The Perfect Paris Apartment

We are often asked if we take the same Paris apartment every time we are here. The answer is no. We never take the same apartment because we have  yet to find the perfect one. Our first apartment here was a splurge and  we found it, ironically enough, through the American agency Paris Perfect.

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It looked a bit like this one although it was smaller. It had pull-out couches for the girls and two quite excellent bathrooms. The kitchen was tiny but had great appliances (it convinced us to buy a Miele dishwasher). It offered a view of the Eiffel Tower and was in the tony, residential 7th arrondissement. We wanted to be there because Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker  lived in the 7th and we had been reading his Paris column for years. It is a great spot to raise kids and to live for a few years, but is not actually that central. The perfect Paris apartment should be an easy walk (i.e. less than a half hour) from the Louvre.

Our next place, in the 13th Arrondissement, was our home for six months. We had a challenging wish list: four bedrooms  ( a rare thing here) to house us, our two daughters, and the lengthy list of guests who wanted to come. We also needed a terrace for our two doggies. We ended up with something fantastic: a four bedroom, three bathroom, three storey house which united a cool loft-style industrial space for the kitchen/living/dining to a renovated 19th century worker house for the bedrooms. The terrace looked much like this one:

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The entryway was like this.

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It had beams and stairs like this.

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The living area had much of this vibe , a spacious area mixing  the modern and ancient.

The place in the 13th was really cool, but I don’t imagine I will ever need something so big again. Important travel tip: if you rent it, they will come. We began to feel that we were running a bed and breakfast in the 13th and we still didn’t manage to accommodate everyone who wanted to visit. SOOO, having extra space can be something of a liability in your Paris apartment.  And was this place expensive. We rented  out both our Montreal duplex and our country house and managed to cover HALF the rent of this cool house. Also, the 13th is about a 40 minute walk to the Louvre.

Last year, we found a charming place in the Marais, just the perfect location for us. With its 17th century buildings, chic boutiques, incredible food shops, youthful artiness and central location, we feel the Marais (3rd and 4th arrondissements) is us. You may have seen these photos:

photo 4 From the dining area to the living room.

photo Three nice chimneypieces.

IMG_0144  Two French windows in the bedroom and living room.

photo 3  Nice views.

By now you are wondering, what’s wrong with this place? Looks… perfect.

photo 5  Here’s what’s wrong. World’s tiniest kitchen. Broken/inferior appliances. No counterspace.  AND,  I can’t even show you the shower area, too embarrassing that I lived with that for three months. The whole space was charming but shabby. One day, it will make a great apartment, after the renovation.

This year, we went for what seemed a slickly renovated place, again in the Marais. Check it out.

photo 8 The entryway. You see the master bedroom on the left.

photo 14 Outside the master, nice details.

photo 7 The hallway leads into the dining and living area.

photo 15 The selling point: amazing, wrap around views.

photo 10 This is the Eglise St. Paul, our view from all the rooms. It looks especially lovely at sunset.

photo 1 There are two bathrooms. I like the tile work in this one .photo 12 Heated towel bar. LOVE IT.              photo 17  Walk in shower.photo 11I like the way the striped tiles wrap up onto the wall.

photo 15 It’s about the view, really. The balcony wraps around the entire apartment.

photo 4 There are custom-made curtains on every window. Do you think the fabric is a bit much? photo 5 Enough already. We know we are in Paris.

photo 13 More fabric details. Throw pillows abound.

photo 6 The leather couch turns into a double bed. There is also a tiny second bedroom with another convertible couch.

photo 16 Here is the kitchen/ dining end  of the living area. Cool chandelier. Tulip table. Plastic chairs, as seen in design magazines,  are surprisingly comfortable. AND counterspace is totally inadequate. I have, I think, twelve inches of prep space. The whole thing looks nice, though.

Is this THE ONE, then? The perfect Paris apartment? Perfect, no. All that glitz, it’s just not for me. Which of these apartments would suit you best?

 

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Weird French Food V

Part of the fun of staying in Paris for a few months is seeing the changing produce in the markets. A sure sign of spring is the appearance of French (not Spanish – pah!) asparagus on the market tables. The most prized, and costly, is the fat, white asparagus that we seldom see in North America.

IMG_1063  Compare the girth of the white variety to their skinny green cousins at left.

IMG_1061 More skinnies and fatties.

IMG_1078 There will be no comments about the Freudian aspect.

We decided to have a taste test. We would cook up the tender, green, skinny asperges and the bold, white fatties and see which was better. Our young dinner guest, Caitlin, kindly agreed to do a blind tasting. She was too pretty to blindfold, but she promised not to look.

IMG_1079 Getting ready to taste. On the table you see the white ones dressed in a simple vinaigrette. On the right are the green ones with a topping of chevre, tomato, and vinaigrette. Was this tipping the balance in favor of the green?

IMG_1080 First goes the white. Caty’s father excitedly helps himself to one.

Next is the green. Hey, is Caty peeking? No, her eyes are closed. IMG_1081

The verdict? Caty comes in on the side of the green, which she says “tastes green”. I know what she means.

IMG_1148 Caty the next day, at the Jardins du Luxembourg, none the worse for her exertions with asparagus.

At the table, the vote was split. Some sided for green based not only on the taste, but for the beautiful colour it gives the plate. Good point. Personally, I thought the white was ahead by a nose because in addition to having all the flavour of green asparagus, it had an appealing texture: firm on the outside, nicely mushy in the centre. If you see white asparagus why not have your own taste test and let me know how it turned out.

 

The Stomach of Paris

“You will see what even Parisians never get to see,” Genevieve said as we lurched and swerved our way through early morning traffic. Glad that she, not me, was driving, I hoped that there would be coffee at our destination. We had left our apartment at 6:15 to rendez-vous with G. “How is it that you get to go in?” I asked. “Je suis membre d’un societé,” she said rather mysteriously. “It must be the Society of the Legion of Honour,” I murmered  to Alan. “Actually,” she said, having heard, “both my grandfathers, my father, and my ex-husband  had the Legion of Honour”. I have told readers before that G. is crème de la crème. “Then you are a Legionnaire by proximity,” I said. She chuckled.

About 15 minutes beyond the outskirts of Paris, we arrived. “It has its own airport,” G. said. “Shipments come in from all over the world.”

“And from here to the rest of France?” I asked.

“To the rest of Europe.”

We are standing on a superb, sunny and warm day in a rather bleak, unending parking lot. Silly me. I had thought that Rungis, the Marché Central of Paris, would be like the cheery, tented street markets that dot the city, only bigger.

IMG_1544 Here you see row on row of electrical lines and greenhouses at Rungis.

Rungis is the successor as the “stomach of Paris” to the far grittier and picturesque Les Halles. That the earlier market existed for centuries but a stone’s throw from the Louvre is another indicator of the centrality of food for the Parisian. You may have read those wonderful Paris memoirs in which Hemingway and friends cavort until dawn and then end their white night with a bowl of bouillabaise at Les Halles. It also is the scene of many a crime novel. Today the area is under renovation but the streets surrounding the former market site are amongst our least favorite, proving that even Paris has its tacky neighbourhoods.

“Hurry,” Genevieve said. “we must get to the flower hall. It’s the first to shut down.” We step into a building that would dwarf an airline hangar and enter…. heaven.

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Men with trolleys are running around frantically, as the French do when they’re working, and each trolley is packed precipitously with mountains of gorgeous, absolutely freshly-cut flowers.

IMG_1534 Bins of roses, four deep.

IMG_1533 Cut orchids.

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Colour and scent everywhere.

IMG_1536 How to choose? G. and I zoned in on some white and almost black anemones. I also got white sweet peas and G. got a little pot of lily of the valley.

