My Paris trip was focused on food. I was suffering from heartbreak and being a true gourmand, ate to feel better. French food is one of my favourite cuisines and it was not difficult to splurge on its hedonistic pleasures. While a few of my French food experiences were at expensive restaurants, most were at local bistros and brasseries. I also ate at the Parisian local markets and those were some of my best meals. French food is an acquired taste and its cheese definitely needs some tactful sampling, especially for beginners. Its meat palate is wide and its alcohol variety to die for. I am especially fond of French liqueurs like Cassis and the Alsatian plum brandy is my favourite. A glass of Calvados can never fail to revive me and a premium bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon will win my heart.
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The hearty, heavy French food
Similarly, I am also fond of garlic and infused butter and French food includes a heavy dose of both. I love their truffle butter, parsley butter, and Poulet Aux 40 Gousses D’Ail – a heart chicken dish from Provence that includes chicken, butter, wine, and 40 cloves of garlic. Of course, kissing is out of the question after consuming this dish but then I think I have reached an age when occasionally I enjoy a plate of Poulet Aux 40 Gousses D’Ail and Netflix more than kissing and the rest. Anyway, in Paris, apart from indulging my heartbreak in local liqueurs, Netflix, and tubs of ice cream, I enjoyed a lot of French food, and here are some of my favourite dishes.
Croque Monsieur, the manly French sandwich
This French sandwich with a masculine name is composed of the yummiest ingredients — thin slices of white bread filled with a thin slice of ham and a thin slice of cheese, traditionally Emmental or Gruyère, and grilled in a generous amount of butter. Although now a popular snack in France, it originated as a bourgeoise item of food. All the recorded mentions of Croque Monsieur claim so. One of these texts appeared in Trois semaines dans les Broads du Norfolk, a novel published in 1891. In this novel, three French persons, nicknamed la Timonnerie, le Diplomate, and le Capitaine, spend three weeks cruising the Norfolk Broads aboard a wherry. La Timonnerie is the wife of le Diplomate, who is employed in the French diplomatic service; le Capitaine is so nicknamed because he is a keen sailor and owns a yacht. In this novel, a chapter mentions
‘Il est tard et nous avons grand faim. Que faire pour le déjeuner ? Le jambon devient monotone à la longue. Le Diplomate qui est un peu gourmand, en quoi il ressemble à Talleyrand, a une idée. « Faisons des croque-monsieur ». Vite le pain à toast, le beurre, le fromage de gruyère, le jambon, un peu de poivre de Cayenne et à l’œuvre. L’un coupe, l’autre beurre, le troisième réunit le tout en sandwichs que Vincent fait sauter dans la poêle. Ils sont exquis, les croque-monsieur.’
Translated as ‘It is late and we are very hungry. What to make for lunch? Ham becomes monotonous in the long run. Le Diplomate who is rather fond of food, in which he resembles Talleyrand, has an idea. “Let’s make croque-monsieurs”. Quick the bread, the butter, the Gruyère cheese, the ham, a little Cayenne pepper and down to work. One cuts, the other butter, the third puts the whole together into sandwiches which Vincent fries in the pan. They are delicious, those croque-monsieurs.’
Canard à l’orange, the French food classic
Canard à l’orange is a traditional French dish in which roasted duck is served with a rich brown sauce flavoured with sugar and orange juice. The dish is typically made with a duck breast known as Magret. This type of duck breast is a bit bigger and the duck is cooked in a way that it remains pink on the inside. According to Julia Child, roast duck with orange sauce is “one of the most well known of all the duck dishes.” Ironically, this dish is believed to have roots in the ancient Middle East, where the cooking style of combining meat and fruit was common. The kings of France planted oranges in the 16th century, but the fruit didn’t get popular until the 17th century, during which the first reference to orange sauce was made. The first true recipe for this French food classic seems to be from the 19th century when the French cook, Louis Eustach Ude calls it Ducklings à la Bigarade (bitter orange), and lavishes citrus sauce over the whole thing.
Cuisses de Grenouille or Frog legs
Cuisses de Grenouille is a very beautiful name for a very controversial dish —- frog legs. A very popular dish in French cuisine it is a regional specialty of Dombes, département of Ain. Frog legs are also eaten in French-speaking Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Portugal, Louisiana, the Caribbean, South and East Asia as well as parts of Africa. Usually, only the hind legs are used and the meat is similar in taste and texture to that of a young chicken. Traditionally, in France, the little thighs are grilled or deep-fried and most eat them with their fingers. Some diners also prefer to put the whole leg in their mouth and then spit out the little bones after.
