My husband, my youngest son Michael and I just returned from France where we rejoined Daniel, my 21 year old son, who just finished a semester abroad in Barcelona. I kept a daily diary during the trip which I share with you now. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to travel and to eat. It expands your palate and your knowledge of what is possible with one are essential qualities in a good baker/cook/chef.
Long, relentless plane ride to Paris. Michael doesn’t sleep on the plane. Michael uses those additional hours to torment those around him. There was a man sitting one row ahead of us and to the right of our isle, who kept turning his head to scowl at us. Yah man, you think you can do better? I dare you to come and sit next to the Beast. I’ll happily take your place.
There is a new show on TV to replace ” River Monsters” with Jeremy Wade. I don’t know the name but it’s a French fisherman who travels the world to fish for massive beasts. In one of the shows he searches for a Wade catfish in Paris. He fishes on the banks of the Seine and the Saint Martin Canals, thus upping the ante for the activities Michael wanted to do in Paris.
This morning, after a relatively sleepless night for all (Michael up at 12:20 in the morning in an irascible stupor insisting that we fish now and sleep later) we are taking our Ronco Pocket Fisherman to the banks of the Seine to try and catch a Wade catfish. We are baiting the hook with Genoa salami and Mozarella because while I’m am indulgent enough mother to schlepp a fishing rod to Paris I am not running around looking for Night Crawlers.
We had a family discussion about what happens if Michael falls in and all bets are on as to whether any of us will jump in after him. Through my sleepy fog I’m thinking perhaps not. Dealing with teenagers requires sufficient sleep and a sense of humor. Lacking the former diminishes the latter. I was experiencing a deficit of both.
After fishing we took a commuter boat to St. Germaine for our pilgrimage to Les Deux Magots where we ate the usual Jambon pain Poulane and Pierre Hermes 2 Mil Feuille. We worship at the altar of Pierre Hermes, still one of the best pastry chef’s in Paris. The 2 Mil Feuille pastry is composed of delicate layers of caramelized puff pastry that shatter under your bite, layered with silky hazelnut cream and one layer at the bottom of hazelnut cream mixed with crepe dentelle and a bit of chocolate. It is the crunchy, creamy confection that I’m always on the hunt for and all incredibly light. We had a charming waiter, which was lucky because Les Deux Magots is old school and has many grumpy waiters. We spilled a glass of water and a cup of coffee in the process of containing Michael and the waiter appeared immediately with good humor and aplomb to wisk away the evidence. We suggested that Michael stay and wash dishes for the rest of the day but our offer was politely but hastily declined.
On to the Luxembourg gardens to sail boats in the Grande Basin. Pierre Hermes was on the way, literally unavoidable, so of course we stopped for more pastry and ate them in the shade of the garden. I took a rhubarb tart: crisp and delicate pate sucre with a layer of rhubarb compote, a little scoop of passion fruit mousse and a layer of fresh strawberries nestled around the mousse. Daniel had a little cake comprised of genoise moistened with a lime soaking syrup, passion fruit mousse and bits of rhubarb, a crunchy disc of pate sucree on the bottom and the whole cake enrobed in a white chocolate mirror glaze. Very pretty! I must apologize for the lack of photos. I have no excuse other than in our excitement we inhaled them and then looked at the table and thought to ourselves, what a pity we didn’t take pictures. I have only two and Daniel’s cake is a little worse for wear because it pitched sideways in the bag. You have to imagine a perfect demisphere with a perfectly even mirror glaze.
Daniel and I split from the group and went on to the Grand Epicerie in search of Tonga beans and Michael and Francois went back to the apartment. A word about Tonga Beans. They have a seductive flavor with anise, vanilla and cinnamon notes, and I can’t wait to try them in a creme brûlée or Semifreddo. However, they are prohibited in the US. Why, you ask? Well, if you eat thirty of them they are fatal. We are are going to buy less than thirty so I hope they will allow us to bring them in the country.
Later, we met up at my belle mere’s apartment to see Francois’ two brothers and Cousin Adam, the worlds greatest baby sitter after Daniel.
