I’m having a Paris moment. More specifically a Lunch in Paris moment, crossed with a French Women Don't Get Fat crisis. You see, I’m reading Elizabeth Bard’s delightful ‘an American in Paris’ love story, and it’s stirred up a yearning to return to my favourite city on the planet... and since she’s so thoughtfully provided recipes at the end of every chapter it’s a short fall from longing into gluttony.
Paris features heavily in my travelling life, but its culinary delights have played a little harder to get. As a dirt poor backpacker in 1994 I only ever graduated to a baguette, and a bit of supermarket camembert (okay, there might have been a chocolate éclair or two in there somewhere, and a daily croissant). In 2001 there was the strange dislocating evening at a ‘vegetarian’ restaurant in early September. French cuisine is almost allergic to vegetarian food, and it transpired this was hardcore vegan. It did prove that no amount of je ne sais quoi can salvage tempeh, given it looks and tastes like cardboard. My friend was so mortified by where her dietary restrictions had led us, fish swam straight back into her diet. In 2005 I was coming off the traveller’s curse in Morocco, and 2009? At the Fromagerie Bernard LeFranc on the small city island of Ile Saint Louis my mum and I pointed at, and bought, the stinkiest, runniest cheese in the shop. We found a park bench next to a church, slathered the cheese on chunks of baguette and cracked open the pinot gris. Finally, I’d found the French beat of my heart.
Food was also Bard’s way of entering, and falling in love with the French culture, whilst giddily falling for her brainy, sexy, tap-dancing husband, Gwendal. Lunch in Paris features all the classics – profiteroles, beef daube, more asparagus than you can poke a spear at (sorry – couldn’t resist), and of course French Onion Soup. It was the soup that started the yearning – at 4am no less – and it continued to haunt me until I just had to get into the kitchen and cut up 2kg of onions. And then the crying took over.
Classic French Onion Soup
From Gourmet Traveller, July 2007
Serves two for dinner or 4 for starters
From Gourmet Traveller, July 2007
Serves two for dinner or 4 for starters
100g butter coarsely chopped
2kg brown onions, thinly sliced
1L (4 cups) beef stock
4 thyme sprigs
3 parsley stalks
1 bay leaf
8 1cm thick slices of baguette, cut on a diagonal and lightly toasted
250g coarsely grated Gruyère
Melt the butter in a large, heavy-based saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions and cover, stirring occasionally for 20 minutes. They will soften and go a little translucent. Remove the lid and cook for an hour, stirring to make sure bits don’t stick to the bottom of the saucepan. The onions should slowly caramelise.
Add stock that has been gently warmed, 1/2 a cup at a time, and simmer for 5 minutes (the stock should have almost evaporated). Repeat 3 times until the 2 cups of stock are added.
Tie the herbs together with twine, and add to the mixture. Add remaining stock immediately and season. Bring to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 40 minutes or until thick, stirring occasionally to make sure caramelised bits aren’t stuck to the bottom.
Preheat the oven to 200C. Ladle soup into oven-proof bowls and transfer to an oven tray. Scatter with half the cheese, and cook for 5 minutes.
Toast the baguette then scatter with the remaining cheese and put under the grill until the cheese is bubbling. (Alternately you can top each soup with 2 baguette slices and cheese in the oven. The underside of the bread will absorb the flavours and add to the heartiness of the soup. Perfect for a rainy day!) Serve immediately.
If you don’t want to spend 2 hours coaxing onions to reveal their sweetness, an easier way to get some French groove on is Moules Marinières. I’ve eaten this in more Parisian cafés than I can remember. It’s so simple to make, and the combination of mussels, wine and shallots is divine.
1kg fresh mussels (I buy live, debearded, ready to cook in a pack – it saves a lot of fuss)
115g unsalted butter
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
200ml or 1 cup of dry white wine
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon of thyme
1 large handful fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped
Prepare the mussels: for debearded just dump in a colander and rinse. For bearded mussels pull away the strands (beard) around the shell and scrub under cold running water.
Heat 50g of the butter in a large saucepan or large enamel pot. When the butter is foaming add the garlic, shallots, thyme, wine and bay leaf. Cook over a medium heat until the shallots are soft and translucent.
Then bring the mixture to the boil. Add the mussels, cover the pot, and cook over a high heat for 2-3 minutes, gently shaking the pot as you go, until the mussels open. Discard any mussels that remain closed after cooking or are shrivelled. (And I repeat – throw out any mussels that DO NOT OPEN.)
Divide the mussels into two bowls. With the remaining mussel liquor in the pot, add the parsley and remaining butter and bring to the boil. Pour the mixture over the mussels and serve immediately with crusty baguette.
This dish is also handy when you’re eating alone in situ in Paris because it requires intense concentration – all those shells to discard, all that sauce to mop up with baguette. It’s something to focus on when you’re surrounded by lovers who can’t keep their hands off each other. Yeah. This is the City Of Love, and the locals don't want you to forget it.
Elizabeth's mussels use less butter, possibly because it falls in the chapter where she's ruminating on why exactly French women don't get fat (something to do with portion control, and being worshipped by their men). Personally, I reckon another reason for this miraculous state of affairs is because Paris is a very walkable city.
My favourite route: Start at Notre Dame and then amble to Ile St Louis for an ice cream at Berthillon. Cruise by all the cute antique shops, go to said cheese shop, and then cross the bridge to the Left Bank. Find the amazing English-language bookshop Shakespeare and Co where writers have been hanging out, and sleeping on the floor since the 1930s. Move on to the Lumas gallery, and then make your way to the Cluny Museum.
Spend the next day on the Right Bank. You could go to the Louvre (it's easy to get lost for an eternity in there), or visit Le Marais district. I try and go up Rue de Rivoli to check out some of the shops. And then back to the Left Bank for a visit to the Musée D'Orsay.
So after all that walking, you can surely have some dessert. Elizabeth promises her husband’s quick and dirty souffle is rich, but not deadly.
Guilt-free Chocolate Cake
[a small variation on “Gwendal’s Quick and Dirty Chocolate Souffle Cake, from Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard, pp 302-303] To serve 6-8
220g chocolate [60%-70% cocoa]
2 tbsp of filter coffee
5 eggs, separated
1/2 cup of caster sugar
A pinch of salt
1 tbsp of plain flour
Butter (for the cake tin)
Preheat the oven to 180C and butter a 20cm spring-form cake tin. Make the coffee and then add to the broken up chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl and heat (on defrost setting) for about a minute, then stir until all the chocolate is melted. Set aside to cool.
Separate the eggs into two bowls – the whites in a large dry bowl and the yolks in a medium.
Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together.
Pour the egg yolk mixture into the chocolate mixture and quickly whisk together until combined. Add flour and stir until fully combined.
Beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt. Keep at it until you have stiff peaks.
Fold a third of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture (don’t worry if you do more than fold... like stir thoroughly - it still turns out all right). Then add this mixture back into the egg-white bowl. Now fold gently - you want quite a bit of air in the mix.
Pour the mixture into the cake tin and then bake for 20-24 minutes. Test with a skewer in the middle. If it’s oozing a little that’s OK, and as Bard says if it falls a bit in the middle before it reaches the table don’t worry – it still tastes good!
Serve with a dollop of crème fraîche.
So if you have a petite slice, your body might just forgive you. After all, how can anything made with love ever be bad for you?