Moules, my French food favourite
I love moules or mussels. I love it cooked in any style: swimming in spicy Keralite gravy, fried, simmered in butter and white wine, or grilled the Egyptian way. Moules Frites is a dish traditional to Northern France. Since this area is close to the Belgium border, most agree that it to be a Flemish dish. What makes moules frites, especially such a regional favourite is its crisp, clean taste. Think of the delicious combination of fresh mussels and crispy French fries and you know what I am talking about. France has a lot of the sea and so it is quite understandable that French food celebrates moules. They cook it in many different ways with the Moules Frites being the most popular. Other moules dishes are Moules à la crème, Moules marinière à la crème, Mouclade, Moules farcies, and Moules à la marinière. I was lucky to try both Moules marinière à la crème and Mouclade and it was the latter that stole my heart. A regional specialty of La Rochelle in southwest France, the mussels are cooked with cream, saffron, white wine, and a bit of curry spice. The sauce is delicious and after the dish is finished, it’s recommended to mop up the sauces with a crusty baguette.
Escargots, the all-time French food favourite
This unusual-sounding name is French for snails. Eating snails is a culinary pleasure in France. Each year nearly 16,000 tons of snails are consumed in France and that means 6.5 snails per person per year. Escargots are especially eaten during Christmas and it is most popular in Alsace and Franche-Comté and to a lesser extent in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes. Escargots have been consumed since prehistoric times and archeological remains found in Spain and France confirm that people bred snails for eating. During Roman times in France, snails were eaten fried or grilled after being soaked in milk. It was a popular dessert of that time. Escargots were later banned by the Church and it took many years for this French food to make a comeback in France. Today it is one of the most popular French food and most tourists make it a point to try escargots at least once. Escargots Bourgignons is the most popular snail dish in France and its history is as impressive as the taste. According to the legends, in 1814, Talleyrand – Napoleon’s steward, wanted to have lunch with Tsar Alexander I at a Burgundian restaurant: Antonin Carême. Since the two men arrived at the restaurant very late, the cook had nothing left to serve them. However, the cook was a clever man who did not believe in sending his illustrious guests away. He reportedly saw some plump snails in his garden and decided to cook them for the two guests. The cook used garlic to hide the new meat’s taste, very green parsley to make the dish look more appetizing, and lots of butter to make the swallowing easier. The Tsar loved the recipe and that’s how one of Burgundy’s most popular dishes was born. I simply love escargots especially when they swim in parsley butter.
Crepe Suzette, the most theatrical French food
Crêpe Suzette is undoubtedly the most theatrical pancake. Flambéed in a mix of Cointreau, Grand Marnier, and Brandy, Crêpe Suzette is performed at the table and always served fresh. The performance equals the fluffy taste and it comes with a delicious sugary orange and butter sauce. There are several versions behind the story of its name: two of which involve royalty. The most famous story, and one popularised in the memoirs of the chef Henri Charpentier, takes place in the Café de Paris in Monte Carlo in 1895. A then 15-year-old Charpentier was waiting on a party of the Prince of Wales, the eldest son of Queen Victoria, and the future King Edward VII. The group included a girl called Suzette and they ordered crêpes, which were usually served at the table in an orange sauce and liquors. When the pancakes unexpectedly caught fire, it created a new sensation and the Playboy Prince asked Charpentier to name his creation ‘Crêpe Suzette’. In his memoir Life à la Henri writes: ‘It was quite by accident as I worked in front of a chafing dish that the cordials caught fire. I thought it was ruined. The Prince and his friends were waiting. How could I begin all over? I tasted it. It was, I thought, the most delicious medley of sweet flavours I had ever tasted. I still think so. That accident of the flame was precisely what was needed to bring all those various instruments into one harmony of taste… He ate the pancakes with a fork, but he used a spoon to capture the remaining syrup. He asked me the name of that which he had eaten with so much relish. I told him it was to be called Crêpes Princesse. He recognised that the pancake controlled the gender and that this was a compliment designed for him, but he protested with mock ferocity that there was a lady present. She was alert and rose to her feet and holding her little skirt wide with her hands she made him a curtsey. “Will you,” said His Majesty, “change Crêpes Princesse to Crêpes Suzette?” Thus was born and baptised this confection. The next day I received a present from the Prince, a jewelled ring, a panama hat and a cane.’ Personally, I think that Crêpe Suzette tastes like marmalade.
