I usually write the blog (with help from the gals) from the perspective of all the Breast Friends. Today I am going to write from my perspective, just because I happen to be the foodie of the group and will write this as only a true food lover can! When I say I am the foodie of a 10 person group of gals that write cookbooks…I don’t mean I am the best cook, far from it. I am probably not the most knowledgeable about food, ingredients, cooking techniques, or nutrition, but I am without a doubt, the one that enjoys food the most. I am afraid I am known among my family and friends for this love of food. When planning a holiday, I chose restaurants before sites to see. When inviting company, I often choose the menu and invite guests around it. When planning an event, the food is foremost. So naturally, when travelling to Paris – I get excited just about the wonderful opportunities to try new food. I celebrate with food, I grieve with food, I worry with food, and I show love with food.
Not necessarily healthy or wise, but I have come to know it and am comfortable with it. I am very easy to identify among the gals – I am the one with the waistline of a foodie. Packing to come home, the other gals were busy making room for their new jackets and dresses; I was making room for Camembert and macaroons.
I was so proud of the group of gals I travelled with – they are a special breed that try to accommodate everyone’s loves. They not only respect each other’s passions, they embrace them and celebrate them with you. On the first night a pact was made that there would be no chain restaurants or coffee shops visited, there would be no hamburgers or American sandwiches consumed. We would take on Paris food and drink with gusto – we would experience everything we could in six short days. We didn’t make any reservations, much to the chagrin of our desk clerk (who became our concierge, and later our friend). Instead when our touring day was done, we walked the narrow streets peering in café windows and looking at menus until we found a place or a chef that called us in. We never had to walk far.
Once you discover that unlike Canada, the restaurants aren’t necessarily signed or identified, you will find there is a wonderful one hiding about every five buildings and often a chef or waiter is out on the street inviting you to enter. It was never hard to find a place, just hard to decide which one. I won’t begin to try to cover all of our culinary experiences but will highlight some of the most delicious and most fun.
We all fell in love with the wonderful cheeses. Warm goat cheese salads and goat cheese on toast became a staple and nights that we were just grabbing a quick bite, those would often be the choice. The goat cheese was always warm and served on a sliced baguette with a green salad and a delicious vinaigrette dressing. I have tried to replicate it, to no avail. I am not sure of the secret.
Jacquie and I for lunch one day enjoyed a Croque-Monsieur, the French version of a toasted ham and Swiss sandwich. It was loaded with butter and cheese, and was absolutely delicious. Gruyère cheese and ham belong together. According to About.com the word croque comes from the verb croquer or “to crunch”. So a Croque-Monsieur roughly translates to “Mister Crunchy”. If you add an egg to the top of the sandwich it becomes the feminine version Croque-Madam – I will try that one the next time I am there.
One evening we decided to try a little café that specialized in raclette and fondue. I can’t remember the name but I know it was on rue Saint-Honoré. Some of the gals ordered a wonderful fish dish. Val and Anne ordered raclette and Linda and I ordered fondue. We have all had dinners of our Canadian version of fondue, plunging our bits of meat and vegies in hot oil. We have even experimented with pots of melted cheese and white wine and with dipping strawberries in pots of melted chocolate, but we had no clue of what to expect with fondue Parisian style.
We ordered mixte fondue so we would get a good sampling of what there was to offer. First arrived the wonderful big crockery pot of gruyere cheese, with maybe a whiff of garlic and some white wine? Next arrived Val and Anne’s raclette- little table top heated skillets over a flame, with blocks of the wonderful Swiss raclette cheese. Then came a small bowl of pickled onions and small sweet pickles. I will never forget the look on Linda’s face when our entrée plates arrived. They held a mountain of charcuterie- thinly sliced cold cuts. There were slices of some of the best prosciutto, mortadella, pancetta, and salami, but meat – all meat. This is for Linda, who eats very little meat and lives on vegetables and other healthy things. Her eyes were wide. Next came a large bowl of boiled potatoes and a huge basket of cubes of fresh bread. There was not a green or any other color of veggie to be seen. In great Linda style, some laughter, and then “let’s dig in and try this”. Try it we did.
Twirling thin slices of prosciutto around the fork and plunging it into the warm cheese, followed by a slice of potato, a pickled onion, or a chunk of bread melted in cheese, and washed down with a wonderful glass of French wine. Our arteries may have not loved it but we did. Anne had previously experienced raclette so was able to lead us through the intricacies of their meal. With raclette, or at least modern raclette, the cheese is brought to the table sliced, accompanied by platters of boiled or steamed potatoes, and charcuterie (the same cold meat as the fondue). The slices of cheese are melted and simply poured over the potatoes, the pickles and meat on the plate and then enjoyed with large sips of wine and good conversation.
The idea of both of these meals is to make dinner a social gathering. The French are good at that. Our meals always took a few hours and became our favourite parts of the day to laugh and share highlights and celebrate with unbelievable flavours and great wines.
The next evening we walked back down the rue Saint-Honoré to find the little crêperie that we had spotted the night before. We had seen sweet crêpes on the menu of other cafes for dessert but we wanted to try the savoury galettes, made with buckwheat flour and unsweetened. We had a small room on the second floor of the restaurant to ourselves so were free to talk and laugh a little loudly, like we sometimes do. I tried the mushroom and chicken galette, with a cup of lait chaud, (warm milk) which is quite common on the menus. It brought back wonderful memories of my Mom making warm milk after skating and playing outside on cold nights when I was a child. It became a daily, relaxing drink for me while we were there. We all ate our gallettes carefully and slowly and some of us even left a little bit because we had decided to end the evening with dessert crepes and had to have room. Darlene and I split a Chantilly and almond crepe and luckily sat across from Nat and Val, who ordered a wonderful flaming Cointreau chocolate crêpe and shared.
I can’t end this blog – even though I should — without talking about the last night in Paris. We decided to end with fine dining and went to Stephan to book us into his favorite. He asked if we would be happy with gastronomic and when we asked what he meant he said, in his best English with his wonderful accent, “In America, you like big plates and big mounds of food and you eat lots and then you ask for a box and take more home and eat more, it will not be like that.” We laughed but found it interesting how the French – at least, Stephan, viewed North American fare and habits. Yes, gastronomic would be fine; can you get us into that restaurant?
After a few minutes of him shaking his head and his arms at us for not booking ahead (he loved to give us lectures – but he also loved to find treasures for us to see and do), he got on the phone and with many hand gestures and French begging, he booked us into his choice. It was a close walk from our hotel and so we dressed up and with the mixed feelings of friends who were heading home to families and familiarity tomorrow, but hated to see this wonderful experience end – we went for our last dinner. We had a wonderful pair of waiters that were very willing to explain all of the intricacies of the menu and make recommendations from the chef.
We all decided on three courses and began with such wonderful dishes as carrot and saffron soup served over Dutch ewe’s cheese, French lentil spinach risotto, or pancetta with buckhorn berries. The main course that Nat and I explored was lamb in a truffle sauce and aubergine (roasted eggplant) stuffed with prunes. Delicious. Linda and Jac had poulet rôti (roast chicken) with a mushroom chardonnay sauce, Darlene and Cecile tried the monkfish with a wine, garlic and crème fraiche sauce, and Anne and Val were very brave and tried a fish that the waiter said was the first cousin of the sting ray. Everyone loved their meals.
We all tried each other’s desserts and they were to die for. Small cones filled with coconut sorbet, chocolate and vanilla mousse (that is totally different from the mousse we get here – rich and thick and velvety), small balls of pear marinated in sweet ginger and enveloped in pastry and opera gateau that was a work of art on the plate.
I have to stop here or I will have a book and not a blog. I haven’t even started on the macaroons, or the pain du chocolate, the raspberry tarts or the chocolate chaud (hot chocolate unlike any you have ever tried). There may have to be another blog just about pastries and beverages. I am certainly not a connoisseur, or know anything of French cuisine after only 6 days of experimentation. But I know that we gave it a Breast Friends try, and loved every second.
Now I have to go, and take my attempt at baking baguettes out of the oven, to serve with my own version of fondue in fond memory of a fun evening with the girls, and in an attempt to share a little of these wonderful tastes with my husband, Jim.