Michael was lovely. He’s magnificent when we’re doing what interests him. Aren’t we all? Kids with ADHD have no tolerance for engaging in activities that don’t hold their interest. That’s the deal. Being a teenager now is just icing on the cake 😞
Spent the day in Versailles. Michael and Francois were like two peas in a pod, fascinated by every painting, every piece of sculpture and every piece of ormolu. Daniel and I were done after the first room and longing to walk in the gardens. We had great weather, cool and overcast. It’s perfect weather for Michael, who can’t tolerate the heat, and the gardens had a soft fog weaving in and out of the topiaries. The highlight was taking a row boat on the Grande Canal and thanks to Francois tendency to prepare for every opportunity that might arise, we had Michael’s Ronco Pocket Fisherman in his backpack. So, we fished in the Grand Canal, far enough away so that no one could stop us. I’d love to tell you we caught a fish but sadly, we did not.
We also had lunch at an Alain Ducasse cafe which was quite lovely. I only took pictures of the pasty we were too hungry to take pictures of the lunch.
We had Tonton Laurent with us and he and Michael did some energetic sword fighting in the gardens with the tiny figures they bought in the toy shop.
Woke up at the crack of dawn with Michael. Daniel volunteered to Michael sit and I went to the market. Didn’t get lost going there or coming back, a miracle. Scored some Mara des Bois from the only stand that had them in a market which covers about 4 city blocks.
The day went according to plan with the exception of the walk home from the metro station. Daniel pretended to slam his head into a light post, actually placing his arm between the pole and his head. Michael didn’t see that small detail and likewise followed his brother, slamming his head into a lamp post. We ended up walking the two blocks home with Michael spectacularly dripping blood from his nose. Of course, I had no Kleenex because, I have a teenage boy and an adult boy now, so I thought I was done with the days I needed Kleenex, wipes and a few trucks in my handbag. We tried to staunch the flow of blood with a piece of the newspaper we were carrying but Michael kept taking the paper on and off so he could look at the blood. He ended up with blood all over his face and neck. Two young male hikers took pity on us and offered toilet paper they were carrying. I was able to pack Michael’s nose but not get the blood off his face. Boys!
We did go fishing on the Seine near the île de la Cite and to L’Eclair De Genie before the light pole incident. Chef Christophe Adam transformed the éclair from a humble and simple pastry enjoyed by thousands of school children, to an enchanting and decadent little pleasure. It’s one of my favorite pastries to make, so full of possibilités.
Went to the Rodin Museum in the morning. The roses were in bloom and walking through the garden is such a lovely way to experience the sculpture. The little fountain that Michael jumped in two years ago was removed. Coincidence? I think not.
Off to Napoleons Tomb which Michael adored. He loves all things Napoleon! We were greeted with some sort of military exercise with dignitaries unknown to us. They played the Marseillaise and marched around. It was fun. We had to go through security and Daniel, Adam and I were all searched but they let Michael walk on through. Thought about telling them Michael was the one they had to worry about but Daniel gave me the familial raised eyebrow so I bit my tongue.
On to the Montparnasse Tower to look at the view. It’s quite lovely up there and you can get a glass of champagne while you look at the 360 degree view of Paris.
Next, we stopped at a pastry shop Daniel had on his list (Des Gateau et du Pain)where we bought pastry for tonight and then spotted another one on the way to the Metro and we bought pastry from them as well. Daniel is my pastry buddy and it’s so much fun to share this passion we have. We decided that we’d do our pastry crawl only eating 1/2 of every pastry. However, I think we may have doubled the amount of pastry we’re buying. Oops!
The plan was to go to L’Orangerie to see the two oval rooms with enormous Monet water lillies, to Le Marais, L’As du Falafel for lunch, Berthillon for ice cream and fishing somewhere.
