The Bike-ly Lads

Kim Tour 4Summer – the season of floaty dresses, floral prints, tailored shorts, and as seems to be the trend in France, er Lycra. And not just any old Lycra; Lycra so tight it’ll show every contour and so bright it’s a good thing it’s also the sunglasses season. You haven’t seen such fashion specimens amongst the July crowds? That’s ‘cos you’re looking in the wrong place. Take your eyes off the human traffic on the pavements and cast your gaze into the road. That slender chap peddling like his life depends on it can only mean one thing – Tour de France fever is here.

For approximately one month of the year, here the bike is king. It’s dusted off and rescued from the garage and the official Lycra kit (with go-faster stripes if you must) is dug out from the depths of the wardrobe, and hard saddle and padded shorts are reunited once again – all in honour of the biggest sporting event in the world (with more viewers worldwide than even the Olympics) the three-week cycling roadshow that is the Tour de France. Or being terribly French about it, simply ‘Le Tour’.

My own understated Tour effort

My own understated Tour effort

And what an impossibly challenging beast it is, both understanding the rules and putting yourself through it. Allow me to help with the former. 3 weeks, 198 riders, 22 teams, 21 stages in 3 countries (this year anyhow, usually it’s only 2), with 4 colours of snazzy shirts for the winners to wear – yellow for the overall winner, green for best sprinter, white for best youngest rider, and white with red polka dots for the best climber. Some of the riders aren’t even there to win, but are merely domestiques or maids, simply there to make sure the lead rider in the team is aptly fed and watered. They’ll even swap bikes with him if he knackers his. How gentlemanly.

The route winds around France with a stage every day (covering 3,360km in total), taking in flat terrain, treacherous cobble-stoned villages, luscious countryside and evil mountains, plus a couple of time trials for extra variation. Anyone worth their sel de guerande as a Frenchman or cycle enthusiast piles onto the side of the road to wave them on, even if this involves waiting for a good few hours to see the peleton (main pack of riders) whizz past in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it two seconds at breakneck speeds.

248398_10150232286151685_3611686_n (2)The capital has traditionally played host to the last stage since 1985 and the weary riders roll into town on the 26th July for the final parade lap where they ride a circuit up and down the Champs-Élysées, by the Louvre, along the Rue de Rivoli and across the Place de la Concorde (don’t worry, they do it nine times, so it’s more than worth it). Seeing an aerial view of the beautiful city on TV or soaking up the atmosphere amongst the crowds is the day my heart bursts most with pride at being able to call Paris home. Usually the race is already decided by the time they arrive as the last week is packed with gruelling mountain stages that really sort the men out from the boys, but occasionally if there’s only seconds between the top two (astounding to think after three weeks’ racing), the race is on.

Kim Tour 2This year there’s almost no chance at all of a French victor (the last was Bernard ‘The Badger’ Hinault in 1985), but chances are good for the UK (Froome), USA (Van Garderen), Spain (Contador), or Columbia (Quintana). Time to dig out that flag. If it’s not grabbing you so far then at least appreciate the utter insanity of the challenge. These dudes are amongst the fittest – and craziest – in the world. Last year hot favourite Contador fell then rode 15km up a mountain with a broken leg before pulling out. Forget Magic Mike, this is a chance to wonder at physical magnificence atop magic bikes.

If you’re keen to check it out, just remember to take something to stand on – gazing at the backs of strangers does not a sporting event make. Recreating the action on a Vélib strictly discouraged…. For more info and standings check out (English version available).

Post originally published 17/07/2015


Talkin’ bout a revolution……

If Paris was a family, the Eiffel Tower would be at the bottom of the tree, the precocious young pup at a mere 126 years old. Being the juvenile show pony of the city kin, it’s no wonder that hordes flock to her as a priority, leaving the rest of the Parisian clan to fill up the lower reaches of the sightseeing list. But you know what tower, dear? It’s far too hot to be shimmying up your height in this face-melting weather, so we’ll leave your daunting climb to a day during much cooler times.

Kim bastille 1Luckily it’s almost as if the history of Paris prepared itself for this change in temperature, and July is the month to cast our cultural eye, Sauron style, to a different part of town where it’s the country as a complete generational unit that gets our undivided attention. You’re in the mood for a lively celebration? Then you can’t go wrong if you happen to be in the capital on 14 July for France’s Fête Nationale, or ‘Bastille Day’ as us Anglos like to refer to it.

