Posts Tagged ‘France’

The company you keep

We’re already looking forward to reading Paris to the Past: Traveling through French History by Train, the newest thoughtful volume from Ina Caro. Her first book about traveling around France, the 1994 The Road from the Past: Traveling through History in France, came out of road trips where her husband, Pulitzer-Prize winning biographer Robert Caro, did the driving.

We love it that the new book tours France by train, especially capitalizing on the vast distances made possible by booking the high-speed TGV. As she explains, she can cover 800 years of French history by train and still be back in Paris to sleep. But what really drew us in is her attitude about the food: ”It’s a terrible thing for a historian to admit, but the quality of my lunch really does influence how I feel about the places I visit.”

As the French would say, bien sûr, madame!

By the way, the photo above is of an anonymous couple in Paris. We bet they’d also agree.

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07 2011

Cooking with Comté

If you’ve ever eaten a croque monsieur in a cafe anywhere in France (my absolute favorite is served at the News Cafe in Paris at 78 rue d’Assas across from Jardin du Luxembourg), chances are you’ve eaten Comté cheese. The firm and nutty Comté is the largest selling hard cheese in France. I’d always figured that only a big factory could turn out enough Comté to satisfy the appetites of the fromage-loving French, but it turns out that Comté is still made pretty much the same way that it’s been made for about a thousand years–that is, small-scale and personal.

And the whole process is open to the public: from brown-and-white Montbéliarde cows grazing in buttercup-laden meadows, to milk delivery and early morning cheese-making in the cooperative dairies that are town social centers, to row upon row of wheels of cheese aging peacefully on spruce shelves.

Sandwiched between Burgundy and Switzerland, Franche-Comté is less than three hours from Paris by train. Yet it’s far enough off the beaten path to make an amusing Slow Foodie tour visiting some of the 3,000 family farms, 170 fruitières (as the cheese dairies are called), and 20 affineurs (aging facilities) squeezed into an area about the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. The cheese industry’s La Maison du Comté ( in the tidy town of Poligny explains the whole process and provides a map to find farms, dairies, and affineurs that welcome visitors. They’re marked with a green and white sign of ”Les routes du Comté.”

It’s no surprise that locals eat Comté several times a day, often starting with a few slices on a baguette for breakfast. The cheese also melts with just the right consistency for fondue. All the locals are Comté boosters but they still debate the merits of young (up to 8 months of aging) Comté vs. cheese that has mellowed for a full year. This being France, they are all preoccupied with food in general. One pleasure of spending a few days in the region is the chance to visit some of the rustic inns where Michelin-starred chefs offer complete tasting menus for the price of a main dish in Paris.

One of my favorites was Le Bon Accueil ( in Malbuisson. Chef-owner Marc Faivre has held a Michelin star for a decade and grows much of his produce on the grounds. Of course he uses Comté, including in amazing little cheese crackers (sables) that he sets out casually on the table with the appetizer course. ”It’s just equal parts butter, flour, and cheese,” his wife Catherine shrugged when I practically begged for the recipe. No seasonings, no herbs.

Comté tastes so good by itself that it really doesn’t need other flavors to enhance it. That’s certainly true with the local quiche. ”It’s just like quiche Lorraine but without the ham,” everyone says. I think the best versions are made with crème fraiche.

David and I have been working on the Comté recipes, and have decided that the cheese is going to brighten our holiday: the sables for New Year’s Eve with sparkling wine, and the tarte for New Year’s Day brunch.


The proportions to make these addictive little crackers isn’t quite equal parts flour, butter, and cheese. We played around with several similar recipes until we came up with this version, which uses a little cream to form the dough. It is a pretty good approximation of Marc Faivre’s recipe. A food processor speeds up the creation of these crackers and allows you to make the dough without warming it with your hands. As a result, it’s ready to bake sooner.


1 cup flour
3/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
5 Tablespoons butter cut in 1/4” cubes (pea-sized)
4 oz. Comté cheese, grated
5 Tablespoons heavy cream


1. Place flour, salt, and pepper in bowl of food processor. Pulse briefly to mix.

2. Add pea-sized pieces of butter and pulse several times until mixture is like coarse sand.

3. Add grated cheese and pulse perhaps a dozen times briefly to blend. With food processor running, dribble cream in feed tube until dough just comes together.

4. Remove dough to counter, divide in half, and roll each half into a log about 1 1/2” in diameter and about 4 1/2” long. Wrap in wax paper and place in freezer while pre-heating oven to 350F.

5. Work quickly to slice dough into 1/4” rounds. Place on baking sheet covered with parchment paper or Silpat sheet, leaving about 1/2” between crackers.

6. Bake 12 minutes, or until edges are brown and centers are firm. Remove and cool on wire rack.

Makes 3 dozen


Crème fraiche can be tricky to find in American grocery stores. We make a good substitute by mixing equal amounts of whipping cream and Greek-style yogurt that contains live cultures, and letting the mixture sit on the counter for several hours until it thickens. Refrigerate any that remains after making the recipe, and use within three days.


1 cup crème fraiche
1 extra large egg
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup (packed) shredded aged Comté
Partially pre-cooked 9” pie or tart shell


1. Preheat oven to 350F.

2. Beat together crème fraiche, egg, nutmeg, salt, and pepper.

3. Sprinkle Comté cheese over bottom of pie shell. Top with crème fraiche mixture. Bake 40-45 minutes until crust is golden and filling puffs up and browns

4. Let stand 10 minutes before slicing.


12 2010

Burgundy eggs in red wine sauce

Of all the wonderful food in Burgundy, I have a special soft spot for the bistro staple known as oeufs en meurette. The dish is hearty and warming on a cool autumn night and it is a classic in the region. Maybe I like it so much because sauce meurette is very similar to the sauce in coq au vin. Despite its rich flavors, French cooks usually pair meurette with mildly flavored proteins, like poached eggs or a poached fish. Restaurants in Burgundy often feature this dish as a first course (one egg per person) because everything but the eggs can be prepared ahead and re-heated, making it a quick dish to assemble.


Most of the ingredients for this dish are readily available in the U.S., though a light pinot noir from Oregon or Washington can be substituted for the Burgundy. And, in a pinch, so-called “Italian bread” will substitute for a pain de campagne. The key, though, is to use great eggs – ideally from free-range hens. The yolks have a deeper color and the eggs are easier to poach without making a mess of them. This recipe serves two as a main dish, or four as an appetizer, with a little extra sauce to go around.


For the sauce
1 bottle (750 ml) light red wine (a simple négociant Burgundy)
2 cups strong homemade chicken stock
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 carrot, thinly sliced
1 celery stalk, thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, minced or grated
a bouquet garni of parsley, thyme, and bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
salt to taste

For the garnish
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 pound mushrooms, sliced
1/4 pound piece of bacon, diced
12 baby onions, peeled

For the toast
4 diagonal slices of white country loaf
2 tablespoons olive oil

4 fresh eggs


1. Add wine, stock, onion, carrot, celery, garlic, bouquet garni, and peppercorns to a large shallow pan. Bring to boil, reduce heat, and simmer until reduced by half (about 20 minutes).

2. While sauce is reducing, prepare garnish and toast. Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in saucepan, add mushrooms, and sauté until tender (about 3 minutes). Remove mushrooms and add remaining tablespoon of butter and bacon. Fry until bacon browns. Remove bacon to drain on paper towels. Add onions to fat and sauté gently about 10 minutes until tender and lightly browned all over. Remove and combine with mushrooms and bacon. Pour off excess fat from garnish pan (used in Step 2), then deglaze pan with some of the simmering wine. Return liquid to the wine/sauce.

4. Meanwhile, trim crusts from bread, making each slice about the size of a poached egg. Heat olive oil in small frying pan and fry bread until browned on both sides (about 1 minute per side). Drain on paper towels and set aside.

4. When wine-stock mixture is reduced, strain and return sauce to pan over low heat. Taste and add salt if necessary.

5. Blend 2 tablespoons each of flour and butter in a small bowl with a fork to form a soft paste. Whisk paste a little at a time into hot sauce. Stir constantly until all butter-flour mixture is incorporated. Bring sauce to boil, stirring constantly, until thickened (about 5 minutes).

6. Poach eggs for 4-5 minutes — until whites are set but yolks are still runny. Place two toasts each in shallow bowls and top with eggs. Spoon on sauce and add mushroom-bacon-onion mixture.

Serve with a glass of Burgundy.

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07 2010

The tang of Burgundy’s other signature taste

You literally walk on wine in Beaune, the center of Burgundy’s wine trade, because the town is honeycombed with cellars dug by the monks who were Burgundy’s first vinters. Millions of bottles sleep their way to perfection under the cobbled streets, and millions more are tucked into the cool, dark recesses of the town’s 15th century fortified walls. The rough streets, old stone buildings, and a profusion of statues of the Virgin Mary (including one where she holds the infant Jesus in one hand and a bunch of grapes in the other) make Beaune undeniably picturesque. But it’s even more fun to taste Beaune than to look at it. As close as I can tell, there are no statues of Mary hefting a bag of mustard seeds, but there should be.

Fallot moutarderie In the Middle Ages, mustard was made everywhere in France. Today the Burgundy region is best known for mustard, especially the Maille firm in Dijon, 25 miles/40 km north of Beaune. But Beaune’s own family-owned La Moutarderie Fallot (31, Faubourg Bretonnière, 011-33-0380-221-002, holds its own against the bigger, slicker operation. The last moutarderie in Beaune, Fallot began stone-grinding mustard seed in 1840 and still uses stone wheels to make mustard paste, which is still stored for 24 hours in wooden barrels before bottling. Tours are sometimes arranged through the tourist office (port Marie de Bourgogne, 6 boulevard Perpreuil, 011-33-0380-262-130,

Fallot mustards Given the French fixation with terroir, I was surprised to learn that most French mustards are made with seeds from Canada. Within the last couple of decades, the French have started to replant mustard, but the mustard fields can only meet about 5 percent of the demand. If you’re a purist, look for mustard labeled “made with mustard from Burgundy.” It is also made with white Burgundy wine (Aligoté) instead of vinegar to blend with the seed, water, and salt. Most processors also make flavored mustards — tarragon, cassis, gingerbread, etc. — but Burgundians far prefer the unflavored “natural” product.

Cheeses at Alain Hess I always bring home a few jars for the pantry, but some of Beaune’s mustard delicacies are best enjoyed there. I can’t visit the town without stopping at Alain Hess Fromagerie (7 Place Carnot, 011-33-0380-247-351), an affineur (cheese-ager) who also produces his own Delice de Pommard, a soft cow’s milk cheese rolled in mustard bran. It’s great first cheese for a picnic, ideally followed by a Cîteaux (a semi-soft cheese that Hess procures from a 12th century Cistercian monastery) and finally a spectacular Époisses de Bourgogne, a soft cheese whose rind is washed with Marc de Borgogne. The great epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin called it the “king of cheeses.” To drink? A modest Burgundy, of course.

No surprise — the wine is also good with chocolate. Chocolatier Bouché (1 Place Monge, 011-33-0380-221-035) blends mustard seed into chocolate ganache, then enrobes the pieces in dark chocolate. Called Le Sénevé, the morsels combine a complex sweetness with bitter and salty undertones.

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07 2010

Making your own lunch in Paris

We used to have a professional dancer friend from New York who always signed up for a dance class when she visited Boston. We thought it was an amusing quirk–until we discovered that most dancers take classes when they travel. At worst, they get a good workout. At best, they learn something new.

