaiting our big family day tomorrow (25th), where no sprout will be left uneaten and no wine bottle left unturned.

Kim deck 1Well, I use the word ‘resonating’, the sound is really more like a bored kind of whisper – according to a recent poll, the French care the least about the festive period in all of northern Europe, so it’s a wonder they put up tinsel at all. Whereas us anglos shop for presents like people possessed, shovel down dinner whilst wearing jovial paper crowns and play Christmas songs and festive films on loop, on the other side of the channel, it’s all a bit tamer. Here’s a bit of information if you fancy changing your celebratory style to be a little more French.

Kim deck 4A much more minimalist affair, there are far fewer traditions that need adhering to at this time of year in La Belle France. Christmas cards are out, as are crackers, carol singers, Christmas pud, Christmas cake, mince pies, brussels sprouts, the Queen’s speech (obviously) and the slap-your-thigh gender confusion that is pantomime. Walk around some streets in Paris, even in the very centre, and you might not realise what time of year it is at all.

In fact it has only been since the second world war that the winter festival has really taken off, and the modern day population are still slightly resistant to the new style of celebration. The French barely take much time off, don’t even have names for the reindeer yet (only Rudolph), and have only just got into the gift buying spirit. 40 years ago, you got an orange in a sock, and that was your lot. But thanks to the various cultures of Europe gradually bleeding into each other, and the increasing Americanisation of France, festive fever is finally taking hold.

Ol' Mum's nativity effort. Beat that France!

Ol’ Mum’s nativity effort. Beat that France!

You can forget circling the 25th on the calendar though, the Catholic majority French peak a day early on the 24th, traditionally having their big meal on the night of Christmas Eve (after Midnight Mass for the falling numbers that still go). If there are children to entertain, the presents are left until Christmas morning, but leaving carrots for the reindeer and a whiskey for Santa just isn’t the done thing. As home decorations go, the tree has arrived and is here to stay, and any family worth their salt have a nativity nestled in the corner somewhere (though they’ll never beat my Mum’s knitted version).

Kim deck 5In a country with a culinary reputation as sharpened as in France, food of course takes centre stage, and it’s traditionally enjoyed amongst the family. All the French delicacies are wheeled out, including foie gras and Champagne, and fruits of the sea. Imagine oysters, lobster, prawns and caviar – with no expense spared on the pleasures of the mouth. It varies a little from region to region though, with oysters top of the menu in Paris, whereas in the ‘provinces’ (i.e. anywhere other than the capital) turkey with chestnut stuffing might be preferred, or the delicious sounding ‘chapon’, or specially castrated cockerel. Yum.

Kim deck 3For dessert there are no fire safety issues for our Gallic cousins as the Christmas pudding is shunned in favour of a Bûche de Noël or Christmas log. In Provence you get 13 different desserts to honour Jesus and the apostles, though no cheesy Christmas feel-good films to veg in front of after the eating’s done. Parlour games ditto, the French are far to refined to reignite old family feuds over a few hours of Charades.

Just what you need at Christmas. A bikini.

Just what you need at Christmas. A bikini.

The folk up north know how to let loose a little more than the stuffy Parisians, but being raucous doesn’t mean being bad – those who overstep the line in the run up to Christmas are liable to get a beating from Père Fouettard or ‘Father Spanker’ (those saucy French), Père Noël’s nemesis who punishes the backsides of anyone naughty. It sounds an awful lot like a Carry On film to me, but despite the threat involved probably preferable to actually watching the real thing.

And that friends, is how it’s done. I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year wherever in the world you are, and see you next week for my final post of the year!

A metro-ode to Paris transport history

IMG_2203So I’m a woman and therefore allowed to change my mind as often as I want. Now before you menfolk start rolling your eyes, I’m sure you’ll thank me for this happy affliction. This post was originally intended to be about where to find the most delicious seasonal tucker in the cutest streets of Paris, but that can sit for another day. This is France after all, and if you can’t find decent food around the place then you probably don’t deserve to have taste buds.

IMG_2207Instead I found a hidden gem, completely unrelated to Christmas (which let’s face it, begins to grate like nails down a chalkboard after a while). It came about as I was snaking my way through the city on the metro, forced underground by the chilly drizzle. As the train ambled into my home station, a flash of vintage colour caught my eye – unusual given that the platform is currently under construction and therefore a bloody mess. But underneath the layers of grime twinkled forgotten memories of the past, that practically begged for further investigation.

IMG_2217See, my station Marcadet-Poissonniers actually used to be separated in two, with unconnected stops at Marcadet on line 4 and Poissonniers on line 12 (christened after the above-ground roads which bear their names), that were eventually connected to form the twin station in 1931. As a result, in a bit of a bodge job, the old single-titled platforms had to be renovated and the old signage hastily covered up to make room for the new, swanky double-barrelled name. Forget removing the old and replacing with new, the out-of-date tiles and hoardings were simply boarded up.

