19 November 2009

The thrill of victory

We returned to Paris last night weary from work/site-seeing (I'll leave you to guess who of us was tired from which) and from the dense food and beer of 5 days in Belgium.

We were greeted on the metro platform at Gare du Nord by mass shouting, whistling, and chanting-- weird even in the Paris metro. At first we couldn't tell where it was coming from. When the sound got louder when the doors opened at the next stop, we realized there were two cars on our train packed to the gills with an energetic mob. Hmm. Happy energy or angry energy? And who were they?

At each stop, the pressure valve would release the compressed contents of the cars, expelling fervent youth with red-and-green-painted faces or waving Algerian flags onto the platform before they pushed their way back into the mosh pits or colonized other cars. The smiling and singing made it clear that this was celebration rather than demonstration, and there's only one thing going on right now that could trigger such euphoria: World Cup soccer. Indeed, Algeria had just beaten Egypt to gain entry into the tournament. From the looks of them, I'm guessing most of the revelers aren't old enough to remember Algeria's last trip this far, in 1986.

A busker had gotten on our car and just started to play when a group of about 8 displaced celebrators got on and carried on at full volume, pogoing up and down so exuberantly that it felt like the floor would crack. Even with his accordion and amplified accompaniment, he was no match for the small crowd, and so he finally gave up and sat down, watching warily.

In fact, we were all warily watching to see what happened next-- even a happy mob can turn into a disruptive mob. But at Franklin Roosevelt, the mob poured out of the subway to join the full-scale celebration on the Champs Elysées, and we heard honking and partying in our neighborhood for hours. I was too lazy to go out and take pictures, but you can get a pretty good idea of the fun from this one (Nov 19 photo) and this one.

France, too, qualified last night, though in less honorable fashion: they tied Ireland on what even the perpetrator, Thierry Henry, admitted was a handball and so won a 2-game, total-goals playoff 2-1. Had the playoff gone to penalty kicks and France lost, I suspect we'd have witnessed a less positive taking to the streets.

I guess there's still time for that next summer.

13 November 2009

Coutancie beef

For a lot of years now, I've been on a first-name basis with many of my food vendors. I'm not sure any of those relationships is more important than with my butchers (except probably a great fishmonger, which I've never found).

But this past weekend was the first time I've ever been on a first-name basis with my beef. Or first-number basis, anyway. We went to a butcher around the corner from the apartment to buy something nice for a Saturday night dinner, and though we arrived thinking lamb, our minds had changed by the time our spot in the out-the-door line came around.

That's because it became obvious that the specialty of the house was beef, followed distantly by beef, and then, finally, at the very bottom of the list, beef. Placards throughout the store advertise that the beef in question is Boeuf de Coutancie. The colorful placards are difficult to see, though, since there are animal-specific certificates papering over nearly every surface.

Checking your papers at the door: well, they're somebody's papers.

The shop reminds me of the office of one particularly self-impressed professor in my department in graduate school. A savvy media user and unabashed self-promoter, his office walls were a dense mosaic of degrees, certificates, and official honors that confirmed his superiority over the rest of us. In a cheeky bit of subversion, a couple of his senior students slid a quality assurance certificate for a bottle of acetonitrile, a solvent used for some of the procedures in the lab, into a frame that was in the direct line of sight of the chair used by visitors into the office while talking to The Boss. Like the real accolades, the QA certificate that came with every bottle was printed on fake parchment with a gold seal and an extravagant signature, and I'd like to think the substitution was noticed but never commented on by visitors, though it's far more likely that it continued to hang unnoticed by anyone in a series of progressively bigger offices.

Like the certificates in that professor's office, I don't know the significance of the cow papers in the butcher shop. Second place in the third grade spelling bee, passing the motor scooter driving test, acknowledgement of delivery of a keynote address at a physics conference, admittance into the mile high club, or contestant on America's Top Model? Given the price of the meat, it could equally be law degrees (from Cowlumbia? sorry...) or official aristocracy papers.

That this beef has so many papers must appeal to the French fondness for bureaucratic paperwork (it's worth noting that none of the papers was folded-- anybody whose gone through the process of getting a carte de sejour knows that folding one's documents is strictly interdit). In fact, boeuf de Coutancie claims to have special characteristics, one of which is that it comes from the Perigord region in southwestern France, which is where foie gras and Limousin beef come from. The French put a lot of stock into famous origins and brands, as evidenced by the whole AOC system.

Appellation d’origine contrôlée, or controlled name of origin, is a certification granted to products of certain geographical areas of France. Whether a wine (say, Vouvray, Brouilly, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, or about 314 others), a cheese (Pont l'Eveque, Roquefort, or about 40 others), liquor, vegetable, or other, great emphasis is placed on certified product origin. In many ways, this makes sense. A given style of cheese or wine has an awful lot to do with the place it's cultivated, and so establishing where these things are officially produced helps protect the geographical “brand” and reputation. I mean, one would view a Côtes du Provence from Normandy with suspicion, right? Furthermore, the AOC designations establish rules (aging time, type of milk, etc for cheeses, eg) that help to protect and maintain the aspects of production that make a product what it is. Of course, these systems are established and administered with typical bureaucratic mindlessness and personal commercial agendas, and so are subject to the same shenanigans as any other biasable process: exclusion of competitors from higher profile/profit designations, rubber stamping and cronyism in whatever nominal product quality inspection takes place, etc. And those geographic limitations and protections can't counterbalance the industrialization of agriculture.

