Friday, June 25, 2010

Strolling beside the canal.

  Like all major cities in Europe, Paris is threaded with waterways that once transported goods and people. Canal St. Martin  has been on my "must go and see" list for some years now but somehow we never got round to it before. 
   After we'd rooted around Merci, eaten a café salad and watched a protest march assembling across the street, it was a short-ish walk north to the start of this waterway. Tall trees turn its water the dark green of a gin bottle, folk sit along the banks, reading, talking, thinking--don't you love that couple sitting back to back? And, of course, there's the usual canal prettiness of locks and gates and ducks and, at this time of year, ducklings: it's a charming area to idle away a couple of hours especially on a day so hot and steamy that, before you made a move, you looked for the next patch of shadow to walk through.

Shops I love.

   I know, I know. This time around, I've only seen the tip of the Eiffel Tower, and the Arc de Triomphe not at all, or Place de la Concorde just about any other famous Paris monument. So why did we make a pilgrimage to one of my favourite stores? 
   Last year, around this time of year actually, we were in Paris. I was researching a story on a shop called "Merci." If I'm doing a story on it, I don't blog about it because, to my way of thinking, that's not really ethical, putting it all out there when someone is paying you for exclusivity. 
   Anyhoo, Merci is the brainchild of a couple who made a fortune in children's clothing. Long story short, they took over an old wallpaper factory, did it up with great panache and élan and give the profits to kids' charities. Nice. 
   A transportation strike notwithstanding (although we saw no evidence of it at all) we Metro-ed over to somewhere near Boulevard Beaumarchais, and wandered into the courtyard that's Merci's entrance. A small scarlet car (Fiat? Can't remember) overflowed with flowers last time we were there. This time around, it was furniture from Egypt made, as far as I could see, from split bamboo. 
   Other things that caught my eye: a vintage Chanel dress (there's a rack of incredibly luscious, very rigorously curated, fashion), an endearing little cupboard faux-painted and distressed to within an inch of its life, a patchwork-covered armchair, and sundry other sundries. The whole place is full of designer moments. Best of all is a Great Wall of Second-hand Books where I found a novel I'd been looking for, for two euros. Come to think of it, all we seem to have bought this week is books. 

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Our Anniversary Lunch

     It was one of the major ones--anniversaries that is--but, instead of a long dinner out, we decided to follow the French tradition and have a long Sunday lunch instead. Besides, very few good restaurants in France stay open for dinner on Sundays--possibly because people are still recovering from Sunday lunch.
     Our friend Bob had told us about Le Reminet,, a tiny place on the Left Bank. We dropped in the day before, really liked the look of it, made a reservation and made our way over there at 1 p.m. on Sunday. 
    Maybe 34 seats, gold-framed mirrors that let you sneak looks at your neighbours, twinkling chandeliers, it's a pleasant room to spend several hours in. Every other day of the week, this tiny place offers a staggeringly inexpensive three-course lunch for 13.50 euros. Those of you who aren't in France, do the maths, and then know that that sum  includes all taxes and the tip (although it's good manners to leave small change behind when you pay the bill). Bargain? I'll say. 
    Later that week, we returned there for lunch (see menu) but Sunday was a very special occasion so we stayed on the carte side. First to arrive were little amuses of chickpea purée topped with a wee slice of toasted baguette topped with diced vegetables. That eaten, we made our way through foie gras, grilled salmon trout on a bed of tiny fresh peas and feves (surely the most labour-intensive vegetable anywhere--I mean first you pod them and then, once they're cooked, you pop each tiny bean out of its shell. This is definitely the kind of dish that, as the immortal Julia Child once said, had people's fingers all over it. But, at that point, honestly, who cared? We ended up with lavish desserts involving chocolate, and the kind of mousses that were so sticky you just knew they were heart-stoppingly rich in egg yolks and cream. Kirs to start, glasses of white Sancerre, and then a bottle of red Sancerre (which I didn't even know existed). 
     So what do you do for an encore? Well, I don't know about you but we walked across the little park to Shakespeare & Company and had the mother of all book-buying binges.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

