Les papillotes

IMG_4442Both sides of our supermarket’s central aisle are lined with chocolate at this time of year. At least half of these are the Christmas holiday confection preferred in our parts: les papillotes. These brightly wrapped bonbons hide not only a delightful chocolate but a message inside, much like the fortune cookies we North Americans enjoy at Chinese restaurants. The difference is that the message inside the papillote is traditionally one of love. This is, after all, France.

Legend has it that a young assistant candymaker chez Monsieur Papillot in Lyon back in the late 17th century was inspired to slip love notes inside his confections as a way of gaining favour with the boss’s niece, who worked on the upper floor.

The fate of the hapless fellow is contested: some have it that he married his sweetheart (a happy pun if ever there was one), others claim that he was sent packing by Monsieur Papillot, who wisely retained the young man’s clever idea.

I cannot help but suspect a marketing mind at work somewhere in that story: ‘papillot’ plays upon papille, or papilles gustatives which mean taste buds in French. And to wrap and cook food en papillote is a longstanding cooking tradition. Peu importe, the ending is inevitably a happy one.

I open the cellophane bag and an unmistakable bittersweet fragrance wafts out: le chocolat. Could there be a headier elixir? I plunge my hand deep into the bag and pull out one of the tasselled wrappers, holding it up to the light. “Ganache” it says. Ha! It will be a good day indeed. With a gentle twist I pop the shiny wrapping to reveal the inner, waxen one, upon which is written my fate.

“Forgiveness, tolerance and wisdom are the language of the strong.” Hardly a love note, but this year the chocolate-maker, Révillon, has decided to go all dark on us, packing up the papillotes with African proverbs.

I bite into the deep, dark secret that is my daily advent ritual and decide that forgiveness is in order.

Have you ever enjoyed a papillote? What is your favourite way to eat chocolate?

 

 

 

La gourmandise

IMG_2715Among the desires that define the French, la gourmandise is perhaps the most universal.

It is not greed, exactly, although in excess it can be. Nor is it gluttony, although it is considered as one of the seven deadly sins. La gourmandise is the appreciation and enjoyment of good food. It is appetite. It is life itself.

Sometimes you will meet someone who says, “Je ne suis pas très gourmand.” Do not trust such people. They are either fibbing or deviants of some kind. For what is the appreciation of taste and texture, fragrance and flavour, if not a healthy enjoyment of life?

As we enter this month of indulgence, of chocolate and caramel, foie gras and fleur de sel, let us truly savour each treat we bestow upon ourselves and each other. To me that is the best part of this culture and this time of year. It is taking the time and trouble to prepare something that satisfies, whether in the freshness of its ingredients, the depth of its flavours, the originality of its presentation or simply the timeliness of its offering.

‘Gourmandise’ means different things to different people. To some it is spontaneously enjoying a crêpe at the Christmas market, to others a cornet of marrons chauds (hot chestnuts). Some prefer to be seated at table to enjoy finely flavoured macarons. Still others care little for sweets but let themselves go on the savoury – the cheese course, creamy or pungent, with ample chunks of baguette and two or three glasses of red.

Whatever it is, I say enjoy it. Pleasure is what counts, not calories or even cost. Treat yourself and savour the moment, but whatever you do, do it with gusto.

What is your favourite gourmandise? If you’re looking for inspiration, check out my top 100 things to enjoy in France and let me know what catches your fancy.

 

100 things to enjoy in France

Le champagne

For my 100th post on this blog about life in France, I’ve decided to share 100 things to eat, drink and simply enjoy in my adopted land. Some are personal favorites, others classics of French cuisine that everyone should try at least once.

Here they are, in no particular order:

  1. Le pain au chocolat. Don’t be misled by the name – there is no bread, just delightfully dark squishy chocolate tucked into a croissant-style bun.
  2. Le pain aux raisins. Still no bread, but a twist: the pastry spirals around in a circle interlaced with custard and raisins, sometimes sprinkled with sugar.
  3. Le croissant au beurre. Be sure you get the kind ‘au beurre’ if you want the 100% butter kind (rather than other fat). Wonderful with…
  4. La confiture. Jam. Nothing like a bit of Bonne Maman on your croissant.
  5. Le beurre. Doux (unsalted) or demi-sel (lightly salted). They don’t often serve it with bread in France, but sometimes eat it with cheese to soften the too-strong taste.
  6. Un petit noir. An espresso. Also known here as ‘un express’.
  7. Le chocolat. Perfect accompaniment to le petit noir. The French are not chocolate snobs as long as it’s dark.
  8. La baguette. The classic, crusty staple of French life (which changed mine)
  9. Le pain au levain. Sourdough. My favorite bread.
  10. Les profiteroles. Choux pastry filled with ice cream, topped with chocolate sauce and whipped cream. Holds a special place in my heart as it was my late mom’s favorite dessert.
  11. Les macarons. These double-decker meringue sandwiches have become so trendy you can get them everywhere. Ladurée is the most famous.
  12. La tarte au citron. A tangy dessert favorite of mine. With or sans méringue.
  13. La méringue. Okay, so it’s nothing but egg whites and sugar. These chewy clouds make a wonderful base for a fruity dessert.
  14. Le saucisson sec. A dry cured or smoked sausage, of which there are hundreds of kinds in this country. I like it with peppercorns or pistachio. Sliced on a wooden board and served with your favorite apéro.
  15. Le foie gras. You’re free to give this a miss if you can’t abide the idea of force feeding geese but France is the place to sample goose or duck liver pâté. Wonderful with brioche bread, onion chutney and a sweeter white wine.
  16. Le pâté. A nice slab of pâté (my favorite is la crème forestière) with pickles on a good bread makes a great sandwich.
  17. La saucisse de Toulouse. A thick pork sausage named for the southern city from which it originates and traditionally used in cassoulet.
  18. Le steak frites. The classic French bistro dish. Make sure you order your steak ‘bleu’ if you want it very rare and ‘à point’ if you prefer medium rare. Lovely with…
  19. La moutarde de Dijon. Smooth or grainy. Is there any other kind?
  20. La choucroute. An excellent dish from the German-influenced Alsace region featuring sauerkraut, potatoes and multiple cuts of fresh and smoked pork.
  21. Une andouillette. A sausage made of tripe. Not for the faint of heart. My husband loves this dish, but for me the sauce is the best part.
  22. Un MacDo. Just because you can have a beer with your burger while people-watching on Les Champs Elysées.
  23. Le sandwich. Because baguette. ‘Nuff said.
  24. Un pan bagnat. Basically a Niçoise salad on a round bun (tuna, eggs, tomatoes, lettuce). One of the healthier items to take out at the bakery.
  25. Une crêpe. To be eaten at the buvette in the park on a chilly fall afternoon. Dripping with chocolate sauce.
  26. Un beignet. Oddly, I’ve only ever seen the French eat sugar donuts at the beach.
  27. Une tarte tatin. An upside-down tarte of caramelized apples. Enjoy warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
  28. Un demi. My standard order of draft beer (25 cl). Unless I’m thirsty, in which case it’s une pression (half a liter).
  29. Le gigot d’agneau. French leg of lamb. Studded with garlic cloves, sprinkled with coarse salt and rosemary, roasted for Sunday lunch.
  30. Les cornichons. Pickles. Thick or thin but never sweet.
  31. Le camembert. The stinkiest of French cheeses. The most authentic has the ‘AOP’ label, is made from raw milk, ‘moulé à la louche’ and from Normandie.
  32. La vache qui rit. Okay, it’s processed cheese but the laughing cow has the fun factor. It was a favorite of my daughter’s and a staple of our household when the kids were small.
  33. Le Boursin. Le pain, le vin, le Boursin. With pepper please.
  34. La cervelle de canuts. A Lyonnaise spreadable specialty of creamy cheese, garlic and chives, served with slabs of pain de campagne (country bread).
  35. Le Saint Félicien. A delicate cow’s milk cheese from the Rhône-Alpes region that runs off the plate and lands on your bread like magic.