Whatever its flaws, the AOC designations have done much to protect traditional French agricultural/gustatory industries. And sometimes the AOC designation really does mean a difference in taste. One might not think that terroir plays a huge rule in dried beans, but the lentils from Puy-en-Velay trump any of the the various other “French green lentils” I've used. They're wonderful.

But back to our accomplished cows. I don't believe Boeuf de Coutancie is AOC, which on further reflection is probably exactly why so much paperwork comes with it, to convince of its specialness in the absence of bureaucratic proclamation. From what I can tell, Coutancie beef is named for the farm, rather than the breed of cattle. According to the distributor's website, the animals are raised on the prairies until maturity, at which point they're brought to Coutancie farm for a spa vacation, which includes a carefully selected diet of farm vegetables and grain presented in their comfortable feeding cubicles. Beyond their pampered food diet, the cows receive complementary beer and are massaged twice daily. While I'm maybe taking a little literary liberty with the description, I swear I'm not making any of this up. No word on mud masks or sauna access... The finishing diet, beer, and massage are similar to the processes used for Kobe beef and are purported to produce meat with excellent grain and marbling.

Would you call this delicately marbled and juicy red? I think that's some truth in advertising.

There's not a lot of challenge in cooking a good steak: make sure it's at room temp, season it, sear it well on both sides over high heat to give it that deeply browned flavor, and then finish it in a slowish oven until it's cooked the to temperature you like (hopefully not beyond medium rare...).

Cromagnon (appropriate in France, non?) meal: Every once in awhile, a good rare steak hits the spot.

It should be all about the quality and taste of the meat-- well marbled, fine grain, dry aged for at least a couple of weeks. We bought côte du boeuf, which had a robust flavor and a surprisingly tender texture for French beef (must be the massage). Karen opined that it was on par or even better than the superb beef we buy from our favorite butcher in Philly, and I can't argue. Good simple steak deserves equally good simple accompaniments: sauce Bordelaise, mashed potatoes, and braised endive. If I'd had good wild mushrooms, I'd have put those on the plate, too.

Beef: it's what was for dinner.

As much as they can be really satisfying, we don't eat a lot of steaks or chops. They're not that interesting to cook and they're expensive. They also seem extravagant with respect to animal use. We don't eat much meat at any given meal-- it's more often a flavoring than featured item-- but I try to use the whole animal in my cooking to the extent possible. When buying poultry or rabbits or smaller fish, that's easy, since the unit of sale is the whole animal, and buying from a real butcher or fishmonger (rather than in shrink-wrapped styrofoam boats), I can make sure that pretty much everything comes home in my basket. That's less practical when it comes to the larger 4-hoofed creatures (or, say, a 200-lb tuna). Sides of beef may have been acceptable forms of payment for services rendered by my grandfather many decades ago, but I'd like to see my grandmother try to store them in my French refrigerator or get a case freezer in my Parisian apartment! So I approximate over time, buying a lot more of the less glamorous cuts than steaks and chops. Not only do I feel an obligation to waste as little as possible, those meats, and the cooking techniques needed to maximize their edibility, are exceptionally flavorful. Which is a not insignificant point of cooking.

So this week, while buying the côte du boeuf, I also bought a bunch of oxtail, which I used to make a ragu (of course). Mostly the same procedure as all of the others: brown the oxtails (I dredged them lightly in flour, this time), lightly cook the aromatics, add a little tomato and some herbs, then some red wine, reduce a little bit to get rid of some of the alcohol, add a little water to adjust the volume, then cover and pop it in the oven for a long slow simmer, the bottom of the lid turning a deep mahogany with the simmering juices. Mmmmm. Once super tender, pull the meat off the bones, skim the (copious) fat off the sauce, mash the veggies up, then add back a little of meat. It makes an intensely rich sauce, which we've eaten with chocolate pasta (finally, a great pairing of the chocolate pasta-- I only wish I'd had some good black olives to add to the ragu that night), as lasagna (with some pecorino cheese), and over polenta. And there's a lot of meat left, which looks destined to flavor a white bean casserole next week.

Oxtail ragu over polenta: winter comfort food

Mid-week weekend

Nov 11 is Armistice Day. Unlike the United States, where the remembrance has grown to encompass all veterans, here in France it is still a day of remembrance for those who lost their lives in WWI, which is a heckuvalot of people. The armistice treaty ending the war on the western front was signed in a railway car in the forest of Compiègne, a little north of Paris, where a replica of the car can be visited today (never one to pass on symbolism, Hitler chose the original car as the site for French surrender in WWII, then had it hauled off and blown up by the SS). The last of the French WWI veterans died last year, a rather amazing 90 years after the armistice signing, and so the nature of the celebrations for this holiday may change, but for now it's still a major holiday. A parade down the Champs is standard, and this year German chancellor Angela Merkel was in Paris for the observation, the first Armistice Day visit by a German leader.

We didn't see the parade, though. Since it was a holiday, Karen had the day off from work. And since it wasn't raining for a change, we took the opportunity to get in a mid-week bike ride. We considered exotic destinations, riding a bunch of hours to someplace new and taking a train back, or heading up north of the city by train to ride in the rolling hills and fall colors of the Oise valley. But in the end, it was more of the same, ie, destination: Chevreuse. Even so, there were still some vivid colors on the cold, damp ride.

In the end, the safe/known path turned out to be a good one, since it took less than 90 minutes for the stabbing pain from my Blois trip to make a reappearance. As we pulled over to discuss our options, we saw we were fittingly at rue de 11 Novembre. And though the train back into town took as long as the ride out of town, we were lucky to have gotten to the station moments before it departed, because between the holiday and the ongoing regional rail mini-strike, the next train wasn't for a long while. Even luckier, we escaped a right-on-red (not allowed in France) directly in front of a police van with just a long and patronizing scolding instead of 90-euro tickets.

But best of all, after hot showers, some lunch, and basking in the afternoon sun that poured through our big front windows (where was that during the ride?), we were invited to dinner at friends', where we shared good company, food, and wine. A treat on any day, and especially luxurious on a Wednesday.

08 November 2009

Rain of terror?

One rainy day last week when I came back from my morning bread run, our building's concierge (in French, "keeper" or "caretaker"-- he doesn't make dinner reservations for us, or anything) was polishing the elevator door handle in the lobby and commented first on the rain and then, C'est hiver: it's winter. It's been rainy, dreary, and dark here lately. And judging from the concierge's comment, there's little reason to expect a change in the near future.

Since there's no specific event or season to train for, the wet weather has put a damper on our riding. We'd planned to ride this morning, but it was wet and about 40 degrees when we got up, and well, there just seemed to be many more reasons not to go (for instance, having to take showers with our bikes on returning) than to go. And while it's painful to watch the tiny little bit of fitness I had leave me, not riding does enable other activities.

Like leisurely cups of coffee together and extra-special breakfasts on weekend mornings. A few weeks ago I ordered 2 coffees from Square Mile Coffee Roasters in London, a relatively new roaster that has already gained a reputation for good coffees. I bought the La Vega & Cipresal from Guatemala and the Kagumoini from Kenya, two very different but excellent coffees. The La Vega & Cipresal is toasty and roundly sweet/nutty whereas the Kagumoini is full of black/red fruits and autumn spices. Because I don't drink caffeine every day, I'll not manage to get through both bags while still fresh, but having 2 coffees to compare is a lot more fun than just 1. I'll definitely order from them again. The only problem with having one's good coffee at home is that you can't have while eating a good bakery breakfast out. We devoured an exceptional baguette and some treats under awning in the rain at Blé Sucré in the 12e, and maybe the only way it could have been better would have been to have a good coffee alongside.

Two terrific autumn coffees.

The tarte tatin, a play on the classic french dessert-- poached apple filled with some kind of crumble-like filling, sitting on a cookie-like base, and of course, covered in delicious perfect caramel. We don't go to Blé Sucré that often, since it's out of the way for us, but when we do go, it's torture to decide what treat to get. This choice easy since it was among the few remaining options by the time we got there. That this was left either speaks badly of the tastes of the patrons who passed it up or of the quality of the shop's entire offerings.

Last Sunday was the first Sunday of the month, which is a day when the national museums in Paris charge no admission for entry. The goal is to draw the locals in to their own museums. Some of the museums participate year-round, others only in the winter months. Last weekend we visited 2 of the latter. We visited the Conciergerie and Sainte Chapelle on Ile de Cite. Both museums had their high points but were crowded. There were plenty of Francophones, so it seems the free first Sunday approach is working, but even this late in the year it's hard to escape tourists, and there are always knuckleheads like the American in line ahead of us at Ste Chapelle who had such an unnatural fondness for his umbrella that he couldn't bear to put it through the security X-ray machine. The lengthy the exchange with the security guard came to its climax when the American pointed to his umbrella and, evidently not knowing the french word from umbrella, pronounced umbrella with a (poor) French accent. Oh yeah, now the guard will understand. In any event, we were glad to see both museums for free, no matter the company.

The Conciergerie is one of Paris' oldest buildings, located on the Ile de Cite. The oldest portions of the palace were in place before the 10th century, but it was extended/renovated/fortified through the 13th (Louis IX, later St. Louis) and 14th (Philip IV) centuries before being dumped for bigger and blingier digs, the royals eventually winding up on the right bank in the Louvre. The palace eventually became a prison whose greatest notoriety derives from the Revolution, where it was the seat of the Revolutionary Tribunal during the Reign of Terror. Prisoners brought in for their trails could expect 1 of just 2 fates: release or guillotine. Highlighted spots in the building include Marie Antoinette's cell and chapel, and the so-called grooming room, where prisoners on the way to the guillotine, some 2500 of them in the last 18 months of the RoT, were removed of the last of their personal belongings and got a nape shearing to make the guillotiner's job easier-- after all, he might well have been the hardest working man in the history of France. But all wasn't terror and grimness for the condemned. According to the placards in the museum, they were given a last “feast.” Do you have any idea how hard it is to get a table for a feast in Paris?

The Conciergerie

St. Louis built Sainte-Chapelle to house his Holy Relics (no, not his rock band, real relics, including the crown of thorns), which he bought used but not cheap in a bid to increase the power and prestige of France. There are 2 floors of chapels. The lower one was for the help and received a colorful updating/restoration (it's not clear from any of the text I've seen whether it's faithful to the original) in the 19th century. The upper one is what all of the fuss is about, primarily the stained glass windows, which are currently undergoing cleaning (yet somehow the place isn't lousy with the scent of Windex) and repair. It was a dreary rainy day, so we didn't see the windows at their best, but even on a crummy day they sparkled. Not that the rest of the interior was built to fade into the background. Let's just say that the French kings left no lilly unguilded.

Ste Chapelle against the gray sky

The lower chapel-- not too shabby for the B-chapel

One of the restored stained glass panels.

Having obtained our small dose of culture, we set off to the falafel stands of the Marais for lunch, huddling in a doorway to avoid letting the rain dampen the crispy goodness. Then an hour or so half-hearted shopping, followed by some whole-hearted hot chocolate drinking. What Paris lacks in coffee (which is a lot) it makes up for in hot chocolate. These particular emporter cups came from Angelina's on rue Rivoli, and we wandered under the protection of the arcade while enjoying the winter warmer. A bit sweet for my tastes, but still very thoroughly chocolatey. Looking forward to searching for a favorite, which might just be enough to sustain us through the damp, dark, winter to come.

There's a lot going on on this lamp post base on the Pont Au Change, on the way over to the Marais.

Rain or no, the Marais was hopping...

... but we were standing firmly on 2 feet to make sure not to spill any of the falafel

07 November 2009

Goldilocks in Paris

Now that it's winter in Paris (winter defined as dark, cold and rainy= pretty much every day now), all of the women are wearing boots. I have had boot envy. So I decided I must go shopping.

I have been shopping for weeks. I had in my mind the ultimate pair of boots, and of course nothing matches the ideal. I kept looking. Too short, too tall, heels too high, heels too low, too shiny, too lizardy, too pointy, too round, too suede-y, too much cuff, too tassely (pom poms hanging from your boots are big here), too everything. I tried several pairs on, and besides not being right, most of them were also too uncomfortable. Yuck. I quickly learned that I needed boots with a zipper, because the ones that pull on are much too baggy at the ankles. I do not have fat ankles, and do not want boots that make me look like I have fat ankels.

Rolf and I were out wandering around today in the 4e and the 11e, and I was ready to give up. Rolf wouldn't let me quit. Just a few more shops... and there they were. We found a shop that had Italian shoes and boots (always a good thing), and they had really nice boots. I tried the black ones on, and really liked them. Zip up (slender ankles), heel just right, a small strap/buckle on the back for interest, but not fru fru, classic with style. Yes. Rolf convinced me that they looked even better in brown. The leather had a really nice color. And brown with black clothing is all the rage.

Just right.

06 November 2009

Game on

Gratuitous picture of the Chevreuse valley filled with mist on a cold morning in Oct.

It's definitely fall here, and so it's hunting season. When we were riding in Italy, hunters of both animals and porcini abounded, the sound of popping guns echoing through the hills and groups of hunters eating and taking coffees at the country roadside eateries and caffes. Hunting is also popular in France, but aside from the fashionistas chasing down the latest styles, hunters don't much prowl the streets of Paris. So imagine my surprise as I rolled down the sidewalk just outside the apartment on a recent Sunday when I crossed paths with a 50-ish year old, tall, stout fellow dressed all in tweed-- knickers, sherlock-holmes hat, and cape (yes, cape)-- with high wool socks and carrying a basket and a long, vaguely triangular bag I recognized from my Italy rides as a hunting rifle. Trés aristocratic, and quite the rare sighting in the 16e.

And I felt a game craving coming on. Deer. Boar. Hare. Game birds. Unlike the US where hunted game can't be sold at butchers, hunted game is fair game in many countries in Europe. I've not yet figured out where one buys big game here; I've not seen deer hanging on hooks like at D'Angelo Bros in Philly. But I realized that I've not even cooked a rabbit since moving to France, and that seemed a shame. I like to cook rabbit at home-- it's more interesting than chicken and still inexpensive. I especially like to serve bunny on Easter. And whereas I'll admit that's a little perverse, especially when there are little kids at the table, it's darned good whenever one chooses to serve it. I've eaten rabbit out many times in Paris, as paté, saddle stuffed with house-made prunes (the dried French plums are exquisite and nothing like grandma's industrial medicinal varieties), or fricasseed with raisins and pistachios. But despite the fact that they're available in all of the butcher shops and at most of the markets, I'd never bought one.

I missed the Sunday markets while on my ride, but thankfully we have one local butcher who opens Monday mornings. The fellow behind the counter, by now accustomed my asking for weird stuff (chicken feet, veal joints, crépine), pulled out a whole rabbit, head attached, and teased me a bit by starting to wrap it up without dressing it. I take that as a good sign. I also take it as a good sign that he didn't throw out anything he cut off until checking with me. Very little wound up in the waste bin.

And good thing, too. My 3 lb rabbit cost me 20 eurobucks, which thanks to the crappy exchange rate is $30. I pay $12 for them at home, but I guess the rabbits in France dine on foie gras and chocolates before their dates with the butcher.

So, OK-- I had my expensive rabbit. What to do with it? I'd been thinking a fricassee with olives and fennel, but the high cost called for something more economical: a ragu. I love rabbit sauce for pasta. Our first experience with the bunny genre was at a country hotel in Italy on a bike trip, where Karen's serving of pasta with hare sauce came complete with lead shot-- the husband had hunted it the morning before. Rabbit produces a milder version, but it's still possible to make an extremely flavorful ragu by braising the meat in wine and stock without actually putting (any or much, depending on your preference) of the meat itself in the finished sauce; I like to include the minced liver at the end, which enhances the flavor and texture. Ragus like this are traditionally served with wide noodles (pappardelle or tagliatelle) or specialty pastas like pici. I also love making lasagne with them. To me they scream "autumn," and they're so flavorful that you don't need much on the pasta to make a delicious meal.

As for the meat, I pulled it off the bone and ran it through the food processor until it was finely ground. I combined about half of it with some russet potatoes I'd cooked and pushed through a strainer to “rice”, an egg yolk, and a tablespoon or so of the fat from the ragu and stuffed agnolotti with it. Most of the other half went into another batch of agnolotti with a base of polenta and risotto, which I'd been looking for an excuse to try out. The last bit went into a pasta sauce with winter squash. Served as first course before a light second course of veal scaloppini, it offered a varied week of dinners, with several nights of agnolotti leftover. Yea.

Here's how the meals evolved:

Mon night: Rabbit-and-potato agnolotti in rabbit ragu. One word: Bunnylicious.

Tues pasta: Chestnut pappardelle with rabbit ragu. The chestnut flour makes the pasta sweeter, and though an interesting combination, I didn't think it worked as well here as it might have with hare or other gamier ragus.

Tues main: Veal with porcini-creme fraiche sauce and sauteed spinach with garlic. Mushrooms and greens love each other, so it was hard to miss on this. I used the freshly dried porcini we bought at Mucci on our way home from Italy, and they're very good.

Wed pasta: Rabbit agnolotti with sauteed long-leaf radicchio and chestnut milk. The long-leaf radicchio, maybe the best I've ever had and wonderfully bitter, went really nicely with the savory rabbit filling, and I used the milk I'd simmered my roasted chestnuts in (with a bay leaf, the chestnuts going into agnolotti) to temper the radicchio.

Wed main: Veal with lemon and olive oil, sauteed swiss chard. Simple, but better suited for grilled meats.

Thurs pasta: Chocolate fazzoletti (handkerchiefs, or about 2" square pieces of pasta) with rabbit ragu. Though I eased way back on the cocoa compared to here, it was still too much for the rabbit. Would have been perfect with venison, oxtail, or beef short ribs, though.

Thurs main: Veal with a radicchio cream and a timbale of chestnut, celery root, and apple. Both of these worked really well. The radicchio was sauteed with whole garlic cloves, then pureed without the garlic and used to infuse a cream-milk mixture, strained, and reduced. The bitterness of the radicchio balances the sweetness of the dairy. The timbale was just a touch cakey, but the flavors of chestnut and celery root are made for each other, and the apple added a nice fruity note. I'll definitely work further on both of those methods.

Fri pasta: Tagliatelle with a sauce of rabbit, winter squash, guanciale, swiss chard, and sage. Very nice. Very autumn.

Fri main: Veal with red wine and veal stock reduction (it's kind of cheating, since it's so easy, but it's so good...), sauteed radicchio, and a timbale of lentils, which though not the prettiest of colors, had the texture of a lentil mousse and a lovely earthiness.

Sat first: Polenta with the last of the rabbit ragu. Good, hearty fare.

Sat main: Pan-seared sea bream on a winter squash timbale and watercress puree. It's not often I cook fish, as even here it's hard to find really fresh fish at the markets. But when I do find something especially good, it's hard to resist the opportunity to work with it. I'd have preferred to pair it with something earthier-- fresh cepes or girolle mushrooms, but Karen's digging the squash right now, so we went that direction, instead.

Sat desert: Gateaux from Gantier, our favorite boulangerie/patisserie. Monsieur Gantier bakes some mean breads, but his primary training was as a patissier, and the opera (dark chocolate, almond, and coffee) is to die for. The other gateau was also very good, a vanilla mousse on top of a chocolate mouse, with a caramelized genoise-like cake layer above and below. Check this out: a listing of all of the boulangeries and patisseries in Paris.

A bunnyless meal, but one of Karen's favorites: warm lentil salad with good baguette for a weekend lunch.

Though the rabbit was kind of a game substitute, I discovered that one of my butchers on rue Poncelet does have a display case with game birds and wild hare. So this weekend I bought a wild pheasant for the relative bargain of 10.50 euro-bucks. Never having cooked pheasant before, I pan-roasted the breast meat for a nice dinner with sauteed porcini mushrooms, oven-dried fresh figs, and the lovely creamy red rice from Camargue, all beautifully complemented by a soft merlot-heavy bordeaux, a rare splurge out of our usual under-5-euro-buck wine collection. Perhaps the most memorable thing about this meal was that since we'd spent a delightful evening of drinks at Karen's father's cousin's apartment in the early part of the evening, we didn't get home until after 10.00 PM, and so we didn't eat dinner until midnight. Ie, we're finally eating on Paris time!

The useless legs (pheasants are running birds, so the legs are sinewy and tough) and all of the bones went into a rich stock that formed the base of the sauce (along with chicken and veal stocks) and a second weaker stock that I used with the thigh meat for a ragu for later in the week. Whereas the breast meat was milder and tamer than I'd expected (and, frankly, hoped) from a wild bird, the thighs gave off a strongly gamey aroma as soon as they hit the oil, and the resulting ragu was wonderfully flavorful.

Chestnut agnolotti in a celery root cream...

... followed by the pheasant breast with figs and porcini/cepes and pheasant reduction.

And of course, pheasant ragu with tagliatelle. Pasta rules in our house.

I'm looking forward to more game as the autumn and winter seasons progress.

05 November 2009


This entry somehow didn't get posted when written, back in early Sept. No question it was user error. So think back to when summer was just winding down...

Summer's officially over in Paris.

It's not so much that the weather has changed, though this morning it was 46 degrees and we had a couple of days last week that didn't get out of the 60s.

It's that everybody's finally back from their vacances.

The elevator in our building no longer remains on our floor overnight, the hundreds of windows in the courtyard behind us, all white with their closed metal shutters in August, are now open, and the last of our food vendors are vending again.

And there's tons of kissing. Cheek kissing, that is. Two passes per person as friends or co-workers see each other for the first time in a couple of months. We were out to dinner recently when a table of 6 showed up, and the kissing must have taken 15 minutes, and a flow chart to work out. Kissing, kissing, kissing.

The French get, and actually take, a lot of vacation. Five weeks is mandated. If you work in an office, you probably get to pick when you take it. If you work in a shop that closes in the summer, you have to take your 4 weeks during the closure, leaving you with that 1 remaining week to get you through the other 11 months.

Which may explain why people seemed to be at their grumpiest at the end of June, several months after they've burned that last saved day, and at their nicest right now, after 4 consecutive weeks of being away. I've never found that a week of vacation from work was restorative. Two weeks was better, but returning to work was still usually a downer. Between the press of "Hey, before you go, can you take care of..." stuff leading into it, and the digging out on returning, sometimes it seemed it was hardly worth it.

But 4 weeks has done wonders for some of the grouches in my life, here. I've gone to the same boulangerie for a baguette or two and 4 pastries (our weekend breakfast) twice a weekend, and more recently for a baguette several times during the week, since about the middle of March. That's roughly 50 visits to the same shop. I'm not a difficult person to remember-- I'm abnormally tall for France, have abnormally goat-like facial hair for France, and speak abnormally poor French for France. And on weekdays, I go in early in my bike kit on the way back from a ride: pretty sure there aren't many Guy's Bicycles team members rolling through the shop. I always smile (hard not to, knowing that I'll soon be eating as close to heaven as can be achieved on earth), give correct change (change is hoarded here, but that's a topic for another day), and make an effort to be especially nice. Still, the shop matron never so much as grinned in her interactions with me. It's not that she was rude, she just wasn't personable. She was personable with others, sometimes. But even if I came in as she chatted with a customer about this or that, I'd get the stoney face when it was my turn.

Our heavenly boulangerie was to close on Aug 4, until Sept 3. I was terrified-- would we survive? Even though I'd been in there 50+ times, our bread and pastry consumption is such that I've had plenty of experience with the alternatives. And though I can get some reasonable stand-ins for the baguettes closer to the apartment, the substitute croissants, chaussons aux pommes, and other pastries just leave us sad. I don't even want to contemplate the emptiness we'll feel weekend mornings after we've left Paris.

We left for Japan Aug 1, and so I went in that morning for our Last Breakfast in over a month. I purchased my goods from Mme Stoney and at the end of the game of one-upmanship that is any exit from a shop in Paris, I added "... et bonnes vacances!"

And she smiled.

As I picked up the baguette and pastries I'd dropped on the floor in shock, she said that they'd be open for a few more days. But you could tell that she was looking forward to les vacances.

Since then, it's been a whole different vibe in that shop. My first visit was their first Fri open, on my way back to the apt after a short but hard ride in a cold, soaking early morning rain. Drenched and covered with road grime, I was worried about messing up the jewel-like shop, losing whatever meager rung I'd gained on the favor ladder in August. But she smiled at me when I came in, and as she got my baguette commented on how dedicated I was to be riding on a miserable day like that. Since then, it's been all smiles and (a little) chat, helping me with names of unlabeled items, helping me when I tell her I shouldn't buy a kouign amann again today by saying, "mais vous êtes sportif!" I like her.

Now that I know the secret to getting in good with my vendors, it's only another 10 months of grouchy service before I can work on the others.


Before last week, I'd never been to the Loire valley. What I knew of it-- lots of over-the-top chateaux, along with the Poitou-Charentes region to the Southwest a major source of French goat cheese, and an abundance of crisp wines-- didn't sound half bad. Seemed ripe for a pre-Halloween bike trip.

The opportunity to venture down came last week, when Karen had a particularly ridiculous business trip: 40 h of traveling for a 2-h work meeting. Since she didn't know she was going until the last minute, my plans were similarly hasty. I found Monday evening a bike-friendly hotel and 1-star restaurant in the town of Blois, made reservations (hurray for the low tourist season), and spent an hour or two on Google maps working out a rough sketch of a route to get down there. Planning a second route for the return trip would have to be done in Blois using paper maps. Tues AM I packed my bag with a change of clothes for dinner, my maps, and my cookies, and set off.

I'd like to say that the ride down was breathtakingly beautiful. But the landscape between Paris and Blois is mostly just flat, very flat, farmland. Nice enough as far as endless miles of flat farmland go, and it was a beautiful autumn day, so it could have been a lot worse. I had a cross-head wind for company all the way down, and judging by the plethora of windmills on my route, I'm guessing that wasn't unusual. But that, too, could have been a lot worse. With nowhere to hide, a blustery in-your-face full-on headwind could have made for a very long day.

As it was, I was going pretty good. I passed a huge pile of what in the early morning sun appeared to be rocks, and I figured that a farmer had been clearing a new field. Didn't really make sense, though, since this area has been farmed for centuries. And then I saw another rock pile, then another, and another. I finally stopped to check one out, and they were... parsnips? Maybe. Definitely some root vegetable, vaguely in the white-to-brown color range, smelling (I picked one up) of parsnip, or parsley root, maybe. But they were huge. So then I started wondering, is there really enough demand for giant parsnips/parsely root/celeriac to merit half-kilometer piles of them all over central France? The varieties of celery and parsley grown for their roots are not the same as those grown for their leaves, so they probably weren't by-products of another crop. Maybe they're used for animal feed. Or for some non-culinary use, like weapons production or computer chips. In searching for any other use online, I saw a reference to the use of parsley root tea as an enema. Ummm, well, the French are hypochondriacs. So who knows? Color me baffled.

Big pile of parsnips (maybe) with windmills in the background. There were dozens of these huge piles along the roads, and there was a ton of spider-web-like stuff floating in the air in these areas. I suspect it must be some kind of grub webbing liberated in the unearthing of these crops. I was covered in it all day, both days. Spoooooky. Apparently a similar event occurred in the US in 2002. Oh yeah, UFOs and government conspiracies sure make a lot more sense than spiders or other insects...

Chateau Cambry, outside of Germignonville, a sort of practice chateau for the trip. Originally built in the 15th century, most of the central part visible today dates from 1650 - 1700. Privately owned, I think.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of cycling in France is difficulty in obtaining food. With France's reputation as a culinary wonderland, and the density of boulangeries and cafes in Paris, this may be counter-intuitive. But one can ride for hours, through towns at 3-to-5-mile intervals the entire way, without seeing a single restaurant, cafe, boulangerie, grocery store, even bar/tabac. Some of the small towns here get regular visits from a boulanger or butcher. Rather like ice cream trucks, these delivery vans pull into town and honk to alert the residents that they're available for sales. And Lord help you if you roll into a town that actually has one of these things, and it's even a minute past 13.00-- no food for you! This is probably the biggest difference between France and Italy, along with the presence of water fountains. In Italy, even the smallest town on the most remote hilltop has a bar where you can get a sandwich, and almost every town has a public fountain with potable water. When we rode last year up Monte Amiata in southern Tuscany for the sole purpose of eating at the restaurant (owned by a friend of a friend, who had called ahead to make sure it would be open) near the top, and it was closed when we got there (not that surprising, because we were in Italy), there was only one other building up there, a little bar/caffe across the street, and though closing, the owners fed us sandwiches and hot chocolate before the cold, rainy descent. Not in France.

So when planning a long ride, where I prefer to ride the smaller roads, it's imperative to scout out the most probable food-and-water-containing towns and make sure you pass through at times where something is open. On the Blois trip, I miscalculated. There were a bunch of towns on my route that looked big enough to have at least a little grocery store. But as it got to be 12.30, not one of them panned out. Tired after hours of riding and having eaten most of my cookies and finished most of my water, I started to worry a bit. Once 13.00 rolled past, it would be several hours before anything would open again. There were 2 towns I might be able to make in the half-hour I had left, and I gambled on Ouzouer-le-Marché, arriving into town as the church bell rang 1. Uh-oh. I found the boulangerie almost immediately, but its window shades were already pulled down. The door was still open just a hair, though, and I startled the woman when I pushed in and asked to buy food. Bless her soul, she sold me a sandwich, 2 big bottles of water, and a couple of viennoiseries (only in France would you feel grateful that somebody in a shop deigned to actually sell you something), but she closed the door firmly and quickly behind me. Even if it was a jambon beurre (as much as I love the butter here in France, I've not yet gleaned the appeal of butter with ham, and especially on the bike, it just doesn't work so well for me), it was a pretty good lunch.

So refueled and re-watered, with just an hour and a half or so left to Blois, I made the rather unfortunate decision to take a detour. Figuring there was a good chance I wouldn't get down there again before we left, it seemed silly to ride straight to Blois, which might not be all that interesting, when there were other sites, cheateaux the Loire itself, probably worth seeing. So I rode instead to Meung-sur-Loire to see the chateau there. A few miles in, now into a direct and brisk headwind, my knees started to hurt. And whereas the cheateaux at Meung-sur-Loire and Beaugency after that were nice enough, the long now-painful grind along a busy highway, with essentially no view of the Loire itself (and really not that much to see, anyway) made for a can't-wait-for-it-to-end finish to the day.

Chateau at Meung-sur-Loire, home to the bishops of Orleans back in the day. Started in the 11th and 12th centuries, added onto and modified since. Apparently still has dungeons-- more Halloween-appropriate stuff.

What's left of the chateau at Beaugency. Beaugency otherwise is a peaceful and pretty little town today, but as the only bridge across the Loire between the larger towns of Orleans and Blois, it was frequently attacked and occupied during the Hundred Years' War, so probably not so pretty or peaceful then.

One of the medieval gates in Beaugency.

The Loire, at Beaugency. The medieval 26-arch bridge that was the subject of so much fighting is just to the right of this shot, now part of highway D25.

Oh what the heck-- what's one more picture? Here's the bridge.

A shower, some NSAIDs, and a stroll around Blois mostly took care of that. Blois, one of the exceptions that proves the rule that most words in French have nice sounds, was a surprisingly charming place. Bigger than I'd expected, with a spectacular chateau, lots of pedestrian shopping streets, 2 jazz clubs, and narrow winding streets up the hills that reminded more of an Italian hilltop town than the French cities I've been in. I recognized most of the clothing store names, but the clothes displayed on the window mannequins were notably more practical than their counterparts in department 75. I was similarly disoriented when a driver waved me across a pedestrian crossing, even though she had the right of way. Oh right-- I'm not in Paris. I quite enjoyed my few hours there.

In any event, I had a great evening wandering around and a tasty dinner at Le Medicis, despite the name in no way an Italian restaurant. The meal consisted of an amuse of thinly shaved cured ham in a girolles mousse, roasted squab breast on a slaw/caesar salad hybrid, wonderfully tender and creamy veal sweetbreads with a barley pilaf, a real cheeseboard (increasingly a rarity in France, supplanted these days by the kitchen's choice of 3 cheeses) from which I chose a young goat cheese, an aged goat cheese, a reblochon, a camembert, and a hard sheep cheese from the Pyrenees, all of them good, but not surprisingly the goat cheeses standing out as truly exceptional, and finally chestnut-filled eclair with a mandarine sorbet. The meats were cooked perfectly, and the sauces were very good. It bothered me that the kitchen used the same garnishes for both savory dishes, though-- the olive pieces, the toasted pine nuts, the sesame seeds, and even the sprig of chervil made their way onto both plates, which while not inappropriate flavor-wise per se, seemed a little lazy, especially when ordering off of prix-fixe menu, where there's a decent chance those dishes will follow one another. There were other flavors in those dishes to be emphasized and explored. Small quibble. For 44 euro-bucks, a very nice dinner, and the service was very good (especially important when dining alone).

One of the pedestrian shopping streets in the center of town. Lots of people out, a nice vibe.

The cathedral of St Louis, with its rather odd and overwhelming bell tower. Still, pretty spectacular at night.

The next morning I went out to find breakfast of quiche (my new favorite on-the-bike breakfast, whipped lighter here than is typical in the US) and pastries, wandered around town some more in the daylight, repacked my bag and set off for Paris, wishing I'd had more time in Blois to see more.

Chateau de Blois, the main street side, which is the back side of the Francis I wing. Several French kings lived here, Louis the XII having bought it in the late 14th century. Ees a very beeg place. And spectacular at night, since all of the window arches, painted inside with rich red or blue with gold gilding, are lit. Sadly, my little cell phone camera couldn't handle that.

Facade of the Louis XII wing.

Detail of the door of the Louis XII facade. You can see a little of the window arch detail here, as well.

View out to the Loire over Blois from the chateau. It's kind of a magical garden early in the morning.

One of the walls of the chateau.

A small hillside street.

There are a number of half-timbered houses like this one in Blois. The carvings have that middle ages whimsy about them.

In a lot of ways, Blois is like a much smaller Paris. For example, I'd bet that both Parisians and Bloisians would take exception to that characterization...

The chateau at Talcy, built in the 16th century by an Italian (well, Florentine) banker. Compared to its contemporaries elsewhere in the valley and in Italy, it's surprisingly Gothic feeling. Not much else to Talcy, but I guess a cool chateau is enough.

Not a very noteworthy trip back except for its shortness. The knee pain from the day before picked up early but waned a bit over the first couple of hours. After another ham-and-butter sandwich lunch pause, the pain in my left knee was excruciating on starting back up. I decided to ride it a ways further to see if it would ease out again, and it got me another 25 km to Toury, which though about 25 miles short of where I'd hoped to get (Etampes), had a train station with service to Paris. Unfortunately, the next train that stopped there wouldn't come for 3.5 hours. I debated pushing on (I could ride to Paris in that time), but decided the responsible thing was to suck it up and wait. Good thing, too, because when I got back on the bike to ride the several blocks to the town center, I couldn't pedal with either leg and had to walk it. I changed clothes, wandered around town, which even with a couple of nice sites didn't take as long as I'd hoped, and then sat down on a bench in a park and studied my maps for the next trip to the Loire, hopefully next time with Karen.

The portico at the old church in Toury.

The town hall in Toury.

The non-stop 44-minute/13-euro-buck sag-wagon back to Paris.