Sunday, 27 May 2012


I'm not a prolific Twitter user. I give it a decent go, but I've not yet perfected the iPhone-welded-to-my-hand-thumb-quivering-on-send look. Saying that, if you've not followed me yet, please do! I would. Once thing I am sure of though, Twitter is awesome. Whilst in Paris it gave me hints and tips on where to go, flooded my brain with ideas, overwhelmed me with love for the city of, well, love and kept the inquisitive beast within both fed and hungry.

Since coming home from my Parisian adventure, I've had a number of Twitcidents that have reinforced my passion for this game - being food in general - and given me huge grins. The first came a mere three days after getting home. I was having a bumper catch up on my Twitter feed when I spotted something interesting from Kerstin Rodgers.

Just one of Kerstin's many sets of shelves
Kerstin Rodgers, aka @MsMarmitelover, is one of London's leading pioneers in the London Supper Club scene, and runs the highly successful and popular Underground Restaurant. Having been gifted - at last! - her book 'Supper Club - recipes notes from the Underground Restaurant' for my birthday (post on that spectacular day coming soon too, trust me!) what I already believed has been reinforced. Kerstin's Supper Club is her lifestyle. She has no living room, having long ago converted this to a restaurant capable of seating thirty. Her gorgeous, dribble-inducingly huge kitchen has shelves and cupboards enticingly heaving all sorts of paraphenalia collected from travels including five years spent living in Paris and one in the South of France as well as kookily labelled bottles, jars, tins and packets.

How it all began...
It strikes me that I may be missing a step here. How do I know all this? Well, Kerstin runs a differently-themed dinner almost every Saturday, as well as being commissioned for larger-scale events, dinners and themed banquets both in her restaurant and elsewhere. Once my ticket home from Paris had been booked, the next important thing was to organise my welcome home event, and I suggested Kerstin's 'Food on Sticks' meal to my welcoming committee. Unfortunately this didn't work for some key people. So, I found myself miles from home the day before this meal, catching up on my Twitter feed, and Kerstin was asking for volunteers for the meal.

And I tweeted back that I'd be happy to help. Less than 24 hours later I was knocking on her door in Kilburn, ready to spend the day cooking and the evening helping to run the event.

And it was, in short, a fab day. Kerstin had been inspired for the meal by the book 'On a Stick!' by Mark Armendariz. As a vegetarian, Kerstin had adapted some dishes a little, which made for some mild panic, by all accounts a staple of the process. There were 20 guests being catered for (big love to those who, having paid, didn't show, meaning there were lots of things for us to nibble!), and the meal went like this:

  • Guests were welcomed with a frozen cocktail on a stick, with buried berries.
  • Salad on a stick - I wrapped balsamic dressing-marinated mozzarella pearls in basil leaves and skewered these with cherry tomatoes, while Chris Pople made 
  • bandarillas - silverskin onions , olives wrapped with anchovies and caper berries. 
  • I found speed-rolling twenty sushi rolls with avocado, sesame sprinkles and wasabi caviar a particularly tense experience, but also a filling one as the trimmings from each roll somehow found their way into my mouth...
  • Tofu dango balls were, and there's no nice way to put this, a massive pain in the arse. The recipe did not work without the addition of copious amounts of rice flour to reach the right consistency to make little mouthsized balls with (which took hours). The extra flour then made them heavy, so they stuck to the bottom of the pan whilst they were being poached, leading them not to rise like gnocchi should, and they possibly overcooked. Subsequent deep-frying had to happen on the sticks, which got caught in the net. Over half of the balls I painstakingly made ended in the bin. It was basically their tangy, spicy sauce which made these so moreish. 
  • Corn dogs were really popular as so few of the guests had ever had them before. And also possibly because I seemed to have a skill for making them look like incredibly lifelike phalluses (go on, I dare you to click!)
  • Baby aubergines with a spicy miso dressing were baked in a parcel to be opened at the table and were delicious
  • The pizzas on a stick never made it to the table. Clearly a case of too many cooks forget what's in the Aga...
  • Following a non-delivery of the fish she'd ordered, there was a mad dash to Waitrose to buy monkfish for spiced kebabs, which must have been good as I never got a taste!
And then there was the spaghetti and meatballs. This had been troubling Kerstin all day. Firstly, quorn mince does not readily form meatballs, so some tweeting revealed that xantham gum would be needed as a gluten-free binder. Then, chilling the meatballs in spaghetti nests did not help the whole to readily bind in a way that would encourage insertion of a stick and deep frying. Nothing we tried seemed to work, whether chilling, adding a thick tomato sauce or intricate origami-style wrapping. And then I uttered the fateful words:

