International cooking for the youthful malcontent.

Travelogue 2: Paris and The Road

Cairanne is about a 7 hour drive from Paris. That’s a long way. In general, I don’t enjoy long car rides – mostly because in Ontario that means seeing a lot of the same scenery for 7 straight hours: farms, highway signage, lonely VIA stations, and truck stops. In France, I was sort of expecting the same, with the slight improvement in that the truck stops et al would be “French” and therefore “new” (to me) at least. Still, 7 hours of anything can be a bit much. My parents were driving us on this excursion, themselves on their way to the northern coast to see war memorials – so make that a 7 hour drive with my parents.

Luckily, I love my parents, and they’re not bad car company. My dad drives fast, and likes to take rest stops frequently to stretch our legs and purchase exotic flavours of Lays potato chips such as Bolognaise and Roast Chicken With Thyme (tastes like Thanksgiving dinner in chip form!). My dad likes chips a lot, you see. I’ve always been keen on Lays’ flavours in other countries ever since I had a flavour in Thailand that haunts me to this day – I couldn’t read the label, but the pictures on it suggested it was some kind of spicy ginger seafood concoction. There were other unidentifiable flavours as well – whatever they were, they were genius. The French lineup also features a flavour named Mustard and Pickles, which I have to guess tastes like spicy dill pickles(?) or something like that. Again, as Anuja detests all things involving vinegar, I would never have been allowed to purchase these if I saw them. Even the smell of the Thanksgiving chips (delicious!) turned her off. You might wonder how I, the intrepid home cook, can deal with someone with such particular taste problems. Sometimes I wonder myself.

Anyway, France. As it turns out, the scenery on this trip is exactly the French version of Ontario. Farms. Vineyards. Cows. Except for one thing – the French countryside all appears like a postcard, whereas the Ontario countryside is generally kind of ragged and often smells like pig feces. I was delighted, as I’ve learned to take pleasure in simple things when you’re stuck in the backseat for 7 hours. Then we discovered something very interesting – the French rest stops actually serve real food. Real food as in not a single fast food chain anywhere. No diners or Denny’s (I guess Autogrill is close enough, though) and the place we stopped at even had a sit-down cafeteria-style restaurant with a generous salad bar. It was so… healthy. Where was the French KFC? My parents opted for the salad bar, while Anuja and I snacked on a fresh loaf of bread grilled with butter and 2 fresh cheeses (a grilled cheese sandwich, I suppose) that was, even modestly considered, worlds better than we expected. You expect garbage at rest stops, right? So when you get fresh bread, soft and warm, with melted cheese and butter so fresh it’s like you made it yourself, at home… and you get that after 3 hours on the road, feeling a little worse for wear… it is maybe the best cheese sandwich you’ve ever had. So, random French rest stop, I salute you and your fresh baguette. I also salute your french fry stall, which was the only establishment that was closed. Also to your credit – having 2 wine stores in a single rest stop facility is one of the greatest ideas in Western civilization.

Prior to departing on this trip, I researched a few restaurants in Paris – mostly by reading David Lebovitz’s blog. Anuja was also reading his book The Sweet Life in Paris, so we thought we were prepared. The first night we arrived in Paris, I had a nice prix fixe spot picked out for a welcome-to-Paris meal. It was perfect. Except that it was closed. You see, I had heard of this problem, and I knew it was vacation season in France, but it did not really sink in. August is a time when many Parisiens go on vacation. For a month. And if they own shops, they just close them. For a month. Interesting. The restaurant I wanted to go to actually had a note on it saying they would be open that day from 7pm to 11:45. It was nearly 7:45, and they were most assuredly not open. C’est la vie. Instead, we (us, my parents, and my sister+boyfriend, who met us when we arrived – they came on the train earlier in the day) settled for a decidedly sub-par pub down the street, near Gare de Lyon. It was not a great introduction to Paris cuisine, but it did set an important precedent – most things you’re looking for in Paris are either closed, or you can’t find them (because the streets are barely labeled, or have been given more than one or even two names, depending on which block you’re on) no matter how great a navigator you are; do not expect to get what you want. I’m a pretty good map-reader (I did manage to successfully give directions to 3 other groups of people during our 3.5 days in Paris so that has to say something), and Paris was a challenge. We partially made up for it with late-night Nutella crepes after a long walk down the Seine to the Eiffel Tower.

Luckily, not every meal was as disappointing – the next morning we woke up and, after a 30 minute detour through Montmartre (due to said street-naming conventions) we found Le Grenier à Pain, one of the recipients of the best Baguette in Paris awards. Did we get baguettes? Weirdly, no – instead we loaded up on croissants, and pain au chocolat. While I am not generally a fan of French cuisine, my deep and abiding love of bread and bread-related products does indeed extend to (or was born with, rather) French breads. I love croissants, and these croissants were perfect. They were light and flaky, weighing less than half of most of the croissants back home and were as fresh as a croissant could be, light steam rising from them when you broke them open. We crossed the street to eat a late breakfast at Cafe Sancerre, splitting a croque monsieur (my first ever, and first of many French classics) that was, as it turned out, exactly what my stomach wanted: multi-grain grain, large chunks of real ham, and a mountain of cheese broiled to crispy golden perfection. Then we began our sight-seeing marathon by polishing off pain au chocolat in Notre Dame’s park, before investigating the famous bookstore Shakespeare and Co. across the river.

The important thing to know right now is that I have not tried much true French food. That morning was my first croque monsieur, a sandwich that exists on nearly every pub and cafe menu in Toronto. By fate, I have managed to avoid many common things like this (I’ve never ate peanut butter and jelly, for example). I would later eat my first duck confit (confit de canard) in a cafe outside the gardens of Luxembourg (also attempting to enjoy green olives again, and failing) and at a charming little restaurant up the hills in Montmartre, named Chez Marie, sampling my first beef bourguignon as well as my first french onion soup. The restaurant’s reputation was for “simple French fare” and it lived up to that. Nothing fancy, just the basics – which is what I wanted, since I had no experience with these dishes. I’m not sure I can comment properly on them as the onion soup immediately burnt my tongue, but what I did taste of the soup definitely has convinced me I will order this again, somewhere.

Certainly, Paris has many, many top-tier restaurants, but two things kept me away from them. One, money; I’m hardly rich. Two, I actually do not think visiting only the finest places a city has to offer gives you a true travel experience. When I travel, I want to see the “real” places – the everyday things that regular people who enjoy. Or at least, the closest I can get to, being a mostly ignorant tourist with an extremely loose grasp on French. Ultimately, I do not think I found what I was looking for (re: food) in Paris, but given our time frames and lack of connections, we did alright. Other meals included street vendor panini and chicken and cheese crepes, as well as a very interesting chicken with a mushroom sauce that almost tasted like curry. I also had a crepe stuffed with slices of rind-on goat’s milk cheese, spinach, thin-sliced ham and potato which was very satisfying. I also tried my first bag of macarons from a cookie shop in Montmartre. I can tell you that macarons are now a thing I love and want more of. Basically, I love French sweets, chocolates, and breads but I am lukewarm on actual French cuisine itself. Perhaps it will grow on me.

Anuja somehow managed to resist all my attempts to convince her to go to French African restaurants (of which we do not have many similar places in Toronto) but I think we made up for it later in this trip. You’ll hear about that later. If I could add one general comment about Paris (and France in general) it’s that the reputation for rudeness that French people seem to have is mostly unwarranted. With the exception of one waiter who seemed completely uninterested in our table (which is not uncommon at home, either) all the staffers we dealt with were very friendly and helpful. Regular people on the streets as well seemed perfectly normal, as well. I try to travel under the same attitude wherever I go – if you smile, make an attempt to speak in the right language, and adapt to local customs, rather than being upset when things aren’t the same as home – if you do this, you will, more often than not, get along just fine. Most people, regardless of where they live, are generally nice people who want to help if they can. It’s human nature, after all. France is no different.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t list the tourist-y places we visited. Off the top of my head: Sacre-Couer, Notre Dame, Shaespeare and Co., Musee D’Orsay, Jardins du Luxembourg, Belleville Park, Arc de Triomphe, The Moulin Rouge (and the nearby Musee de l’erotisme), The Bastille, The Eiffel Tower, The Palace of Versailles, and the Palais Garnier (which was our favourite, I think) as well as countless places we saw on our walks through the winding streets. We visited Versailles on the 4th day of this gruelling adventure, and that visit pretty much wiped us out. I forgot to mention, we did most of this walking in weather somewhere between 30 and 40 degrees Celsius; Anuja nearly fainted as we retreated to the hotel. I managed to revive her (and myself) with pain au chocolat and we were recharged enough to make it out for our last night (the spinach crepes and curious mushroom chicken meal) which was spent on a cafe table outside, people-watching, relaxing and enjoying the cool night air in the hills of Montmartre.

The next morning, we left. My parents had originally planned a picnic on the Seine for our final night in Paris, but that plan fell through, so we had a great picnic at a rest stop on the highway. Baguette (the best in Paris), slices of ham and a delicious, smooth hard cheese purchased at a fromagerie in Montmartre, melon, croissants and butter cookies from Poilâne, a world-famous bakery, and of course, Nutella&Go! It was back to the villa for some much-needed rest and relaxation.

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