The art of Easter. Chocolate egg design reaches new heights in Paris

8 Apr

Paris at Easter kind of reminds me of the characters in desperate housewives. Just as Gabrielle and Marcia would secretly aim to outdo each other with their good-willed neighbourly ‘bake-offs’, the designer chocolate boutiques in Paris launch full-scale campaigns to boast the most impressive designer Easter egg display in town. There is no mucking around in this city– ‘Haute chocolat’ at Easter in Paris is rather serious, not to mention – lucrative business.

This year’s designs are particularly extravagant and the window displays in every chocolate shop are filled with outrageously gigantic, painstakingly sculpted designer chocolate eggs and fantastical themed window displays as the stores are packed to the rafters with excited Parisian chocoholics purchasing designer eggs and gifts aimed to impress. So impressive in fact, I doubt many of these eggs ever actually get eaten. Here’s a selection of some of my favourite designs from this year, and some scenes from the streets of Paris this Easter.

2012 paris designer chocolate easter eggs

The Designer Dozen. Paris' most impressive designer chocolate eggs on display for Easter 2012. Clockwise from top left: Painting Pots by Jadis et Gourmande, Patrick Roger, Jean-Paul Hevin, Dalloyau, L’Avocat Surprise Des Gâteaux & Du Pain, La Duree Anniversary Limited Edition, Pollock framed by Jadis et Gourmande, Mazet flower egg, Marcolini "Chef d'Oeuf", L’Œuf de Tortue de Jean-Paul Hévin, Pollock egg by Monoprix, Hédiard Œuf Zèbre

chef-oeuf-marcolini-2012

One of my personal favorites. The Marcolini "Chef d'Oeuf" is made of dark chocolate with a pralinated puffed rice base. At 89€ a piece, it seems I have expensive taste...
Image © Pierre Marcolini

Patrickrogereaster-2

Simple elegance. Less is more with the class and style of Master chocolatier Patrick Roger. 
Image © Patrick Roger

jean paul hevin easter egg

Sculpture meets chocolate. The "Œuf de Tortue" (Turtle Rgg) by Jean-Paul Hévin.
Image © Jean-Paul Hévin

laduree oeuf petale

More than just macarons. Ladurée's anniversary limited edition celebrates 150 years. The stunning Oeuf Petale design is adorned with pralinated flower petals.
Image © Ladurée

oeuf_pollock_20_cm_avec_cadre_2012

Chocolate art. Literally. The Pollock framed collection by Jadis et Gourmande comes in small, medium and HUGE. Image © Jadis et Gourmande

Dalloyau easter egg

The intricate design by Dalloyau is complete with a tiny singing nightingale etched into pearly chocolate. It's very pretty, and very pricey. Starting at 70€.
Image © Dalloyau

Maison Mazet is first a confectionery that Leon Mazet bought 107 years ago. In their Easter window display are 3 giant "Prasline de Montargis" caramelised almond eggs. Image © Rachel Bajada

kids in paris shop window

The giant praline eggs at Mazet confectioners literally stop curious passers-by in their tracks. Image © Rachel Bajada

window display at maison la mère de famille

The 2012 Easter window display at la Maison la mère de famille - Paris' oldest chocolate shop.    Image © Rachel Bajada

Chocolate filled hens eggs

          The real deal. Chocolate praline filled hens eggs at Jadis et Gourmande, Paris.                                 Image © Rachel Bajada

Paris dog in chocolate shop

A parisien dog waits patiently at the door of the Mazet boutique as his owner buys him a fancy   Easter treat. Image © Rachel Bajada

Advertisements

Welcome to Paris, hello New York! The French obsession with American food

29 Mar

paris j'adore
It all started with a cupcake.

Then, before long a queue of New Yorkers appeared- lining up on a Manhattan street for cutsie iced cakes in a myriad of colours and flavours. The trend spread across the globe faster than a pandemic superbug. Australia, UK, Japan and Paris jumped on the cupcake bandwagon. Cupcakes became the new macaron – even in the city of macarons itself.

And so, the French love affair with American food began. In 2003, Starbucks introduced the French to the concept of coffee with milk. Lots of milk, and whipped cream, to wash down a nice big slice of raspberry swirl yew york cheesecake, a donut or a giant white chocolate and caramel muffin.

cupcake camp paris

Homemade cupcakes by participants, and the entry queue to Cupcake Camp, Paris 2011

It’s all rather ironic. The French, well-known for their own celebrated food culture and openly expressed abhorrence to what they have long called “La malbouffe aux États-Unis” (bad food of America) have developed quite a taste for good old American comfort food and it appears that the feelings are mutual. New Yorkers have always had a thing for Paris, but now Paris is becoming equally as fascinated and with New York style dining and the realm of American food.

starbucks paris

Starbucks on rue Montorgeuil, Paris

If you’re visiting Paris, don’t expect to see locals queuing up at cute little crêpe stands – instead you’ll find them lining up by the hundreds for Starbucks, American cocktails, gravlax and cream cheese bagels, pancakes with bacon, and big, beefy, cheesy, American BURGERS.