In that same spirit, I signed up to make my own lunch in Paris with a half-hour express class through L’atelier des Chefs (Chefs Workshop), which offers a whole array of cooking classes for home chefs and, judging by my classmates, for bachelors who are cooking for themselves for the first time and women who would like to relieve them of that chore.

Most classes take an hour to half a day to prepare a three course meal or learn the secrets of sweet pastry. But the popular lunch-hour classes have students make a simple meal with enough time left over to eat before they go back to work. L’atelier des Chefs supplies the tools, ingredients, and kitchen. You supply enthusiasm and an appetite.

I signed up from home through the all-French web site ( for a class in the Galeries Lafayette department store, near the Opera stop on the Metro and the most central of the school’s locations. The kitchen turned out to be a glassed-in cubicle in the kitchenware department, steps from shelves of the same knives, cutting boards, saucepans, and woks we would use to make honey-soy laquered fish fillets with stir-fried vegetables.

All the classes are taught in French, and my instructor apologized for speaking no English. I apologized for speaking such amusing French, and proceeded to nod a lot in the next half hour. Fortunately, cooking is best learned by watching and copying.

This uncomplicated dish was well suited to our group of varied cooking experience. Three women had taken several classes from L’atelier des chefs and could have made the dish with their eyes closed. Two young women and a man in business attire were learning self-sufficiency cooking and had to be shown how to hold a knife.

Even with seven of us, the instructor carefully corrected our vegetable cutting techniques, swiftly taught the precision knife nips to remove bone tips from a commercial fish fillet without messing up the shape, and made sure that we each shared in the stir-frying. Five minutes into the stir-frying, we put the honey-soy coated fish into the oven so fish and vegetables would be ready at the same time. As the fish came out, each of us probed the fillets with a finger to learn exactly how perfectly cooked fish should feel. It was an impressive amount of technique for a short class.

After a demonstration in plating (complete with a decorative drizzle of balsamic vinegar), we sat down to eat and the instructor passed sliced baguettes and poured glasses of wine. (Ah, lunch in France.) My weak French made me a less than scintillating dining companion, but it was adequate enough to understand that the instructor was explaining how to generalize our new skills for different fish and vegetables. Besides, the women were more interested in the handsome chef and the obvious bachelor.

For details on classes and locations, see the web site Cost ranges from 15-72 euros.


Fresh baby corn is usually available in Chinese markets. If substituting canned baby corn, add to the stir-fry after the bean sprouts.

Serves 6


2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
6 fillets of sea bass, about 6 ounces each
salt and pepper to taste

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, cut in half, then into thin vertical slices
10 ounces Chinese cabbage (one medium head), cut in 3/4 inch chiffonade
4 ounces French green beans (about 1 cup), cut in half-inch slices
4 ounces fresh baby corn (about 1 cup), halved, then cut in 1/2 inch slices
10 ounces bean sprouts (about 2 cups)
zest and juice of 1 lemon

balsamic vinegar for plating


1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

2. Heat honey, balsamic vinegar, and soy sauce in sauce pan over medium heat, stirring until completely dissolved.

3. Carefully remove any remaining bones from fish fillets. Trim off the thin (belly) section of fillet and discard (or reserve for making fish stock). Add salt and pepper to flesh side of fillets. Place fillets skin-side up on lightly oiled baking sheet or silicon baking mat. Brush with honey-soy mixture.

4. Heat oil in wok and add sliced onion and Chinese cabbage. Cook two minutes over high heat, then add the green beans. Cook one minute more and add the baby corn. Stirring constantly, cook mixture another minute. Add bean sprouts and cook one additional minute. Stir in lemon zest and juice and remove from heat.

5. After adding green beans in step 4, place fish fillets in the oven and roast for 5-6 minutes, depending on thickness. Fillets are done when just barely firm to touch.

6. To plate, create a vertical line of vegetables across plate. Top with fish fillet and decorate with lines of balsamic vinegar.


