Saturday, April 28, 2007

Quintessential lemon tart

I met with pastry chef and blogger extraordinaire David Lebovitz yesterday to have a chat and interview him for the book I'm currently working on, Gourmet Paris (to be published in English this fall by Editions du Mont Tonnerre). We mostly talked about ice cream, which is the theme of David's latest book, but one of the places he mentioned was a new bakery on the Square Trousseau, Blé Sucré. Being in a sweet frame of mind this week, I didn't waste any time in dashing over to check it out.
I used to work around the corner from Square Trousseau in the now defunct Time Out Paris offices and remember this boulangerie as a modest neighborhood place with cheap sandwiches. It's still modestly sized, but the interior has been redesigned with a brick arch and the oven visible behind the counter. It's a four à sol, which means that the loaves are baked directly on a flat surface that helps produce the desirable crunchy crust. When I visited at lunchtime, the baker was removing Rétrodor baguettes from the oven with a big shovel. Having recently had a spectacular Rétrodor experience, I opted instead for a fougasse, a lemon tart and a can of Perrier, which cost €5.50 in total (who says it's expensive to eat in Paris?).
I took my lunch and crossed the street to the leafy Square Trousseau, just as I used to do when I worked nearby. The only empty benches were getting soaked by the sprinkler system so I followed the lead of the many teenagers in the square and perched on one of the ping pong tables. Fancy fougasses and deluxe baguette sandwiches sadly didn't appeal to these French kids, who all had cardboard McDonalds boxes. I pitied them as I bit into my soft and yeasty fougasse filled with mushrooms, crème fraîche and bacon. Fougasse is a Provençal flatbread similar to focaccia, and I have to say that this one was even better than those I buy at La Fougasserie in Nice. The true test of Blé Sucré, however, would be the lemon tart. This is a tricky cake to get right, and I'm especially fussy as I think the version I make in Nice with local lemons and a touch of olive oil is hard to beat. What impressed me was baker Fabrice Lebourdat's domed filling, which I know is not easy to accomplish. The pastry wasn't as thin as mine, but it had a buttery, biscuity quality that I loved. Lebourdat topped off the tart with a little square of yellow-tinted white chocolate and the lightest sprinkling of snow-like icing sugar, making it a small work of art. The only problem was eating the tart without a fork, since the filling was so deep (it was just lemony enough, not too tart and not too sweet).
Later that day, as my crazed taxi driver careened through the Etoile with his mobile phone in one hand and his cigarette in the other, I told myself that if my time was up, at least I wouldn't leave this world wishing I had found the quintessential lemon tart in Paris.
Blé Sucré
Square Trousseau, 7 rue Antoie Vollon, 12th, 01 43 40 77 73.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

A bread moment

Like Jacques Chirac, I’m borrowing a Paris pad from a friend for the next few months (part-time in my case). Mine doesn’t overlook the Seine but a leafy courtyard in a quiet street near Porte de Champerret, a part of the 17th I had never thought to explore. It’s proving less sleepy than I expected: impeccably groomed women in sundresses and high heels and dazzling men in black suits and crisp white shirts populate the café terraces on place du Maréchal Juin. My haunt on the place until recently was the café Les Hortensias, where I had been going for WiFi access. This time, though, I couldn't get it to work. When I asked the waiter if there might be a problem he replied, "Don't ask me, I'm anti-technology." Hmph. If they ran out of tea, would he declare he is anti-tea?
This morning, for the first time, I ventured out looking for bread. It didn't take me long to come across a boulangerie that looked very promising indeed. Raoul Maeder's boulangerie won the city's prestigious "best baguette" prize in 2000 and 2002, and the "best galette des rois" prize in 2004. What first drew my eye to this bakery were the pretzels hanging from a metal rack, an unusual sight in Paris and a sign that the boulanger is Alsatian. I would have liked to try one but by now I was on a mission.
"I'd like the baguette that won the prize," I said.
Full marks to the salesgirl for asking me whether I'd like it "bien cuit, pas trop cuit ou moyen" (well browned, not too brown or medium) even though I hadn't specified. Just think how many times a day she sells these baguettes and still she bothers to ask. This baguette was a Rétrodor, which means that the boulanger follows a specific set of guidelines that are outlined on the paper wrapper. I was thrilled to see that the holes should be "sauvage" (wild) and irregular.
Back at the apartment, I started to eat the baguette - and couldn't stop. Crunchy crusted, not too salty, not too sour, with a creamy-coloured crumb and wild holes, this was everything a baguette à l'ancienne should be. I couldn't help asking myself whether baguettes really were like this in ancient times, or if the baguette à l'ancienne is a modern invention. What does it really matter, when they taste so good?
I nibbled at the baguette as I worked and, at lunch, picked up a few thin slices of ham from the local butcher and some AOC butter from Deux Sèvres to make a ham sandwich that needed neither mustard nor gherkins to make it perfect. Bravo, Mr. Maeder. Your baguette is truly exemplary.
Pâtisserie Alsacienne
158 bd Berthier, 17th, 01 46 22 50 73.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

April (and cupcakes) in Paris

I first spotted Patricia Valliccioni at the Raspail market, standing behind a stall of little cupcakes that looked like nothing I've ever seen in a French pâtisserie. I was intrigued. It's unusual enough to see a woman pâtissière, let alone one who has invented a new style. I didn't have time to talk to her for very long that day but tasted her pistachio-raspberry cake, whose moist, nutty crumb reminded me in a way of the North African pastries I've loved since I was a teenager in Paris.
I came across Patricia again yesterday at the afternoon market in place de la Bourse, which happily seems to be developing a good following. The market runs from noon to 8pm on Tuesdays and Fridays instead of the usual 8am-1.30pm, allowing the local office workers to pick up fresh foods at lunch or on their way home from work. It was a freakishly summery April day and I had only landed in Paris hours ago, so it seemed like just the moment to chat with Patricia and treat myself to a few of her cakes.
It turns out that Patricia is from a family of Corsican biscuit makers (hence her name) - her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother were all in the business. Patricia enrolled in a nine-month pastry course in Paris that culminated with internships at the Warwick hotel and Sucré Cacao in the 20th, among other places. Before going solo she worked with Eric Kayser, one of the city's top bakers.
"I used to make all the traditional cakes, like the croquembouche (choux pastries filled with pastry cream and topped with caramel)," she told me. "But at a certain point I started to have doubts about using so much cream. So many people have intolerances to dairy products or health problems that can be aggravated by cream. I decided to work on replacing it with fruit purées."
Hence her unusual line of cakes. Orange was the first, followed by a multitude of variations such as sweet chili, black sesame and spinach-mint (one of many savory versions). The weirder the flavor the more her customers like it, she says, which shows that Parisian tastes really are growing more adventurous. Her ideas often come directly from her customers, who suggest new combinations. At her stand you'll also find fiadone, a Corsican take on cheesecake made with brocciu (a kind of Corsican ricotta), eggs, sugar and lemon zest.
I chose three cakes - orange, black sesame and pistachio-raspberry - and ate half of each for breakfast this morning. Orange was the most classic, while black sesame had a slightly disconcerting coal-black color all the way through but just the right touch of bitterness to balance the sweetness. Pistachio-raspberry was already a favorite, and I'm a sucker for anything with pistachio.
Patricia plans to open her own shop within the next year or two, so you might not find her at the market for long - look for her stall at Raspail or the Bourse, both on Tuesdays and Fridays (she works with a partner). What could be better for spring than a guilt-free cake?

Monday, April 23, 2007

Spring chicken with tarragon

My kitchen would be a sad place indeed without fresh herbs. In summer it's big bunches of basil and mint, while in winter I make up for their absence with bushels of Italian parsley. Thyme, rosemary and bay leaves come in a pretty, paper-wrapped bundle, their leaves nearly dry from the arid climate in the mountains behind Nice. Thyme sprigs and bay leaf go into nearly all my stewed dishes, either tied together in a bouquet garni or more lazily strewn across the other ingredients, to be removed later.
Tarragon is another story. This herb is not native to southern France and only very rarely do I see it at the Cours Saleya market. When I spotted generous bunches of it at my favorite organic stall on Saturday, I pounced. Nothing could be more springlike than these long, slender leaves with their anisy scent, and right away I started thinking about chicken and green beans, tarragon's natural partners. It's too early for local green beans, so I turned my attention to chicken.
My inspiration for tarragon chicken has always come from my battered copy of the British food writer Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking, which my mother gave me when I was 12. I've previously finished the dish off with cream, as she suggests, sometimes using chicken breasts or legs instead of a whole bird (in fact I had forgotten that the original recipe called for a whole chicken). With a hankering for a whole chicken this time, I headed to my favorite Old Town butcher, Boucherie Viale. It's one of the smallest butchers in Nice, with just a few chickens, rabbits and guinea hens displayed outside while deep red aged beef hangs above the wooden butcher block.
As is usual, the poultry is displayed with the head and feet still on - not because French people like to cook with these parts (the butcher always throws them in the bin), but to show what breed of chicken you are buying. Mine was a monster of a corn-fed chicken from southwest France, with a label assuring me of its healthy grain-based diet and active lifestyle. Its 81-day life was about twice as long as that of the average battery-raised chicken. At a hefty five pounds - heavier than some French turkeys I've seen - it cost €18.91, which might seem a lot to pay for a chicken. But what a chicken this was.
Back home, I turned to Elizabeth David's recipe for the first time in years and realized that it involves flaming the chicken with brandy, a detail I had somehow overlooked. I didn't have any brandy, but I did have marc, a throat-ripping Provençal eau-de-vie that's similar to grappa. Pleased with my regional variation on the dish, I also made a few other changes, stuffing the chicken under the skin with a mixture of butter and chopped tarragon and putting two lemon halves in its cavity, along with some tarragon sprigs for good measure. As always when I'm roasting chicken, I laid it on one side for a third of the cooking time, flipped it over onto the other side for the second third and placed it breast-side up to finish it off. I normally truss the chicken, but Sam had apparently found more creative uses for the kitchen string and it went into the oven untrussed.
After half an hour the kitchen started to fill with the most delicious buttery, tarragony, chickeny smell. The chicken wasn't fully cooked for another hour and a quarter, it was so big. But, as the butcher told me so truthfully, "the bigger the chicken, the better it tastes."
I don't normally indulge in show-off tricks like flambéeing but I have to admit that the sight of flames licking the golden skin was gratifying, as was the rich taste of the cream-free sauce. Eat your heart out, L'Ami Louis.

Spring chicken with tarragon
Serves 4-6

1 healthy, free-range chicken, the bigger the better
1 untreated (or scrubbed) lemon
3-4 big sprigs tarragon
3 tbsp butter
2 tbsp chopped tarragon (chop the herbs at the last moment)
Sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
1/4 cup brandy or marc
About 1/4 cup water, if necessary

Preheat the oven to 375 F (180 C).

Salt and pepper the cavity of the chicken and place the lemon halves inside, along with the tarragon sprigs. With a fork, cream together the butter, 1 tbsp chopped tarragon, salt (I used 1/2 tsp) and pepper. Gently lift up the skin of the breast and rub the chicken with this mixture, distributing it as best you can (remember that it will melt anyway). If you're in a hurry, there is nothing to stop you from rubbing the chicken on top of the skin instead of underneath it.

Place the chicken on its side in an ovenproof dish that can also go on the stove and top with the remaining 1 tbsp butter, broken into small pieces. Place in the oven and set the timer for 20-30 mins, depending on the size of your chicken. When the timer goes off, turn the chicken onto its other side and baste with the melted butter and fat that has collected in the pan. After another 20-30 mins, flip the chicken onto its back, with the breast side up, and baste again (there will be more fat this time). After 20-30 more minutes the chicken will soon look appetizingly brown and crisp, but be sure to poke the leg at the joint with a sharp knife to see whether it's really cooked. If the juice runs clear rather than pink, remove it from the oven. Transfer the chicken to a plate and place the roasting tin on the stove over medium heat. The brown caramelized bits (known as sucs) will stick to the pan while the fat will float on top and start to spit. Discard the fat and place the chicken back in the roasting tin.

Now comes the fun part. Heat the brandy or marc in a small saucepan and light with a match. Pour the flaming liquid over the chicken. It should continue to burn for about a minute. Then return the chicken to the oven for about 5-10 mins, to get rid of the raw alcohol taste.

Remove the chicken from the oven and again transfer the chicken to a plate. Place the roasting tin on the stove and stir the juices around. If there isn't much liquid, add some water and let it bubble. Add 1 tbsp chopped tarragon and stir.

When the chicken has rested for 10-15 mins, serve it with the simple jus. You don't need much accompaniment for such a perfect chicken, but I happened to have some fava beans so asked Philippe very politely to peel each one - NOW, and FAST, please. I cooked them in another spring vegetable stew with tiny white turnips, carrots and spring onion. Even Philippe admitted it was worth the effort.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Late season poutine