A Packed Day in Paris: Part 2

    Two years ago, when I talked to her at Shakespeare & Company, Sylvia Whitman was in the middle of contacting authors to appear at the bookshop's biennial literary festival. When we picked dates to come to Paris, this was sort of at the back of my mind.
     The festival takes place over a weekend in the little park across from the shop, just across from Notre Dame. To be truthful, if you like books, you could settle into a seat under the white tent and stay there all day and some people obviously did. Even though we queued for half an hour, we still had to stand at the side of the tent to hear a discussion between Martin Amis and Will Self. And a crackling 45 minutes of conversation it was too. Well worth the standing, the wait, and the rushing back from the flea market (not via Montparnasse). 
      The crowds drifted away, or rather over to the shop to get their new books signed. We dove into the maze of narrow back streets for a quick lunch at one of the many gyro spots on the left bank, and then split up for the afternoon, Peter to draw, me to visit a couple of favourite stores. 
     No wonder Parisians are so enviably trim. They seem to spend all their time racing, gazelle-like, along the pavements from boutique to café to bistro. I managed to race too far north and found myself in the financial district, raced back to cookware store Dehillerin and found it crammed with Americans buying copper saucepans, raced a street or two over to La Droguerie which, if you're nuts about knitting or sewing, is this side of heaven---"hmm, shall I knit that sweater in linen or alpaca, and if it's alpaca, which of those 48 colours should it be?" But by now it was 6 p.m., and I was supposed to be on Ile St. Louis. Buying anything at La Droguerie takes at least 20 minutes so I took notes, and plan to go back. 
     Returning by metro, I discovered another station to avoid. The number of steps from platform level to ground level at Cité is 107--or 117. Either way, too many.  

A Packed Day in Paris: Part 1

   Because the Vanves flea market only happens at the weekend and because Sunday was already planned, today was the only day we could go. So, a little after 9 a.m., we were on the road, forgetting that we had to go through the cursed Montparnasse metro station with its endless walkways. A little after 10 a.m., the place was already throbbing with buyers. We could only spend limited time there but did manage to buy a bunch of hand-coloured (or looked like it) antique postcards, and an art book.
   I'm convinced that the French are crazier about dogs than us English are. Anyway, I did rather like these two small chiens waiting patiently in their owner's van.
   Something else that caught my eye was the painting of the ballerina on the bar stool. Now there has to be a story behind that. Not that I would have bought it...but I was tempted by the miniature theatre below, or at left or at right...I'm still not that proficient at blogging and photos do tend to end up where they like.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The definition of take-out food in Paris.

   A five-hour lunch today with friends who fly back to Canada tomorrow. This meant that, as well as sending us away with a bag full of cheeses, we had to help them finish up all their wine buys. Like us, they had rented a little apartment but, even though we all love to eat, we don't want to spend valuable Paris time cooking.
   What they had done was raid a traiteur for such treats as eggs wrapped in ham and smoked salmon, a glorious crab and grapefruit salad, a pâté seamed with foie gras and other totally delicious things. We cut the pastries into four so each of us could try them all.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The First Night in Paris

   Six a.m., the alarm clock went off. Two hours later, we were on the train from Pamiers to Toulouse and, almost immediately (nice connection) on the TGV to Bordeaux and then to Paris which put us into Gare Montparnasse around 3 p.m., a little late due to a small delay in Bordeaux. 
   You would think that Gare Montparnasse and the Montparnasse metro station are minutes from each other but they're not. A few visits ago, I clocked the walk between the two at 25 minutes. So we took a taxi. 
   Now, we're comfortably settled into our usual little studio apartment on Ile St. Louis. We're at the back of the building so it's completely quiet. The photo on the left is the little courtyard we walk across, which is dense with pots of greenery that make us realize how small a pot you need to grow quite large plants.
    We've picked up food for tonight, half a roast chicken with chicken-juice-impregnated potatoes, some artichokes in vinaigrette, mesclun...we've done a basic stock up from the little supermarket on Rue de Rivoli.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Moving fruit bushes to their new home

    My eyes are closing after a long day but I did want to post this gorgeous photo of red currants. Our bush is dripping with them. Jewel-like, scarlet, all I hope is that I can pick them before the birds move in. 
     Elsewhere in the garden are a gooseberry bush, a raspberry bush and what may, or may not, be a blackberry cane or two. At one time this was an enormous bush but, when it only produced about six berries last season, I brought out the loppers. The same happened to an apricot tree: four apricots, all of which fell on the ground. Because it has yet to produce a single bud, let alone a big white waxy flower, a magnolia tree is also currently on the botanical equivalent of Death Row.
     Last year, what with all the renos going on inside, the garden played second fiddle. I stuck things in where there was clear ground. A friend, who knows way more than I do about gardening, pointed out that the rhubarb was in the wrong place. I pointed out that I'd read that rhubarb were like French tenants. Once they were in a spot, they were there for life. She pointed out that if the rhubarb was in the wrong spot anyway, what did I have to lose. 
    So, this afternoon, I dug a semicircular-ish bed which, more or less, mirrors the semicircular-ish bed on the other side of the path. Into this, probably tomorrow, will go the rhubarb, the raspberry, the gooseberry and what may, or may not, be the blackberry. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Easiest Summer Dessert Ever

   This is assuming that you can get your hands on a tub of crème fraîche--and I'm talking about the super-strength 30 percent variety not low-fat (what's the point of low-fat anything? Just eat less of the real stuff). After that, all you need are fresh glistening strawberries and--we've tried both on recent nights--finely chopped hazelnuts or praline powder, both of which I can buy at local supermarkets.
   I hardly need to explain the technique. Dip strawberry in crème, then dip in solids. Repeat until strawberries are gone. That dark slick on the plate? That's a scoop of devilishly dark chocolate ice cream. When it comes to dessert, I always believe in gilding the lily.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Using up leftover duck confit

   Two legs of duck confit left from various recent meals. Four of us for lunch. Some leftover cooked potatoes too. 
    First, I fried the chunks of potato in duck fat, along with two chopped green onions. Then I stripped the duck meat off the bones and chopped it into small pieces. That got added to the pan and heated through. 
    Finally I made a bed of frisée, tossed it with vinaigrette, spooned the warm duck mixture on top, and tossed it all again. Chopped parsley. Chunks of baguette. Red wine...
    I've worked the same trick with leftover roast pork too, warming it and potatoes through in leftover jus

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Three Cathar Castles in One Day.

Puilaurens from a distance.
And with the zoom lens.
Quéribus. Keep in mind that by now we've already climbed hundreds of metres up a switchback road.
Peyrepetuse from the car park--again after talking a twisting climbing road.
Peyrepetuse from the top. The fields in the distance give you some idea of how high up this is.
     Friends, first-timers in the region, have been staying with us. Not that we really needed excuses to abandon the gardening and house-cleaning that we should be doing right now (I keep thinking of that old French verb, aranteler, that means "to sweep away spiders' webs") so that we could show them what's known around here as "Cathar country".
     Even though we've driven it dozens of times, this route through limestone chasms into wine country still knocks me sideways. 
     First stop was so we could take a look--and photos of--the chateau of Puilaurens. And here I bring out the guidebook to be sure I've got all the facts right. Built as a fortress, it eventually became a prison before beginning its long slide into ruin in the 17th century. As Cathar castles go, it's still in fairly good condition. One we've yet to climb...
     Further along the road, beyond the Aude gorge, where the land widens into a broad vine-filled valley, Quéribus seems impossibly high. You can't begin to imagine how anyone could climb that crag, let alone conquer it. Not surprisingly, this was the last Cathar fortress to fall to the crusaders in 1255. I've ascended it before and, wearing flimsy sandals, wasn't about to do it again. 
      Not far away, Peyrepetuse looks massive, even from a distance but it had surrendered in 1240. I didn't climb that one either but hung around at the base, as I had at Quéribus, looking at all the wild flowers (post to come). 

Elderflower season = cordial

   Elderflowers flourish around here. For weeks now, I've been watching for the tell-tale creamy "plates" that sit like so many flying saucers in the elder trees.
    This year, I managed to coordinate the buying of the sugar and the finding of the citric acid, brought over from the UK by a friend (who later said she wondered what would have happened if security had come on all this white powder in her luggage). 
    Apart from that all you need are the elderflowers, oranges, lemons and a large pot. Chunk the fruit, add the flowers, sprinkle with citric acid and immediately pour on the sugar syrup you have simmering on the stove. Cover and leave in the fridge for four days, then strain and bottle. It's sharp, musky, and lovely with plain water, fizzy water or, as we found out last night, blanquette de Limoux. Next, gin. 
Not out of focus. The heat from the boiling syrup steamed up the lens.