06 2010

What to buy in a Paris grocery store

It is funny that France is such a fantastic country for eating but we rarely discover as many finds in French grocery stores as we do in other countries. Part of the problem is that most of the good stuff (like the sausages and the fresh produce and seafood) can’t be brought home. The other factor is that many French foods are available in our local groceries, so we have learned to be restrained. We have also found that the fancy stores like Bon Marché and Galeries de Lafayette are big on stocking what they consider exotic delicacies-like American ketchup. There are a few things we just cannot pass up. Here’s our shopping list when we visit Paris:

Herbes de Provence. We’ve been told that this blend of dried herbs typical of the Provençal countryside was invented as a marketing ploy in the 1970s. We don’t care. The blend is handy to toss into almost everything from a stew to a vinaigrette. Why bother to bring it all the way home from Paris? Because, unlike American manufacturers, the French don’t muddy up the flavors by putting lavender flowers and leaves in the mix of savory, fennel, basil, and thyme. And the herbs are cheap if you skip the fancy crockware packaging.

Cassis mustard. Talking with French mustard makers, we learned that even in Dijon, much of the mustard seed comes from Canada, even though it is processed in France. And we are fortunate that some good French mustards (usually Maille) are fairly available in our local stores. But we never see cassis mustard in the U.S., so we always try to pick some up. Its sweet-savory flavor makes it the perfect spread for a sandwich made with leftover charcoal-grilled chicken.

Dried morel mushrooms. Again, they’re available in the U.S., but here in New England they tend to cost an arm and a leg. In France they are relatively cheap, and 3 ounces of dried mushrooms yield about the same volume as a pound of fresh morels. The flavor is intense and meaty. We think the simplest treatment-a morel mushroom omelette-is the best. Rehydrate them by soaking about 5 minutes in warm water and sauté lightly in butter before adding them to the eggs.

Tinned foie gras. Tout le monde makes preserved foie gras, but only the French seem to do it really well. Or, more specifically, the Alsatians. We like the goose foie gras from Strasbourg, which is poached and packed in tins. Once in a while we’ll use some in a sauce, but it’s really best lightly chilled and cut in thin slices spread on a plate and served with a sweet wine. The French prefer Sauternes, but it’s also nice with an intense gewürztraminer from any of the Rhine regions (preferably an auslese).

Crème de marrons de l’Ardeche. This sweetened chestnut cream is France’s answer to Nutella. It’s used in cookies and making millefeuille pastries, as an additive to whipped cream, or just spread on a buttery croissant. The French also like to squirt some from the tube on a crepe and roll it up to serve. It makes a pretty impressive dessert with very little effort. This is one French fast food we heartily endorse.

Drinking chocolate. Every culture does hot chocolate (chocolate chaud) a little differently. In Paris you usually get a little pitcher of hot milk and a little pitcher of concentrated chocolate to mix to taste in your cup. The next best thing to ducking into Angelina (226 rue de Rivoli, (0)1 42 60 82 00) on a chilly Paris day is mixing up a pot of thick hot chocolate at home. The fancier grocery stores in Paris tend to stock Angelina’s mix along with several others. We often pick up extras for the folks who have been feeding the cat or picking up the mail.


06 2010

Reprising Julia Child’s first French meal

The marvelously bourgeois restaurant La Couronne changed the way Americans eat, so when I was in Fécamp to write about Bénédictine for the Robb Report (see “Leisure: A Secret for the Centuries”), I had to stop off in Rouen on my way back to Paris. Mark your calendar: On Wednesday, November 3, 1948, Julia and Paul Child stopped for lunch after their ferry landed at Le Havre and they began the drive to Paris. Writing years later, Julia called it “the most exciting meal of my life.” It was her first taste of French food.

Founded as an inn in 1345, La Couronne (31 Place du Vieux Marché, 33-02-35-71-40-90, has a strong claim as the oldest auberge in France, not that the countryside Art Nouveau décor suggests such antiquity. Nor does the kitchen: The cooking is timeless northern French cuisine. Since this was a pilgrimage to the spot where Julia Child figuratively discovered fire, I ordered the same dishes that she and Paul ate in 1948.

When I requested six oysters, sole meuniere, green salad, fromage blanc with berries, and coffee, accompanied by a half bottle of Pouilly Fume, my waiter nodded and smiled. “Le Menu Julia Child”

Minutes later he whisked over six perfect Brittany oysters so large and plump that each made two substantial bites. They were presented on a bed of ice with a plate of rye bread and a small pitcher of onion-steeped vinegar. As I paused between oysters to savor the clean salinity, the proprietor, Madame Darwin Cauvin, came over and we chatted about the pilgrims who had been coming since the release of “Julie and Julia,” which featured the First Lunch filmed at La Couronne.

The centerpiece of the meal the Dover sole, a European fish rarely seen fresh on my side of the Atlantic. The whole fish arrived on a presentation platter, perfectly browned with the butter sauce still sputtering. I approved and the waiter whisked it to a side table to de-bone, presenting me with four perfect fillets. Julia called the sole “a morsel of perfection,” and I won’t argue. I closed my eyes to savor the aromas, then opened them to take a tentative bite, chewing slowly and enjoying the mild salty fish and lemony sauce. It was a little like eating hot buttered ocean.

After the sole, the green salad with a lightly acidic vinaigrette was almost anti-climactic, though it did clear my palate for the subtle but unctuous fromage blanc (like a cross between tangy yogurt and sour cream) with fall berries. Black coffee and crisp little tuiles made a perfect finish.



Here’s my version of that great fish dish, substituting New England winter flounder for the unavailable Dover sole. I also use fillets because they are easier to handle and serve than the whole fish, especially without a waiter to expertly de-bone it. The picture, though, was taken at La Couronne, a reminder of how to serve a seemingly unattractive dish. This recipe serves 2.


4 flounder fillets, 4-6 ounces each
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons butter, divided
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons minced parsley, divided
4 teaspoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon capers


1. Rinse the fillets and pat them dry. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Spread flour on a flat surface and drag each fillet through flour, patting lightly. Turn fillets over and repeat. Shake off excess flour.

2. Divide butter evenly between a large (12-15-inch) frying pan or fish sauté pan and a small (8-inch) skillet. Add oil to large pan and heat over medium-high heat, swirling to blend oil and butter. When mixture begins to foam, add fillets and cook without disturbing for about 90 seconds per side, until coating is lightly browned and fish is firm to the touch. Remove to warm platter, sprinkling half the minced parsley on top.

3. Heat butter in smaller skillet over medium-high heat. Swirl pan steadily until butter begins to sputter and brown. When it reaches the color of an almond, add lemon juice, capers, and remaining parsley. Stir vigorously with a slotted spatula to emulsify ingredients and serve immediately over the warm fish.


05 2010

French Chocolate Mousse for Valentine’s Day

We have been racking our brains for something special to conclude our Valentine’s Day dinner. We simply lack the skills to reproduce our all-time favorite dessert from Fauchon, the amazing gourmet shop, tea house, and patisserie on Place de Madeleine in Paris. That would be Megève cake—perfect thin layers of crisp meringue with chocolate ganache and chocolate mousse.

But we did recall a dynamite, foolproof version of chocolate mousse given to us by a French housewife, Madame Picavet. Given that Monsieur Picavet was very fond of Burgundy, it made the perfect companion to the last glass in the bottle. She used dark chocolate, but we’ve had good luck using an American bittersweet chocolate like Ghirardelli 60% cacao chips.



6 oz. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
2 tablespoons sugar
pinch of salt
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup of whole milk


Place ingredients through vanilla extract in blender jar.

Heat milk until nearly boiling. Add to blender jar and blend two minutes. Pour into six cups and chill for at least three hours. Serve topped with sweetened whipped cream.

Serves 6.


02 2010