Say Hello to the very delicious Rum Baba
I am not kidding but it is actually the name of one of the most delicious desserts in French food. Baba au rhum also known as rum baba or more popularly Baba is a lovely yeast-risen cake studded with dried fruit and soaked in hot rum syrup. Although the classic rum baba is popular all over Europe, and many countries claim to be its origins, it was in Paris that it became the rum baba everybody knows and loves today. The base of this European sweetie is the eastern European babka cake. A popular sweet treat, it appeared in France when King Stanislaus I of Poland and his family were exiled there. They lived in northeast France in 1719 and brought their royal household, including their pastry chefs with them. According to the legends, the King added alcohol to a dry babka cake and viola! rum baba was born. The story though dubious does not end there. Eventually, the King’s daughter Marie took her pastry chef Nicolas Stohrer to Versailles when she married Louis XV in 1725. He apparently introduced what the French call rhum baba at the court and in 1730 opened a bakery in Paris. It is the Patisserie Stohrer – the oldest patisserie in the city. Of course, it is still selling rum babas!
Calvados at a traditional zinc bar
I like fruit flavoured alcohol and France produces some of the finest fruit brandies in the world. My personal favourites are the Alsatian plum brandy and Calvados, the apple brandy from Normandy. I prefer Calvados or calva as it is popularly known anytime and never fail to enjoy a glass or two in Paris. It is usually served in a squat tulip-shaped glass and calva is always drunk at room temperature. What makes this apple brandy special is its heritage. The people of Normandy have been making cider for centuries and it is a French department that is blessed with an abundance of fruits. From cider comes Calvados, a “drink fit for kings and farmers alike”. The first official reference regarding cider distillation in Normandy was described by Sir Gilles de Gouberville in March 1553. It is believed that the best calva comes from a place called Calvados. Four different types of apples are grown there – sweet, bittersweet, bitter, and acidic – the perfect combination for cider. To create Calvados, the cider is distilled twice. The liquid is then matured in wood barrels and blended. The result is a strong and rather subtle taste with a beautiful fruity aroma.
Finally, the wicked green fairy called Absinthe
Associated with madness and murder, Absinthe has a fearsome reputation. It is believed that Van Gogh cut off his ear in absinthe-induced delirium. Although the real reason was probably way too much alcohol, absinthe is still a drink to be enjoyed with caution. It is a highly alcoholic 19th-century drink of the likes of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Van Gogh, Alistair Crowley, Toulouse Lautrec, and others famous for decadence. Green-hued, and anise-flavoured, this spirit is distilled from a plethora of botanicals that can include hyssop, coriander, and peppermint. While these are variable, depending on who is making it, there are three herbs that must be present for it to be absinthe: anise, fennel, and Artemisia absinthium, or wormwood. This last is a bitter plant that contains a chemical called thujone, long rumoured to have mind-altering effects. Absinthe, the most notorious liqueur of French food is an acquired taste. It has a powerful flavour and a pronounced bitterness. There is also a very interesting ritual around drinking absinthe. First, a fountain – a glass vessel with taps – is placed on the table. Next come thick glasses, which have absinthe sitting in the ‘reservoir’ at the bottom. Ornate slotted spoons are laid across the glasses, and a sugar cube is placed on top. Water drips through the sugar cube into the glass, and moments later, the magic happens: the absinthe ‘louches’, turning a milky green colour. (information credit – worldoffoodanddrink) The best place to try absinthe in Paris is at The Hotel Royal Fromentin at 11 Rue Fromentin.
Follow the rest of the France series
- PHOTO ESSAY OF OUR SPRING BREAK EUROPE ROAD TRIP
- A LOVELY FRENCH SPRING IN DORDOGNE
- MIXED IMPRESSIONS OF CARCASSONNE IN FRANCE
- CLIMBING THE GIGANTIC DUNE DE PILAT
- THE CLICHE AND INTREPID IN PARIS
- THE ARTISTIC HERITAGE OF MONTMARTRE
- PALAIS GARNIER: THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA
- VISITING THE OPÉRA GARNIER
- PARIS CAFÉ CULTURE
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE