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.

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Seasons eatings

IMG_1389Last year, as you devoted readers will surely remember, I used to write a monthly ‘in season’ post, detailing the fruit and veg on offer in France at different times of the year. But Paris is just such a fun-packed dame, there were just too many other cracking things to write about to keep the idea going.

But I still consider eating with the seasons to be an important practice, being good for the planet, superior in both nutrition and flavour, but more importantly in the context of the frugal nature of my mission, kinder to the wallet. It may be now a bit of a bobo (‘bourgeois bohème’, i.e. a bit hipster) trend, but back in Victor Hugo’s day, the peasants relied on seasonal and local produce out of sheer survival, whilst the super rich gorged themselves on pricey produce from far-flung lands. In the 21st century, that comes with a huge ecological sacrifice.

Instead of writing a monthly update as before, I’m going to deliver this essential info in one fell swoop for you to keep with you throughout the year, as a handy list to glance at before heading to the market. It’s by no means exhaustive or set in stone (every single table of seasonal produce I stumbled upon during my research was different, so I’ve tried to shoot straight down the middle), and I’ve tried to include the produce that’s most popular and usually found at French markets and supermarket shelves. Anything in italics is either coming in to or going out of season, meaning it’s usual available, but you might not get the best quality possible. Happy cooking!

Kim farm 4JANUARY Apples, beetroot, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, celeriac, clementine, endive, garlic, fennel, Jerusalem artichoke, kale (now available in French supermarkets!), kiwi, leeks, mandarin, mushrooms, onion, parsnip, pear, pomegranate, potatoes, pumpkin, spinach, swede

FEBRUARY Apples, beetroot, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, celeriac, endive, fennel, garlic, Jerusalem artichoke, kale, kiwi, leeks, mandarin, mushrooms, onion, parsnip, pear, pomegranate, potatoes, pumpkin, radish, spinach, swede

MARCH Apples, beetroot, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, celeriac, chard, endive, garlic, Jerusalem artichoke, kale, kiwi, leeks, mushrooms, onion, parsnippear, pomegranate, potatoes, pumpkin, radish, spinach, turnip

asparagus

APRIL Asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, chard, celeriac, endive, garlic, kiwi, leeks, lettuce, mushrooms, onions, potatoes, radish, rhubarb, spinach, spring onion, turnip, watercress

MAY Artichoke, asparagus, apricot, aubergine, broad beans, broccoli, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, chard, cherry, cucumber, garlic, leeks, lettuce, mushrooms, onion, peas, potatoes, radish, raspberries, rhubarb, spinach, spring onion, strawberries, tomato, watercress

JUNE Artichoke, apricot, asparagus, aubergine, beetroot, broad beans, broccoli, cabbage, carrot, cauliflowercelery, chard, cherry, courgette, cucumber, fennel, French beans, garlic, kale, lettuce, melon, mushrooms, onion, peach, peas, pepper, plum, potatoes, radish, raspberries, rhubarb, spinach, spring onion, strawberries, tomato, turnip, watercress

IMG_1630JULY Artichoke, apricot, asparagus, aubergine, beetroot, broad beans, broccoli, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, celery, chard, cherry, courgette, cucumber, fennel, French beans, garlic, kale, lettuce, melon, mushrooms, onion, peach, peas, pepper, plum, potatoes, radish, raspberries, rhubarb, spinach, spring onion, strawberries, tomato, turnip, watercress

AUGUST Apples, apricot, artichoke, aubergine, beetroot, blackberries, blueberries, broad beans, broccoli, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, celeriac, celery, chard, cherry, courgette, cucumber, fennel, fig, French beans, garlic, grapes, kale, leeks, lettuce, melon, mirabelle, mushrooms, nectarine, onion, peach, pepper, plum, potatoes, radish, raspberries, rhubarb, spinach, spring onion, strawberries, sweetcorn, tomato, turnip, watercress

SEPTEMBER Apples, artichoke, aubergine, beetroot, blackberries, blueberries, broad beans, broccoli, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, celeriac, celery, chard, courgette, cucumber, fennel, fig, French beans, garlic, grapes, kale, leeks, lettuce, melon, mirabelle, mushrooms, onion, parsnip, peach, pear, pepper, pomegranate, potatoes, pumpkin, radish, raspberries, rhubarb, spinach, spring onion, strawberries, sweetcorn, tomato, turnip, watercress

???????????????????????????????OCTOBER Apples, aubergine, beetroot, blackberries, blueberries, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage; carrot, cauliflower, celeriac, celery, chard, chestnuts, courgette, endive, fennel, fig, French beans, garlic, grapes, Jerusalem artichoke, kale, leeks, lettuce, mushrooms, onion, parsnip, pear, pomegranate, potatoes, pumpkin, radish, spinach, spring onion, swede, sweetcorn, tomato, turnip, watercress

NOVEMBER Apples, beetroot, broccoli, Brussels sproutscabbage, carrot, cauliflowerceleriac, celery, chestnuts, clementine, endive, fennel, garlic, grapes, Jerusalem artichoke, kale, leeks, mandarin, mushrooms, onion, parsnip, pear, pomegranate, potatoes, pumpkin, radish, spinach, swede, turnip, watercress

DECEMBER Apples, beetroot, broccoli, Brussels sproutscabbage, carrot, cauliflowerceleriac, chestnuts, clementine, endive, fennel, garlic, Jerusalem artichoke, kale, kiwi, leeks, mandarin, onion, parsnip, pear, pomegranate, potatoes, pumpkin, radish, rhubarb, spinach, swede

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!

Raclette it be…

IMG_2167When 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.

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…

101 ways with a baguette #6: The Morning Glory

So you’ve followed my advice and thrown yourself a killer dinner party chez toi, reaped the appropriate glory and even tackled the washing up (ok, let’s not go too far). You wake up the next morning, still glowing from your culinary success, but that sad, leftover crustificating baguette sitting on top of the freezer somehow puts a downer on things. It just didn’t get to fulfil its breadly purpose, poor lamb.

You pick up the rigid has-been and gallop around your minuscule kitchen for a while sword fighting with the apron hanging on the back of the door, before your inner adult gets the better of you and you come over all frugal-like. It’s not a weapon. I am not a jousting knight from the Middle Ages. There’s a meal to be had here if I’m just bold enough to take the chance. And a damn fine one at that.

Porridge is all saintly and minimalist as breakfasts go, but nothing says decadence like French toast in the morning. Here it’s done pretty sweetly and simply in the classic dish pain perdu, literally translating as ‘lost bread’. It’s a recipe akin to food alchemy as you take an otherwise wasted castaway from an imminent mouldy demise and transform it into fluffy, sugary magnificence with just a few added ingredients.

If breakfast to you spells as much coffee as your veins can handle before a mad dash to the bus, you needn’t let the delicious second-chance magic of it all pass you by. Though in many parts of the world French toast is considered an a.m. delight, here in France it’s quite allowed to tuck in for afternoon tea or dessert instead. Though if you take a look at the ingredient list below you’ll see how much of your svelteness might be lost if you sample all three (click here for a guide to losing the kilos for free in Paris).

IMG_2127

Chillin’ in the custard stage

Pain perdu

Makes enough for one very hungry camper, or two people with more dietary restraint than me

4 slices of stale baguette (or 6 if it’s a skinny one)
1 egg
15g vanilla sugar
grating of fresh nutmeg
50ml milk
dash of cream
knob of butter

Put everything except bread and butter into a shallow bowl and beat together to make a custard. Soak bread slices for ten minutes, making sure they’re covered on both sides. Melt butter in a pan and fry for about three minutes on each side. Serve with a dusting of icing sugar, fresh berries or a scoop of vanilla ice cream. And a jog afterwards, obviously.

High on a hill stood a lonely vineyard

kim vineyard 1Paris might be the bitchy queen bee of its country, pulling in the tourists like bears to honey with its luxurious superiority over its smaller French cousins, but there’s one notable chink in her armour. Exquisite architecture, yes, galleries galore, of course, and style in spades that looks down on almost everywhere else in the world – France’s capital seemingly has everything you could need for living the high life.

Well, almost everything. There’s an important trump card in the hands of many of the other regions in the country that Paris just can’t compete with. Oh, and it’s a big ‘un alright. Wine. Grape wizardry is what the ruddy-faced country folk lay claim to. But like a cunning madam with a trick up her sleeve, there is a oenophilic heritage to be found in the city, if you keep your nose close to the ground and look hard enough for it.

Way, way up in the winding heights of the 18th, happily not far from Granny Flat HQ, is Clos Montmartre, a tiny vineyard that produces the only wine Paris can muster. Bordeaux it certainly isn’t given that fact that grape growing conditions in the inner city are hardly ideal, but it’s more of a gesture to the wine gods anyway, rather than a serious attempt to compete with the vinicultural juggernaughts in the rest of France.

CIMG7304In a nod to the wine-making past of Montmartre, where the industry flourished from the Roman era until the early 20th century when urbanisation and phylloxera soon stomped all over the practice, the vineyard was revived in 1933 by a group of locals led by artist Francis Poulbot, who wanted to preserve the viticultural heritage. Today it still stands, a minuscule parcel of vines of 1,556 sq m, tucked away in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it corner between Rue des Saules and Rue Saint Vincent.

You can only visit by appointment in groups of over 12, but the view from the road is good enough to be able to spy on the progress of the grapes. But who need a private tour anyway when for the next five days the vineyard comes into its own with the Fête des Vendanges, a celebration of the yearly harvest and a new Paris vintage (though the crappy summer weather has probably dampened the chances of it being a decent one).

The fête officially kicks off today (Wed 8th) and continues until Sunday, though pretty much all of the good stuff takes place at the weekend. There are masses of stalls selling wine and produce from all over France, so you’d be well advised to forgo meals in preparation from, well, now, to make sure you take full advantage. Sadly you can’t get your hands on the Paris vintage though, that’s only available via auction (with all of the proceeds going to charity), and anyway with the price tag punching far above its weight, you’re better off spending your hard-earned on Champagne and saucisson in the assembled tents.

