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Archive for the ‘French Holidays’ Category

For a while now, Frenchified has been Stultified, i.e. on the back burner whilst I’ve been struggling with unprecedented workload and exhaustion. No longer. I miss writing about France, so I’m dusting off the blog and preparing to give it some renewed OOMPH. Thank you for being patient and if things are a bit quiet here as I give Frenchified some much-needed CPR, please do visit me at my other blog, Epicurienne.

Here’s a photo of the menu from the restaurant at the top of the Centre Pompidou. It has dazzling views over Paris and features as a location in various films, like le Divorce, starring Kate Hudson.

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La Tranche Sur Mer, on the Atlantic Coast of France, is one of those typically Euro beach destinations: lots of camping grounds, men who think it’s okay to terrify the female public by strutting around in a pair of form-revealing speedos, kids dragging giant inflatable animal-shaped float-aids along the street and lots and lots of ice cream shops. I can’t actually work out how all the different ice cream shops make any money because there are so many of them, but practicalities aside, they are skilled in the art of displaying their products in ways that make you not just want ice cream but physically NEED it.

The vendors accessorise their ice cream to show what taste you’ll be licking off the cone. In the top picture, the nutella ice cream was indicated by a whole jar of nutella stuck into the top of its vat. In the picture above, strawberries show that the red ice cream is strawberry flavoured. That’s what I call ingenious ice cream merchandising.  Then below we have limes showing lime ice cream and flowers to indicate… what exactly? It can’t be flower ice cream.  Perhaps it’s almond. Those flower petals look suspiciously like dragées and some couples give sugared almond flowers to the guests on their wedding day.

The shot below isn’t great but I have yet to work out what Arlequin ice cream is. Hundreds and thousands sprinkled over the top… all different colours… could be tutti frutti, I guess. I’ve googled and still can’t work it out. If you read this and know what Arlequin ice cream tastes like, please let me know!

Monsieur and I didn’t even glance at the dessert card at the restaurant where we’d dined that evening. We paid the bill, walked out onto the still-busy street, found an ice cream stand where the ‘accessorising’ was particularly good, and ordered. I had a two scoop cup with coconut and guimauve.

“How do you translate guimauve into English?” I asked Monsieur.

“I don’t really know.” Came his reply.

Qu’est-ce que c’est, la guimauve?” I asked the ice cream man.

La guimauve, c’est, euh, la guimauve!”

He gave a gallic shrug, throwing his hands up into the air. Monsieur and the ice cream man were of no help to me at all. Looking at the display, the guimauve ice cream was studded with multi-coloured marshmallow twists on sticks. I hoped that when I ordered guimauve flavour, the taste would indeed be marshmallow, and it was. That’s another reason why this sort of merchandising is so clever: it helps foreigners like me to understand what they’re eating…

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This is a photo of a horse-butcher’s shop in Fontenay-le-Comte. I simply had to take a photo. Monsieur didn’t get it, but he didn’t grow up in a country where eating horse would be like eating the family dog. Kiwis just wouldn’t ever consider it. Because of that, for me, seeing horse butchers is half novelty and half horror. Thank heavens I can’t eat red meat. Now I’ll never have to consider eating Black Beauty’s cousins.

At our Christmas party last year, an Italian colleague explained to us what horse meat tastes like. She thoroughly enjoys eating horse and waxed lyrical about her favourite horse preparation methods. Meanwhile, a strictly ethical vegetarian colleague gagged and had to excuse herself.

If you think eating horse is bad, I suggest you pop across to Epicurienne, where I’m currently discussing the more bizarre items to be found on a Vietnamese menu. Monsieur and I are in Vietnam right now, studiously avoiding the consumption of anything involving monkey, dog or snake meat. Wish us luck! The Vietnamese motto is “if you can catch it,  you can eat it!” Does that include me?

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Whenever I see a sunflower, I think of Vincent Van Gogh, that mad (not in a good way) Dutch painter whose dauby impressionist works depicting vases of these yellow flowers have a habit of giving the auction world a nervous twitch whenever one comes up for sale. Van Gogh painted the sunflower series when he was living in The Yellow House in Arles, a place he shared for a while with Gauguin, until his obsession with the fellow painter led him to cut off part of his ear and give it to a prostitute for safe-keeping.