On to the greenhouses. We drove. Everything is big and far in this market. From a plant point of view, and as a botanical garden, Paris’ Jardin des Plantes is a bit disappointing. But who needs one when you have these massive, incredible greenhouses? Suivez-moi.

IMG_1548  Topiary Olive trees. You know how I love topiary.

IMG_1563 Clematis. We can’t grow this kind.

IMG_1562IMG_1553IMG_1549 Xmas tree- shaped azalea. Not fair.

IMG_1550 Topiary azalea. Ditto.IMG_1545IMG_1552IMG_1551IMG_1554IMG_1564IMG_1546

Okay, I know that so far there has been precious little about food. Don’t worry. We did get to food. A classic Parisian hostess, G. begins most of her soirées with a glass of champagne (yes, real) and foie gras which she always prepares herself. She gets the foie gras at Rungis, by the box. Driving over to her provider, she seemed piqued that I was not getting any. How to explain? It’s a bit of an animal cruelty objection and a bit of a high fat issue. Eating a bite of foie gras is delicious, but on the third or fourth bite I feel as though I’m eating a pound of butter. I said something lame about it’s not the way I cook. No problem, though. At this provider (“He supplies all the 3 star chefs”, G. said), I found delicious smoked salmon, a large bag of escargots in butter and garlic, a pot of fig jam, hazelnut oil, argan oil – for my skin and hair –  and duck confit. In the adjacent vendor, I bought cheeses and sweet butter (see, I have nothing against fat, in modest amounts – au contraire).

IMG_1567IMG_1568 There were also entire chateaubriands and filet mignons as big as eels. There were boxes of poultry, including pigeons as you see on the right. I was very tempted by the pigeons, as I just love them, but even on Weird Food Wednesday I would not have the heart to cut off that sweet little head. There were suckling pigs, too, but enough said about that.

Our expedition was not finished, but the battery in my camera was, so you’ll just have to imagine the massive florist supply store we went into where G. enthusiastically darted about getting little bibs and bobs for her grandchildren for Easter. We ended at a wine and gourmet item warehouse (chocolates, sauces, sun-dried tomatoes and the like). We were invited to taste champagne. Well, it would have been rude not to. G., as the driver, took only a tiny sip, but the gentlemen serving were pouring out tumbler-fulls  for Alan. I guess that noon is late in the day at Rungis and they didn’t want to waste it.

Back in the car, on our way to Paris, G. asked,”Does this interest you, going to Rungis?” This is French for, “Did you like it?”

“Yes,” I said. “It fills me up. It’s like Paris itself, so packed with possibility, so expressive of a particular viewpoint on life, where everything produced is the best one can get, is just what one really enjoys, is there and will always be there and promises so many future pleasures that….” I trailed off, feeling confused. Perhaps it was the champagne leaving me feeling foolish and tongue-tied. Genevieve just smiled and shrugged.

 

Weird French Food IV

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No, I didn’t. There are lengths to which I will not go, even to amuse you, dear reader, and eating this trio of lamb heads on offer at Marche d”Aligre is one of them. It was interesting to me that they stuffed the mouths with something – kind of like the apple in the roasted pig’s mouth but I can’t tell what and I hesitated to go in closer for a look. Obviously, I do not have what it takes to be an investigative reporter.

Instead, we opted for seafood. This week in the closet, uh I mean kitchen, I have a comely assistant.

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This is my daughter Charlotte, here on Spring Break. (See my post “Mother and Child Reunion” to understand how really happy I am at this moment.) She is saying, “Mom, do we have to have to eat the eyeballs?”

These lovely big shrimp are called Gambas. There are even bigger ones but you know me, I’m cheap when it comes to marketing.  The great cuisines of the world are all ones in which necessity was the mother of flavour. Think: French boeuf bourguignon, pot-au-feu, confit de canard. It’s all farmhouse cooking, cheaper cuts and  methods for making them delicious. Same with Italian food, where all the recipes were developed by someone’s grandmother and are based on rice. pasta, abundant vegetables, and a very little  bit of meat, ground or pounded into submission. Chinese food, too, doesn’t begin with the idea, “What are the most expensive ingredients around? Let’s cook them.”  I say, “Let’s get creative and save money. Then, we’ll spend that money on wine!” I’m sure the lamb heads were cheap, but as I said, I do have limits.

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Here are the Gambas in the skillet. I started by sauteeing leeks and mushrooms. I set them aside and sauteed the shrimp (rinsed and dried) separately. I use olive oil in the skillet. Once the shrimp were pink on both sides, I put the mushrooms and leeks back in. Then I added some white wine – a nice light Sancerre. Five minutes later, voila. I don’t peel the shrimp before bringing them to the table. Maybe I would if Queen Elizabeth were coming for dinner but she has not turned up as yet. Eating this kind of food is a dig-in-with-your-fingers sort of event. So we peel, we eat, we mop with bread and wash down with the Sancerre. And we do not eat the eyeballs.

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Next on Weird Food, something I need to show you, for a giggle, but have held back because it’s not food and it’s more like weird advertizing. But what the heck. You know Orangina. It’s kinda weird – an orange flavoured fizzy drink. Better than Orange Crush, but the sort of thing you would only drink if desperately thirsty and trapped in an airport due to flight delay and the only other option is a  tepid, rusty water fountain. Anyway, they have it here, and the advertising campaign features sexy cartoon animals. You heard it. Cartoon  deer and giraffes that are shaped like pin-up girls and posing in a come-hither way.

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I hope you can decipher these images, which were on a cafe window, hence the interesting but disruptive reflections. It’s at times like this that I feel I am in an utterly foreign society. Isn’t there something weird and vaguely disturbing about making cartoon animals that are provocative? And obviously Mr. Orangina (or MS.?) thinks that these images are totally appealing and will sell his product. These critters have been around for some time – at least for the five years that I have come to really know Paris -so they must be working.

Weird French Food III

Followers of Weird Food Wednesdays know that I am pledged to seek out the weird and wonderful in French food and try to cook it. This inevitably leads to adventures, if only for the taste buds. This week, I tried cooking this. Points if you can guess what it is: animal or vegetable?

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I got these critters, which are vegetable despite their name: pied de mouton (hedgehog mushroom in English). I was hoping when I looked them up, that they would be that other weird mushroom item, oreilles de judas. But don’t worry, I will stay on the look out for these, too. Here is what they look like in scale with other, more familiar items.

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I got them here, the cheapest, most crowded, and certainly noisiest of the food markets in Paris, the Marche Alligre. Here, vendors, many of whom are from Arabic countries, noisily hawk their wares: “Un euro, un euro, les 3 avocats, un euro”. It is as chaotic for the eye  and for the ear. Hang onto your purse, and your partner!

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 A mountain of mushrooms

I sauteed them with leeks until brown. I tried not to crowd the skillet. Took five minutes. I removed them and sauteed up blanc de dinde, turkey breast, which is super inexpensive here. Five minutes per side. Then I added back in the mushrooms and leeks and half a cup of water – only because I had no white wine around. I stirred in creme fraiche at the end, added herbes de provence and, done! It was fantastic. As for the pied de moutons, they were good, tasting quite a bit like chanterelles, except with a meatier texture. Three of these big boys sufficed for the two of us, so this also sweet on the budget.

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Continuing in the orange and weird vein, check out the crust on this cheese:

01737845f68b20a54b6ccb2a2661d2882a8f8e036c If the moon is made of cheese, it would have a crust like this. I didn’t eat it (the crust, that is). But I did chunk out a piece of the interior which was nutty and had a great texture even  if the taste was a little too salty for me.  This is a very aged mimolet, from our local Marais vendor , Laurent Dubois. You know you can trust the suggestions of the best worker in France, and I can see how they won this honour. They dish up the cheese with a reverence normally reserved for diamonds and rubies.

01fc2fd897b4a821ca9233485fbb8095422f3bb970 I have offered my husband the honour of best dishwasher in France, but he declined, seeing my ruse for what it was. All this weird food cooking leads to lots of dishes.

On to the next weird dish, lamb necks. By now you know me, I’m cheap. So are lamb necks. “But how do you cook them?” I asked our Arab butcher. He explained that you just sautee it up and it’s good to go. “Don’t I need to cook it on low heat in the oven for a long time?”  He disagreed. I wondered if I should let it simmer for a long period in wine. He demurred. Really not necessary, just make it simple. Okay, he’s the boss. Here’s what they looked like in the skillet.

0164b7443d19b11b37a4d30f541660e7558f7dd2ea01ab62ecf804677b2848f4a342d2a4daf793e66e71_00001 And here, with button mushrooms and leeks. Basically, just flash-fried them.

01ab62ecf804677b2848f4a342d2a4daf793e66e71_00001 They were good. Tender and toothsome like a great lamb chop. The butcher was right. They didn’t need anything fancy. Just one problem. Super hard to eat. Have you noticed that food gets less expensive when it  either takes longer to cook or is harder to eat.? The great exception: lobster, which could hardly be more difficult to eat. Anyway, these little babies were GOOD, but you ultimately had to pick them up and gnaw away. Why? Anatomy.

At the risk of estranging you, I show you my gnawed bone. As an artist, I think it looks kind of cool, but you may think it just looks gross.

01e76f0b65e6406f3d38fe0871484860a87cb29cc7 You see what’s going on. The spinal column in its super-structure of bone. Within this butterfly of bone was lots of good eating. If you have the patience.

I know I do.

Weird French Food II – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

01edde27c3e25e25d2b6418bc4395dc918bebc91bf Let’s start with ugly. These knobby little fellows were unknown to me before my last trip to Paris, but I appreciated them so much then that I found them in the market at home  and even started to grow them.  In French they are topinambours. In English, they seem strangely misnamed Jerusalem artichokes, for they have nothing to do with artichokes, nor the Holy Land from what I can tell. They are sweet, nutty little tubers that are, together with  parsnips and  salsify,   part of the holy trinity of Parisian winter vegetables for roasting. So that is what to do. Peel, roast and serve. Or, you could puree them after roasting and toss in herbes de provence, truffle oil, or other flavoring. Given a good supply of topinambours you could get through anything,  even a Canadian winter.

On to the good, if weird.

01bcc1bfa6c49be71eb7673384335c4964c779e4a2 I first came acrss lardons in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. In Julia Child’s Coq au Vin and Boeuf Bourgignon, they are the starting point for building up a mellifluous symphony of flavors in the style of traditional French food. I make my own lardons at home from good old Canadian bacon. But you do not see bacon here. You see handi-paks of lardons. And these little babies sure come in handy. They are part of my budget and health plan, believe it or not. See, fry up and  toss in a few (just a very few) lardons with a pan of roasted veggies and voila, you have a savoury dinner your husband is not going to complain about because he thinks he’s eating bacon.

0140efe65bfbb9ba48aa899b52b528394023c8c57f012240d9dce86f3ea099afe5c633ee5d36fe542514 More good. As we have discussed, the French care deeply about scent and taste, but they are also appreciative of the cute (see previous post), so many familiar foods come in adorable round shapes (see zucchini) or in baby format (see irresistable baby cauliflowers). Normally, I am fully capable of resisting cauliflower, believe me. But when it is this cute? Zut!

010e2423aa4efed2242b1260ce0c2439b46120827f_00001 Still with the good, check out that package of meat. This is French budget food par excellence. It also has the cute factor. About the size of a large osso bucco, bound with string into a cohesive round, it is queue de veau, veal tail. Why turn this part of the beast into dogfood, or what ever they do at home with it? It is delicious. For, as Ruth Reichl says, meat is tender at the bone. And bone delivers a lot of flavour when browned and then slowly braised in the cheap red wine of our grocer, on low heat, for a couple of hours. As you go, toss in what ever you would normally – carrots, leeks or onions, maybe fennel. Serve in a bowl with that crusty baguette you see on the counter.

01d2f1e65f8b4377c76ecb7f7745cd59960eb4892a_00001 Voila. The strings have been cut and it’s ready to serve.

01075d261eb48113ae2d376dc6510f8fa98ba7b10a Now for the bad. One of the changes I’ve noticed is the growing presence of this item in the bakeries of Paris. OK, Laduree was one thing. This sweet and elegant shop in St. Germain-des-Pres with its baroque and feminine decor was the right place for these, and besides they have much more in the way of sweets that are worthy of your attention. Perhaps the American interest in macaroons has spurred the Parisians on, but the bald truth is that these little objets are not very good. They are, in fact bad. The outer disks are like a stale ice cream cone or a communion wafer with suger added. Inside, is a gummy, sugary wad of something that would do better as an insulation than as a confection. Why eat this when there is so much good stuff? And what’s with the dayglow colours? A shocking lapse of taste. It just shows us that the Parisians CAN sometimes get it wrong.

Weird French Food

011cb63d2f72c3e657e15cb449798a31f58e961950Honestly, these fish are so fresh-looking and smiley, how can I cook them? Their little eyes are staring up at me as if to say, “Put us back”! No way. Summoning my courage I proceeded into my less than closet sized kitchen to cook these mackerel WITH THE HEADS ON. Yikes. Thank you,  Jamie Oliver. Browsing through recipes, there had been  one for crispy mackerel. I liked the sound of crispy. Jamie assured me that mackerel are delicious and that I should be eating them because tuna are over-fished. I reminded myself of my vow to cook something new, something French, every week. I steeled myself and put Georges et Ludovic (yes, I had been staring at them so long that by now they had names) into the hot oil, and started to cook. They did not smell bad, as I had been told mackerel does. In fact,they seemed to be looking crispy. I flipped them and went to my go-to additive of white wine. When in France, I add 3 euro/bottle cooking wine to just about everything. That plus creme fraiche does the job and you can’t miss. In went the wine and that’s when it went up. In flames. I have never had the flame effect with white wine, but as the flames rose, I didn’t have time to think about that. “Uhhh, anything I can do?” Alan said, sticking his head in the door. I appreciated his tact. We were both thinking, OMG, we’re going to burn the building down. At least we’ll get to meet the Sapeurs-Pompiers, I mused, and ask them why they have two jobs here instead of just one like firemen everywhere else.  But after a moment of useless blowing, the flames went out and the fish were indeed looking crisp.

01f80e5a07e7c8289973d34592803006f8af9a4f8aFrazzled chef, very crispy mackerel. Dinner very, good. Don’t try this at home.

0198ff44886299c0dbbc9245f491df9923619a273eYou probably recognize  parsnips in the photo (like a fat white carrot) but what the heck is that bunch of black sticks held together with a rubber band? That, friends, is salsify. I’d heard of it, but never cooked it. I had seen it packed in water in small decorative jars on gourmet shop shelves but never bought one. I had to ask the market stall vendor how to prepare them. Apparently, simple as peeling and slicing and roasting. I could do that. What the vendor didn’t explain is that when you peel and slice the salsify it exudes a weird glue-like substance akin to rubber cement. It does not wash off with soap and water. It just sits on your fingers, tacky and black. Finally what worked was Parisian jet pads, not a recommended beauty treatment for my already dry skin. I guess the Parisian home chef must overlook these little contre-temps if she wants to achieve authentic Parisian deliciousness. 01a995de2becebd06ac141959469467f1faada85c8_00001 Here’s how they came out, roasted together with the parsnips. Admit it, delicious, no? I picked one up with my sore finger tips and appreciated the nutty, toasty flavours. Next week in Weird Food Wednesday: Queue de Veau and Osso Bucco de Dinde.