Au revoir Macarons: Make way for Cookies and Whoopie Pies

Whoopie Pies Grand epicerie paris

Whoopie Pies on display at La Grande Epicerie Paris.
Labelled as "The unmissable replacement for cupcakes this summer" Image snapped courtesy of Carol from parisbreakfasts.blogspot.com

18 months ago in an interview I was asked what I thought the next big food trend was in Paris. I said, “It’s going to be cookies. American-style cookies.” The journalist laughed and left it out of the article. Now they are springing up all over the place.

Move aside ‘Little Miss Combawa Sesame Crème Macaron’, your Grande Epicerie vitrine real estate has been taken over by its sweeter American sister to keep our trend happy Parisian clientele happy with what they want now: WHOOPIE PIES. And it’s only just the beginning. Dare I say it… the American products being made on French turf are possibly even better than what I have eaten when in America.

In Paris’ touristic Saint Germain, I never thought it was possible to have such a moment with a caramel fudge milk chocolate cookie. The tiny It Mylk boutique is now selling a range of handmade cookies, supplied daily. These things are really something else. Their creator rests the dough for up to two days and has cleverly engineered the chocolate chunks to be in a permanently semi-melted state. I don’t even want to think about how many sets of Parisian stairs I should have climbed after eating that.

It Mylk Cookies Paris

Semi melted chocolate fudge American comfort at It Mylk, Saint Germain

American expats Lindsay Tramuta and her business partner Chloe last year launched their own brand American cookies baked in Paris- Lola’s cookies. Lola’s delicious range includes all the classics from brownies and peanut butter and chocolate, through to white chocolate chunk with lemon and cashew. It’s not hard to imagine why they’re fast building a cookie-addicted following amongst hipster Parisians.

lolas cookies paris

Lolas Cookies, Paris. Image supplied

Ze Buerregeurre:

PDG has become a burger institution in Paris since it opened in the same year as Starbucks, back in 2003. The American style eatery serves what is claimed to be one of the best burgers in Paris, using bread rolls from top Parisian baker Eric Kayser. Manager Pierre Lannadere has become used to French customers requesting bizarre combinations such as fried eggs with pancakes and hash browns – knowing it’s merely the norm in the US.

Camion qui fume

Burgers and menu at Paris' first food truck.
Image by William CHAN TAT CHUEN from Postive Eating Blog

More recently, Le Camion Qui Fume succeeded in overcoming French legislation and exhaustive red tape and paperwork, making them Paris’ first mobile food truck. Yes that’s right, American food trucks have made their way to the very city where spotting someone eating a meal, let alone a burger on the run is about as rare a sighting as a free seat on the line 1 metro at peak hour.

The food truck, run by a Californian native, moves about between locations, which are published via their twitter feed which on this day has close to 5,500 followers. Paris’ first food truck is drawing huge crowds of Parisians prepared to wait in extended queues to get their burger fix from a menu offering classics such as cheeseburgers with lettuce, pickles and ketchup, through to the more ‘Frenchiefied’ version of beef, Fourme d’Ambert blue cheese with caramelized onion and porto sauce.

The waiting line for burgers by The Camion Qui Fume. Personally, I don't have the patience. It's just a burger, right? Image by Donald Edwards. He has a cool Paris blog here

What else is cooking?

From the same group who revolutionised the Paris cocktail scene with establishments such as Prescription and Experimental Cocktails Clubs, having sister bars in London and New York, their next venture – the Beef Club Restaurant is about to open its doors (if they can fit you inside when they do). Yes, you guessed it- the concept is a full American-style beef BBQ menu with a basement level cocktail bar and club.

Scwhartz Deli represents a little corner of the NYC in the heart of the historic Marais. A brunch table there on a Sunday is a coveted spot where you will be competing with a horde of others, hungry to fill up on salmon gravlax cream cheese bagels, pastrami sandwiches, turkey sausage salad and matzos meatball soup.

RICCI Italian has opened in an upcoming pocket of the 17th arrondissement as a New York diner-style restaurant serving Italian American fare such as Charolais, speck and Gorgonzola burgers, fresh burrata, meatball pasta and gourmet pizzas to go.

RICCI Italian Paris

Goumet Pizza at RICCI American-Italian Restaurant, Paris. Image supplied

Breakfast in America now has two locations on both Paris’ left and right banks. Their no reservations policy means that you will have to wait (that’s what we do in Paris) in line, at cholesterol corner with the rest of them for your Connecticut omelette or ham steak and eggs, followed by Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, pecan pie and Dr Pepper soda.

Every time I walk into a bookstore, I am spotting more and more New York patisserie cookbooks. Recipe books featuring American desserts and New York street food are fast gaining centre stage. Forget mastering Boeuf Bourguignon- the remaining Parisians who do actually cook at home are now keener to perfect the art of Cheeseburgers and Brownies.

American patisserie cookbooks at La Librairie Gourmande

American patisserie cookbooks on feature display at
La Librairie Gourmande, Paris

On an end note, being a patriotic Aussie at heart, I’m still waiting for vegemite and cheese scrolls to take off in Paris. Something tells me I may be waiting a while for that one…

A heart between two homes

6 Mar

paris_sydney_cheese_je t'aime

Dear Australia,

I love you. You raised me, bathed me in sunlight and blessed me with beautiful beaches, an awesome lifestyle and my treasured family and friends, but I am sorry, I am leaving you. This little holiday at home has been magical, but the time has come, and I am going back to my adopted country, France.

Now, don’t be like that; please don’t be jealous, we absolutely cannot compare the two of you. And don’t be so presumptuous please- it’s not the wine I’m leaving you for. It’s also not the amazing markets and restaurants, nor is it for the fashion. You did everything right, my dear homeland, but you did one thing wrong. There is just one thing missing in this relationship…. Let me explain…

Chère France,

I love you, too. And I am coming back to you, if you will take me. How you have such a strong pull on me, honestly I don’t know. In reality, you treat me kinda mean. You’re painfully cold 6 months of the year. You make me drink too much wine, eat too much bread and not do enough exercise. You made me tolerant of passive smoking, and living in overpriced shoebox-sized flats. You make me spend too much money on pretty things I probably don’t need. Your metro is an efficient but dehumanising experience. Your lovely pebbled pavements ruin my stiletto heels and your thousands of poodles leave their sh*t everywhere. Too many of your shopkeepers are rude and obnoxious; your Michelin star waiters refuse to serve me real cappuccinos and most of your café coffee sux.

OK OK … maybe that was a little rough, after all, for a love letter, this didn’t start so well. No need to be insecure. I do love your amazing fashion, and strolling around the city at night is like living in a walking museum. Your effortless elegance, manicured gardens and romantic summer nights certainly wooed me, but that is not why I am taking you back. I’m coming back, my dear France because you offer me in abundance one thing Australia cannot – real cheese.

That’s right baby. Unpasteurised, unhomogenized, unadulterated, raw milk, artisanal, wonderful… CHEESE! Fresh ones, aged ones, soft ones, hard ones, stinky ones, mild ones… I’m only just getting started. You know you’ve got what I need my love, and over 400 of them….

So yes, you won me over.

Yours truly,
Rachel

Rachel Bajada with giant Mont d'Or cheese

At Rungis Markets, Paris with a 'Mega Mont d'Or'

And so there we have it. Going home after almost two years in the land of wine and cheese, I have returned as a changed woman. Arriving in Sydney was like walking into my hometown with a brain transplant. My country has not changed a lot, but I have evolved enormously. I’m the same person, with different eyes, and slightly evolved tastebuds. A new language, a million crazy stories, hundreds of new friends and bank accounts in multiple countries.

Out of habit, one of the first things I did was to check out the cheese selection at the local delis and department stores (like, isn’t that what we all do)? Wasn’t that just a depressing experience? Hate to say it but Australia really is the communist Cuba of fromage. We are living in the height of cheese communism. How can such a developed and progressive country still have strict bans on raw milk production? As long as Australia keeps a ban on raw milk cheese production, I’m going to have a hard time living there!

So I’ve decided to do something about it. Next month I’m launching a campaign in conjunction with Slowfood International and Australia’s top chefs to lobby against the ban on Raw Milk production and sale in Australia- the principle thing preventing artisan cheese makers cultivating a rich and diverse industry. Let’s support local producers and artisans and support the freedom of choice over what natural raw foods we have access to.

Watch this space and stay tuned for updates. In the meantime, check out some reading material on the issue here, and while you’re at it, join my Facebook Cheese Fanclub

See you at the Paris fromagerie!

Rachel
xox

Sepia Sydney: A sublime performance of senses and recipe by Martin Benn

4 Feb

Have you ever caught yourself starring unabashedly at someone you just met who was so strikingly beautiful, you were almost searching to find a single, reassuringly human sign of imperfection? Well that is kind of how I would describe my recent meal at Sepia.

sepia-sydney-degustation

Sepia Degustation: A sublime perfomance of senses

Being temporarily at home in Sydney, I have escaped the cold of Paris, minus 8 degree baguette queues and icy streets, happily swapping it for a bit of R&R with family and friends, and of course, a big list of new Australian restaurants to check out.

Whilst living in one of the gastronomic capitals of the world for the last 2 years, I have always maintained that Australia boasts some of the best food and finest restaurants in the world. Coming home with a more refined palette, a taste for boundary-pushing creativity and a love of French cuisine, I had high expectations from the talent in my hometown, and I was so happy to not be disappointed – in fact, I am proud to say that out of all the incredible meals I have eaten in Michelin star restaurants and home kitchens across France, my meal at Sepia Sydney was totally up there on the “unforgettable meals” list. Sepia is a 3-hatted restaurant. I’m not sure why the Michelin star system never reached Australian shores but to be honest I don’t think it matters, since in Paris for example, a lot of the best emerging chefs are not on the Michelin system by choice, and are producing by far some of the best food.

My dining companion and I were subject to what I could only describe as a beautifully executed performance of senses during the 4 course degustation menu. We ordered opposite dishes and shared everything. Normally there is at least one dish that lets the team down. We didn’t find one. And the service was so good the staff were practically psychic. The wine list was an absolute field day, and matched so well to each dish that flavours and senses were elevated on a whole other level. “Would you like a sneaky top up, an extra course snuck in there for good measure, and perhaps a seat that’s more suited to your petite stature?” Hell yes. God I love the service in this country. Sorry Paris, but no matter how damn good, sexy and elegant your food and restaurants are, the service only rarely meets up to the standards of us friendly Aussies. Ok maybe I’m bias, maybe it’s a cultural or language thing …

tuna and jamon iberica sashimi sepia sydney

Tuna and jamon iberica sashimi

scallop sushi sepia sydney

“Scallop sushi” Nori rolled scallop, pickled ginger, puffed sushi rice, avocado cream

panfried kingfish,  shellfish custard, New Zealand scampi, Kombu, sepia sydney

Panfried kingfish, shellfish custard, New Zealand scampi, Kombu,

Char grilled miso beef tenderloin, nameko mushroom, braised barley, smoked bone marrow miso mustard, white Barletta onions, garlic chips

Char grilled miso beef tenderloin, nameko mushroom, braised barley, smoked bone marrow miso mustard, white Barletta onions, garlic chips

Queensland spanner crab and buckwheat risotto, mustard butter, shellfish essence, sepia sydney

Queensland spanner crab and buckwheat risotto, mustard butter, shellfish essence

Roasted corn fed chicken breast, WA Marron tail, chestnut mushroom, dashi onion cream leek, wild rocket, puffed quinoa, nori salt sepia sydney

Thrown in for good measure: Roasted corn fed chicken breast, WA Marron tail, chestnut mushroom, dashi onion cream leek, wild rocket, puffed quinoa, nori salt

gin, cucumber watermelon pre dessert sepia sydney

Gin, cucumber watermelon pre dessert

Deconstructed Cheesecake: Goats milk fromage blanc and crème fraiche cheese cake, black sesame crumb, fresh strawberries geranium ice cream, caramel and shiso jellies

Goat milk fromage blanc and crème fraiche cheese cake, black sesame crumb, fresh strawberries geranium ice cream, caramel and shiso jellies

black forest dessert sepia sydney

The famous black forest dessert (and yes it's as incredible as it looks): “Summer Chocolate forest” Soft chocolate, chestnut, lavender cream, sour cherry sorbet, blackberry candy green tea, licorice, chocolate twigs, berries, crystallised fennel fronds

Sepia Signature Dish: Japanese stones.

Here’s an awesome video on how the stones are made:

Sepia Restaurant and Wine Bar: Japanese Stones from Trixie Barretto on Vimeo.

So, I’ve always maintained that I am not a food/ restaurant critic/reviewer. I write about the experience of food, the love of food, food as story, culture and passion. I always want to bring the experience to my readers. That’s why I unashamedly asked Martin Benn if he would be kind enough to share a recipe. Luckily, he willingly obliged. Not only is Martin Benn extremely talented, he’s also a super nice guy.

An English native, Martin picked up French techniques under Micheal Lorrain then worked with Marco Pierre White after which he became the head chef of Tetsuya’s – at the age of just 25. Sepia is the result of all those good things fused together- French technique, Japanese style, Nordic influence, matched with a supply of the best seafood in Sydney thanks to a partnership with Decosti’s seafood. On the subject of seafood, we’ve chosen the bonito sashimi with green apple and sheep yoghurt, sake and chive oil, as the feature recipe, as not only is it delicious but it’s also one of the few things easily executable at home, and something you can substitute the fish for depending on seasonality.

I am convinced Bonito is the next big thing. It’s tuna’s hot little sister. It’s mackerel’s sexier cousin. It’s amazing how much food supply and demand, not to mention market prices is based on food trends and what’s fashionable right now. I have seen Bonito springing up on menus across Paris – this fish is rapidly gaining popularity given the demise of tuna, boredom of salmon and perception of mackerel. Even Martin Benn admitted that shortly after featuring it on the menu at Sepia, the retail price had doubled overnight from $9 to $18 per kilo. Make the most of it now, before it meets the same fate as redfin tuna…

This recipe takes a bit of time and preparation but is well worth the effort. You can use any sashimi-grade fish for this great summer recipe supplied courtesy of Martin Benn.

Pickled summer bonito, green apple and sheep yoghurt, sake and chive oil, rosa radish, daikon, Tasmanian wasabi (Recipe below)


Recipe: Pickled summer bonito, green apple and sheep yoghurt, sake and chive oil, radish, daikon and wasabi.
By Martin Benn, Sepia Sydney

Serves 8

1 x Spring Bonito, filleted (700g to 900g whole weight fish)
500ml rice wine vinegar seasoned
140g caster sugar
10g sea salt
1000ml mineral water
1 tsp wasabi paste
½ daikon radish
100ml sake and chive oil (see below)
400g green apple and sheep yoghurt cream (see below)

For the pickled Bonito:
Cut the bonito fillet down each side of the centre bone.
This will produce two long strips, repeat this with the other fillet, discard the bones.
Place the 4 strip fillets into a deep tray and set aside.
Mix the vinegar, sugar and sea salt together until all the sugar has dissolved.
Add in the water to the vinegar and mix well.
Pour the pickling liquor over the fillets make sure that they are well covered.
Leave to marinate for 6 minutes and then turn the fillets over and continue to marinate for a further 6 minutes.
Remove from the picking liquor and pat dry with paper towel.
Remove the skin from each quarter fillet then cut the fillets in half length ways.
Leave on a tray with paper towel until required.

For the wasabi:
Add to a little light olive oil to loosen the wasabi paste then brush over the marinate bonito.

For the daikon radish:
Peel the radish and then using a mandolin thinly slice.
Place the strips on top of each other and using a knife cut into a julienne (thin strips) keeping them as long as possible.
Place into iced water for 2 hours before using:

Dress the plate:
Place a 6cm circle cutter on the centre of a plate.
Spoon into the cutter the apple and yoghurt cream then remove the cutter so you have a perfect circle
Brush the bonito with the wasabi oil.
Lay the pickled bonito onto the apple and yoghurt cream gently.
Drain the strips of daikon well on paper towel and then place on top of the bonito.
Garnish the top of the bonito with baby leaves and cress.
Finally spoon the sake and garlic oil around one side of the apple and yoghurt cream.

Green apple and sheep yoghurt cream
800g granny smith apples (skinned and diced in lemon juice water)
250g butter diced
10g malic acid
50g sugar
Salt

150g sheep milk yoghurt (drained over night in a sieve)

Method:
Drain the apples from the lemon juice water and pat dry with paper towel.
Dice the butter and place into a heavy based pan.
Place the butter over a low to medium heat until the butter is melted and begins to bubble.
Add the apples, sugar and salt and stir so that the apples are well coated in the butter.
Place a lid on the apples and cook gently over a low heat, stirring from time to time.
Once the apples are tender, remove from the heat and drain off the butter setting it aside for later.
Allow the apples to cool slightly.
Pour the apples into a food blender and begin to blend.
Whisk the drained butter from earlier to emulsify and then add back 50g to the apples.
Blend the apples on full until a smooth puree is obtained.
Pass the puree into a clean bowl and whisk through the sheep yoghurt.
Store in a refrigerator until required.

Chive and sake oil
150g thick green chives, cleaned (blanched weight 300g)
3g salt
150g grapeseed oil

Method:
Blanch the chives in boiling salted water and cook for about 3 minutes until the chives are tender.
Drain the chives and refresh in iced water and then squeeze out as much water as possible.
Place the chives into a blender and add in the grapeseed oil.
Turn on and blend on full.
The oil will heat up from the friction to around 60c.
Blend for 3-4 minutes
Pass the oil through a fine filter into a container over ice.
Leave to drain in the refrigerator overnight.

To finish the oil:
80ml Chive Oil (from above)
20ml Sake (good quality)

Place the chive oil into a bowl over iced water until it thickens.
Whisk in the sake until the oil begins to emulsify.


Sepia Restaurant

201 Sussex Street, Sydney
Tel: +61 (02) 9283 1990

Opening hours:
Lunch Tuesday to Friday from 12 noon
Dinner Tuesday to Saturday from 6pm

French comfort food: Mr Christian Dauve’s ultimate Gratin Dauphinois recipe

2 Dec

It was cold and miserable outside…. the Parisian winter is setting in. My friend and I stepped into the l’Auberge Rouge– a non-descript neighbourhood brassiere, to simply take a drink and catch up. I ordered the best red wine on the menu in an attempt to lift my spirits and defrost a little. The wine was not good at all. I drank it anyway. But then, halfway through our conversation, something happened. Both of us stopped talking, mid-sentence.

Something was cooking. And it smelt incredible.

We both looked around, frantically trying to identify the source of this heavenly smell, and then…. there it was. In front of our eyes, the source literally emerged before us.

A quintessential French chef, like a scene out of a 1920’s film, emerged slowly from a hidden underground kitchen. He was holding an enormous dish of creamy, cheesy, dreamy-looking BAKED POTATOES.

Christian Dauve Gratin Dauphinois

The chef emerges from his hidden underground kitchen carrying....

My usual curious self, driven only by my eyes and stomach, was now on a mesmerised mission. I jumped to my feet and walked over, making a beeline to the chef approaching:

“Monsieur, please, what is that exactly? It smells absolutely divine!”

With a big warm smile, ‘Mr Very French Chef’ in front of me responded:
“Ah madame, ça- ça c’est mon fameux Gratin Dauphinois!”

“Ahhhhh! Bien sûr! Le classique Gratin Dauphinois!”
I responded, not at all surprised that something consisting of potatoes and melted cheese was responsible for this intoxicating allure.

However, it was not enough for me, I simply had to know more.

“But what did you put in there? It smells sooooo good!”

The chef chuckled, grinning with pride at the attention, but responding with full modesty:
“Well, it’s quite simple actually… potatoes, garlic, cream and nutmeg.”

“That’s it? What about the cheese, what kind of cheese goes in your gratin?” I queried.

“Cheese? Oh no no, there is no cheese, madame. The traditional recipe for Gratin Dauphinois is only done only with cream, not cheese.”

And from this point on, my ‘Aussie inquisition’ began, and whilst quizzing my new chef friend about his gratin, before I knew it, a mini pot of the gratin had been served up and whisked over to our table.

gratin dauphinois

The culprit: Mr Christian Dauve’s amazing Gratin Dauphinois served up before us, moments before being devoured

We had just finished lunch an hour ago. Of course, we ate it anyway. And yes- it tasted just as good as it smelt- really, really, really damn, GOOD.

So good, in fact that I went back the next day and asked my new chefy friend for the recipe. In the end I got much more than the recipe- I walked away with a full history lesson on the Gratin Dauphinois and a new knowledge and appreciation of the origin of food, including some fascinating facts on the main ingredient- the humble potato.

So for a quick ‘French food history lesson’, this is how the story of the Gratin Dauphinois goes:

Scroll down if this has made you so hungry that you just want to get to the recipe!

Why does the traditional version of Gratin Dauphinois not have cheese?

Back in the 17th Century in the Haute Savoie region of France, cheese was practically a form of currency- it was an aliment of its own. Cooking with cheese it was unthinkable, and would have been extremely wasteful, not to mention expensive.

Farmers would milk their dairy cows in two rounds. The first round was called “le Bloche”– this was literally the cream of the cream. The first round is rich and very creamy. This would be then put aside and sold to local artisanal cheese makers who would produce quality butter and rich mountain cheeses such as the famous Comté .

The second batch of cows milk was called the “Re-bloche” (‘re-milking’) and results in milk which has a lower cream content and is less ‘rich’. The ‘rebloche’ would be kept by the farmers themselves and used for milk, cream, and for making a secondary cheese- the wonderful “Reblochon.”

The cheese was of course sold, and the cream would be used for cooking and enriching regional specialities such as the ‘Gratin Dauphinois’.

How did potatoes first arrive in France? We can thank the Americans.

It’s hard to imagine French cuisine without potatoes- they are such an inherent part of French food today that I never imagined this staple was an introduced product and has only been part of the French diet since Louis XVI in the 17th Century. My new chef friend Monsier Dauve was like a talking food history book as he explained the origins.

Apparently Jacques Quartier brought potatoes to France after an expedition exploring the Americas. In France, Count Parmentier (yes there is a potato dish named after him) a pharmacist, chemist and employee of Louis XVI, planted them in a garden with the intention of growing and harvesting the potato on a mass scale in order to feed the French peasant population. Unfortunately the potato was not an instant hit with the French who, at the time regarded it with great suspicion and fear. Since in its raw green state the potato is somewhat poisonous and not even dogs would eat them, the potato was a hard sell for Parmentier until he adopted a bit of reverse psychology.

Parmentier planted 50 acres of potatoes on a plot of land on the outskirts of Paris. During the day, he instructed a royal guard to watch over it. When the locals noticed that that the crop was of such value that royal guards were protecting it, their curiosity grew and hoards of people came to see what all the fuss was about. The trick worked. The potato gained a heightened intrinsic value overnight, and very quickly attracted widespread acceptance – today being one of the major foods in Europe and the rest of the world.

So that’s probably enough history on cheese and potatoes now- let’s get down to the best bit: Monsier Dauve’s amazing recipe. Don’t bother trying to read his handwritten version in the photo- I’ve translated if for you below. Enjoy!

Gratin dauphinoise recipe

The original, handwritten recipe given to me by chef Christian Dauve (Here's a pic, just to prove I'm not making it up)

Recipe: Traditional Gratin Dauphinois

Ingredients:
(Serves 6)

• 2 kilograms Bintje potatoes
(Bintje potatoes have a high moisture content and are low in starch, making them a ‘waxy’ variety. They are oval in shape, with pale yellow flesh).

• 3 cloves of garlic

• 1 litre fresh cream

• 1 heaped tbsp salt

• Half teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg

And that’s it!

Here’s how you make it:

Preheat the oven to 200 Degrees Celsius

Using a large baking/casserole dish- either metallic or ceramic, finely grate the garlic cloves into the dish evenly so the inner surface is sprinkled with garlic. This is important- the garlic needs to be on the base of the dish, and not IN with the potatoes. This way it flavours the potatoes aromatically during the cooking time without having actual pieces of garlic throughout the potato gratin.

Wash and peel the potatoes. Slice them into rounds approximately 3-4 mm thick. And evenly layer and distribute them into the dish.

Sprinkle the sea salt and nutmeg over the top

Lastly, pour the cream evenly over the top of the potatoes. By adding the cream last, it distributes the salt and nutmeg throughout.

Bake the potatoes in the oven for one hour, uncovered. The actual magic happens in the last 20 minutes of cooking when all the ingredients are at boiling temperature and the potatoes soften with the cream then develop a golden crust on the top.

Remove from the oven, leave to cool slightly, then spend the next hour answering the front door as the neighbours pass by to find out what that divine smell is wafting from your kitchen…

An expat Christmas in Paris: eating and shopping in the city of lights

4 Nov

Recently I was interviewed by Lucy Cousins, Deputy Editor at Australia’s InsideOut Magazine, for their special Christmas issue. InsideOut’s feature showcases five creative Australians living overseas and how they spend their Christmas. Below is the printed magazine extract, and you can find below the full interview which includes my favourite current addresses for shopping, dining and staying warm in this magical Parisian snow globe – otherwise known as the city of lights. Photo for InsideOut Mag by Carla Coulson

Rachel Bajada InsideOut Magazine

Excerpt from InsideOut Magazine Christmas Issue, 2011. Photo by Carla Coulson

What does Christmas mean to you?

Normally for me it’s all about family, but since mine is now on the other side of the world, Christmas is all about ‘coming together’. Making time to spend quality moments with the people we love, showing generosity and being grateful for the things we have. It’s also a time to embrace and honour traditions and customs whether they be religious or cultural – the important things which bring richness and diversity and meaning into our lives.

What do your Christmas celebrations in France usually involve?

I can summarise this one in about 3 words: eating, drinking and freezing!

What is your favourite part of the festive season in your adopted country?

The observation of intricate, rich customs and practices and seeing how the city changes as everything moves around these. For example in December all the patisserie shops are filled with impressive displays of the ‘Buche’ (a gateau in the form a of a log), then in January the window displays are filled with les ‘Galettes des Rois’ to celebrate epiphany. At Christmas dinner, they serve 12 kinds of small sweets such as truffles, biscuits, chocolates etc. at the end of the meal- 12 to represent the 12 apostles. It’s an endless procession of traditional practices, which as an expat unaccustomed to all of this, I find constantly fascinating.

12 sweets - noel

Christmas cake accompanied by 12 sweets to represent Christ and the twelve apostle

What is a custom or tendency that you don’t understand?

There are many customs in France that continue to perplex me. For me France is the ultimate country of paradoxes… the main set of customs that continue to baffle me are all the hidden codes and procedures when it comes to dining.

Once thing that still gets me is how a dinner party will wait till the last guest arrives, no matter how late they are, to open the champagne and start the aperitif.

Last Christmas Eve, many domestic flights were delayed due to snowstorms and some guests didn’t arrive at the house until around 11.45pm. By this point I was ravenous after a long journey myself, and I had been staring at the 10 bottles of champagne and aperitif snacks all lined up in the dining room, which the host refused to open or serve until all the guests had arrived. We ended up finishing our meal at 4am because we started at midnight!

Waiting for champagne

Patience is a virtue… champagne remains unopened until all guests arrive

How does it differ from your Christmas in Australia?

The difference is enormous. Everything is the opposite. The weather, the food, the way of celebrating, the people I share my time with and the language I speak. The cold weather is a real challenge for me being a real sun-lover, but Paris is so beautiful under the snow at that time of year, that it compensates for the weather. And as much as I love Christmas time in Paris, it just doesn’t compare to the familiar feeling of walking through the patio door at my parents house on Christmas Eve and seeing my Dad sweating at the BBQ with a big smile on his face wearing the same apron he has worn for the last 10 years!

What do you miss about Australia in general?

Things that just work! I didn’t realise it or appreciate it until I left Australia- but in Oz, thing just work. Administrative services, systems, etc are in general more efficient and reliable. Here you post a letter to the other side of the country, and it may arrive a week after something which was sent from the US. Banks and government call centres close spontaneously…

The other thing I really miss is SPACE. Large open living spaces, coastlines, vast beaches and national parks in Oz are all so close and accessible. I loved the relaxed attitude in Sydney- I miss being able to walk to my yoga class or walk in a supermarket dressed in my gym pants and sneakers without anybody glaring because you look so out of place… and of course the lifestyle I enjoyed being able to ride my Vespa to the beach after work and running in the sand then meeting friends for BBQ’s at the beach over long summer afternoons.

What is most stressful to you about Christmas and how do you deal with that?

Waiting in lines. The sheer population of Paris means I am always waiting – I queue to queue. I’m a terribly impatient person, (of course I’m working on it) but the frenzied crowds in department stores, the push and shove on the crowded metro and waiting 20 mins in a line at -4 degree temperatures just to buy your favourite bread on a Sunday morning can be unbearable.

Paris bread queue

Typical sunday in Paris: the bread queue

What is one way you ‘cheat’ at Christmas…(do you make your own wrapping paper or gifts, have you got a fool-proof recipe for pudding etc)?
For years now I have had my own little tradition of making Lebkuchen- a spicy iced German gingerbread (recipe here). Each Christmas I make an entire day of it and bake and ice about 200 cookies. It’s a great way to give a small gift to friends, colleagues or people you have been meaning to catch up with. Each year I package them differently depending on what nice boxes or papers I find in the shops. When you personally deliver them it’s a good excuse to have a cup of tea together and make time to catch up.

Lebkuchen

Lebkuchen – Christmas Gifts

Can you tell us three shops in Paris that are good to visit at Xmas (they might make great cakes, or sell amazing flowers etc)?

1. Go to Gontran Cherrier’s boulangerie in Montemarte and buy the special Christmas bread “La couronne de pain”- a bread wreath with 8 buns made of 4 varieties- wholegrain curry (for foie gras), chick pea and lemon (for oysters and seafood), nature/traditional (for meats and charcuterie) and the fourth is made with chestnut flour to serve with the cheese board.

He also makes a great Pistachio and Citron Confit “Galette des Rois”, which is traditionally served to celebrate at Epiphany in early January.

Gontran Cherrier Artisan Boulanger
22, rue Caulaincourt 75018 Paris
Tèl : +33 (0)1 46 06 82 66
http://www.gontrancherrierboulanger.com

Galette des Rois et La couronne de pain

Galette des Rois et La Couronne de Pain chez Gontran Cherrier

2. You must pay a visit to one of my favourite fromageries/affineurs in Paris- La Ferme Saint Hebert in Paris 9th.

When you walk in this cheese shop, the mere odour of over 200 varieties of French cheeses is just sensational ( I think so anyway) and you instantly know you’re in France. Owners Paulette and Henry- complete the typical Paris experience- right down to their white aprons, hanging Corsican charcuterie and the shop walls that are lined with jars of duck confit, foie gras, confiture, fruit pastes and patés.

At Christmas time we indulge in a winter mountain cheese like Mont d’Or. It’s a seasonal cow’s milk cheese packaged in round wooden boxes. You can eat it at room temperature, or pour white wine into the box, wrap it in foil then bake it for 25 mins. When it comes out of the oven it’s oozes with creaminess on the inside and melts like liquid heaven. The French like to pour the melting cheese over baked potatoes or eat it with fresh baguettes. Mmmm calorific ecstasy.

La ferme Saint Hubert Fromagerie
36 rue Rochechouart 75009 PARIS
Tel : +33 (0)1 45 53 15 77
http://www.la-ferme-saint-hubert-de-paris.com/

La Ferme Saint Hubert Fromagerie

La Ferme Saint Hubert Fromagerie – Image from Bonbon Magazine, Summer 2009 lebonbon.fr

3. Treat yourself to a new fragrance at a French perfume house.

Dyptique on Blvd St Germain is just divine (my favourite is the ‘figue’ scent), Nicolaï Parfumerie on Rue des Archives in the Marias, or the official Geurlain fragrance house on Champs Elysées are three of my favourite boutiques. Fragrances are so sensory, when you buy a new perfume at Christmas time each time you wear it will bring back all those fond memories of those particular moments in your life. It’s also a great way to sharpen your sense of smell – just in time for appreciating all the great wines you’ll be drinking over Christmas.

What are three activities that you must to do in Paris at Christmas time?

1. Walk from place Colette (métro Palais Royale Musée du Louvre) through to the gardens of the Palais Royale and do some window shopping (if you can resist buying a pair of designer leather gloves, foulard or handbag) and walk all the way up Galerie Vivienne. At Christmas time they put out an impressive lighting display complete with draping red velvet curtains at the entrance – the interior is just stunning at this time of year. When you’re there you can have tea and scones at A Priori Teahouse to warm up and talk yourself out of buying those designer heels you fell in love with 10 minutes ago.

Galerie Vivienne Christmas

Galerie Vivienne is transformed by an impressive lighting display at Christmas

2. Visit the Galerie Lafayette and Printemps department stores and gaze dreamily at the window displays. It brings me back memories of my childhood in Melbourne when ever year my grandma would take me to see the Myer window displays. Only in Paris it’s packed with Louis Vuitton, Chanel, YSL… serious eye candy.

3. Go to the Marché des Enfants Rouge (Paris’ oldest open- air market dating from the 1600s) and located in the Marais. It’s filled with stands providing specialties from all over the world. Eat some spicy Moroccan couscous and tagines followed by sweet mint tea then at the flower stand opposite you can choose and buy a REAL Christmas Wreath. The wreaths are real – made of real holly leaves and berries, pinecones, fresh stone fruits – and they’re only about 7 Euros a piece.

Christmas Wreathes at Marche des Enfants Rouge, Paris

Christmas Wreathes at Marche des Enfants Rouge, Paris. Image courtesy of http://cinderellapatch.blogspot.com

What is your favourite Parisian Christmas moment?

My best Parisian Christmas moment was the first time I saw snow in Paris – and it was around Christmas time. I was at my local little Christmas market on a Sunday (organised by the local town hall) and it was absolutely freezing. All of sudden it started snowing and the whole place was transformed. There were children riding on a gorgeous traditional the carousel and little stalls selling spicy warm red wine, fruit cakes and hand-made gifts. One of the stallholders insisted I tried their hot chocolate with a piece of pain d’épice, and then in that moment everything was just magical… I felt like a young girl who had been transported into a snow globe and then whisked off into a page of a children’s fairy-tale.

Paris Christmas Markets

Snapshot moment of a Parisian fantasy snowglobe

What do you like most about living in Paris?

The innate appreciation of beauty.

Paris terrace sunset view

Designed for detail: view from a typical Paris terrace

Where would you recommend visitors go for a special lunch or dinner in Paris on Christmas day?

Le Gallopin Brasserie. A classic and beautiful French bistro where they have been serving bankers, journalists and Parisians quality French brasserie cuisine in a stunning turn-of-the-century setting since 1876. The prices are very reasonable too – book 2 weeks before Christmas to avoid missing out.

40, rue Notre-Dame des Victoires 75002 Paris
Tél : +33 (0)1 42 36 45 38
http://www.brasseriegallopin.com/

What are your current favourite Paris restaurants?

Au Passage (Paris 11e)
Rossi et Co (Paris 2e)
Itinéraires (Paris 5e)
MaSa (Paris 17e)
Le Galopin (Paris 10e)
Avant Comptoir (Paris 6e)
Toyo, Yen (Paris 6e)
Le Pantruche (Paris 9e)

Join the conversation! Have any similar expat or stories to share from visiting Paris? Drop a comment below.

%d bloggers like this: