Brumaire went to London this weekend, and all I got was this lousy condiment. Although in this case, “lousy” might actually be too generous a descriptor.
Yup, in the tradition of coals to Newcastle, Brumaire transported this packet of “French” mustard back to the land of the real thing. And how did it fare on foreign turf? Not well.
Ugh… I guess this little guy never heard the phrase “mustard yellow.” And as for the taste? Let’s just say that the good people of Dijon have nothing to worry about.
Brumaire’s previous gift went over a bit better: for Valentine’s day, he brought home a heart-shaped cheese!
Neufchatel is a mild, washed-rind cheese from Normandy, a cousin to the camembert. It was mildly tangy and slightly crumbly. And as for me, well I whipped up a delectable fondant au chocolat…
Okay, fine, so it came from a box — it was still delicious. And we all know that when it comes to love, it’s not the thought that counts, but the taste.
Two euros. That’s about $2.60. Can you even imagine spending that on a single donut? Even the incredible donuts at Allie’s are only a buck each.
Not a donut. They were so close, though, weren’t they? From the top, this really looked convincingly like a plain, old-fashioned chocolate-glazed donut. But what’s going on with the bottom? We’ve got a rock-hard protective chocolate casing here, as if they were afraid the tender donuty flesh might get damaged by the unforgiving display shelf.
The interior here is much too dense, too pastry-like to make a convincing donut. This example makes even Dunkin’s dry, dense monstrosities seem light and airy.
How could they go so wrong? I have a theory. I’ve noticed in the past that the French have a tendency to get obsessed with certain typically American foodstuffs, and go crazy trying to reproduce them. But at each turn, it’s like they’ve only ever seen them on tv or in a magazine — they frequently produce a convincing facsimile of the outside, but totally miss the boat on innards, bottoms, taste, or texture.
The last time I noticed this was with chocolate-chip cookies. I was about eight years old when we first started seeing chocolate-chip cookies in French supermarkets. At first we avoided them — we didn’t come all the way to France to eat some Chips Ahoy knock off. But eventually we succumbed to curiosity: had the French really figured out the secrets to this most American of delicacies?
Answer: no. But what was truly odd was that they weren’t chocolate-chip cookies at all. They looked like chocolate-chip cookies, but when you bit into them, there was one solid chunk of chocolate hiding in the interior. Seriously, it was as if they had wrapped some cookie dough around a hunk of chocolate, then scraped away the dough in places to give the appearance of evenly distributed chips. Crazy!
Anyway, after the donut debacle, I went looking for these cookies, but happily they are no more: I guess someone finally tipped the French off as to the nature of a “chip”. But it’s not like the French are the only ones guilty of judging a pastry by its cover — I’ve noticed that Americans do the very same thing with chocolate éclairs. Americans do an excellent job reproducing the external appearance of éclairs, but for some reason they are always stuffed with white cream (or worse, whipped cream). Where did people get this idea? Because I have never encountered this in a French éclair.
In France, the outside of the éclair always tips you off to the inside: chocolate icing means chocolate cream, coffee icing means coffee cream, etc. The proof:
See? Chocolate. So I hereby call on the pastry-chefs of both nations: for the love of all that’s sweet, don’t try to reproduce a confection you’ve never tasted.
If you haven’t heard a lot from me lately, it’s because I’ve become a lock-in.
I suppose this happens to everyone in the final stages of a novel — I promised myself that the final edits would be done by the end of January, and as a result, I’ve hardly left my bed all month. My bed, you see, is where I write. And as I sit here in bed, propped up by innumerable pillows, staring out the window at winter’s interminable gray drizzle, my laptop cozily warming my knees, it occurs to me Marcel Proust occupied a very similar pose just about a hundred years ago. (Sans laptop, bien évidemment.)
Then I get hungry, and wander over to the kitchen in search of madeleines.
I know I’m not the only person who makes the inevitable connection between Proust and madeleines, but for me, it’s a relatively new experience. When I was a kid, madeleines were just a fact of life, preferable to pain d’épice, but definitely not as desirable as an éclair. As I grew up, I heard from time to time about this Proust character and his abiding love for madeleines, and frankly, I always found it a bit puzzling.
Madeleines? They’re nothing special. Of course you can get fancy ones baked fresh from Paris’ most famous bakeries, but when I was a kid, our madeleines came from the grocery store, and were oh so inelegantly packaged in a clear plastic bag. The madeleines of my memory are dry and crumbly, modestly sweet, desirable mostly for their amusing shape, shelf-stability, and absorptive properties when dipped in tea or coffee.
Proust, though, he must have had access to a better variety, right? How else could he wax lyrical for 1,300 words about the subject? That’s what I assumed, anyway.
Then, a couple of years ago, I actually read À Coté de Chez Swann. Turns out, the madeleine is not so special:
She sent someone out for these short and squat cakes called Petites Madeleines, which seem to have been molded in the fluted shell of a scallop. And soon, mechanically, worn out by a dull day and the promise of a sad tomorrow, I brought to my lips a spoonful of tea in which I had dipped a piece of madeleine. But the moment the mouthful mixed with cake crumbs touched my palate, I trembled, aware that something extraordinary was happening within me. A delicious pleasure had overtaken me, isolated, with no notion of its cause.*
Ignore the stuff about the “delicious pleasure” and what do you have? Precisely the same dry, crumbly confection that inhabits my own memory. Of course, read a little further, and you find out this is the whole point:
… And all of a sudden, the memory came to me. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine that, Sunday mornings at Combray (in those days I never went out before Mass), when I went to tell her good-morning in her room, my Aunt Léonie offered to me after having dipped it in her tea or infusion.*
Proust (or rather, his narrator) isn’t in ecstasy over the madeleine, but rather this unexpected window into his childhood. He further explains: “It’s clear that the truth I’m looking for is not in it [the cake], but in me.”*
So, there you have it: if you’ve never had a madeleine, there’s not much point is eating one now. On the other hand, if you read French, and you haven’t yet read Proust, promise yourself to do it this year. You won’t regret it.
*I’m using my own translation here, because I just can’t stand the canonical Moncrieff version. But if you want to compare, here it is again in French and Moncrieff-English:
I’ve already been to Paris, I already been to Rome
And what did I do but miss my home?
I have been out west to Californ’.
But I miss the land where I was born.
Oh, New England.
Last night, Brumaire and I headed out to an expat pub (Canadian-themed, ironically) to view some live, authentic football americain.
I’m not normally the type to go seeking out pseudo-American experiences while I’m here in (arguably) the most beautiful city in the world. But I had to admit this was a special occasion: the Indiana Colts and the New England Patriots facing off for the AFC championship.
Brumaire, you see, is a long-standing Colts fan, and I (as indicated by Jonathan Richman’s lyrics above) hail from New England, so we really had to come out to support our teams — even if it meant there was a little competitive cheering going on.
All in all, it was a good game (the Colts came from behind for a long-awaited win), but it was also kind of a weird experience. In America, sports bars are generally filled with local fans. In Paris, the bar was packed with displaced fans of both teams, plus a motley assortment of curious Frenchies (note to the Parisian in the ludicrous cowboy hat and oversized belt buckle: nobody likes a wannabe). So every play was greeted by near-violent exchanges of cheers and boos.
And I was so amused by the attempts at American barfood that I had to snap a picture during the half:
Who in the kitchen decided it would be a good idea to pair a plate of onion rings with a square of dark chocolate?
We stumbled home at five in the morning, after four (!) pitchers of beer, countless deep-fried delicacies, and nearly seven hours of football (we’d showed up early for the Saints/Bears game). Don’t tell anyone, but that’s about seven times as much football as I’ve ever watched in one sitting in America.
Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Years… The holiday season is dead and gone, with not a hint of revelry on the horizon until Valentine’s Day, right? Ah, but that’s because you don’t know about La Fête des Rois.
Even as a kid, I always thought of La Fête des Rois as a sort of “hangover holiday,” not because there’s any drinking involved, but because it seemed like a sort of nicotine patch for celebration addicts, allowing sugar-saturated kids a way to wean themselves slowly off the adrenaline rush of the holiday season.
Theoretically, this holiday exists in America, too — usually known as Twelfth Night or Epiphany. Officially, it marks the arrival of the three kings/wisemen in Bethlehem to worship the baby Jesus, but in most American households, it’s little more than a reminder to take down that tree before the living room carpet becomes completely obscured by pine needles.
In France, however, it’s a bonafide holiday with its own traditions — foremost of which is the Galette des Rois:
This round, sweet puff pastry is usually filled with an almond paste called frangipane.
The galettes used to be made with a fève or bean cooked inside, and whoever found the bean was made king for the night.
Nowadays, the “fève” is usually a hunk of plastic in the shape of some totally inappropriate cultural icon.
As you can see from the label, this is Mme Agecanonix, a minor character from the much beloved Asterix comic books. Mme Agecanonix is a fictional character from a Pagan society — the status-hungry trophy-wife to the oldest man in town. What does she have to do with the Christ-child’s royal visitors? Beats me.
Even weirder was the fève from last year’s cake:
Who knew the French had even heard of the Academy Awards? I was happy, though: come February, it made a great cake-topper for my Oscar party.
I’m back! Although in fact, I never went away. Instead, my parents came to visit me here, and swallowed up all my free time in an endless stream of museums, movies, and *restaurants*. Seriously, twelve nice restaurants in fourteen days is no easy feat — but while I didn’t manage to clean my plate at each meal, I did at least take a zillion photos. They’re all up on Flickr (minus the super blurry ones), but I’ll share a few of the best ones here:
Mushroom lasagne at L’O à la Bouche. A misnomer, kind of, since I don’t think there was any pasta in this dish — just lovely layers of crunchy pastry, wild mushrooms, and cheese served in a luscious, velvety sauce.
Oysters at Le Petit Marguery. We had oysters probably two or three times in the two week period.
Piece de veau at La Ferrandaise — simple and hearty but totally delicious.
Only a mouthful, but possibly my favorite item on this list. Les Ormes served us this tiny cube of foie gras coated in spices and nuts, delectably matching crunchy and creamy textures.
Also from Les Ormes, an adorable little ice cream sandwich, served with a chocolate mousse and red berry concoction.
Lastly, a detail of our overloaded Bûche de Noël. Hey, man — if it ain’t tacky, it ain’t Christmas.
Speaking of Christmas, here’s a little secret just for you: Brumaire got me a fancy new camera! I haven’t used it yet (it’s still charging), but once it’s ready, hopefully we’ll all get to enjoy a New Year filled with gorgeous, blur-free photos.
Please internet, help me.
I’m sure we can all agree that a tartiflette as produced by Pizza Hut is going to be an affront to all that is cheesy, bacony, and tasty in this world. However, that’s not what concerns me today. What I want to know is, what the hell is up with the tag line?
Le maxi Tartiflette revient… La Queen veut sa tete sur un plateau.
The super Tartiflette is back… The “Queen” wants her (its?) head on a platter.
Why is ‘Queen’ written in English? Whose head does she want on a platter (since the grammar is ambiguous)? I can’t imagine she wants her own head on a platter — that seems both gruesome and pointless. But since when does a tartiflette have a head? Or is there some pun I’m missing?
Presumably, the bizarre phrase is a reference to the biblical story of Salome and John the Baptist. In that case, the queen does indeed ask for John the Baptists’ head on a platter, although she conveys the request via her daughter Salome. But what a strange allusion for a mediocre pizza chain to be making in reference to a cheese and potato dish!
Does Pizza Hut really want us to associate their maxi-tartiflette with the martyrdom of Christ’s cousin? And if that’s not bad enough, they are encouraging us to make a connection between their food and St. John’s severed head. Mmm, sacrilicious. Also: disgusting.
Okay, surely I’m misreading this whole thing. But honestly, I have no idea what they’re getting at. Can anyone help me unravel this sales pitch?
Just in time for the Holidays, it’s Cranberry Flavored Yop!
I’m amused by this product, because cranberries aren’t really very French (witness the fact that they are called “cranberries”, rather than some actual French word). And Yop (a thick, full-fat, drinkable yogurt made by Yoplait) isn’t available in America, as far as I know… So it’s kind of a weird cross-fertilization of cultures.
And how did this meeting of worlds go? Okay, but the Yop fared better than the cranberries.
As you can see here, the color is pretty pale, foreshadowing the weakness of cran-taste in the drink itself. If I closed my eyes and really focused, I could tell I was drinking cranberry-flavor, rather than strawberry or raspberry. But it was really lacking that tart attack you usually get with cranberries — mostly it was just sweet and creamy, like other Yop products. In any case, it didn’t satisfy my craving for my mom’s cranberry-chocolate-chip cookies. Yum.
In the comments to my famed Potato Chip post, it was recommended that I try these Belin Croustilles, which were described as the French “version of the cheeto” (and also, “cheeserific!”). As a long-time closet cheeto lover (they were pretty much all I ate my freshman year of college), I was determined to try them.
Verdict? Interesting. They’re much paler than the radioactive-hued American cheetos, but with a much more complex flavor. At first, you hardly taste the cheese, but as it mellows, there’s a strong, pungent undercurrent of full-bodied cheese aroma. And in this case, it’s not sharp cheddar, but some unplaceable combination of camembert, reblochon, and roquefort.
And yet, as far as I could tell from the listed ingredients, these “croustillantes” — like their American cousins — contain no actual cheese: trans-fat and chemical flavoring all the way, baby. So how do they get all those subtle flavors of French cheese crammed into tiny crunch sticks without using a smidge of actual cheese? I don’t know, but I’m gonna go ahead and call it a holiday miracle.
And for good measure, I’m also going to throw in this photo of Salade de Chevre Chaud, because I made it this week, and it came out pretty. Enjoy!
I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog so far making fun of French fast food — from take-out pizza to microwaveable burgers to Flunch, the French just don’t seem to understand the joys of a well-made junk food.
There is, however, an exception: potato chips. My Lord, do the French have tasty potato chips. Now, it’s not their essential chippiness which is so superior to American brands — they aren’t particularly crunchier or lighter or less greasy. What they do have is flavors the likes of which I’ve never seen on the left side of the Atlantic.
Roast Chicken with Thyme. Sure, it sounds tasty, but is it really “Naturellement Irrésistible“?
Oh, is it ever. Basically, each chip is like an entire perfectly roasted chicken, miraculously shrunk down to one crisp, delicious mouthful. My first thought upon trying these was, whoa, how did they make my chicken so crunchy? It’s as if someone took the skin of a broiled chicken, then deep-fried it. Seriously, how could you go wrong?
Looking to branch out, I also tried these mustard flavored chips:
When they say mustard, they aren’t talking about a delicate hint of mustardy aroma. These chips packed an intense, dijon-style wallop. Take back your “nacho cheesier” and “cooler ranch” — American chips never come close to this intensity of flavor, except in the occasional bag of salt and vinegar.
Which brings up an interesting question: why don’t these chips exist in America? Do the powers that be at Lays really believe that Americans wouldn’t enjoy chicken-infused potatoes?
I’ve been giving this a lot of thought lately, and I’ve concluded that this is not the reason. Everyone knows that American potato chips are coated with some mysterious substance that makes it impossible to open a bag without finishing it. It’s even in their ad campaigns: “Bet you can’t eat just one,” and “Crunch all you want, we’ll make more.” It’s almost like a sick challenge.
French potato chips, on the other hand, no matter how tasty, cannot be finished in one sitting. They are simply too strong to act as binge food. When I opened that small bag of mustard chips, I thought we’d finish them with lunch. In fact, I wound up putting them away, and it took us almost 48 hours to kill the whole bag. What would happen if you brought such chips to America? I can only imagine the chaos! Chip producers would be laying people off left and right, unable to support themselves as Americans made do with only one or two bags of chips per week. The whole potato-based economy would crumble to the ground, like a bag of chips that hasn’t been properly air-puffed!
So, yeah — don’t look for these flavors Stateside any time soon. The country just couldn’t take it.
The whole world over, it is understood that “French restaurant” is synonymous with fine food and elegant ambiance. So then, how does one explain Flunch?
Flunch has been around as long as I can remember. It’s a chain catering to families with young children, featuring incredibly cheap (and totally inedible) kid-friendly dishes like steak haché and spaghetti bolognaise. And in typical French style, the name is partially borrowed from an English word, as a kind of disclaimer: at this restaurant, we hold ourselves only to the culinary standards of English speaking nations.
Seriously, who was on the focus panel when they picked this name? Its resemblance to the English noon-time meal aside, can you think of a restaurant name that sounds more like a slang term for vomiting? “Man, last night I had a huge bowl of curry and eight shots of tequila. Then I totally flunched.”
But rather than leave you with that image, I’ll hop on the bandwagon and post a pic of the Christmas lights in my neighborhood.