Not all foods can be blessed with good looks, like the emerald pea pods or deep orange gariguette strawberries that keep jumping off the market stalls straight into my basket this week. At its best poutine is translucent and silvery, but more often it's simply a grayish mass. A close look reveals hundreds of sardines so tiny and undeveloped that they are almost transparent (the word for these is alevins).
For me poutine has the same appeal as sushi, which I constantly crave in Nice because there are so few places to find it. You can poach poutine in water, fry it in a fritter or stir it into eggs for an omelette, but I think it's best raw, with just a drizzling of olive oil and a squirt of lemon. Dominic Le Stanc serves them this way on toasted pain au levain at his bistro La Merenda, and I've copied him ever since. I only once made the disastrous mistake of washing the poutine, which turns it into slimy sludge.
I haven't indulged in much poutine this year, but time is running out: the season started in late March and is nearly over. Nice is the only place in France where you will find poutine, apparently because the laws about fishing these alevins haven't changed here since 1860. Still, the local catch is rather scarce and much of what I've seen this year comes from the Italian riviera.
The poutine that you see in this picture can only just be called poutine - the fish have developed a silver skin and are closer to being friture (little fish that are usually dipped in flour and fried). I thought I would see how they tasted raw but the experiment backfired. Both my son Sam, who is always game to try something weird, and I screwed up our faces at the bitter taste. I then tried poaching them, as suggested by the woman at the fish market, and the bitterness was gone - but so was the delicate taste of the sea that I've previously found in raw poutine.
Luckily I had also bought a big slab of the first locally fished tuna, which I seared in my ridged iron grill pan and served alongside fresh peas stewed with baby carrots and young garlic shoots. When one season ends, another always begins.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Good-bye, potato man

I thought I knew the Cours Saleya market inside out until I did the rounds with Franck Cerutti. As chef at the Louis XV restaurant in Monaco and previously at the Don Camillo in Nice, he has been shopping at this market at least five times a week for the past 15 years or so. A friend who lived next door to him introduced us about a year ago, and Franck immediately offered to give me his personal tour of the market. "Be there at 7am, no later," he said.
Seven am? At that time I wasn't even aware that there was something to see so early on a Saturday. Dutifully I showed up on time with my basket. Franck was already in full swing, darting from one producer's stand to the next. "Don't bother trying to buy anything now," he said. "Just follow me."
Easier said than done. Only Franck understands the logic of how he shops, but somehow he always finds the best products and keeps everyone on his good side. Part of his strategy seems to be to move so quickly that no-one ever quite knows where his is or whose produce he has chosen that week. He buys from all the producers but favors the older paysans, who understand that he likes his produce sorted by size and neatly aligned. Much of his time is spent on the phone with his staff, giving a play-by-play account of what he has found. One minute he is opening a pea pod and shaking his head in disapproval, the next he on the other side of the producer's square ordering 15 kilos of Mona Lisas from the potato man.
Ah, the potato man. I have to admit that I had barely noticed his stand before my tour with Franck. It has never been the most colorful stall at the market, displaying just a pile of grubby potatoes, a few bottles of olive oil and some long-necked squash in winter. But, thanks to Franck, I learned that there is more to producer Louis Dau than meets the eye. It seems his broad beans are so good that he has to hide them under the table or fights break out among the older customers (who know a good thing when they taste it). Also hidden from view are paper-wrapped bottles of wine, which Franck likes to drink at home. And the grubby potatoes? Franck transforms them into fluffy gnocchi or bakes them, then infuses chicken broth with their smoky flavor. It's the high altitude that makes them special, he says.
But I should be speaking in the past tense. Today I went to see the potato man with the express purpose of featuring him in my blog. He was there, but his stand was gone. "It's over," said Franck. "He's retiring." Louis explained to me that following the death of his mother-in-law this week, he no longer has the right to cultivate her land (this had something to do with the intricacies of French inheritance law, which I won't attempt to explain). He is well past the conventional retirement age but it's clear that he would have loved to continue coming to the market each week, even if it meant arriving at 4.30am to secure his spot. Next to him was a single bag of potatoes, which was reserved for another customer.
Franck, meanwhile, was looking around for a new source of potatoes. "These look OK," he said, fingering a potato. "They're cultivated in the mountains too."
In the end, though, he drove away in his little van without any potatoes - probably as a sign of respect for Louis.
Good-bye, potato man. We'll miss you.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

I've got the bug

I'm old enough to remember when answering machines were new technology. I wasn't the first to get one, but I eventually gave in. Then mobile phones came along. This time I resisted a little harder, but again the lure was too strong. So it is with the blog. I told myself I was too busy, that I might have nothing interesting to say, that without an editor I might inadvertently offend someone with my observations. But then the blogging bug hit and with a few reckless clicks of the mouse I had set up my account. Now it's time to take responsibility for my actions. What I want to write about in this blog is the people I meet in Paris and Provence, and sometimes in Italy, England or Finland, who share my love of food. It's their passion that inspires me to drag myself out of bed at 7am on a Saturday to snap up the best produce at the Cours Saleya market in Nice or to zig-zag across Paris on the Métro during rush hour seeking out the finest pâtisseries, chocolates or charcuterie. Something I love about the French is the way they share this passion so generously: they are always happy to talk about what they do and, if they like you, they will even reveal their secrets. I'd like to do the same with you.