All went according to plan until we were walking through Rue de Rivoli to get the Metro. We noticed people lining up in front of a pastry shop. We stood in line immediately and then googled the chef: Cedric Grolet the only chef in Paris to gain a Michelin star for pastry. We waited 30 minutes for the shop to open, waiting for the bouncer to open the door. Seriously. He was dressed in Le Maurice Hotel employee uniform and he was charming, but he was a bouncer nonetheless. While we waited, I typed on my IPhone that I was a pastry chef from Chicago, beckoned the bouncer and pressed my phone against the glass window. The bouncer came out and gave me a run down on every detail of every pastry. We discussed what we would order. The doors opened and all the chefs came out, shaking hands and saying ” welcome” to all the waiting clients. Finally they opened the door and the first four people gained entrance. After more interminable minutes the door opened again and we were admitted. As I passed by the bouncer he whispered to me, ” Vous prenez la Tarte aux Poires”. I heard someone say ” We’ll take one of everything!” My son looked shocked but pleased and I realized that voice had been mine. We snagged one of the pear tarts, still warm from the oven.
We went to the Tuileries and ate the pastry in the shade. In the end, we declared Pierre Herme still King of Pastry.
No lunch today but we’ll look for a fishing spot for Michael.
No lunch today but we’ll look for a fishing spot for Michael.
Today we drive to St Malo. A little history: St. Malo was pirate central in the 16th century. It still has some tall ships docked in the harbor. We didn’t know this when we picked it but what a bonus for Michael. I’m feeling just a little guilty that I wouldn’t pack his rapier along with his pocket fisherman.
Packed up. Cleaned the apartment. Waited for Francois to pick us up with the rental.
First stop is Pappi (grandpa) Jean-Pierre to say ” abientot” and pick up Tonton Laurent. Next, a five hour drive. Not looking forward to that, but the destination is worth the drive. Daniel has scouted a restaurant in Chartes for lunch. Chartres is only 1 hour away. That’s apparently as long as we can go without food.
Much to Daniel’s chagrin we drove past Chartres and decided to stop briefly at a highway oasis. Michael was delighted to find a McDonald’s there. In addition to the usual stuff, they had croissant, pane au chocolate, macarons and canelle. They were gross but hey, an “A” for effort.
Arrived last night at 5:30 and located a very good butcher, fabulous artisanal jam and a decent baguette. Luckily we bought some basics ( yogurt, coffee, milk, eggs, fruit) from a Casino because tomorrow, we were just I formed, the roads will be closed for an Ironman.
How did we miss this, and I mean the completely fluent French speaker in the family? Also no dryer, which in a cold and humid climate means things mold before they dry. Zoot! I’ll have to go shopping for some clothes. With no internet we, and I mean the fluent French speaker who failed to properly read the listing for the rental, will have to entertain a very bored Michael so Michael doesn’t dismantle the house.
We strolled around St. Malo and then picked up Mai at the train station. Mai is ma belle mer (mother in law) Marie-Paule. She became “Mai”because Daniel couldn’t pronounce her name when he was a toddler and “Marie-Paule “ came out as Mai. With her usual grace and aplomb, she embraced the name and “Mai” is what we all call he now. Like the month, she is mostly sunny, with the occasional chilly wind, usually directed towards her sons, grown men but still her boys.
Mai is an excellent traveler and so even after rising early, a taxi and then a three hour train ride she was game for exploration. St. Malo was a medieval fortified city that was completely destroyed during World War II and later rebuilt to replicate the old city. We did a tour of St. Malo, walking around the entire town up on the ramparts. The difference in the tides between last night and this morning was remarkable. The water had dissipated to reveal huge rocks that previously had been submerged, a road between St. Malo and a little island with a fortress on top was now visible and a sea water swimming pool, who’s only clue to its existence last night had been a tall diving board, which appeared to float in the water, far from shore. Today one could see the edges of the pool and the diving board at its edge. Daniel wondered what sea creatures could be lurking in the pool. My prior phobia about being attacked by a shark in a fresh water swimming pool emerged momentarily and sent a chill up to my scalp and down my spine. Yep, not going in that pool.
The walls of this fortified city hide many narrow streets with stone walls, a few churches, restaurants, and tourist shops selling Breton striped sweaters, snow globes and pottery. However, there are also some shops carrying designer Pret a Porter from Max Mara, Devernois, Gerard Darel and Prada. I try to pass by with a blind eye.
