Parisian Gourmet: Frozen Food?

If you’re in my age group, you may remember growing up consuming lousy frozen TV dinners and tasteless frozen vegetables. Fresh vegetables were not a “thing” back then. For example, because I was raised on mushrooms from a jar, I had no idea how delightful fresh ones could be until I was in college. Later, of course, the healthy-eating tidal wave conditioned us to embrace fresh vegetables as the only sane choice.

So, it was with some surprise that I discovered the passion here for frozen foods. Yes, in France, with its fresh markets and reputation for fine cuisine, frozen foods are extremely popular. However, these are not my mother’s tasteless, freezer-burnt, Birds Eye offerings; rather, they’re flash-frozen, high-quality products processed in such a way that they retain all of their nutrients and, in some cases, have more of them than “fresh” produce does.

In France, large grocery stores do offer baked goods and fresh meats, but the neighborhood boulangeries (bakeries) and boucheries (butcher shops) have the best products, and they’re where most Parisians buy them. But I was surprised to find stand-alone stores that offer nothing but frozen products.

Welcome to Picard (no, no relation to Jean-Luc of the Enterprise), which started off in the early 1900s as a supplier of ice. Now, with over 1,000 stores, it can be called one of France’s favorite grocery stores, and it’s also established in several other European countries. Picard’s 1,200 flash-frozen products include veges and fruits (regular and organic), spices, meats, soups, pastries, desserts, and much more. Picard chefs make all sorts of prepared meals that are very popular.

Their freezer-filled stores are clean and modern, with good signage. You can order online for pickup or delivery, and they also sell insulated bags for your use taking food home.

In researching this post, I found quite a few articles extolling Picard. Here’s a good one by Ann Mah that does a great job of introducing Picard.

I’ve eaten quite a few Picard products in the last three months and they’ve all been really good. Boeuf Bourguignon (Beef Burgundy) over Aligot de l’Aubrac (cheesey mashed potatoes) is one favorite and their Yellow Lentil Curry soup is another.

You can visit the Picard website to see their many tempting offerings: https://www.picard.fr/

When I was staying in Dublin last year, I found a similar chain called, of all things, Iceland. I didn’t try their products so I don’t know if their quality is as good as Picard’s but they seemed quite popular.

Sadly, Picard is not in the U.S. and is not likely to be, for the reasons set forth by Ann Mah. Too bad!

Christmas Is Different Here

In my last post, we talked about Christmas trees in Paris and in this one I’ll share with you some of the common Christmas traditions here that are quite different from those in the U.S.

Wrapping Supplies

There are no wide ribbons or big, ready-made bows here. Narrow “curling” ribbon and small “confetti” bows are the preferred wrapping options.

Mistletoe

You’d think the romantic French would be all over this, but mistletoe is hung here as a decoration that brings good luck. Not as a license for kissing.

Marché de Noel

Christmas markets are huge in France, although perhaps not exclusively a French Christmas tradition. There are a quite few towns and villages in France where artisan-produced gifts and local culinary delicacies, such as foie gras and confit de canard, are sold in the run-up to Christmas.

No Christmas Cards

Typically, the French do not send Christmas cards to friends and family. Instead, cards are sent to celebrate the New Year.

Santa Letters

Letters from French children to Pere Noël (Father Christmas) don’t just disappear into recycling bins in France. Since 1962, France has had a law that stipulates that any letter to Santa must be responded to, in the form of a postcard. The law has no doubt helped boost the myth of Father Christmas among French kids, although it’s doubtful that postal workers appreciate all the extra work.

Le Réveillon de Noël

The French hold a traditional Christmas Eve dinner, the Réveillon de Noël. At around midnight, French families eat a special meal to celebrate the very beginning of Christmas Day. Dishes might include roast turkey with chestnuts or roast goose, oysters, foie gras, lobster, venison, and cheeses. For dessert, a sponge cake log called a bûche de Noël (yule log) is normally eaten. In some parts of France, the meal is ended with 13 different desserts!

Shoes, Not Stockings

The stockings are not “hung by the chimney with care” here in France. In fact, “Christmas stockings” are not a thing at all. Instead, St. Nicholas beats Father Christmas to the punch by dropping in on the night of December 6th and leaves gifts and treats in the shoes that French children leave by the fireplace or window. Father Christmas does his thing in the wee hours of the 25th, as in the U.S., probably when everyone’s in a food coma from the Réveillon meal.

No Early Happy New Year

For Christmas, French people wish each other Joyeux Noël or Bonnes Fêtes. However, it’s important never to wish anyone a Bonne Année (Happy New Year) before midnight on New Year’s Eve, as this brings bad luck.

Fête des Rois

The official end of the Christmas season is the Fête des Rois (Three Kings’ Day or Epiphany to U.S. folks), and is celebrated here with the Galette des Rois, or king cake. It’s a flaky pastry, generally filled with almond cream, and hidden inside is a fève (a tiny baby figurine). Whoever gets the cake slice with the fève gets to be the King or Queen for the day. Most bakeries even sell the cakes with a paper crown! This is similar to the Mardi Gras cake tradition in the U.S.

However you celebrate Christmas, have a very merry one!

Our 2020 Christmas Tree

Our Advent candle says there are 12 days until Christmas, so I thought I’d tell you something about Christmas trees, sapin de noël or arbre de noël, here in Paris.

France has a rich Christmas tree history, going back to the early 1500s in the Alsace region, casting it as a symbol of hope and eternal life. During the France-Prussian war of 1870-71, refugees fleeing the conflict brought the tradition from Alsace to Paris and the rest of France. By the 1930s, most French households were putting up a Christmas tree.

Local governments put up large, well-decorated trees in public spaces:

Cities also tend to hang decorations across major streets and on buildings. The local artists get into it, too, including one who erected this inflatable, abstract Christmas tree here some years ago, only to have it recognized by the public as a sex toy:

Ahem. Three real tree species are generally available here: Spruce, Nordmann, and Noble Fir, along with that weird modern favorite, Flocked. They’re sold at grocery and hardware stores, city squares, and other outlets, beginning in late November. Faux trees are, of course, also available. One interesting thing to note is that real trees are often sold with a “base” – the half-log, shown below. A hole is drilled into the log and the tree trunk is jammed into it.

Which means the French do not water their trees! I wonder what is left of them by the end of December? We bought an American-style base with a water reservoir online but then had some difficulty getting our local vendor to remove the log base from the tree we wanted to buy. Eventually everything worked out, though, and I was soon carrying our tree, cocooned in netting for the trip, back to our place.

Christmas tree decorations in France were originally natural and editable items, such as fruit, candies, cakes, nuts, and paper flowers. Now they’re similar to the decorations found in the U.S.: LED lights, glass ornaments, cloth and wooden figures, garlands, and an angel or star at the top. Tinsel, though, has not caught on here.

We have a small apartment, so we scaled our tree accordingly and Marti has a great collection of decorations. Here’s our tree, ready for presents to be placed beneath it:

This is the first tree either of us has put up in quite a few years, so it’s been a lot of fun reminiscing and getting into the Christmas spirit. It’s amazing how indelible our childhood Yuletide memories are.

If you’re putting up a tree, have fun and enjoy the process! We found a soundtrack of classic Christmas tunes and a “cup of cheer” smoothed the process.

Meanwhile, Across the Channel

It was 51 years ago that the Beatles strolled nonchalantly across the street outside Abbey Road Studios in St John’s Wood, London, and yet people are still imitating the oddly iconic album cover.

You can even watch a web cam feed of the crossing. Go ahead – you’ll probably not have to watch too long before you see someone making the crossing while a friend records or photographs them. Watch the web feed here.

Keep in mind that there’s a time difference – five hours with the U.S. East coast – but you can use the hourly buttons on the web cam page to check recently archived footage. The web cam view is from the reverse angle, so the studio building in on the right foreground, not the left background, as in the album cover.

In England, a “Zebra” crossing like this requires traffic to stop for pedestrians (which is not the case for many other types of crossings) and so the antics of visitors recreating the album cover are constantly annoying to local drivers.

And visitors do some weird things, memorialized in the studio’s Hall of Fame gallery, including a guy walking across wearing a large “Yellow Submarine” costume.

The last Beatles album recorded here was “Let It Be” in 1969 but Abbey Road Studios has been in continuous use since then. Originally a nine-bedroom house built in 1829, it looks unassumingly residential from the outside.

While initially a venue for classical recordings, the studios’ repertoire soon grew to embrace jazz and big bands, too, as well as the first British rock & roll records of the 1950s. Abbey Road is of course synonymous with the legendary work of The Beatles who, working with EMI producer Sir George Martin, recorded 190 of their 210 songs at the studios. But Abbey Road’s unparalleled history runs the gamut from the wild experiments of Pink Floyd to iconic recordings from Shirley Bassey, Aretha Franklin, and The Hollies.

More recently, artists including Kate Bush, Radiohead, Oasis, Kanye West, Amy Winehouse, Sam Smith, Florence + The Machine, Ed Sheeran, Frank Ocean, Lady Gaga, and Adele have made Abbey Road their creative home, producing countless landmark recordings.

Even my daughter Sarah couldn’t resist when she visited me some years ago. So be sure to put Abbey Road on your itinerary when you visit London.

Eight Weird French Laws

France, like many countries, has its fair share of weird laws. As you’d expect from the French, a few involve kissing, snails, and, of course, Napoléon. Of France’s 15,500 or so laws, there are quite a few that raise an eyebrow.

Let’s go over the eight weirdest French laws, so that you don’t get caught out when you visit us in Paris.

Snails Must Have Their Own Ticket on French Trains

Snails on a train! This is a reminder that animals weighing less than five kilos must travel with their own ticket. That includes the French’s favorite breakfast treat, as an unlucky Frenchman found out in 2008 while transporting his snail harvest on the TGV. Is this a common problem? Well, consider that, in France, people eat approximately 500 million snails per year.

You Can’t Name Your Pig “Napoléon”

A weird 19th century law, still in effect today here, makes it illegal to make fun of Napoléon, including specifically by naming your pig after him. You can call your pig whatever you like, but certainly not Napoléon. Ironically, did you know Napoléon was the ruler who established today’s French civil law code?

You Can’t Kiss in a French Train Station

The SNCF (French railway system) got tired of the delays caused by couples kissing their farewells on platforms. This gave birth to a weird French law that prohibits making out once the train has pulled up to the station. No worries, you probably won’t get arrested – or even scolded – for sharing a lip-lock in Gare du Nord. However, you may be so distracted that you miss your train.

Women Who Want to Dress Like a Man Must First Ask the Police

Misogyny is alive and well in some of outdated French laws, and this one has never been taken off the books. Officially, if you’re female and want to wear a pantsuit in public, you must get authorization from the nearest police precinct, as well as a medical certificate. The “Power Pantsuit” seems to be back in fashion in 2020, so this we’ll have to keep an eye on this one.

You Must Listen to French Music

In an attempt to defend against America’s “cultural imperialism”, France passed a law in 1994 that insists that 40% of music played on French radio stations must be by French artists.

Adopted with the goal of promoting and preserving the French culture and language, the law proved very unpopular. Eventually, in 2016 the French music quota was decreased to 35%. Radio stations that specialize in foreign music were also granted an exception, requiring only 15%..

Don’t Let the Kids Have Ketchup

Since 2011, French law forbids school cafeterias from serving ketchup. The French, as you may know, prefer to enjoy their frites (French fries) with mayonnaise. This law was probably another attempt to fend off American cultural influence.

That said, no self-respecting French person would accept ketchup anywhere near their Boeuf Bourguignon.

You Can Divorce Your Husband if He Watches Too Much Football

It’s not as strange a law as it might appear at first glance. In addition to being able to divorce your partner on grounds of infidelity, there’s also another acceptable reason known as “intellectual infidelity”: if your spouse spends way too many hours watching sports on the tube and hurling insults at it, you can call it quits.

Another unexpected legal ground for divorce is “physical” infidelity. Not in the sexual sense, but rather meaning your physical well-being. For example, if your wife smokes like a chimney and puts your health at risk, you are allowed to pack your bags in search of fresh air.

You Can’t Get Drunk at Work, Unless It’s on Wine

This funny law is just… so French. Obviously, you can’t drink at work! Well, yes, you can. As long as you’re drinking wine, beer, cider, or mead, you’re legal. Of course, you can’t get totally plastered but, if you’re celebrating someone’s retirement, for example, you can do so by drinking responsibly. Just don’t do Patrón shots off their desk.

Beaujolais Nouveau Day 2020

All right, wine enthusiasts! Let’s talk about Beaujolais, a light, red wine made from Gamay grapes, produced in the Beaujolais region of France, north of Lyon.

Popular producing areas include Brouilly, Fleurie, and Moulin-à-Vent and you may have seen these wines for sale in your local store.

Generally speaking, it’s better to buy wine that has aged for a few years, at least. Most Beaujolais, for example, is intended to be consumed within three years, although some heartier variants can go to 10 years.

And then… there’s Beaujolais “Nouveau”.

As far back as the 1800s, Beaujolais growers and winemakers would gather to celebrate the end of the harvest by toasting the vintage with some of the young wine produced that year. This is part of the French tradition of vin de primeur, or “early wines”, released in the same year they’re harvested.

How young are we talking? Beaujolais pressed in September is unveiled on the third Thursday of November, as Beaujolais Nouveau.

In a 1980s marketing master stroke, this quaint regional tradition was blown up into a world-wide phenomenon by the late vintner Georges Duboeuf. Beaujolais Nouveau Day is now a big deal here in France and elsewhere, with wine vendors hosting special events, midnight fireworks, parties, etc.

A crucial ingredient in this promotion was a dollop of suspense. No Beaujolais Nouveau can be released until the Big Day. As the clock struck 12:01 AM, Mr. Duboeuf made sure that cases and cases of the wine were loaded onto trucks, ships, and eventually jets, for shipment around the world, all duly recorded by cameras. (The fact that much of the wine had been shipped in advance was irrelevant to the fun.)

So how good is it? Many drinkers find this wine to be just too young, too “green” to drink, and the phrase “making a silk purse from a sow’s ear” has been used to describe Duboeuf’s efforts.

To my palate, the drinkability of Beaujolais Nouveau varies from year to year and from brand to brand. The bottle we bought yesterday, shown above, is just “OK” as wine goes. Better than paint thinner, at least. We finished it, but we won’t buy any more until next year.

It’s kind of weird pouring from a bottle with the current year on the label, never mind one that’s just two months old!

I’m reminded that last year at this time we were in a Paris café and asked excitedly about the Beaujolais Nouveau. Our waiter first made a pained face, then he did something quite extraordinary: he offered to bring us a free, small taste of the wine. And to his credit, the wine was awful and so we ordered something else. That was a first.

Beaujolais Nouveau is now available around the world, possibly in your neighborhood store, for a limited time. So check it out.

Most Unusual Hotels

The Promenade Petite Ceinture (Little Belt walk) is a park near our apartment and we often enjoy walking there for exercise. It sits on part of an abandoned 36-km railway line of the same name, built around Paris under the Second Empire (1852 – 1869). This railway line carried passengers until 1934 and goods until the end of the 1970s. Near us in the 15th arrondissement, it once served in particular the Citroën factories and the slaughterhouses of Vaugirard.

Now it’s the province of joggers, walkers, and strollers, and has been deliberately left ecologically rich. The City of Paris has created landscaping that preserves its railway heritage and highlights the park’s unique biodiversity. It brings together varied and interesting natural habitats, such as the forest, meadows, and wasteland. Each of these environments is home to different animal species, and over 220 species of plants and animals live there.

The park is also where Insect Hotels can be found. Insect hotels are man-made shelters that attract and welcome insects to the park. They offer them a refuge for the winter and a place to nest and reproduce in the summer.

Usually installed in quiet places and close to flower beds, insect hotels are made from reclaimed and environmentally-friendly materials such as untreated pallet wood, stems, logs, and sandy soil.

Insects apparently find it difficult to find quiet shelter in a city as dense as Paris. These hotels allow different species to have a dedicated space in the park and to perform their landscape-supporting duties. These include fighting harmful species, pollinating desirable plants, promoting plant reproduction, and preserving the biodiversity of Parisian green spaces. These original and artistic constructions are fun to look at and highlight the beneficial role of insects.

Devastating Pastries

I’m following up yesterday’s post about wonderful French butter with one about some of the outstanding pastries available here. Well why not? We’re all going to lose the COVID 25 we’ve put on right after we’re vaccinated, aren’t we?

As the average Frenchman cannot live without a daily fresh baguette, there are standalone boulangeries (bakeries) everywhere in Paris. Some grocery stores incorporate bakeries but they usually can’t hold a candle to the quality of the small, often award-winning, neighborhood bakeries. We’re blessed to have several really good ones nearby.

I submit for your consideration two amazing examples of the local bakers’ art. On the left above, we have the Chausson aux Pommes, from La Maison Pichard, a four-time winner of the title “Best Croissant in France”. On the right, a typical Breton specialty, called Kouign-amann. Tell your inner cardiologist to look away as I describe them.

Chausson aux Pommes

You can think of these as apple turnovers on steroids, if you must. But I think of them as sweet, spiced apples in a floating cushion of pastry clouds. Their layers of filo dough, paper-thin and delicately roasted in butter, simply evaporate in your mouth. They’re brushed with sugar syrup after baking and put back in the oven for another minute, caramelizing the syrup and giving the pastry that slightly sweet taste and awesome shine.

They’re one of the most buttery and flaky pastries you’ll ever eat. They’re often the item, along with baguettes, by which Parisians judge a bakery. I suggest that it’s impossible to eat two of them in row. We’re very lucky to have them available nearby from such a great baker.

Kouign-amann

This wonder is a Breton cake, once described by the New York Times as “the fattiest pastry in all of Europe.” The name comes from the Breton language words for cake (kouign) and butter (amann). It’s a round, multi-layered pastry, made with layers of butter and sugar folded in, similar in fashion to puff pastry albeit with fewer layers.

The cake is slowly baked until the butter puffs up the dough (resulting in its layered structure) and the sugar caramelizes. The effect is similar to a muffin-shaped, caramelized croissant. I swear you could probably squeeze it like a sponge and get butter back out of it. One is struck, after eating just half of it, with an urge to get your cholesterol level checked. Real gustatory heaven!

Note that these are devastating pastries without the need for chocolate coatings, creamy fillings, or other frostings. The butter, sugar, and dough are sufficient to do the job. And, whatever you do, don’t, don’t, don’t even think about eating a Chausson aux Pommes followed by a Kouign-amann! I can tell you that it is possible but it’s surely not good for you. 😊

Next time, I promise, a post that’s not about food.

Introducing French Butter

Of the many wonderful foods that can seduce you here in France, one that caught me by surprise was the butter. Yes, butter, which you may think is pretty much the same everywhere. But non, mon amis French butter is out of this world.

Specifically, the butter that comes from the Brittany – Normandy area and has sea salt crystals embedded in it. Oooh la la!

Why is it so great? Well, the cows in Normandy graze on the sweet green grass there and produce the most delicious and most flavorful butter in the world.

Norman cows are raised only for dairy production. They roam freely and eat nutrient flora and grassy greens in the hills and marshlands of the rolling countryside. They produce milk that is heavy and smooth. The fatty milk cream is buttercup flower yellow and makes butter that is sweet and memorable.

This is used to produce butter that’s irresistible for two reasons: first, it often has a higher fat content (87%) than American butter (80%) and, second, it’s cultured differently.

Cream, separated from the milk, is allowed to ferment before it’s churned. This allows bacteria to form and sugar to convert to lactic acid, resulting in a creamier, more “buttery” taste.

In contrast, American-produced butter uses only pasteurized milk cream, which has no cultures, and does not ferment. The French, dedicated to quality, refuse to bypass the fermentation step.

Before industrialization, all butter was produced the French way, in small batches, using natural fermentation. As the heavier cream rose to the top of the milk, it was skimmed off and stored until there was enough to churn. That was how bacteria got in and “cultured” the cream. It resulted in a taste that was “ripe” and delicious.

Today, mass production does not allow for skimming by hand and waiting around for natural processes to take place. Cream is instead spun out of milk via machines. However, in France, a lactic acid-producing culture is added to the separated cream and fermentation still takes place. The resulting butter has a fuller, and to some, a “nuttier”, flavor.

And now, for the crowning touch: sea salt. Brittany, a large peninsula that stretches from the Atlantic coast to the west and the English Channel to the north, is a region richly endowed with natural sea salt beds and marshes. These have been cultivated for thousands of years, starting during the Iron Age when Celtic tribes occupied the area.

The most famous of these areas is particularly prized for its high-quality sea salt and fleur de sel, a flaky, light salt skimmed off the top of the lagoons. These crystalline flakes are suffused randomly throughout the butter, where they remain intact, creating a savory bite and a little crunchy surprise with each taste.

This is not cooking butter and should be reserved for use at the table on baked goods, crepes, pancakes, and simple pasta dishes. You may be able to find this in the imported foods section of your grocery store – if so, give it a try. Just don’t blame me if you can never again be satisfied with Land O’ Lakes!

Our Neighborhood Surprise

The other day we left our apartment around noon to go shopping. We heard sirens wailing and noticed a lot of people streaming toward and past us, and we soon found out why: a large anti-riot police presence at the end of our street. So, of course, we continued walking in order to see what was happening.

Hello! These were serious, robo cop-style police units that deal with violent demonstrations, and there were about 40 officers at the nearest intersection. The street was littered with trash, trash bins lay about in disarray, and there was broken glass on the street and sidewalks. And here we come, walking into this with our little grocery cart in tow, thinking we’re going to pick up a baguette.

Even though it appeared that the violence was over, with the demonstrators dispersed to several blocks away, the police were not standing down, so we thought a quick U-turn would be sensible. We could do our shopping later. Most businesses were temporarily closed anyway.

It didn’t seem like a good time to ask any officer what was going on, either.

Later on, we learned on the news that high school students and others, in solidarity with teachers striking for more COVID safety measures in schools, had blocked streets with trash bins, dumped out trash and glass, and clashed with police trying to keep them on their approved demonstration route.

Just another day at the office for these officers. You may know that striking and holding huge, sometimes violent, demonstrations is practically the national pastime here. The Paris police have had lots of experience in dealing with these events.

Incidentally, a bill is currently being proposed in France that would make it illegal to disseminate photographs or videos identifying police and gendarmes “with intent to harm” and critics have warned it’s a danger to press freedom. So, it’s possible that, in the future, a photo like the one I posted above could land me in hot water.