Aside from fireworks on Saturday night, the highlight of the festivities is a parade through the streets of the 18th from the mairie at Jules Joffrin (where the grapes are eventually pressed) to the foot of Sacré Coeur on Sunday (3pm start), where producers from around the country don their jauntiest traditional garb and celebrate the joy of growing the good stuff. For once in a city where image is everything, it’s life’s most humble offerings that are the kings. And you can’t say more delightfully simple than that.

101 ways with a baguette #5: The Italian Job

Sometimes there are just perfectly coordinated moments. When you hit your breakfast cup of tea like it’s your birthday the minute it reaches core temperature. Arriving at the bakery just as the baguettes come out of the oven. Getting a seat on a crowded metro in rush hour (and not ending up sitting next to someone with flailing elbows and a personal hygiene problem).

I feel like this is one of those moments. Summer has come back for a welcome September encore, which means it’s salad time once again just as the food-o-meter was swinging towards soups and stews. We’ve got the last of the tomatoes to dive into before they disappear until next year (because winter tomatoes are about as worth it as vegan cheese). And I’ve got a freezer full of dog ends of baguettes not eaten because we were having too much fun at the dinner parties I’ve thrown recently. That could only mean one thing. Panzanella salad.

IMG_1669As lovely as baguettes are – hell, it’s practically a French religion – the crusty darlings do have a major flaw in that they are at optimum tastiness for all of ten seconds before becoming a hardened bread stick baseball bat. Rather than mourning the loss of that tiny gnome-sized window of deliciousness, embrace the stale remnants as the inspiration for this easy-as-pie Italian salad.

Like many of the world’s best dishes, there isn’t a definitive recipe per se (every Italian reader is probably hitting the screen in violent disagreement with said rock-hard baguette right at this very moment), but there are must-have inclusions. Proper ripe tomatoes, and if you can find the coloured ones even better. Stale baguette (or ciabatta if you like) chopped into decent chunks. Olive oil, salt and pepper, red wine vinegar and basil. That’s the classic foundation, but there are plenty of different recipes that add other delights like capers, anchovies, peppers and cucumber, even olives. It’s really up to you.

The important thing is to get all of the flavours to make friends with each other before you serve it up. So get chopping and let everything mingle for a bit (half and hour to an hour should do it, just don’t let the bread get soggy). Great on its own if you’re eating light, or you can serve it with a nice piece of fish or steak, however the mood takes you. The picture up above is my attempt, see if you can’t raise the bar a bit higher. Game on (cooking, not baseball – haven’t you been listening?).

Pick me, pick me!

Kim farm3I’ve always been a bit picky. And by that I mean being good at picking things, and not displaying frequent outbursts of fussy diva behaviour, à la Mariah Carey. I’m great at picking wine. And restaurants. I even spent four months voluntarily being paid peanuts to pick fruit and potatoes in the Australian hinterland. And I picked Paris (well technically it kind of chose me too, but that’s a story that needs an expertly selected bottle of wine handy for the telling).

So it was with a big Kim smile and an eager rub together of the magic picking hands when my friend Corinne told me she was taking me to Les Fermes de Gally just outside of Paris where I could pick my own vegetables and get to take them home afterwards. For a gal raised in the country who needs a good dose of proper fresh air every now and again or I go a little bit crazy, it was on par with telling a Frenchman he had just qualified for a free cheese allowance for life.

Kim farm 2Luckily Corinne was equipped with a car, so we hopped in, strapped her adorable toddler daughter in for the ride, and headed off with glee at the prospect of getting good ol’ real dirt (as opposed to gross metro slime) under our fingernails. Thank God we took the car though and didn’t rely on my flea-bitten donkey, given that it’s a bit of a drive out of Paris in the commune of Bailly, a good 15k past the périphérique at the western edge of Paris.

But make the effort of crossing the force field (i.e. the ring road), and the ride is more than worth it. Well, obviously only if picking your own produce direct from the farm appeals to you, if not then stick to Carrefour with its natty tweeting birds soundtrack in the veg aisle. ForKim farm 5 those die-hard supermarketeers who haven’t ever seen a tomato in the wild, the gnarly misshapen versions hanging off the gigantic plants might scare you. But this is nature my friends, in all of its imperfect, back-to-basics glory. Real tomatoes are not the same size. And they are not born in cellophane.

Not so much an option for the weekly shop as it’s a bit of a hike, and you won’t find bushes necessarily blooming uncontrollably with produce given that everyone else has had the same idea. But if you like good honest food, enjoy the thrill of the harvest and a bit of dirt on your potatoes, then you can’t go far wrong. For those not keen on getting soil on their chinos, there’s also a café and shop where you can buy the farm’s own produce (soups, cider and the like), and a teaching farm for the smaller folk.

Kim farm 4Without a doubt the shortest route from field to plate you’ll find in Paris (unless you grow kale in window boxes like me where I can harvest and cook at the same time), it hardly needs saying that everything is seasonal and grown in the most planet-friendly way possible. Sadly you’re not supposed to eat stuff on the way round (utter torture, really), and it’s a good idea to take plastic bags with you to carry your spoils home in. Those old style welly boots with goggle frog eyes on the toes, entirely optional. Open April to November.