The buckwheat crepe originated in Brittany and St.Malo is littered with Creperie, some good and some bad. With the help of Daniel’s IPhone we located a good one in a quiet street. I ordered a crepe with smoked salmon, creme fraiche and chives, Michael ordered ham, cheese and sunny side up egg, Francois had a crepe with chèvre, walnuts and a little salad in the center. I don’t remember what Mai and Laurent had. Then their were the dessert crepes: Nutella, apples flambeed with Calvados, lemon and honey and sugar and honey. I love the lemon and sugar. It’s bright and fresh and you can taste, the dough of the crepe.
More walking around, my belle mere bought me a blue and white striped Breton, hoodie and we bought Michael a pirate flag which Tonton Laurent broke within minutes. Tonton Laurent and Michael are what the French affectionately call “ brisefer” or “ break everything”. Their curiosity about how things are put together and their love of a good joust at anytime and with everything often result in injury to inanimate objects.
Today we went to amont Mont Saint Michelle. My memory of this little fortified city proved better than the reality. You can’t go home again. If somehow, you can go one evening off season, close to the Equinox where the tides are at their strongest and most dramatic, it would be worth it. It is a beautiful natural site, a little town built on a tiny island island that is surrounded by water at high tide and wet sand at low tide. I long to watch the tide come in “ like a galloping horse” as is the legend. The church on top of the island is lovely and we were lucky to reach it just as it choir began singing. It was a magical moment and made one forget the oppressive crowds and tchotchke shops that lined the streets below.
We returned to La Mere Poulard for their famous dessert omelet, cooked in a wood burning fireplace. Unbeknownst to us it had been bought out and they changed the recipe. Blech, and I’m being kind. Yes, it was still a fluffy souffléd omelet but now they are sprinkling a combination of salt and sugar on the top before they caramelize it. I love salt, even in sweets, but it was disgusting. I will continue to make L’omlette au Mere Poulard on my Big Green Egg a little sad that it is better than the original. There are a few videos on you tube illustrating how they make the omelette. It’s worth watching.
DAY THIRTEEN, I think:
We are on our way back to Mont St. Michel. Daniel wants to do a three hour walkabout on the sands around the island. I am torn between going with him and marching around wet sand in bare feet without my Berkies or acces to a bathroom (these are the things you must think about at almost 60) or spending another day trying not to lose Michael and going to Alligator Bay with the rest of the family, or poking myself in the eye with a sharp stick.
Can someone please just teleport me to Rue Bonaparte in Paris (that’s where the original Pierre Hermes shop is)?
Waiting for Francois to get up as he’s the only one who can drive a stick shift. 10:15 and no one else is ready except for me and the kids. Sheesh, no time to lallygag. We’re on vacation and have much to do on our last day! In the meantime, I took a way Michael’s iPad last night and we are all suffering. Sucks!!!!
Finally, everyone got ready and we jumped in the van to go to Cancal. It’s a little fishing village that is known for farming oysters. Not as charming as St. Tropez or Honfleur but still nice enough. It’s a steep descent from the town square to the harbor but lots of stuff to look at on the way down including stairs built into the rock face, going up to a private home. The harbor is fairly typical, seafood restaurants and souvenir shops elbowing each other for precious space. Mai treated us to a lovely lunch with friendly waiters who were eager to share their opinions on the best fish and the best way to prepare it. To me, this sharing of recipes and a passion for food is invaluable. So, our waiter’s recipe is for Daurade which is a Mediterranean fish with white firm flesh and a delicate aroma. Allors, take an oven proof dish and make a bed of onions. Put a finger of water, so the onion doesn’t burn and the fish stays moist. Place it in a medium oven and bake until done. You can use fillets but a whole fish is always better.
Today we return to Paris. We stripped the beds, tidied up, packed our bags and loaded everything and everyone into the car. Why does it always seem like we have more stuff than we started with? It’s like our luggage reproduced while they were in storage. The landlady didn’t see Michael running around and was worried we’d leave without him. He had quietly gotten in the car and was safely stashed away with his iPad. Yea, he wasn’t taking any chances and neither was she.
We had such good intentions when we arrived in Coulomb. It was going to be a week of fresh fruit and vegetables, fish and absolutely no sweets or bread. But then, I discovered some local preserves made in the village and carried all over Provence. It wouldn’t have been so bad if we had stuck to stirring them into unsweetened yogurt but the next day we found a bakery with an excellent baguette. So, every morning we would make toast with the baguette and smear it with soft, sweet butter and apricot or strawberry or poire/groseille preserves while the Greek yogurt lingered in the fridge.
