Living in the Meaux-ment

Except for some notable examples (here’s looking at you Home Alone 2 – the Trump cameo erased from our collective minds of course) movie sequels tend to be inferior to the originals. But as far as I’m concerned, Lockdown 2: Winter is Coming has been a great improvement on the first instalment. A far more relaxed affair this time around, I’ve been lucky enough to escape Paris entirely for the second confinement, heading out east to Meaux chez the new beau to enjoy a much less frenetic, and less rabbit hutch-y way of living. Once the rules have been loosened and I can return to the big smoke to explore more of her simple delights, I’ll share them with you, but for now I’ll take you on a brief tour of Meaux, a fine choice for a day trip when an attestation-free life beckons.

40km east-north-east of Paris and only 25 minutes on the train from Gare de l’Est (a mere €16 return), this historical city of 55,000 inhabitants is located in the Seine-et-Marne department, part of the wider Île-de-France region. It can trance its history back to pre-Roman Gaulish occupation by the Meldi tribe, when its occupants were known as the Meldois, as they are still are today. It was the former capital of the ancient region of Brie (roughly corresponding to the bounds of today’s Seine-et-Marne) and food production is still at its heart, with 60% of the region’s land used as farmland. 

Technically a city (the second largest in the department after Chelles), Meaux has a more rural, small town feel, but like its big sister Paris has history in spades. The central old city is where most of the sights are located, itself divided into the southern Market Quarter and northern Cathedral Quarter by a dramatic meander in the river Marne. A large portion of the old city walls remains, and within you’ll find the famous Gothic Saint-Étienne cathedral, in which you’ll find a shrine to Saint Fiacre, the patron saint of gardeners (that one’s for you, Mum). You’ll also find all of the statues on the outer walls without heads (pictured), a gruesome reminder of the French Revolution during which the city’s other ecclesiastical heavyweight, the Abbey of Saint Faro, was destroyed.

Just next door is the episcopal palace and gardens, the old seat of the chapter, art and history museum Musée Bossuet and for fromage fanciers, the Maison du Brie de Meaux cheese museum. A walk south through the quaint old town will take you to the river, the eastern meander of which will lead you to the open green arms of the Parc Pâtis, more of a wood than a park and full of small lakes and wildlife with a chance to borrow free bikes or rent small motorboats to fully explore its beauty. There are two canals to stroll along too, the 13th-century Canal Cornillon and the Napoleonic-era Canal de l’Ourcq, which’ll lead you all the back to Paris if only you could rustle up a peniche.

The covered market in the south quarter is responsible for my 2nd lockdown weight gain, with local producers peddling all manner of delicious things from the traditional fruit, veg, meat and fish fare to the famous Brie de Meaux and the regional wines and ciders. The city is also famous for its mustard (never before have I seen an individual consume mustard like the native Meldois that is the new beau) which comes in gorgeous pots and delicious flavours including green pepper and Cognac. (Dear family and friends this was what you were all getting for Christmas had I been planning on coming home in December.)

The biggest draw further out of the centre is the Musée de la Grande Guerre du pays de Meaux, the largest WWI museum in the world, built here to commemorate the First Battle of the Marne when the Germans were stopped at the gates of the city, changing the course of the war. Just nearby is what the French call The American Monument, a statue in honour of the French victory, also known as ‘Tearful Liberty’. 

I hope you’ll pay a visit to this wonderful city if you get the chance once the shackles of lockdown are off. And if anyone can explain to me why on earth such a charming place was chosen to be twinned with Basildon of all places, a lifetime’s supply of Brie awaits…

Raclette it be…

 

Happy autumn readers! Yes I know it started ages ago, but what with Covid madness and falling in love with a Frenchman, the ol’ schedule has been a bit disrupted of late. But I hope you’re all healthy and happy, and ready to fill yourselves with melted cheese in the name of French cuisine. For some inspiration, here’s a post from the archives to whet your appetite. A new one coming soon!

When I was young, I was told repeatedly not to play with my food. But that didn’t stop me from constructing elaborate sculptures out of fish fingers, mashed potato and peas, that at the time I thought were worthy of inclusion in whatever was the culinary equivalent of the Louvre.