Kim French 3In the Motherland, the damp squib that is England’s national day on 23 April couldn’t be more of a contrast. Over there we raise little more than an eyebrow in celebration to Greek-born Saint George who never actually went to the green and pleasant land, and made himself famous, as legend has it, by having a to-do with a dragon. Yes, that traditional English native animal, THE DRAGON. Here in France the origins of the national celebration may be more recent, but a whole lot less tenous, and a far more historically rich and suitably patriotic affair.

Kim bastille 5The whole shebang started way back in 1789 when thousands of cheesed-off revolutionaries stormed the Bastille prison, marking the beginning of the French Revolution and setting the wheels in motion for a chain of events that would change the country and its values forever. A feast was held on the same date the following year to mark the momentous occasion, but there was a whole lot of revolting happening during the subsequent 100 years, and the date wasn’t chosen and officiated as the national celebration day until 1880.

The spirit of French unity which prompted its creation carries through to today and a week on Tuesday you can check out the huge parade of military might on the Champs Élysées and watch the heart-shuddering air display pass over the city. The Eiffel Tower can’t help but muscle in on the festivities as restless kids are wont to do, and naturally an impressive fireworks display makes sure we pay enough attention to it.

Kim bastille 4If you fancy absorbing some of the original revolutionary spirit, head to Place de la Bastille. You won’t find the original prison there as the revolutionaries did a sterling job of dismantling it stone by stone, but if you want to see just what an impressive feat that is, duck into the metro and find the platform of line 5 (direction Bobigny) where you can find the only remaining chunk of foundations and an outline of where the structure used to stand.

Kim bastille 2Don’t be lumping into the 1789 story the green column standing proud in the middle of the place though – that’s a whole other story of the 2nd French Revolution (oh how they loved making their point back then). Named the July column, it commemorates the 3-day-long July Revolution of 1830 (27-29 July), and the little gold cherub on the top represents the spirit of freedom. Revolutions? Buy one get one free in these parts.

I hope you can appreciate my brevity in telling these tales, with history as rich as this, we’d be here all year if I tried to delve any further. So for now, enjoy the sunshine, embrace the fête and save the French history lesson until the winter.

Push the goat out

Kim ChineseNY 1So those New Year’s resolutions are a distant memory by now, eh? Let’s not begin to count how many got washed down the drain of apathy into a cesspool of honest intentions, that we’ll no doubt fish out and recycle come December. Sigh. If only we could rewind the clock and travel back to January to capture that full-strength motivation, stuff it in a jar and feed from it for the rest of the year.

Well you can! Sort of. If you’ll turn your shameful gaze towards the Chinese calendar, then today just happens to be New Year’s Eve, the most Etch-a-Sketch night of the year when we can fervently shake up the memories, sweep the mistakes of the past year under the carpet and start the new one with determined and wholesome vigour. Life hardly throws us many seconds chances, for redemption or otherwise, so grab it while you can.

Kim CineseNY2Tomorrow (19th February) sees the official start of the Chinese new year when the outgoing horse high-fives the incoming goat. Well, I say ‘goat’, it’s a wood-dwelling sheep-goat-ram thing if we’re being proper, so much of the world call this the ‘year of the sheep’ instead, before you start pointing out my error (‘goat’ got more Google results than ‘sheep’, thus being my sophisticated method of selection. That and the prospect of a zippier headline).

In the Asian world, this marks a period of extensive holiday and celebration, and ceremonial worship of all things goat-y (or sheep-y). Given I’m the sign of the ram in the western zodiac calendar (Aries), then I’m quite happy to assume this year as full of personal luck and prosperity like all of the other goats in the world. Call me greedy if you like, but if the Queen has two birthdays, then surely it’s permitted (she’s a tiger by the way, naturally). Traditionally, typical ‘goats’ are gentle, peace-loving, thoughtful and kind, but prone to munching on your smalls hanging on the washing line if you leave them alone for too long.

Kim ChineseNY 3In Paris there will be ample opportunity to participate in the festivities due to the city’s huge Franco-Chinese population, with activity being centered around the Marais, Belleville and the ‘official’ Chinatown in the 13th. The parades are the big draws, what with their lively atmosphere, traditional dancing and kick-ass dragons, but there are also food stalls, street demonstrations, martial arts and exhibitions put on by the mairie of the 13th in celebration Chinese and Asian culture to check out as well.

The bulk of the events take place this weekend (21st and 22nd, what with tonight being a school night and all), and the first parade leaves from Place de la Republique at 14h30 on Saturday, to weave through the Marais. Dragons and revellers will also fill the streets for the Belleville parade starting at 11h30 on Sunday morning, with the main procession winding through the 13th the same afternoon from 13h, accompanied by the delightful whiff of new starts and firecrackers.

Here is a list of events from the official website of the Mairie de Paris (in French).

Gong Xi Fa Cai!

PS. Apologies for the lack of photos of actual goats. They’re hard to come by in Paris.

(W)all you need is love

Sorry for the late post this week loyal readers, the ‘flu virus I’d been running from finally found me this week, and as we all know, creative juices and evil germs just don’t get on. But Granny Flat has proved herself as an excellent nursemaid, and the clouds of poor health are happily beginning to lift.

Kim wall 3When we’re poorly, all we need is a bit of loving (of the non Fifty Shades kind, steady on). So kudos for all of us who have either ended up in, or been at least once to this most romantic of cities. With Valentine’s day just a cupid’s arrow away, you can be sure that a huge proportion of the world’s most ardent lovers have descended on Paris to make sure their heart’s allegiance is declared loud and clear in the most appropriate and sentiment-saturated of settings.

Kim wall 1It used to be that attaching a padlock to one of Paris’ most charming bridges was the only acceptable way for any Casanova (or Casanov-ette for that matter) to prove his ardour (and even I was guilty of promoting the trend this time last year). But now we’ve all learned the error of our ways and seen just how the burden of so much collective sentiment can actually be hugely damaging to the city’s architecture, not to mention a massive pollutant for the famous River Seine. Joy Division proved to be an oracle for the future in addition to being a kick-ass 80s band, with their right-on assertion that ‘Love can tear us apart’. They were right on the money, in terms of ‘us’ being a bridge, anyhoo.

Kim wall 2So maybe macaroons are the order of the day. A box of chocolates perhaps. Or even stick with tradition and thrust a bunch of roses under your lover’s nose. But with street sellers walking past with blooming bouquets for sale what seems like every five minutes, that idea now seems about as romantic as the Dropkick Murphy’s attempt at a love song, ‘Kiss me I’m shitfaced’. And you’d better be five sheets to the wind if you think buying a rose for your cherie in that fashion spells top Valentine’s points.

Kim wall 7Instead take a tip from me and take a walk to a part of the city I love, Abbesses, in the arrondissement I’ve been having a love affair with ever since my first trip to Paris, the 18th, and visit a whole wall dedicated to sweet, delicious amour. You can take your sickly pink desserts and romantic mood music, I’m a writer, so nothing is more important to me than words, pure and simple. And here nestled in the small and perfectly formed Square Jehan-Rictus just near the metro, is a whole wall dedicated to the linguistic profession of undying affection.

Kim wall 5Le mur des je t’aime or ‘wall of I love yous’ contains 311 examples of the same phrase written in 250 different languages, printed on 612 squares of polished blue lava tiles, forming an extraordinary monument to love itself. It was the idea of Frédéric Baron, a wannabe traveller who wanted to travel the world to hand-collect his texts, but instead achieved his goal through his network of friends, family and foreign acquaintances.

It was artist and calligrapher Claire Kito and mural specialist Daniel Boulogne who made his dream into reality, and this year the wall celebrates its 15th birthday, the age at which most of us are taking our first forays into love as nervous teenagers and testing our fledgling hearts for the very first time. So this year, give the padlocks a wide berth, and plant a smacker on your loved one’s lips in front of this 40m² expression of love. Paris will love you back for it.

Crêpe expectations

How many French folk does it take to change a lightbulb? Well that question is completely irrelevant on February 2nd as any request for handy help will fall on deaf ears as the whole country will be far too busy eating crêpes.

Kim crepe 1Ah, those delicious golden discs of batter that require such deftness with a frying pan, and untold patience given that most of us only have one with which to manufacture an appropriate stack. Don’t the French eat them between every meal? Aren’t they the warming cold weather vehicle for Nutella in a carbohydrate yin-yang partnership with the fair weather baguette?

Not quite… Crêpes are indeed nestled within the gastronomic heart of France, wafting their goodness via many a batter-toting kiosk, though not something that is considered a daily treat. Once in a while, for sure, but it’s not like the French give a toss even weekly. But that doesn’t mean we’re not allowed to hold a party for our circular, pan-dwelling friends. If food is to be championed, then this is the country in which to champion it in.

Kim crepe 3Exactly 40 days after Christmas on 2nd February is when over here we celebrate La Chandeleur (Candlemas for the non-French speakers), when we do just that. It’s the one day of the year where crêpes are held aloft and idolised, though they can’t claim to be the belle of the ball as there’s a hell of a lot of traditional legend and religious symbolism tied up on the same date in the calendar.