Pears are difficult to preserve without commercial pectin because they have very little natural pectin. Currants are high in pectin and give the preserves a lovely pink color. I will definitely be trying this. I’ve paired pears with quince in the past but I prefer the currants.
On our way out of town we noticed that the second bakery, previously shuttered for vacation, was open. I got out of the van with Tonton in hot pursuit, my partner in crime. There was a line of old ladies out the door, usually a good sign. We returned to the car loaded with vienoisserie and pastry: croissant, pain au chocolate, apple tart, Paris Brest and a large Kougniman. Oops, forgot the bread so we sent Tonton to buy some. I never forget the cannoli but sometimes the bread. Mai looked at us with a combination of concern and disdain and announced that sugar is an addiction. Preaching to the choir Mai. We are a car full of addicts and I suspect that in these last days in France we are going to indulge in our drug of choice often and in great variety. I plan on going cold turkey when we’re back in the states with a low carb pescatarian diet.
We stopped for lunch by the side of the road and had an assortment of saucisson, cheese, fresh baguette from the bakery in Coulomb, tomato, Mara des Bois strawberries and finally the Kougniman. Kougniman is the regional speciality and this was a really good one: crunchy, soft, chewy, caramelized with sugar, moist with butter and a tiny bit salty, from the demi sel butter that’s used. It is rich, the Carmel 1/2″ thick in places. We cut tiny slivers with Mai’s minuscule but sharp blade on her Swiss Army knife but in the end we devoured it one tiny slice at a time.
Back in Paris. We decided today would be a pastry free day. Daniel went for a run. Michael and I went downstairs for a healthy breakfast of bacon and eggs for him and coffee and plain yogurt with a bit of fruit for me.
We walked briskly from the Hotel Mercure to the bus stop at Champ de Mars and ran to the bus which looked as if it was just leaving. In fact, we found the bus driver taking a 10 minute break. We sat and waited. As we waited or resolve dissipated. We are going to be in Le Marais, it would be a pity to miss Berthillon. We ruminated.
Anyway, our first stop was a clothing store that I had seen on my first day and I decided to take a friends’ advice and seize the day, not wait until more time had passed and I was too old to enjoy the beautiful Fortuny velvet kimono I bought. Daniel says Marnie’s son Max owes him a drink because it was Daniel’s job to occupy Michael while I was shopping and then again during a second visit because I had forgotten my passport the first time and they needed it for the tax discount.
After Venezia Studium it was lunchtime and we walked to a tapas place that had been on Daniel’s ” to do” list. It was fabulous! Tapas with a French and Asian twist. I had cod served with a bowl of perfectly cooked vegetables and a light vegetable, butter, vinegar broth. Michael had grilled octopus served with squid ink risotto and also squid with chorizo. He liked both. Daniel had two eggs where the yolks had been scooped out and mixed with mayonnaise and sprinkled with black and white toasted sesame seeds. The whites had been filled with seasoned crab meat and the yolks piped over them in a beautiful swirl. I think we’re going back tomorrow and I’ll try and take a picture. The best thing we had was a lobster ravioli served in a court bouillon. The dough was a wonton so it was thin and translucent and encased a nice solid chunk of lobster. The broth had ginger, scallions and other flavorings.
After lunch we met Francois and fished with Michael near the Pont des Arts and then walked to the pyramids at the louvre. Michael was tired and delighted to go home in a taxi with Francois. Daniel and I went back to Patrick Roger to get more chocolate and specifically to search for his elusive peach/pepper caramel bonbon. We found it but it was only sold in a large assorted box. We asked if we could add it to another box. Mai Non! We asked if we could buy them separately. Mai non! We wheedled. We dallied. We told him that we knew the chocolates were kept downstairs in a freezer in separate boxes and that he could sell us the peach caramels if he wanted to. The line behind us began to build. I think the salesperson realized that we were deaf to the word ” no” and was also a bit freaked out about our intel about where and how the chocolates were kept. Who are these chocolate sleuths? He relented and sold us four of the peach. They were lovely.
