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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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As you may or may not realise, things have been a bit quiet around Frenchified of late. You can blame the Dutch for that. I won a competition to go to Blog08, a bloggers’ conference in Amsterdam, through vowing to wear Big, Wooden, Netherlandish clogs all day long if I won. Apparently, that was funny, so I won and jetted off to the land of wooden shoes to learn what I could about blogging. As part of my competition pledge I also had to set up Clogblogger, a site devoted to clogs. That meant no time for Frenchified.

One of the great things about going to Blog08 was meeting new people. One new acquaintance, Natasha Cloutier, hails from Canada but has lived in the Netherlands for some time. As you can probably tell from her name, Natasha lived in the francophone part of Canada, and therefore has a passion for French language and culture, especially French music.

Natasha’s site, Oh La La, concentrates on French sounds from the 50s right up to present day. She even creates downloadable podcasts with some of her latest favourites, so if you feel like Frenchifying your MP3 player, tune in to Radio Oh La La and tap your feet to everything from classic Gainsbourg croons through to the retro beat of César et ses Romains. Enjoy.

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Just to let you know that I have hundreds of things to post about concerning the Frenchified world, but a bloggers’ competition has come between me and abundant posting time. I entered the competition to win a ticket to Blog08 and Essential Travel threw in the flights and travel insurance, so later this week I will be at my very first Blogference, wearing a big pair of clogs to promote the concept that won me the competition: Clogblogger. If you want to catch me, click here. Or here. And before you know it, I’ll be back HERE.

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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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The first proper French book I ever read was a little orange paperback of Petit Nicolas stories. I was twelve or thirteen at the time, but to this day I love dipping into the tales of this lovable little rogue, who talks about ‘heaps and heaps’ (‘des tas et des tas’) of things, frequently escalates his crying when his parents vex him, and has friends with such wonderful names as Eudes, Clotaire and Alceste.

A couple of years ago, Monsieur’s Maman (MM) gave me the second volume of the Histoires Inédites du Petit Nicolas. She knew I adored the stories so when the Histoires Inédites came out, that was it. She immediately knew what to buy me for Christmas and, in my eyes, she had found the perfect present. Later, when I finally got to grips with ordering books from Amazon.fr, I bought the first volume so now Monsieur and I have all those funny little tales on our bookshelf.

Petit Nicolas first appeared in 1959, the brainchild of René Goscinny, the French comic writer responsible for Astérix. The simple black and white illustrations are the work of Jean-Jacques Sempé and their naïvety matches the story-telling style. Everything is seen from Nicolas’s perspective: the formation of a gang with secret passwords, the mysteries of adult behaviour, the frustration of not being able to take all of his ‘heaps and heaps’ of toys with him on holiday and the school-yard pranks that little boys are so prone to performing. When Nicolas likes something, it’s always ‘chouette’ (great). His vocabulary hasn’t yet stretched to more specific adjectives.

On checking the net today, I’ve found out a few interesting things. Le Petit Nicolas has been translated into English, although a few things have changed. Those wonderful French names have been switched for English equivalents:

Alceste = Alec, Clotaire = Matthew (what? how on earth did they work that one out?), Eudes = Eddie and Geoffroy becomes Geoffrey (quelle surprise!). Nicolas is anglicised into Nicholas, and his school crush, Marie-Edwige becomes Mary-Jane. For a full list, click here.

It’s also hardly surprising that the name of Petit Nicolas has been used to refer to Nicolas Sarkozy, prompting political cartoonists to portray the President in typically Nicolas scenarios:

We can also look forward to a Petit Nicolas feature film, scheduled for release in September 2009. Laurent Tirard (Molière) is directing and Valérie Lemercier of Fauteuils d’Orchestre fame. Here’s the trailer for that film:

Lemercier will play Nicolas’s maman. Can’t wait.

