Sun 9 Jun 2013
I imagine like many people in this world, I have always dreamed of going to Paris. The outdoor cafes, the croissants, the well-dressed Parisians – as an American who grew up Los Angeles, my notions of Paris were firmly rooted in Hollywood storylines and picture postcards of the French capital.
Last weekend I finally made it there, and it was everything I dreamt of and more. It was also the first visit for Mountaineering Man so rather than try to cover the list of popular attractions we opted for a real local’s experience by renting an apartment in Montmartre (via Airbnb) and keeping the tourist traps to a minimum. The apartment was perfect: on the 6th floor with a huge deck and the most inspiring view of the Sacre Coeur, a large sitting room, well-appointed kitchen and comfortable bedroom. The place was decorated with a variety of eclectic artworks and Jean, the guy who owns the apartment, left us with a list of restaurant recommendations and local hot spots.
For four days we lived like Parisians. In the mornings we’d walk up the stairs of Montmartre and get a café crème, orange juice and croissant or perhaps some yogurt and granola for breakfast – always al fresco so we could watch all the people go by. We’d then explore on foot and Metro trains, choosing one or two spots we wanted to visit. For me it was E Dehillerin, the now-famous shop were Julia Child frequented for her kitchen supplies. The place was buzzing with locals and tourists in search of the perfect cast iron skillet, boning knife or copper soufflé tin. The store has everything a cook could ask for but due to limited suitcase space I opted for one item: a non-stick Madeleine pan for making the popular French mini-cakes.
Ernest Hemingway’s flat was MM’s one must-do, so we took the Metro and trekked up a steep hill to 74 rue de Cardinal Lemoine, in the 5th Arrondissement. After taking a few photos of MM in front of the blue paint-chipped door of the legendary writer we went around the corner for an afternoon coffee and pastry and wondered how much has changed since Hemingway lived there. Other exploring days included stops at Shakespeare and Company, the legendary bookstore that was once the meet-up spot for Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and other Beat Generation writers; Notre Dame, though we opted to admire the architecture from the outside; and of course, the Eiffel Tower.
We’d come back to the apartment in the late afternoon for a siesta before getting dressed for our evening out, which always started with an aperitif at an outdoor café or bar. The first night it was Au Bon Coin, a buzzy Montmartre café with a dozen tightly-packed sidewalk tables and an artsy crowd; the second night we drank French rosé (the perfect drink for summertime) at Café Bruant, a restaurant/café on the Rue des Abbesses which is the main drag of Montmartre; and the third evening at the Au Relais café on the Rue Lamark, a quiet side-street we found after a 100-step walk up from a bustling thoroughfare. The rosé is cold and relatively cheap at these little neighbourhood spots; about 5-6 euro per glass.
After our drinks we’d head to dinner, and oh what fabulous dinners we had! As our goal was to communicate only in French with waiters, we chose non-touristy restaurants where we’d likely have no choice in the matter. One of our favourite meals of the trip was at Bistrot La Renaissance, an old eatery complete with well-worn, red-leather booths and antique stained-glass partitions. We let the waitress choose our starters, and she brought out a plate of succulent roasted bone marrow with slices of crusty, toasted baguette along with an egg baked in cream and cheese. Both were decadent and delicious. For our mains, we shared a simple roasted cod that came with sea snails, a boiled egg and a salad of crisp, cold lettuce, green beans and carrots. It was served with homemade mayonnaise and lemon wedges and was a study in simple food done right. We also shared a charcuterie plate, which was delicious.
Another night we had a platter of chilled seafood and some escargot (which MM had never tried before but loved) at a popular seafood restaurant called La Mascotte. On our last evening, which was a Sunday, we opted for an old-fashioned tartine café called Le Comptoir Des Belettes as many bistros are closed on Sunday nights. It was an inspired choice. Crusty slices of bread are topped with all kinds of yummy ingredients and then put under a broiler to toast or simply served cold – this is type of open-faced sandwich is the classic tartine. We shared an Alsatian onion and a smoked salmon tartine and both were excellent.
Thankfully we walked a lot, so we didn’t feel too guilty about all the food we ate – though feeling guilty about eating is very un-French, which is reason enough not to indulge yourself in it! Other memorable meals we had included the perfect falafel (so many people told us we had to get one in Paris; and we’re so happy we did!) at Maoz Vegetarian on the Left Bank; an incredible vegetarian bo bun bowl at Colline d’Asie, a tiny hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese café in Montmartre; and the most buttery, crispy croissant we’ve ever eaten at Au Levain d’Antan, a bakery also in Montmartre.
For us, being able to live amongst the French and take part in all the simple yet glorious everyday things they relish was a real treat. We were sad to go, but excited for future visits. To quote Paul Child, Julia’s beloved husband, “…what white poodles and white chimneys, what charming waiters, and poules de luxe, and maitres d’hotel, what gardens and bridges and streets! How fascinating the crowds before one’s café table, how quaint and charming and hidden the little courtyards with their wells and statues. Those garlic-filled belches! Those silk-stockinged legs! Those mascara’d eyelashes! Those electric switches & toilet chains that never work! Hola! Dites donc! Boullabaisse! Au revoir!”
Les Madeleines de Commercy (translation: The Madeleines with The Hump on Top)
I tried making Madeleines for the first time ever today, using the tin I bought at E. Dehellerin. They’ve always been one of my favourite cookie/cakes and I’m so thrilled to be able to make them at home, using Julia Child’s own recipe. You can order these from most kitchen supply shops. As you can see mine turned out quite brown on the shell side but were perfectly moist on the inside. These do have quite a hump, so you want to be sure the insides are baked thoroughly.
Recipe in From Julia Child’s Kitchen
2 large eggs, beaten
2/3 cup sugar
1 cup unbleached, all-purpose flour
4 ounces unsalted butter and 1 1/2 tablespoons for buttering the molds (total of 5 1/4 ounces)
Pinch of salt
1 tablespoon flour
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Grated lemon zest from 1/2 lemon
3 drops of lemon juice (or 2 of lemon and 2 of bergamot)
2 large Madeleine pans
Important note: all ingredients should be brought to room temperature before mixing so that the melted butter does not congeal in the batter before the ingredients have blended together.
Combine flour and sugar in a mixing bowl and add three quarters of the eggs. Beat vigorously with a wooden spoon to blend into a heavy cream – if very stiff, add a little bit of the remaining egg, one droplet at a time. Set aside for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, bring all of the butter to a boil until it begins to brown very lightly. Combine 1 1/2 tablespoons of the butter and tablespoon of flour in a small bowl and set aside.
Stir the rest of the butter over cold water until cool but still liquid. Beat the remaining bit of egg into the batter and stir in the cool butter. Stir in the salt, vanilla, grated lemon zest, lemon juice (and bergamot if using). Cover the batter, and set aside in the refrigerator for at least one hour. Meanwhile, paint the Madeleine cups with a light coating of the browned butter and flour mixture, wiping up any pools that form in the bottom. Set aside or refrigerate if the kitchen is warm.
Preheat the oven to 190° C (375° F). Using a spoon and rubber spatula, drop a rounded tablespoonful of batter into each Madeleine cup. Do not spread the batter to fill the mold. Repeat with remaining batter and mold. Set pans on the middle rack and bake for about 15 minutes. The batter will spread on its own to fill the cups and a hump will gradually form in the middle. Unmold onto a rack, humped side up.
Serve as is, or sprinkle tops with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar.*
Makes 2 dozen Madeleines.