Depending on which religion you subscribe to, the 2nd February is the day to celebrate the presentation of Christ at the temple, the feast of the purification of the Virgin, or the blessing of the church’s beeswax candles. Non-religious traditions dictate that in France, the UK and the USA the weather on 2nd February predicts the forecast for the rest of the year, in Scotland a big snake will appear from the ground (which promises not to ‘molest’ anyone), and if you’re a sailor, it’s a day to give a jaunt on the ship a miss.

Kim crepe 5In France, the ‘crêpe party’ element (as my friend Arthur likes to call it) means that superstition is expressed through the medium of food, i.e. the lowly pancake. It’s not about using up ingredients in time for Lent which underlies the Anglo tradition of Shrove Tuesday (this year 13th February), but more a celebration of light, and the transition between the last dark days of a cold and sombre winter and the fledgling days of the approaching spring. The crêpe is supposed to reflect the image of the round, golden disc of the sun.

As well as making sure your wrist action is on form to indulge in the obligatory tossing, tradition also states that the first pancake out of the rank needs to be folded up and placed in the wardrobe to encourage a plentiful and abundant harvest for the coming year. It sounds to me like that’s just a recipe for attracting an abundance of the neighbourhood mice, but hey, maybe enticing them from the fields and into the home is the whole point.

Kim crepe 6Let’s assume you’re a sensible, rational being and you’ve opted for crêpe worship above any other 2nd February signification. The only choice now is what to fill your spoils with. Banana and Nutella, classic sugar and lemon, or a sinful mountain of cheese and ham? Today I opted for (in practice for the big day) a savoury oven baked roll up of crêpes (made with beer instead of milk) filled with veg and a goat’s cheese sauce topped with parmesan, followed by a sweet duo of blueberry and honey, and good ol’ lemon and sugar. Now I can’t move (lucky for you my fingers still can).

This Friday residents of France can follow my stunning example, those in a country where pancakes are fashionably late will have to hop on the spot until it’s your turn later on in the month. Just look into the light whilst you’re at it.

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.



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!

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).



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…

A vine proposition

Kim wine fair 2Sick of the cold wind making your cheeks all rosy as you battle the elements to get to work? You’re giving rosy cheeks a bad rep. Yes, they spell the approach of winter, but they also spell ruddy-cheeked winemakers and a crimson glow caused by an afternoon tasting your way through a hangar full of their delicious produce. Yay! It’s wine fair time again!

If you’ve been a die-hard reader since the beginning, or your wine detection skills are so honed you hardly need my help, you’ll know that Paris plays host to two wine fairs a year where independent vintners gather together, fill an exhibition centre with wine, and invite thirsty laymen like us to taste it. And buy it, of course.

This Thursday (27th) marks the start of the second, this time being held at Porte de Versailles (bottom end of line 12), taking place for five days until Monday evening. For those who live here, you’d be a fool not to go. For those who don’t, you’d be a bigger one not to arrange your next Parisian stay around it (and make room in your suitcase).

So, as usual, it’ll cost you 6 euros to get in (or free if you’ve bought a bottle or two before and you’ve received your invitation), and you get a glass upon arrival to fill up and drain to your heart’s content. The whole gang is there to sample from classy whites through to rosés and reds, sticky sweet dessert wines and kick-you-in-the-throat Cognacs and Armagnacs. Plus chocolate and foie gras sandwiches to keep your strength up.

Kim wine fair 1It sounds like heaven, no? Well, aside from rapidly fading willpower the more glasses you drink leading you to make wildly ostentatious purchases designed to cripple your bank balance, tasting all of this good stuff might lead you into a wine habit that your wallet just can’t support. Instead of risking bankruptcy, treat it as an education into France’s lesser-known wines, and develop a knowledge of the simpler and cheaper delights that’ll save you hundreds in the process.

Don’t know where to start? Here’s a brief rundown on how to save cash whilst drinking grape juice like a king.

IF your cellar’s looking empty, buying direct from the producer is the most economical way to get it looking healthy again. If you’ve got the means, buying in bulk will reduce the price even more (either take a trolley for your booty, or you can pick one up at the event). Supermarkets also keep the wine cheap with their power to buy enormous quantities, and always have a huge selection. Or if you’re lucky enough to have a wine tour booked, buy straight from the winemaker’s hands.

GIVE the big dogs a miss. Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne may be the connoisseurs’ choice, but you’ll pay for the reputation of the famous names. Try lesser known and more unfashionable areas for some hidden gems. Languedoc Roussillon is one of the largest regions in France, and the former home of Vin de Table now produces an exciting array of different varieties and innovative styles. Personally I’m an avid fan of Cahors malbec based wine (what Argentinian wine dreams are made of, but not so well known here), and lighter reds Morgon and Brouilly. The fun is in the trying. And you can impress your French dinner hosts with a cracking bottle they’ve probably never heard of.

Kim wine fair 3BE label savvy. AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) is the highest classification of wine, but strict laws mean that the second category Vin de Pays might be of a similar quality, though the wine will be labelled differently (often using the grape variety) and made using different techniques. The lowest category, Vin de Table is the cheapest, though you might end up with some barely palatable plonk.

KEEP an eye on the price. In general, the price tag dictates the quality, though if you find a cheap bottle of Margaux, it might just be the reflection of a bad year, and not worth the effort. But make sure your taste leads the way – if you spend 25 euros on a heavy oaky red when you prefer drinking a lighter Beaujolais, then you’ve spent badly my friend.

LOOK towards the edge. Often all that separates different appellations is a road, a river or a few metres of land. By looking at wines from areas that border the more prestigious AOCs, there’s treasure to be found for a fraction of the price compared to their posh siblings. Saint Émilion for example is much revered, but its satellite appellations Lussac, Montagne, Puisseguin and Saint-Georges offer some spectacular alternatives. The same goes for Pomerol’s poorer relative Lalande-de-Pomerol, and if you’re into Sauternes, give Barsac a go instead. Research rewards the curious.

Get those corks a-popping! (And don’t forget to invite me). Here’s all the info you need.

The Grapes of Math

Kim Beaujolais 2As marketing campaigns go, France is the king. This is the country in which a dreadlocked man (former tennis and music star Yannick Noah) is chosen to promote personal grooming products (it later turned out to be mostly shower gels, but gee, I was confused there for a while). Last year market leader Sushi Shop released a box of Kate Moss-inspired rolls. Presumably they wanted to give the impression they’d infused their raw fish with Champagne effervescence and a nicotine aftertaste.

But mismatched celebrity/product pairings aside, one of the major triumphs has to be the cult of wonder that shines out of the mist every November surrounding the release of Beaujolais nouveau. You take one of France’s shoddiest wines, create a festival around it, and every fool dashes out to taste the stuff as if it were the last drop of Dom Perignon in the world. As marketing strategies go, it’s quite frankly genius. Promoting a mediocre wine to the dizzy heights of fame (and increasing profits a million-fold in the process) is no mean feat. Pretty impressive if you think about it.

Kim Beaujolais 1At this time of year you can’t pass a café window without seeing the excited scrawl upon it ‘Le Beaujolais nouveau est arrivé!’ Beaujolais nouveau has arrived! In a nutshell, the tradition is this – a vineyard mouse’s whisker after the grape harvest (in wine terms at least), the bounty is speedily pressed, bottled and distributed to eager, salivating punters.

And it’s not just France either. Bottles are shipped all around the world every year, released at 12.01am on the dot on the third Thursday in November (so tomorrow the 20th) where they are met with welcoming arms by a global audience who afford it an almost cult-like status. The idea is to chug back on a glass and toast the wine gods (and producers of course), for letting us have another year’s worth of delicious produce to drink. What’s not to celebrate?

Well, the festival abstainers don’t see an awful lot of point in indulging in a drop that is considered by most to wildly inferior to the rest of the country’s offerings, dismissing it as a sneaky marketing ploy (which in truth it is). And they’d be partly right. Made from the Gamay grape, Beaujolais nouveau is the lightest red money can by, and the speed at which it hits the shelves means the finished product is juvenile and simplistic, hardly worth the glass it’s contained in.

Kim Beaujolais 3Sure it’s nowhere near a Grand Cru, but if you’re that picky, you’ve got the rest of the year to drink Margaux if you want. Beaujolais nouveau was always meant to be drunk young and drunk fast, and if you prefer a more aged version, you can wait for the later-released Beaujolais (that drops the ‘nouveau’), boasting a deeper complexity.

Personally, it’s one of my favourite French festivals, and I’ll be raising a glass in its honour. Not for the ‘delicious’ taste, but it marks the beginning of a new year of vintages, and it’s a chance to celebrate French wine on a more general level in absence of any other festivals championing any other type of wine the country could muster (get on to that please Monsieur Hollande). If it really is the sneaky marketing aspect that persuades many a nay-sayer to give it a wide berth, I’d say Christmas could be a pretty quiet one this year…