After a rough year and a tough break up she fell foolishly in love again … with food.
She reports on her experiences with culinary travel, French cuisine and much more below:
In Paris, there are amateur programs at professional schools like Le Cordon Bleu (www.lcbparis.com) as well as at star chef Alain Ducasse’s École de Cuisine (www.ecolecuisine-alainducasse.com). Course lists generally feature the classics: croissants, macaroons, chocolate, sauces, meat, fish, and poultry.
Classes are taught in French though some offer translation services. In-home programs are often taught by English-speaking French chefs and ex-pats offer more flexible curricula that change with the season and can adapt to student requests.
I report for my first day of class at Promenades Gourmandes, a home school and gourmet walking tour company owned and operated by Paule Caillat in her chic Marais apartment. Paule, a former fashion executive turned cooking instructor, seats me in her white-wrapped living room and makes me “special tea” while we wait for my classmates.
Her kitchen is contemporary, marked by a large French window and rows of colorful cookbooks. Down the center is a long island with plenty of workspace for our class of six (the max here is eight), and professional-grade appliances.
Paule does not teach the pastry courses here, but she remains close as the master of ceremonies. Our teacher is a working pastry chef who speaks English with a charmingly heavy Parisian accent.
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We prepare classic pastry dough pâte à choux and practice piping it into different forms that magically rise in the oven to become chouquettes (small rounds with rock sugar), gougères (airy, cheese-stuffed spheres served with apéritifs), and éclairs that we fill with rum-spiked cream. We dip some éclairs in dark chocolate ganache and others in intense caramel.
Finally, we make grapefruit macaroons, the enchanting meringue cookies that melt in your mouth. They are tangy and sweet, with a light pink complexion. Already, I am infatuated.
For lunch, I stay in the Marais for the tarte tatin à la tomate at Café Les Philosophes (33-1-48-87-49-64). This classic upside-down pie swaps apples for tomatoes, and they stand out as the luscious fruit that I sometimes forget they are. Olive oil and sugar caramelize their tops, while the centers stew in sage, basil and rosemary under a butter-dense crust. The flipped result is sweet and savory; opposites do attract.
Dinner is at Chez Prune (33-1-42-49-89-19) in the 10th Arrondissement on Canal Saint-Martin. It is a corner bistro-style joint at the heart of a hip neighborhood serving eclectic dishes with spice. I have a flaky white fish touched by lemon and saffron over delicate, baby vegetables and creamy barley risotto. I am welcomed at the bar without surprise that I am dining alone.
I stop at Le Verre Volé (www.leverrevole.fr), a popular wine bar and restaurant nearby, but reservations are required days in advance. La Patache (33-1-42-08-14-35), a cozy café across the street has a place for me near the working, wood-burning stove. I enjoy a glass of red and slip into revelry about my new amour.
Based in Paris, L’École Lenôtre (www.lenotre.fr) is now a worldwide franchise of gourmet food shops.
In 2003, the company commandeered a pavilion across from the Grand Palais at the end of the Champs-Elysées, opening a café and amateur culinary/pastry school. The sleek, state-of-the-art kitchen is stocked with honed knives, heady spices, fresh herbs, live lobsters, and a friendly instructor in a crisp white uniform.
Only French only is spoken here. Mine is rusty, but not a problem for the hands-on work ahead. We wash, chop, stir, taste, and season.
We create Bordelaise—full with a deep red Bordeaux, Béarnaise—glossy with egg yolk, butter and tarragon, and Sauce Américaine—rich in lobster. At the end of the course our teacher serves up the Béarnaise along with medallions of beef, sole (at my request) and Lenôtre-baked breads.
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We share this meal as the rest of our hard work is packaged to go by a sous-chef. I purchase French cookbooks from the food shop and head to Saint-Germain des Prés for something sinful.
Macaroons are as ubiquitous on cooking school course lists as they are in Parisian pâtisseries. After learning to make them I am smitten. I put my new obsession to a taste-test between the famed macaroon boutiques Ladurée (www.laduree.com) (the old guard) and Pierre Hermé (www.pierreherme.com) (the avant-garde).
I collect the goods on Rue Bonaparte and skip toward the Seine, where I remove their fancy packaging.
But Ladurée wins my heart with chocolate, vanilla and pistachio.
My extracurricular meal is at Cinq Mars (33-1-45-44-69-13), a cool restaurant on the quiet rue de Verneuil. It is uncommon for the French to dine solo so I come prepared with a book and a laissez-faire attitude. I use them both to brush off glances and male curiosity.
The gazpacho is smooth, refreshing and perfect after a day of reckless, sugar abandon. I follow it with a mushroom omelet and an irresistible chocolate mousse that arrives to table in a mixing bowl with a ladle-size spoon. It is served “au ta discrétion” which is consent to indulge in as much as I wish. Quite a proposition!
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Class at Promenades Gourmandes begins in the markets on Rue Montorgueil. It is a historic pedestrian-only street that is home to Stohrer (www.stohrer.fr), the oldest pâtisserie in Paris founded in 1730 by a pastry chef formerly on staff at Versailles.
Today, Paule Caillat is the teacher, and there are eight students (all American). The native Parisian introduces us to her favorite fine food shops, where we learn what is in season, and what’s not, like scallops that are several weeks shy of their prime.
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We discuss French appellation cheeses crafted according to regional tradition and the Label Rouge, a certification that identifies pasture-raised meat and poultry. We bring baguettes and harvest back to Paule’s kitchen via a city bus.
There, we throw together an asparagus and zucchini terrine. After it cools, we kiss it with olive oil and tomato vinaigrette that is perfumed with lemon and herbs. We sauté fennel until golden, ignite it with Pastis liqueur then finish it with crème fraîche. The veal, chicken and sole is stuffed with escarole.
Halfway through class there is a wine and cheese tasting. Paule shows us how to properly cut the hard, soft and gooey, so that each slice preserves optimal flavor. We are warned not to take more than one piece of bread at a time, and to rest it on the table, not on the plate. The ceremony and stories are a cultural lesson I hadn’t expected, but treasure.
Two desserts are still left to prepare, since half the class wanted chocolate-ey and the other fruity. We bake a plum and fig tart with Paule’s famously easy piecrust, as well as flourless chocolate soufflés. At the table, we toast our generous guide and devour our accomplishments.
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DAY FOUR: LAST CHANCE FOR A FRENCH LOVE AFFAIR
My fling is fading, so I look for souvenirs to keep this feeling alive. The local supermarket Monoprix (www.monoprix.fr) is my first stop for affordable olive oil, Maille mustard, local jam, and metric measures for recipes sans conversions. At Palais des Thés (www.palaisdesthes.com/en) and Marriage Frères (www.mariagefreres.com), I procure floral and earthy blends of tea. Perhaps their warm fragrances will transport me back to this rapturous time in the coming winter.
Across the Seine, I visit La Grande Epicerie, mecca for food fashion, and grab some macaroons for one final devotional taste. I also snap up some almond paste and flour so I can attempt authentic macaroon-making at home.
After a final meal at La Fontaine de Mars in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, I bid farewell to my culinary paramour and hop a flight back to New York City, dreaming of the flavors of Paris all the way home.
It was a different kind of French love affair, but surely just as sweet.
By Cara Mangini for PeterGreenberg.com.
For more great shopping and women-centric travel experiences in Paris, don’t miss Suzy Gershman’s Postcard from Paris: The Encore.
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