The French word for sunflower is ‘tournesol’, which, if you break it down into parts means ‘turn’ (tourne) and ‘sun’ (sol, abbreviated from le soleil). Suddenly I have an image of a field full of sunflowers leaning towards the sun as it moves through the sky.

Until recently, I’ve never had the luck to be in France when the sunflowers are at their best, swaying seas of gold blanketing the French countryside. When Monsieur and I visited the Vendée region recently, there they were: field upon field of sunflowers, in the flesh. Not on a postcard, not in a coffee table book. In. The. Flesh.

Being the odd one in this relationship, I asked Monsieur to drive me to a field of sunflowers so I could take some photos. Being the patient one in the relationship, he obliged. There I was, jumping around in the midst of flowers taller than me, trying to get a picture postcard shot. I didn’t think Monsieur was paying much attention, accustomed as he is to my Unusual Photo Opportunities, but how wrong I was.

When I’d shot my fill of yellow tournesols, Monsieur showed my a photo he’d taken of me in the field. There is my face, sure enough, surrounded by the sunflowers, but the plants shield my body so in fact it looks like I AM a sunflower! That picture is definitely being printed off and sent around, once Monsieur gives me access to it. In the meantime, here is some sunshine to brighten up what is otherwise a grey summer’s day in Londinium.

It was grey and drizzly that day in Vendée, too, but the flowers bravely weathered the weather.

They certainly keep the bees busy. This little drone is nibbling away at that tasty pollen at the centre of the flower. Yumalicious. Let’s make some honey, Honey!

Some of the fleurs look a bit tatty, but their colour glows on.

DID YOU KNOW….

That in Tintin, le Professeur Tournesol in the French language editions is our much loved eccentric Professor Calculus in English? I think we don’t need to be told why they changed the name. Just imagine being called ‘Professor Sunflower’. No one would take your theories seriously.

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Monsieur and I jetted off to La Rochelle recently for a long weekend in the Vendée region of France. The first couple of days were so suffocatingly hot that breathing felt like inhaling air directly from a fan heater, but then on the third day we awoke to grey skies, persistent rain and a drop in temperature of around ten degrees. Incroyable. It certainly wasn’t going to be a day for the beach.

After lunch, the skies cleared a bit, so we drove to Maillezais to visit the Marais Poitevin, or Poitevin marshland. Maillezais is a nice little town with an impressive ruined Abbey and a restaurant called Au Chant des Grenouilles, or ‘Frog-Song’, but we weren’t here to visit either; we were here to have another French boating experience, hopefully without anyone being thrown overboard.

Down at the Grand Port, which sounds like a big deal but is really just a little jetty for boats, we rented a ‘barque’ for two hours. This time, Monsieur and I were sitting side by side, each with a paddle in hand. Following a laminated map of the canals known as Venise Verte or ‘Green Venice’ for the green weed that obscures the water’s surface, off we paddled, in perfect tandem, for now, at least…

We turned into a broad canal with the Abbey looming above. The scene was incredibly picturesque, in spite of the missing walls, and we saw sky through the glassless windows. I imagine that the Abbey must have been an imposing cultural centre in its hey-day and in my mind images grew of abbots gathering honey from hives, illuminating manuscripts by candlelight and singing mournful chants as part of their daily routine. Apparently the Dukes of Aquitaine worshipped here. Sacré bleu! (Note: Monsieur informs me that this expression isn’t in popular French usage any more. Strike 78 against the Anglo-Saxone for getting it wrong yet again!)

Rowing on, we marvelled at the fact that we hadn’t yet disagreed on direction. For once, we were enjoying a boat trip without argument or vengeful splashing. Following little green arrows indicating our route, we crossed a wide canal to reach a narrower one. Here the trees formed an arcade above us as we floated past fields until, through all the green, a giant creamy face poked out at us. “Moo” it said. “Moo moo” I replied. “Darling, stop being so silly,” moaned Monsieur.

There in the field above us, we saw quite a few of our dairy friends. They were all the beautiful Charolais breed, with honey-cream skins and huge chestnut eyes. Looking further along the canal, a boat was heading our way. The canal was too narrow for us to pass so Monsieur and I manoevred the boat backwards into an inlet until the boaters went by. This was quite the success story for us in boating terms. No splashing, no shouting, no killing. Could such teamwork possibly last?

We passed under bridges so low that we had to duck, got stuck at a ninety degree turn from one canal into the next but with some highly-skilled bottom bouncing, managed to bump free without taking to paddle pummelling each other, spotted crows and a stork enjoying the peace of an entire field to themselves and observed a group of men with fishing rods preparing their lines. Apart from the cows and the birds we didn’t see much wildlife, apart from a mother duck and her fluffy young. I’d hoped to see a beaver or two, but no luck.

“You know, wouldn’t it be funny if we put a cow in a boat and took him somewhere?”

I told Monsieur. He looked at me strangely with that “you do know you’re talking rubbish, don’t you?” look he reserves for such moments, but later on, in a souvenir shop, I saw postcards showing this exact thing. Here’s a picture I found of horses being transported in this fashion. Apparently it’s the easiest way to get the large animals from one side of the canal to the other.

All too soon, we were turning up the canal towards the jetty, getting ready to jump out of the boat. It had been a lovely way to spend the afternoon and surprisingly peaceful. It just may be that Monsieur and I have now found a way to cooperate on the water, but he still thinks I can’t paddle for peanuts. Hrmph. The feeling’s mutual.

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rue Saint Dominique postcard, 1908

For a truly Parisian experience, I love to explore the area surrounding rue Saint-Dominique. The length of this  shop-lined street running from Saint Germain, past les Invalides to the Champ de Mars, provides plenty of opportunity to fill up a suitcase without the challenge of the Big Avenue crowds and, if one suitcase proves insufficient, there are a couple of wonderful wholesale bag shops where you can pick up another for a fraction of what you’d pay in Galeries Lafayette.

Bags are to me as shoes are to Carrie Bradshaw. Many years ago I sniffed out a shop in the rue Saint-Dominique called Stock-Sacs. There are bags of varied styles and colours hanging off every patch of wall in this Aladdin’s Cave of leather products, which will have bag-lovers salivating over the red calf-leather totes within seconds. There is also every type of accessory one could ever conceive of putting in a handbag: mobile phone holders, passport covers, key rings, driver’s licence wallets, chequebook covers, travel wallets, coin purses and more. If you do splurge on a bag at Stock-Sacs and then run up to the department stores, chances are you’ll find exactly the same bag for a great deal more euros. That sort of smug satisfaction makes a visit to this shop even more worthwhile.

Stock Sacs, 109 bis, rue Saint-Dominique, 75007                          tel 01 45 51 42 12

 Further along the rue towards the Eiffel Tower is a second bag shop where great bargains may be found. Called the Champ de Fleurs, it’s far less organised than Stock-Sacs and has a few manufacturer mistakes such as a lurid fuschia thing I saw in their window recently, but, if you dare to enter, there are some wonderful examples of French-made accessories to be had for a song. Monsieur’s briefcase came from this little shop and I am currently breaking in a third purchase from the Champ de Fleurs. Well worth a visit, even if the uninspired window display and dusty corners are a little off-putting.

Across the street from the Champ de Fleurs is a wonderful restaurant called La Fontaine de Mars. It warrants an entry in its own right, but suffice to say that their confit de canard is the best I’ve ever eaten, the menu is traditional with a few pleasant surprises and the atmosphere is efficient French at its best.

La Fontaine de Mars, 129 rue Saint-Dominique 75007

Tel 01 47 05 46 44       lafontainedemars@orange.fr

At 108, rue Saint-Dominique (or rue Saint-Dom, as my hairdresser called it) you will find l’Esprit du Sud-Ouest,a tiny rugby shop selling all manner of rugby shirts, balls, bandes dessinées, DVDs and All Black teddy bears. It’s a typical example of the myriad specialist boutiques to be found in the area, along with a bespoke printer, antique sport and travel poster gallery, perfumers, confectioners, shoe shops, children’s clothing stores and coffee purveyors. In that inimitable French way, the neighbourhood boulangeries somehow make bread look fashionable, so much so that it’s easy to forget that it’s just bread and, for the fashion-conscious, there are plenty of interesting boutiques with little windows displaying chic tops draped with dramatic scarves and just the right set of beads.

All that shopping will work up an appetite but it’s impossible to go hungry on the rue Saint-Dom. Nearby rue Cler is another great place to grab a bite. It boasts a daily market, delicatessans, a fromagerie, fish shop and greengrocers where the bright colours of the produce make shopping for dinner an altogether uplifting French experience compared with popping along to a sterile urban supermarket. The locals (rumoured to include diplomats, politicians and senior embassy staff) shop here alongside foreigners who’ve recognised the area’s charm and bought into it, and there are some great places to eat. Café du Marché is almost always full, serving traditional French food, and is so popular that you’re likely to be bumping elbows with patrons sitting at adjacent tables. Don’t go there if you like uninterrupted personal space. In its favour, however, is its prime position for people-watching and practically everyone who knows the area will have dined there at least once, if not dozens of times. 

Next door to Café du Marché is an Italian eatery with broad terrace opening onto the pedestrianised street, where insalata Caprese is layered, drizzled with pesto dressing and served chilled in a preserving jar with the lid popped open. The salads here are great, reasonably priced and hearty in size, so if you want to grab a bite but save some room for dinner, this is the place to go. There are fine-looking pizzas and generous plates of pasta to choose from and the efficient service gets 5 stars, too.

 If you feel like something more ethnic, there are Chinese, Japanese and Korean restaurants in the vicinity, or if you fancy a picnic in the Champ de Mars, perhaps you could pop into La Maison du Jambon, where there’s a perennial queue of people waiting to buy gourmet treats. The deli window, filled with freshly-prepared dishes, is art in itself. For picnic accoutrements, there is the Franprix supermarket down on the corner of rue de Grenelle. All that’s left is to select a bottle of wine from Nicolas to wash it all down. Mmm, délicieux!   

There is plenty to do in the area if you’d like to dip into Parisian art and culture: the Eiffel Tower, les Invalides, the Ecole Militaire and the Musée Rodin are all within easy walking distance, as is the Musée du Quai Branly. However, the main reason to visit the rue Saint-Dom and rue Cler is to get a taste of real Paris: part day-to-day life, part chic inspiration, part village in the middle of the City of Light. Besides, who can say no to exploring the rue Saint-Dom when the Eiffel Tower stands beckoning at one end? Not me.

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I’ll never forget the day I first tried a Salade Périgourdine. Monsieur and I were in Toulouse on the way to a wedding in Lot. We had stopped for lunch at a terrace restaurant on Wilson Square and I was struggling to decide what to eat. In the end, I decided to try a the salade terroir (no, it’s not a salad of terror, but a salad of the terre, or region) which, in this case, was a Salade Périgourdine, named for a region of France where it’s simply impossible to avoid eating duck: Périgord.

That was the day that duck took on a new meaning for me. Until then, my experience of duck had been restricted to crispy Peking style, hanging in Chinese restaurant windows or listed on a takeaway menu. I liked Chinese duck. Would I like its French cousin? It was time to find out.

The salad appeared, a mound of lettuce leaves covered in different sorts of duck. There were slices of smoked duck (magret de canard fumé), little irregular pieces of duck (I didn’t want to know which part but later learned that these are gésiers, or giblets) and cresting the lot was a perfect round of foie gras. It seemed incredibly decadent to be eating foie gras in a salad but now, I blush to say that I am getting used to it and for the rest of that trip, I ate duck in all its forms at every opportunity.

Here is a basic salad recipe so you can make the Périgourdine at home:

  • Salad leaves – I like lamb’s lettuce for this one.
  • Duck giblets – you will need a good butcher or deli owner to get these for you if you want to cook them from fresh. Otherwise, you may like to stock up on tinned duck ‘gésiers’ when you are in France. In London, we get ours from Borough Market.
  • Slices of magret de canard fumé. This is smoked duck breast. You can buy them in packs from delicatessans. My local deli orders this in fresh for me. It works out tastier and a bit cheaper.
  • A small pot of foie gras. You don’t need very much per person, just a small slice each.
  • Green beans
  • A handful of walnuts
  • Optional additions might be a few stalks of asparagus when in season or an artichoke or two, but do note that these are not traditional ingredients of a Périgourdine. You can also add tomato segments and sliced boiled egg as extras.

Start with a mound of lettuce on each plate, then sprinkle the walnuts, gesiers and green beans evenly on top. Place the slices of smoked duck breast at even intervals around the plate. Crown with a slice of foie gras.

Serve with a slice of toast for the foie gras and a chilled glass of Sauternes. You may like to have a bowl of fig chutney on the table for people who enjoy the taste of fig with their foie gras.

Bon appétit!

 

 

 

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