  36. Le Saint Marcellin. The St. Felicien’s feisty little brother.
  37. Le Saint Agur. My favorite French blue. Creamier than roquefort but with just enough tang.
  38. Le jambon de Paris. Your basic cooked ham. The foundation meat for many a sandwich, croque, quiche, etc.
  39. Le jambon de Bayonne. An air-dried salted ham that takes its name from the city in southwest France.
  40. La tartiflette. A potato gratin made with Reblochon cheese and lardons. Loaded with calories to fill you up if you’re skiing – and even if you’re not!
  41. Un vin chaud. Mulled or hot wine, spicy and red. Not my absolute favorite thing but pretty damn good in the cold.
  42. La pizza. Who said pizza was Italian? Thin-crusted and richly topped, often with an egg, and available just about everywhere in France (but don’t expect delivery unless you’re in a big city).
  43. Le rouge. The only beverage that perfectly accompanies every meal (except breakfast.)
  44. Les rattes. Tiny, firm-fleshed potatoes with papery skin. Amazing with butter, parsley and garlic (but what isn’t?)
  45. Les blettes. Also known as bettes. Apologies but we had to talk green vegetables at some point. Similar to Swiss chard, the white ‘cotes’ are lovely and nutty and often enjoyed au gratin in France.
  46. Les cardons. Another odd veggie considered as something of a delicacy. Looks like celery, tastes like artichoke and often eaten in white sauce around Christmas.
  47. Les salsifis. The weirdest vegetable I have ever eaten. A white root served in a white sauce. Must confess I just don’t get what all the fuss is about!
  48. Les champignons. So many mushrooms, so little time: button mushrooms or champignons de Paris, cepes, morilles
  49. Les pralines. Sugar-coated nuts. What’s not to like?
  50. La mousse au chocolat. So good. Only 3 ingredients!
  51. L’île flottante. A.k.a oeufs à la neige (eggs in snow). An island of egg whites floating on a lake of custard. There’s a poem in there somewhere…
  52. Le croque monsieur / madame. Or the Dead Guy as my brother calls it. The classic melt. Madame has an egg on top.
  53. La soupe au choux. Cabbage soup. Also the name of a popular detox diet and a comedy classic film with Louis de Funès.
  54. La crême brulée. My all-time favorite dessert (next to cheesecake, which is decidedly not French). Thick vanilla custard with a burnt sugar top.
  55. La crême caramel. The classic custard dessert with a soft caramel top.
  56. La crème de marron. A sweet chestnut purée topping or ingredient for desserts. Lovely with yogurt or fromage blanc.
  57. Les marrons glacés. Iced chestnuts. My son loves these. You need a sweet tooth.
  58. Une glace. The best place to enjoy an ice cream in France? At the cinema, bien sûr!
  59. La buche de Noël. The traditional Yule log, with a great many gourmet twists – glacé, café, chataigne….
  60. Le trou Normand. A pause in the middle of a meal to relax and enjoy with a drop of…
  61. Le Calvados. Apple brandy, the Normandy digestif par excellence.
  62. La barbe à papa. My husband hates this stuff. Candy floss, spun sugar, white or pink. Transforms your children into sticky monsters at the park.
  63. Un oeuf en gelée. Why not? They look so pretty in that gelatin, and the egg will be cooked to ‘mollet’ perfection (the yoke a tad runny)
  64. Une omelette. Ain’t eggs wonderful? Especially when cooked to perfection on an omelet pan with globs of runny cheese inside.
  65. Des épinards à la crème. Talk about a spoon full of sugar! The French can add cream to anything and it will be delicious. Personally, I prefer my spinach with a knob of butter, salt, shallots and pine nuts.
  66. Un citron pressé. Freshly squeezed lemon juice, served in a tall glass with plenty of ice and sugar. Surely the healthiest option while sitting on a café terrace watching the world go by?
  67. Un flan. Imagine a slice of sweet, crustless egg pie. So good it’s trembling. The perfect treat for…
  68. Le goûter. A.k.a le quatre heures. The after-school snack is very important in French culture because the evening meal is never served before 8 pm, and the kids have very long school days. I know many fully grown French men and women who have never outgrown their goûter.
  69. Une quiche. Okay we all know Lorraine, but what about her variants? With goat’s cheese and sun-dried tomatoes, or spinach and ricotta.
  70. L’apéro. Cocktail hour à la française. Drink, eat, be merry!
  71. Le caramel au beurre salé. This is a drug to me. No translation required.
  72. Le pied de porc. Pig’s trotters. It’s said that nothing in the pig goes to waste. Here’s proof.
  73. Le lapin. Eat Peter Rabbit, you say? Forget the Easter bunny. If you like white meat, you’ll love it.
  74. Le magret de canard. Duck breast, a dark meat readily available in most French supermarkets and easy to prepare (although you need a fan). Makes a nice change from beef.
  75. La tête de veau. Calf’s brain. Okay, I have to confess I’ve never eaten this one. But it is a classic of French cuisine, and your butcher will debone and roll it for you. Go ahead, I dare you! Often eaten with Gribiche, a sauce of hard-cooked eggs, mustard and pickles, as is…
  76. Le tablier des sapeurs. Another tripe specialty from Lyon. Basically they throw nothing away.
  77. Une salade Lyonnaise. A safe option in Lyon for the less adventurous. Bacon and eggs on a salad.
  78. Une salade Niçoise. Tuna, hard boiled eggs, green beans, tomatoes, potatoes. Anchovies optional. Oh, and a few salad leaves if you insist!
  79. Une salade au chevre chaud. Melt goat’s cheese on toast under the broiler and serve on salad leaves. Presto!
  80. Le petit salé. Salted pork. Often served with…
  81. Les lentilles à la crème. Sure, add bacon and cream to anything and it’ll taste good!
  82. Les asperges blanches. The French prefer the big fat white asparagus, which they often eat lukewarm with a cream sauce like Gribiche.
  83. La pissaladière. A pizza variant from Nice. Onions, olives, garlic, anchovies.
  84. La tarte au myrtilles. You cannot get fresh blueberries easily in France. They’re expensive and often moldy. The best bet is preserves, which are wonderful served in a buttery pie shell.
  85. Un kébab. The kebab is popular French street food, although most of the meat comes from Germany.
  86. Un couscous. Given the large North African population in France, it’s not surprising that this dish has a lot of fans. Traditionally prepared with merguez (spicy beef sausages), lamb, chicken, steamed veg, chick peas and mounds of soft semolina. Gorgeous.
  87. Un verre de blanc. You see people at the markets and food halls sipping white wine quite early in the morning. Why wait for l’apéro?
  88. La poule de Bresse. The chicken with a pedigree from Bresse, in eastern France. The ‘artistocrat of modern poultry’, it has blue legs, if not blue blood.
  89. Une tisane / infusion. A herbal tea traditionally consumed in the evening, on a cold day or anytime one feels the need for a healthy infusion. Chamomile for relaxation, verbena, mint and fennel for digestion, red vine for circulation – whatever ails you, there’s a tisane for it. Medicinal herbs also sold in pharmacies.
  90. Un gratin de courge. Let’s face it – anything mixed with cheese and broiled is good. For some reason, the French are big fans of squash done this way. The secret ingredient: nutmeg.
  91. Les moules frites. Another French bistro classic. I do love mussels, especially the garlicky broth – but they are rather a lot of work to eat.
  92. Les huitres. Okay, this another cheat as I don’t eat these either (how many have you counted so far?). But those who love oysters swear by them. With lemon, shallots and a glass of white wine.
  93. La tartare de boeuf. One of my husband’s favorite dishes. Only to be ordered in restaurants where you can be absolutely sure of the freshness of the meat. They put a raw egg on top, just in case you weren’t already worried about salmonella.
  94. La blanquette de veau. As its name suggests, a white dish with a fine sauce. Neither the veal nor the onions are browned. Served with rice.
  95. La raie au beurre noire. Skate fish in a black butter sauce with capers. I love the texture of this fish.
  96. Les cuisses de grenouille. My final cheat. Everyone who’s eaten them swears by frogs’ legs, and they are readily available in Lyon by the banks of the Saône river. One of these days…
  97. Les quenelles. Another specialty of Lyon, la quenelle is a sort of dumpling made of eggs and fish, poached in white sauce until it swells, then browned under the broiler.
  98. Un kir. My default aperitif when neither beer nor champagne are on offer. White wine blushed with any kind of crême liqueur – cassis, mûre, raspberry, peach. Don’t waste good wine on it. Unless you have it with champagne, in which case it is a kir royale.
  99. Une flute. A salty, sometimes cheesy snack stick to go with…
  100. Le champagne. There are no rules with champagne in France – you can drink it before, during or after. A fitting conclusion to a special meal – and this list. Santé!

I’ve probably missed a few…what are your favorite French treats?

Mousse au chocolat: My deep, dark secret

Mousse au chocolat recipeI was always nervous about anything involving egg whites. Even separating eggs seemed beyond me, having watched my mother fuss over a metal device which seemed to make the whole process rather complicated.

Then I met my husband. Separate eggs? Nothing simpler. He just broke the egg and poured it into his hand, capturing the yoke in his palm and letting the egg white run into the bowl below. Let me reassure any clean freaks in the audience: he washed his hands before (and after) performing this egg-cellent feat.

Need to beat egg whites to stiff peaks? No problem. He would take a whisk and a large bowl, add a pinch of salt and then bang those babies to attention. It does take a few minutes and a good arm, which probably explains why I could never manage it – having neither patience nor skill.

I’ve retained the egg-separating trick and now have a mixer to do the egg whites. So, without further ado, here is how you make the best damn chocolate mousse ever.

This recipe is supposed to serve six. It reminds me of another one of my mother’s expressions: “What do they mean? Six midgets?” Suffice it to say that if you are of sound of body and healthy of appetite, and have a sweet tooth, it can also serve four.

I was amazed to discover there are only 3 ingredients (although the eggs are used in two ways) and absolutely no cooking involved. All you need is very fresh eggs and good chocolate.

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablet of dark chocolate – 200 grams
  • 6 Eggs
  • 1 Pinch of salt

Directions:

  1. Melt chocolate in double boiler or on cooktop at lowest heat, then let cool (Use a microwave if you must – personally I dislike this method)
  2. Separate eggs; retain yolks in a medium glass bowl
  3. Add salt to egg whites and beat until they form stiff peaks
  4. Gradually add cooled melted chocolate into egg yolks, stirring well
  5. Using a spatula, gently fold egg whites into chocolate mixture in three batches. Careful not to make the whites fall!
  6. Refrigerate at least 3 hours.
  7. Serve chilled

P.S. My deep dark secret is that recipe is not mine: it’s the one on the back of the Nestlé Dessert Noir.

What’s your favorite dessert, homemade or otherwise? Are you a dab hand with a whisk?

 

Eulogy for the Easter Bunny

(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Véronique PAGNIER (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0

What a fine fellow was Peter Cottontail, that fluffy little bunny who delighted us as children by bringing chocolate Easter eggs. Hoppin’ down the bunny trail…Shame he decided to hop across the pond to France. Perhaps he didn’t speak the local lingo? When he said he was delivering Easter candy, perhaps something got lost in translation? It must have sounded like “chop off my head and put it in the frying pan.”

The first time I ever ate rabbit was at Easter Sunday lunch chez my beaux-parents. Seeing those little body parts floating in wine sauce was a little shocking to my anglophone sensibilities: not that I object to eating our furry friends on principle, just that rabbit had never been on the menu before.

Rabbit is traditionally eaten not just at Easter (when lamb is the more traditional dish) but all year long in France. It is appreciated for its lean white meat and good value — rabbit can be bought very cheaply and served in dozens of ways.

The French have no notion of the Easter bunny. The tradition in France is that the church bells, les cloches, fly off to Rome and return for Pâques with chocolates for the children.

And when the French sit down to Sunday lunch, with the Easter bunny as the guest of honor, no effort is made to soften the blow for those with finer sentiments. I remember that Beau-père served up the dish on a lovely platter, the tiny head one of several parts. My mother-in-law had a penchant for la tête. It was finicky, so she picked it up and ate it with her fingers, finely picking the bones with her teeth.

He was a good rabbit. May his memory live on in our hearts.

Bon appétit et Joyeuses Pâques!