Whilst having dinner next to a Parisian mother and her child a few months back, it dawned on me that such dinner time creativity is much less tolerated on this side of the Channel, where meal times are a much more civilised affair. For the love of God, this six-year-old fledgling was eating steak tartare and slender fries (minus ketchup I might add) and making a rather organised job of it (i.e. the half-eaten remnants were all still on his plate and not mashed together in a big lump).

IMG_2166Imagine then my surprise when I encountered the DIY, dump-it-on, seemingly-invented-by-a-child melted cheese free-for-all that is raclette; an established French favourite when the weather gets chillier and thoughts turn to snow and skiing. Originally from Switzerland (and named after the cheese with which it’s made), it’s a dish about as far from sophisticated as you could get; a get-your-hands dirty culinary build-’em-up where the main aim is to get as much melted cheese over the assembled accompaniments on your plate as possible. If that’s not playing with your food, I don’t know what is.

IMG_2168Most of us anglophones are far more familiar with fondue, though those slender little fork things don’t insure against drips on the tablecloth or lost bread chunks sacrificed to the bottom of the pan. Raclette is a turbo version of the dish if you like, omitting the wine (which is for drinking, obviously) and the various seasonings, and concentrating on pure, unadulterated melted cheese.

IMG_2171To prove its heavyweight status, you’ll need a piece of special kit to make it happen, though in the olden days all you needed was a massive wadge of cheese, an open fire and something to scrape the melted bits off with (I’d just use my tongue, but etiquette dictates some kind of tool). These days you have an electric machine, akin to a kind of grill, under which you slide individual trays with a thick slice of cheese nestled inside, and wait for it to melt.

Some potatoes are happier than others to be part of the molten glory

Some potatoes are happier than others to be part of the molten glory

Whilst you’re trying to keep your mouth from watering all over the table as you watch the magic slowly happen, the idea is to stack your plate full of boiled potatoes (handily kept warm in the specially-designed place on top), assorted cured meats, gherkins and pickled onions, and pour over the melted cheese-lava as soon as it’s bubbling to your liking, submerging every morsel in its wake. Pop another slice of cheese in to get cooking whilst you’re tucking into the first lot, and repeat until skiing the following morning looks like a near impossibility due to sudden, dramatic weight gain.

The French may still be famed for their foie gras, Champagne and oysters, a holy trio of deliciousness that spells class like nothing else, but at this time of year, I’m living amongst a people who love nothing more than getting down and dirty with as much melted cheese as they can swallow. Now that’s my kind of sophistication.

Post originally published 10/12/2014

Inside the Bakery #3: The Puff Daddy

In these difficult and unprecedented times, it’s like we’re relearning how to fully appreciate the simple things around us. Here in France our trips outside are severely limited, but thankfully, our precious bakeries are still open and they offer us valuable solace in lieu of trips to the park, or wine and a meal in a local brasserie with friends. Never before have those crisp, fresh baguettes seemed so essential to daily life, or those neat lines of sweet things and pastries so comforting as confinement treats. So with this long overdue post, it’s off to the bakery we go, and this time we can ignore no further the Billy Big Balls of the bakery gang, the humble croissant.

As French as Camembert right? You’d certainly think so given the citizens’ love affair with the curved and puffy pillow. But hold the phones mes amis! The croissant is, in reality, about as French as the Yorkshire pudding, and nothing but an ex-pat pastry if you will, having set up home in France after moving in from Austria in the 18th century. And as if to rub un peu de sel into the wound, legend has it that the person responsible for its introduction is none other than disgraced queen Marie-Antoinette. It’s a bit like finding out your favourite childhood toy was made by Miss Trunchbull or something.

As is the case with culinary origins, accounts of the true beginnings of the croissant vary as much as the tastes of the people who eat them. But our backward-pointing curiosity telescope tells us that crescent-shaped baked goods have existed since pagan times, as a nod to the goddess of the moon. They were also a regular feature on the menus of monasteries as far back as the 10th century, and were known as panis lunatis, and took the form of a small crescent-shaped bread roll traditionally baked for Easter. Just out of the corner of our lens, we can see ye olde fake news legend of the shape of the bread echoing the crescent found on the Turkish flag, adopted during the Ottoman siege of Vienna, but we’ll throw that in the waste disposal where it belongs.

Fast forward a few centuries, and our magic carpet of baking discovery arrives in Vienna in any case, in the 13th century. Here we meet the kipferl, the grandaddy of our precious croissant, a similar curved bread enjoyed throughout the country for breakfast or with coffee. Here the gentle townsfolk enjoyed their simple treat for a few centuries more until a certain young daughter of an Austrian Empress scored a match with French King Louis XVI. Much as I panic buy Marmite when I’m back in the UK, Marie-Antoinette was keen to keep her beloved home comforts close, and thus shipped them over the French court where they were greeted with open mouths and tweaked over the next century until the croissant as we know it came to be.

Named after the waxing moon (second culinary bombshell coming up) there’s quite the debate in France over whether croissants should actually be straight, with some preferring the linear version to the curved original (with the word ‘croissant’ literally meaning ‘crescent’, this is utterly baffling). And get this, rather than a simple treat knocked up in a couple of hours, croissants actually take days to make, with an endless stream of rolling and resting steps the dough has to soldier through. Which is why in most bakeries in France the pastries you buy are actually (shock horror!) frozen and prepared when needed, though the quality is so high, even the Frenchiest French person is unable to tell the difference.

So there’s ‘making croissants from scratch’ struck off the lockdown to do list. Best to save one of those precious daily outings for a special trip to the bakery, and I guarantee in these circumstances, it’s going to be the best croissant you’ve ever had.

*Apologies for the lack of personal pictures, but I’ve actually been putting off a trip to the bakery until I’m utterly desperate, due to a mixture of fear of infection, civic duty and realisation that once I start eating croissants in isolation, there just isn’t any going back, and I may not be able to get out of the door again once it’s all over…

101 ways with a baguette #7: The Winter Warmer

January was the longest year ever. Sadly there’s no reward for enduring it, and cruel February turns up next in line with its capricious weather. But hey, at least it’s short. And it forces us to search for those little moments of pleasure buried deep in the cold, and a steaming bowl of soup has to be one of the most universal (and budget friendly). And what would a bowl of soup be without a baguette as its wingman? Now dunking is all well and good, and if you have time to whip up a batch of those crispy little dice we call croutons, more power to you. But if we’re talking the perfect cold-weather marriage between soup and bread; at this time of year, in this part of the world, there’s only one clear choice. French onion soup.

A favourite of the Romans and Greeks way back when, simple onion soup has been around for donkey’s years due the humble ingredient’s widespread availability, cheap price and restorative and nutritional powers (put those goji berries down!). Originally a chunk of bread was used as a type of absorbent submarine onto which the broth was poured, as with most soups in days of yore (this is where the word ‘soup’ comes from, referring to the ‘sop’ or piece of bread soaked in the liquid). Its promotion to cheese raft status is highly debated so we won’t enter into that, but simply bow down to the person whose ingenuity elevated a humble soup to a quite legendary culinary experience. Merci beaucoup stranger.

A staple of French cooking throughout the centuries, it’s perhaps America we can thank for its enduring popularity today on the world stage, being championed in the 1960s as part of a wider culture celebrating Gallic cuisine. A stalwart on brasserie blackboards throughout the land at this time of year, you’ll have no trouble finding it, but for even the wobbliest of cooks amongst us it’s a breeze to make, and though it technically takes a while on the hob, chef input is happily minimal. Recipe interpretation is as widespread as the soup’s appeal, and much freestyling is encouraged. I’ll give you the basics and you can let your inner Escoffier do all the rest.

Sliced regular yellow/Spanish onions enjoy a long caramelisation (like 45 minutes) followed by the addition of a liquid, be it a good beef, chicken or vegetable stock (or even a spoonful of marmite if you’re me) or for the purists out there (and Raymond Blanc) plain old water. An optional alcoholic element is next in the pan, choose from white wine, cider, Cognac, port, Madeira, Calvados or whatever your booze cabinet dictates. Use flour to thicken, or not, and leave to bubble away whilst you slice the baguette and prepare the cheese rafts (toasted beforehand to make them sturdier). The traditional cheese choice is Gruyère but Emmental works just as well, or even a dog-end of Cheddar or Comté could be put to good use.

The final steps are as divisive as the rest, and the simplest is probably to place pre-grilled or baked cheese rafts on top of a full bowl and leave it at that. The renegades take it one step further by placing the toasts on top and covering the whole thing in grated cheese with reckless abandon, then baking bowl and all in the oven until bubbly and delicious. Though this option includes a 30 minute wait staring at said delicious bowl of soup before it cools down enough for your mouth to enjoy it. In Lyon they go off piste further and get a blender and egg yolks involved, choosing it specifically as an after-pub crawl snack. I’ll leave you and your googling skills to find the recipe that suits you and your own particular culinary persuasions.

If we’re talking Valentine’s Day on a budget, cook up a batch of this steamy stuff served alongside a bottle of non-Champagne fizz (see here for a quick guide) and any self-respecting partner will be putty in your hands. Plus it works excellently as a hangover cure apparently so save a bit for the morning after, if you can muster the willpower. Or what better way to administer a self-hug in you’re riding solo? Retro onion soup bowl à la Granny Flat, optional.

China in your hand

So far, what with bushfires, strikes and general planetary malaise, 2020 hasn’t exactly given us the best start. But in the cooling embers of January, we have the perfect excuse to wipe the last few weeks off the whiteboard, slap those bad habits round the chops once more, and begin again in the vain hope of turning our fortunes around.

Yes, Chinese New Year is upon us again (officially Saturday 25th January though festivities continue until 8th February) this year bowing to the first animal of the zodiac, the rat. Our rodent friend might not be the most obvious of celebratory mascots, but in fact signifies the beginning of a new day, and wealth and prosperity (and couldn’t we all do with a big dollop of all of that). As a resident of Paris and a huge fan of Roland Rat as a child (yeaaaah!) it seems rather fitting to me.

Celebrated by billions worldwide, the festivities in Paris naturally centre in the 13th arrondissement (check here for event details) known as the city’s ‘Chinatown’, and the largest in Europe. But to set the ‘rat’ amongst the pigeons as it were, here are two fun facts: (1) this is only one of three Chinatowns in Paris, and (2) it’s not really a Chinatown at all, but more accurately the ‘Asian Quarter’ or Petite Asie, home to significant numbers of other Asian populations most notably Laotian, Vietnamese and Cambodian.

Settled first by Vietnamese immigrants fleeing the war in the late 70s and forming a triangle bordered by avenues d’Ivry and Choissy, the area isn’t the prettiest part of town (see above) with distinctly un-Chinese architecture. But never fear, you’ll find plenty of colour in bowls of pho, displays of exotic fruit and veg, and plenty of shops selling lucky paw-waving cats and tea paraphernalia. Add your own colour to various pop hits at ‘Karaoke Laservision’ (I’m so intrigued), green-up the shoebox with a couple of sprigs of bamboo, or brighten up your crockery collection with some beautiful Chinese bowls.

If 70s tower block chic doesn’t light your fireworks, head over to the Chinatown at Belleville (where the 10th, 11th, 19th and 20th arrondissements meet) settled since the 1860s with residents mostly hailing from the eastern Zhejiang province in China, though a great many other nationalities have chosen this spot as their home too, including Armenian, Algerian, Tunisian, Greek and Vietnamese. It would be rude (and nigh on impossible) to leave without stuffing your face, and you’ll be utterly spoiled for choice with restaurants at every two paces. Satisfy your inner Ken Hom at a gourmet version of the famous Tang Frères retail chain, or stock up on noodles and nam pla at sister supermarket Paristore, not forgetting to purchase a cute animal bowl to put your culinary creations in.

The final chopstick in the Chinatown trio is the much smaller Chinese community found at Arts and Métiers in the Marais (3rd arrondissement), occupying just a couple of streets (head for rue au Marie). Originally settled in the 1900s making it the oldest in the city, Chinese workers came over from the Zhejiang province and set up leather and porcelain workshops, particularly during the interwar years, though it’s the restaurant scene that dominates today.

Whilst the rats amongst us will be using their paws to nibble away at the noodle dregs in the alley, you’ll be à table discovering your powers of incoordination whilst wrestling with a pair of chopsticks. Which in French, translates as baguettes. Mind well and truly blown.

Gong Xi Fa Cai rat fans!

To market, to market

We have to admit, those of us who live in Paris are incredibly spoiled (I’m turning my mind away from the crowds, dog mess, transport strikes and hellish commutes, naturally). Croissants and wine aside, such beauty and history surrounds us, and the most amazing thing is that it’s pretty much all still here since jammy Dame Paris has managed to preserve most of her treasured bounty over the years where countless other cities have sadly failed. And all of this in the face of centuries of foreign invaders, world wars and natural disasters, still threatening her very bones today, as was sharply called into focus in April with the devastating fire that nearly razed Notre Dame completely.

One historical gem we have lost though (and the list is amazingly small) is the behemoth that was Les Halles, a huge iron, brick and glass market complex in central Paris finished in 1874 and razed in 1971, and immortalised in Zola’s Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris). Having outgrown the capital as the city grew around it and the way in which people shopped for food changed, the structure couldn’t withstand the tidal wave of progress, and was destroyed just before the preservationists found their strength and put a stop to the demolition of historic buildings in the name of boring functionality (the Musée d’Orsay, then Gare d’Orsay was amongst the first to be saved by this change in thinking).

Now as much as it would be appropriate to focus on what we do have rather than what we don’t, forgive me for not writing a post on the massive, soulless shopping complex and rat-filled gardens that now occupy the space, because well, that. So in a roundabout way we arrive at the subject of this post, the marché Saint Quentin in the 10th on Boulevard Magenta, the best surviving example of the Les Halles-style covered market, giving us a handy portal into the lively market spirit of Paris’ past.

Whilst the famous Les Halles was designed by the at-the-time chief architect of Paris and mate of Baron Haussmann, Victor Baltard, Saint Quentin was designed by an architect named Rabourdin, though despite being oft-quoted in this context, I can find absolutely nothing more about him, so that’s where that story ends I’m afraid. Though whoever he was, he faithfully followed the Baltard style and completed the building in 1866, and today it remains one of only three examples of the style along with slightly smaller markets Saint Martin and La Chapelle (10th and 18th respectively).

And isn’t a market with a roof on it just what we need in these wet and wintry times? Head inside and you’ll find perhaps less vegetable urgency than in Zola’s day, but there are plenty of stalls and fresh produce galore to fill your belly just as full. The usual selection of fruit, veg, meat, fish and plants are lovingly displayed, though no need to dash off too quickly out in to the rain with that lonely cauliflower, take a load off and have a bite to eat or glass of wine while you’re at it at one of the cosy bistros dotted about. Heck, you can even get your shoes repaired whilst you’re tucking in, and don’t forget to search out the Wallace fountain nestled in the centre.

As for that lonely cauliflower, if you’re cooking I’ll have a hot dish of cauliflower cheese nicely browned and bubbly on top, and don’t forget to pick up an orange for the vin chaud, too. Call it a finder’s fee…

Inside the bakery #1: Nothing compares to choux…

Bakeries and France are like peas and carrots. It’s unthinkable to imagine the country without their intoxicating displays and heady smells, and they’ve shown they can hold firm, clinging on to France’s streets with unwavering authority no matter what big supermarket chains can throw at them (i.e. not bloody much). Nothing compares to tucking into the nubbin end of a warm baguette on your way home, and as for the pastries, well, the reason for many a gym membership. You could almost say heading to one is a religious experience…

When talking about simple delights, food is naturally at the heart of the French philosophy. Whether an expertly constructed croque monsieur in a neighbourhood brasserie, or a plate of pain perdu washed down with a steaming coffee (ok tea, British tradition holds strong) a few euros is all it takes to transport yourself to gastronomic heaven. And if it’s that you’re explicitly after, then the bakery provides you with a dizzying array of tickets.

But what to choose? Forget the road to heaven, trying to decide what to have, and then trying to get it home before you cave in and devour the thing in two whole bites is a special kind of hell. Luckily, I have selflessly conducted extensive research on the matter, and can now introduce you to one of my bakery counter favourites – la religieuse. Shake her hand, give her the bises, and if you don’t like her, then keep in the loop as I’ll be presenting other delicious candidates as the year progresses.

When thinking of choux pastry (so called since the little puffs look like mini cabbages or choux), it’s the humble eclair or profiterole that normally springs to mind. But the choux family has another, rather pious member, dressed to the nines in honour of your gustatory pleasure, usually cruelly overlooked in favour of her better-known cousins.

Literally translating as ‘nun’ a religieuse is a two-tiered choux delight, complete with natty little outfit and a tender heart of crème patissière – that thick pastry cream with a calorie count worth running a couple of marathons for (but c’mon, who’s counting?). It’s designed on purpose to resemble a good sister, with a head and body covered in an icing habit delicately joined together by a piped buttercream ruff.

Said to have been invented in 1856 at famous Parisian café Frascati (perhaps the chef had a few sins to absolve but a shift schedule that didn’t factor in time for confession), this edible abbess typically comes in chocolate or coffee flavour, though luxury bakery La Durée often flies in the face of conformity and peddles colourful morello cherry and pistachio versions (amongst others). Pricey at €7.50 a pop, it’s a bold move when dicing with such a traditional food heritage, and frankly, as an expert, I don’t think much of their ruffs.

All wrapped up in a dainty little package from around €2.20-€2.50 (depending on the postcode, obviously) all that is left after the all important selection process is complete, is to transport la soeur home, and decide, whilst swiftly whispering a prayer, whether to eat the head or the body first (I hope you can appreciate just the sacrifice I made in delaying my personal gratification whilst I took photos). The singing of hymns in praise of French bakeries afterwards, is entirely optional.

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 beerinstead 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.

Rose and shine

kim-rose-4It’s on my friends. Forget conquering Williams and centuries of bloodshed on the battlefields, when it comes to epic contests between France and England, we only have to look towards this month’s rugby six nations championship to really sort the men out from the boys. Sport not your thing, huh? Odd. But no need to worry, there’s a much less bloody battle that takes every day for us Brits living amongst the French, on the level of our most basic sustenance. When it comes to breakfast, it’s time to pick your side.

kim-rose-6Whether you’re just a visitor to France, or have decided to take the leap to secure something more permanent, we’ve all dreamt of those lazy breakfasts on a French café terrace taking our time over a croissant and a café au lait. During a short break, it doesn’t get old and for a week you don’t tire of putting away as many pains au chocolat as your conscience can handle. But live here for a while and that little marmite-coated voice starts to become more and more persistent.

kim-rose-1But here’s the rub; living in France’s capital, it becomes quite a cloak-and-dagger affair favouring the British breakfast fayre when every bakery on every corner screams ‘pastries!’ as loud as their buttery-crumbed cries can muster. But sometimes, just once in a while, that croissant-filled utopia just doesn’t appeal and the thought of dipping things into a big bowl of coffee for a moment seems like a crazy way to combine liquid and carbohydrate breakfast pleasure. Sometimes all that will suffice is a steaming hot bowl of porridge. Thankfully I’ve found British breakfast heaven over here meaning that I can enjoy that hallowed Sunday brunch experience without wistfully wishing the pastry on my plate was a thick slab of marmite-slicked doorstep white instead.

kim-rose-2Rose Bakery can be found on one of my favourite streets in Paris, rue des Martyrs, snaking up towards the 18th arondissement not far from Sacre Coeur. At the weekends breakfast can be a very busy affair (so arrive early, they don’t take bookings) but you’ll be treated to a menu of Anglicised petit dejeuner classics including muesli, scrambled eggs and delightful eggs benedict. It’s also a chance to try and introduce your Francophile mates to the strange world of marmite (the French name should work in your favour) – watching their faces contort in disgusted delight is quite the Sunday morning pick-me-up.

kim-rose-5You can also choose from more lunch-y options from the homemade salads and savouries on offer, or if breakfast is something for you that other folk do, head over in the afternoon for a slice of cake (sold by weight) and a cuppa proper tea. Just like a proper breakfast of boiled eggs and soldiers, if you want to get afternoon tea right, us Brits have the upper hand when it comes to cake, and Rose (named after the British owner, er, Rose) makes sure the French don’t forget it.

Those who don’t have the time for a queue-up sit-down affair, you’ll find plenty of goodies on offer to recreate the authentic British bakery experience at home, on offer in their swanky new takeaway bit. This blog has been bought to you fuelled by their frankly incredible carrot cake (not cheap, but sooo good), I’ll leave it up to you to decide if it’s been worth it…

Rose Bakery, 46 Rue des Martyrs, 75009, open 7/7

Gut instinct

Kim Brass 3If you’re currently in Paris in this hazy last gasp of July, I’d bet the last slice of Raclette that you’re relaxing languidly in a rattan chair on a terrace somewhere, watching the people go by (and for the uninitiated, at this time of year, they’re not actually Parisians – they’ve all buggered off down south for the holidays, which is probably why you got a chair on the terrace in the first place). If you’re not currently semi-horizontal in France’s capital lazing with a glass in your hand, then I’d raise you my dessert that that’s where you’d actually rather be.

Kim Brass 6And mon dieu haven’t you got a job on your hands trying to decide which particular one to spend your hard-earned euros in? In rattan chair terms, Paris has provided wannabe loungers with an embarrassment of riches (a termed coined by a Frenchman don’t you know), and as many an inhabitant and visitor knows, trying to pin-down the specific markers of establishment quality is as difficult as avoiding a sun-splashed terrace in the first place. Hell, they can’t even seem to decide amongst themselves what names to go under, meaning the capital’s many awnings are stamped with the seemingly interchangeable terms restaurant, café, brasserie and bistro(t). 

Assuming each establishment offers relatively the same thing is as foolhardy as assuming that you’d experience the same level of warm welcome in Paris as you would in Provence (erm, nope). There’s a fine art to this thing, and you’re lucky things that I’m here to give you a hand in negotiating it all.

A restaurant is much the same as you’d expect from most countries in the rest of the world; the most formal of the bunch, with menus depending on the food type and chosen price range of the place. If you’re sucking up to/trying to score with/grovelling your heart out to someone, a restaurant is where you’d head to. If you know what’s good for you.

Kim Brass 4Don’t confuse a café with the greasy spoon type you get in the UK. Easily identified most of the time as there’s often a tabac (peddler of cigs and lottery tickets) attached, here is where you stop for a quick coke-and-toilet stop or a swift espresso before work (and FYI order just a ‘coffee’ and that’s what you’ll get as standard). Beware – prices are cheaper standing at the bar and take a leap higher if you choose to sit (often higher still if that’s on the terrace), and if you’re after more solid refreshment, the most you can hope for is a menu of lighter meals and snacks like omelettes and croque monsieurs.

Kim Brass 2A classic French brasserie used to be a place that brewed its own beer on site, but is now known for its professional service, printed menus, tablecloths and waiters in penguin-esque outfits. Here you’ll find a static menu of classics like steak tartare, confit de canard and andouillette (only for the brave, you have been warned). They tend to serve food all day, and here’s one thing that will BLOW YOUR MIND – some of them are called Le Such-and-Such Café so you’ll have to make sure you pay attention. Stand at the bar waiting for an espresso like a lemon in a brasserie, and you’ll be waiting a very. LONG. TIME. And just to confuse you, there’s a fledging beer scene in France which means that you might also stumble on a micro-brasserie, which doesn’t mean short waiters and tiny portions, but a (hopefully) great selection of Paris-brewed craft beer.

Kim Brass 5Finally, if you still haven’t found what you’re looking for, then try a bistro(t), a smaller type of restaurant, often with just one owner or family in charge that specialises in moderately-priced French home cooking like traditional cassoulet or blanquette de veau. Bistros were originally thought to originate from basement kitchens in Parisian apartment blocks, but these days they serve to be some of the quaintest eateries in the city. And if you’re still furrowing your brow in dissatisfaction, then the only places left to go are salons du thé for tea, coffee and cake, or bars for hardcore liquor to toast the highs and the lows of your holiday/afternoon/life.

And if you’re still not content after all of that, then I, nor Paris, can help you…