Back to the subject of the French President and his Petit Nicolas sobriquet, you may be interested to read the following quote from the 2005 edition of The Armchair Diplomat on Europe, by Melissa Rossi. (You have to bear in mind that this was before Sarko became Prez-o.)

New head of Chirac’s Popular Majority Party, the conservative (Sarkozy) who dated Chirac’s daughter, is no longer chummy with the Chiracs, since he made his ambitions known. Chirac’s daughter has said Sarkozy is too short to be the leader of France – apparently forgetting about Napoleon.

Now that’s what I call a quote and a half.

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This beauty shop in La Rochelle stopped me in my tracks because of the painting hanging in its window. Apologies for not being able to lose more of the reflection on the glass, but if you look closely, you’ll see three topless old women smiling back at you. A better advertisement for booking an appointment I cannot think of!

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‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’, or so they say, but what about ‘when in Paris, eat as the Mexicans do’? Deciding to turn our backs on canard and moules and other typical French fare, Monsieur and I felt like dining on something different. That’s how we came to experience two very different Mexican restaurants when we were in Paris last week.

Monsieur loves nachos. They’re his comfort food. He has them after a late night out or when there’s a good football match on TV and even during the French election results last year, so it’s no surprise that he wanted to go Mexican in Paris. He googled ‘Mexican restaurants Paris’ and made a list of the top few. On 1 May, Labour Day, lots of places were closed for business as the workers of France enjoyed a holiday in their honour. Fortunately for us, The Studio, the first Mexican on Monsieur’s list, was open so we decided to try it out.

The Studio is located just off the rue du Temple (le Marais) on a cobbled courtyard where patrons can enjoy fine Paris evenings at one of the outdoor tables. As we entered the restaurant, a waiter appeared immediately to seat us and we were happy that everything looked as you’d expect – coloured glass tea-light holders on each table, a Kahlo-esque painting on one wall, the authentic looking bar stocked with requisite selection of tequilas and a big green sculpture of a lizard hung above a door.

The menu was typical Mexican, laden with nachos, enchilladas and fajitas, so as we struggled to decide we quelled a surge in appetite with the corn chips and spicy salsa that had been deposited in front of us. One downside was that the wait for service was very, very long. In fact, it makes me think of a quote that appeared on the Zagat website recently, where someone said:

“I actually pulled out my cell phone and called to ask them to please bring us water.”

We attributed the lack of attention to short staffing on Labour Day and just as we were beginning to wonder if there was anyone at all in the kitchen (several of the other tables hadn’t been served, either), the restaurant’s cogs started whirring and we were eating in no time.

To start, Monsieur ordered nachos, which did not appear as the typical mountain of chips but which was instead presented as an artfully arranged pattern of individually-dressed tortilla chips. Meanwhile, I chowed down on a calorific selection of ‘fritos’: onion rings, peppers stuffed with cheese and deep-fried batons of mozzarella. It was just what I felt like eating, but it did have a bit of that ‘here’s one I froze earlier’ quality to it. Still, if they stocked this food in the freezer section of my local supermarket, I’d definitely buy it for a naughty treat.

As a main course, Monsieur chose a plate of enchilladas, which he polished off in record time in spite of the fact that he was now convinced that everything we were eating had come from the freezer. My prawn-filled quesadilla was tasty but far from remarkable, a little bit cardboardy, in fact, and our margheritas looked like the pre-mix cocktail variety although thankfully more alcoholic. It wasn’t that bad, but it wasn’t great and we ended up paying about 40 Euros each for mediocre, which is hardly a bargain. Confusingly, the reviews on the web had been so positive that my theory is this: the regular kitchen chefs had taken advantage of Labour Day to have some well-earned respite, leaving a freezer or two filled with prepared meals so that the holiday staff could heat them up and arrange them on a plate. Hey, presto! They don’t lose any business.

Monsieur was unimpressed. The following morning he informed me that:

“we’re going to a different Mexican place tonight. It’s in the student quarter and it’s authentic,” That got my attention, as do most comments referring to food. “it’ll be interesting to compare it with last night’s food to see which one is better.”

I have to admit, it amuses me to go somewhere like Paris, only to eat Mexican food. Two nights in Paris. Two nights of enchilladas. It’s not the usual approach to eating in the City of Light, but we’re not exactly your usual couple. We do strange stuff like this. A lot.

Anahuacalli restaurant Paris

So off we set, across the river to the 5th, to find The Studio’s Mexican rival, Anahuacalli, which is located on Rue des Bernardins, just off the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Before we even began to eat, everything about the place screamed genuine Mexican at us, and we suspected we’d be safe here because it was already full. Prints of Frida Kahlo self-portraits helped create a Mexican atmosphere and, as her husband, Diego Rivera’s museum is located in Anahuacalli, Mexico, her presence made perfect sense. Mayan sculptures stood on sconces around the room, there were sachets of Mexican food for sale behind the reception desk and the waitresses all wore embroidered blouses of a Central American style.

The menu made for fascinating reading. Apart from salivating at the culinary options, I learned that Anahuacalli is an Aztec word, meaning ‘house by the water’, and that ‘tomato’ comes from ‘tomatl’, another noun of Aztec origin. Our margheritas turned up in chunky glasses with hints of blue and deliciously salted rims. They were generous, genuine and so good that we ignored wine and drank margheritas instead. Then complimentary corn chips arrived in a matte silver bowl with pyramid feet, joined by two little ceramic dishes of salsa, one red (hot) and one green (think mouth-on-fire).

The starters all looked great so we ordered a Tu y Yo (you and me) shared starter, which came on a single blue and white ceramic plate, each dish blending into the next. There was a sweet ceviche of raw white fish, a mound of freshly made guacamole with a coriander bite,  small tortilla rolls containing soft cheese or chicken,  and a  delicious salad called nopalitos, consisting of tomatoes, coriander and cactus. CACTUS! Yes, we ate cactus and it’s my new favourite food. The texture is like a cooked green pepper, the taste is like a jalapeño without the chilli and it works brilliantly in salad. Now I just have to work out where to buy it.

I ummed and ahed over the main course selection. The turkey mole with a cacao and twenty-spice sauce sounded tempting, but in the end I went for Pescado, sea bream poached in a mix of peppers, cactus (again!), onions and tomatoes with citrus juice and capers. It’s probably one of the best fish dishes I’ve ever eaten. Monsieur chose the enchilladas because “I want to compare it with last night’s to see which is better”. You won’t be surprised to hear that Anahuacalli came out tops. Other temptations on the menu included fillet of salmon in a papaya sauce, or duck breast on a bed of courgette flower cream.

As we ate I observed a nearby table, where Mum and Dad were taking twenty-something daughter for dinner. Daughter was blonde with startled-looking blue eyes, so slim that her clavicle stuck out like a shelf. She ate with the gusto of someone who hadn’t seen food in a month, and this included licking her knife on both sides at intervals. I still remember the day when I was taught why people didn’t lick knives. I was five years old, so this display horrified me. I can hand-on-heart say that I haven’t seen a person lick a knife in public since I was a child. No doubt Daughter may have had an eating disorder, as she periodically disappeared to the restaurant conveniences, returning with watery eyes. Her parents looked sensible, however, and I wondered if they noticed their offspring’s erratic behaviour or the fact that she was putting away enough food to fill a pair of hollow legs.

Meanwhile, we called it a night. Deciding to leave Anahuacalli’s dessert list another time, we payed this bill with a smile and the knowledge that we know where to eat proper Mexican in Paris. I’m dying to return and have an entire plate of cactus salad and try their famous Mole.

NB If you do decided to give Anahuacalli a shot, definitely reserve. When we called, they told us they have two sittings: 7.30pm or 9pm so make sure you don’t turn up without a reservation because chances are pretty high that you won’t get in.

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