IMG_2211Recently though, as renovations have started (and we’re just talking on the platform of line 12 here for the time being), all of that framework has been taken down and the old (albeit crusted with years of dust) glory revealed once again. And not just the old ‘Poissonniers’ tiling either, there are old advertising posters and official information notices that have remained hidden for all these years. There’s even a list of ghost metro stations that didn’t quite stand the test of time.

IMG_2213It’s at this time of year we all have a tendency to scratch back through the year’s calendar and reflect on the past, and it was an awesome vintage treat to see Paris revealing its bygone layers in a similar way. There were old holiday posters, flyers for concerts past, adverts for cars once modern, now classic, and official literature produced by RATP typists of yore, sadly all ripped and half-fallen, but still bathed in the vibrant colours and archaic print of the era.

IMG_2216It’s hard to know exactly when they were pasted for the eyes of commuters gone by, but the tiling certainly dates back from the 30s and the advertising has a distinctive 50s artistic flair. Some of the stations on the closed list met their end as early as 1939, and those that reopened didn’t feel commuter footsteps again until the late 60s.

IMG_2208I’m harbouring a wish that a bit of spit and polish will bring the old decor back to its original splendour, but it’s likely that given the presence of the antiquated station title signage, it’ll be a case of tear it down and start afresh. For the moment, I get to hop off the metro and into a glorious time warp, reminding me that this transport system that is so easy to take for granted has a colourful, event-filled past just like the rest of us. If you happen to be in the ‘hood in the next few weeks yourself, I hope you’ll take this rare trip down metro memory lane too.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…

Galleries Lafayette

Galleries Lafayette

At this time of year I find it about as hard to maintain a zen and adult-like exterior as a three-year-old on a bouncy castle. That childhood inclination towards anything covered in snow and shaped like a candy cane has stubbornly (and a bit embarrassingly) stayed with me into my thirties, whereas it should have melted away like a spring snowflake in my teens. I kid you not, one of the main reasons I live where I live is the iron garland of holly on each front door of my building.

BHV Marais, Hotel de Ville

BHV Marais, Hotel de Ville

Mince pies, Slade hits, chocolate coins; I like surrounding myself with them like a warm, kitschy blanket. There’s hardly a seasonal film I haven’t seen (except the ones made for TV – I’m a die-hard enthusiast, not a simpleton). When it comes to an obsession with Christmas trees, I’m on a par with Kevin from Home Alone (and if you haven’t basked in the Culkin magic by now, you’d better rectify the situation immediately if we are to remain friends).

Printemps

Printemps

Thankfully Paris knows how much I love things that twinkle in the frosty dark, and has generously dug deep into its garage (behind the giant lawnmower) to put on a magnificent festive light show that would make the elves proud. For all of those bah humbugs amongst you, I defy you to wander through the streets without catching at least a sniff of the warming spirit.

We’re not talking blow-the-national-grid American style here, but there’s sparkling pockets of Christmas cheer dotted around the city should you wish to find them. Putting the city’s power points under the most strain are the big daddies of the shopping scene, department stores Printemps and Galleries Lafayette on Boulevard Hausmann, that have enough lights between them to melt half the neighbourhood.

Galleries Lafayette

Galleries Lafayette

It’s the latter that has the edge with its child-magnet window displays and inside a giant upside down Christmas tree under its famous dome. It also provides a death-blow for the religious aspect of the festival and a victory for commercialism with its Sesame Street-esque ‘monster Noël’ theme (no, I don’t really get it either, but it sure is pretty). BHV completes the multi-floored consumer paradise, but keeps it simpler with pixellated santas evoking Nintendo Christmases gone by, and piped music flooding the pavement outside.

Notre Dame

Notre Dame

If you have the willpower to fight against the grand plan by the big stores to lure you in and spend all of your money on wildly overpriced gifts for your nears and dears, a trip to the German Christmas market along the bottom end of the Champs-Élysées is worth a look, if only for festive spirit turned up to the max and a warming cup of Glühwein. You can catch a glimpse of the lights lining Paris’ most famous street while you’re choosing what to buy me.

Paris might be thin on the ground on majestic municipal spruces, but there’s a glowing behemoth slap-bang in front of Notre Dame to gawk at. If you look hard enough, the blue lights hint at the icy politics behind it; not having enough money to pay the 75,000 euros to install it, the city went cap-in-hand to the embassies of Paris asking for sponsorship, and the Russians were the first to volunteer and stumped up the cash. Stings a bit like a pine needle, no?

Place Carré, Les Halles

Place Carré, Les Halles

For those who can’t stomach the cold, there’s a glowing electronic version in Place Carré in Forum Les Halles, plus plenty to look at on your route home as many of the city’s streets suspend glowing bulbs up high to guide you through the chilly evenings. You’ll be spared the carol singers though, this is Paris after all, and not Dickensian London. The French would much rather be supping on a vin chaud somewhere than belting out Mary’s Boy Child.

So there you have it. You might not have an inner child awaiting the December’s climax as eagerly as mine, but you owe it to the city’s electricity bill to go and soak in the festive rays. If anything it sure beats standing next to those guys who burn sell chestnuts out of shopping trolleys as a way to keep warm…