We went back to the hotel with our treasures and rested before dinner. For dinner Mai took us to a very good Thai restaurant. The last time we were there Tonton Laurent had ordered a cod cooked in a banana leaf with coconut milk, lemongrass and a bit of red curry. I had been dreaming about it for 3 years and so I ordered that. It was worth the wait.
In the end, it was a pastry free day. Chocolate is not pastry, unless it is chocolate pastry but we only consumed chocolates today. We are very proud of ourselves.
Today is our last full day in Paris. We are flying home tomorrow.
Our plan is to actually go to Berthillon today. We’ve tried several times but keep going astray. Berthillon has wonderful ice cream with unusual flavors like Earl Grey and Marron Glacé ice cream and Fraise des Bois and pear sorbet among others. I’ve had the Marron Glace with a pear compote and it’s a lovely pairing. I confess I usually get the Fraise des Bois sorbet and pistachio ice cream.
It’s Fathers day so we let Francois sleep in and pick what we were going to do. This was a difficult concept for Michael who kept insisting that Francois wanted to go back to the Luxembourg gardens and sail the boats. I actually wish we could have done that for him. He got kinda gipped the day we went because it was so hot and we were worried he’d become ill after only half an hour.
I made a last run to the farmers market to say farewell to the apricots from Provence and the Mara des Bois strawberries.
We ended up going to Sacre Cour.
I wouldn’t recommend going on a Sunday. It was really crowded. Still, even with the crowds it’s beautiful. The walk down becomes quite nice after you get past the main square and the tourist shops and before you get to the metro station at the bottom.
After Sacre Cour we met darling Adam for Tapas. When we went yesterday we only tried the seafood bar l’Avant Comptoir de la Mer. Today we started in the meat side, L’Avant Comptoir de la Terre and switched to seafood. There is a third restaurant after the first two called Le Comptoir. The concept is that you eat a few tapas first (avant) and then go to the bistro.
It was all delicious and fun. There are no bar stools on the meat side. You just stand and eat. There are some bar stools on the seafood side but it’s not really comfortable.
After lunch we went on a bit of a wild goose chase to find zlabia for Francois. This involved chasing down the little streets in the Latin Quarter hunting for the one oriental pasty shop he remembered from his childhood. We actually found one after talking to an absolutely charming man who was standing outside his couscous restaurant. Now, I love fat and sugar but Zlabia exceeds my limits by a long shot. Let me see if I can describe it. It’s like the greasiest funnel cake you can find at a county fair and then it is soaked in honey. Daniel agrees with me that it it is beyond disgusting. Michael of course loved it. Such a daddy’s boy.
After we located the Zlabia we finally went to Berthillon. The line was out the door and down the block. Francois strode into the restaurant and found an empty table. Of course, when you get table service it’s more expensive but we were we’re happy to sit and avoid the line. Plus, if you have the ice cream at a table it comes with delicious buttery, crispy tuile as big as your head. Berthillon still makes some of the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted and the sorbets I think are the best. Daniel and I got frais des bois sorbet and pistachio ice cream as usual but we agreed to split a scoop of honey nougat which was wonderful. The pistachio is dense and unctuous, studded with bits of pistachio. The frais des bois is not as silky as the pear but the flavor is amazing and not too sweet. It’s a fair trade. Francois got a scoop of pear sorbet and giandujia/orange. The pear is always amazing: silky smooth and tasting like perfectly ripe pears. The giandujia was more choclate than hazelnut with pieces of tender orange peel. Michael doesn’t like cold things so he had a very good chocolate macaroon.
We flagged a cab and drove off to the family gouter which includes sweet and salty things: little sandwiches with smoked Salmon and herbed chèvre, olives, chips and crudités and pastry. Adam’s sister Marcelline had just flown in from Africa yesterday and we were so happy to see her. She played a lovely game of Zuni with Michael with rules that only they understood. Michael is so lucky to have these two older cousins who lavish him with attention and good humor. I adore my niece and nephew and wish they were closer.
We are back home, jet lagged, a bit heavier but happy. Daniel has resumed his regimen of running, lifting and eating a low carb diet. He’s so hardcore, he gae me the last of his Patrick Roger chocolates. Such a good boy!