"What if we made a parmesan tempura to help bind it together?"

So, that's what we did. By this point I was being regarded as the deep-fat frying queen. Having simply inferred that, yes, I had used an industrial fryer before so knew the basic fundamentals, I was then installed in front of the work-top fryer with the task of deepfrying everything I could lay my hands on. It wasn't until dessert that I finally made it into the restaurant to talk to some guests, and getting a seat to myself on the bus home was a cinch. I made a vague nest of spaghetti with a meatball in the middle on a slotted metal spoon, dipped the base of the spoon into a large bowl of tempura batter with parmesan added and lowered this into the fryer. I held it here for a few minutes while Kerstin jumped around like a small child on a sugar high, camera in hand trying to capture the moment. It had worked. All I needed to do then was slide the cooked batter from the spoon, drain on greaseproof paper and repeat 19 times... 

The meal was finished off with a medley of desserts:
Frozen grapes were a welcome palate cleanser after the spaghetti. Chocolate-dipped frozen bananas were a personal revelation: a crisp dark-chocolate shell enclosed a banana that had transformed into a cohesive, deeply sweet mush. Saffron-sugar candyfloss was delicate and intriguing, and a number of the guests enjoyed having a go with the candy-floss maker. The salted caramel lollies kept tipsy guests peaceful on the way home, like they were leaving a club.

It wasn't all roses. My floor-management skills came into play with a guest who felt that her dietary requirements had not been sufficiently catered for and that the unique experience did not make up for it (we were pleased to find her friends found her as irritating as we did!), and this caused a lot of stress for all of us. Not perhaps the way one would hope to learn that soy sauce is not gluten-free, but a memorable one at least. But in my view, such negativity was countered by the guests who wanted to come into the kitchen to share stories of cookbook porn, best meals, what they enjoyed, and, particularly memorably, to refer to me as a 'kitchen goddess'. 

I'm looking forward to working more with Kerstin in the future and would encourage you to go and experience a unique dining experience at her hands if you haven't done already. 

Later that night, on the way home, awesome Tweet moment two happened:

And the tweet moments continued the next week. I'm new on the dating scene right now (Mr Right, if you're reading this, get in touch!) and thought I'd use this to my gastronomic advantage. So I tweeted my favourite food critic, Marina O'Loughlin, for advice, and this is what happened:

When it comes to carrying on getting out there and meeting as many new people with food as possible (a girl's gotta eat, after all), what better encouragement could I have?

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Paris on pennies

Here are my top ten tips for having a fantastic time in Paris without spending too much.

1. Plan ahead. Nothing in this life comes for free, and you need to invest your time if you don't want to invest your cash. Think about what you want to see / do / eat the most, and look into all of them in advance, making sure you know how to find them, when they are open and closed and how to get there. Speaking the lingo helps when it comes to local websites that offer information on upcoming events such as telerama but there are a host of english equivalents out there. Planning ahead like this helps to avoid the scenario of being in unfamiliar territory, tired and hungry all at the same time and thus falling into the nearest restaurant which is likely to offer neither good value nor good food.
Bear in mind that on the first Sunday of every month all Paris museums are free, so if you are looking for a culture-filled trip, this can save a significant expense if you are prepared to start early and to queue a little.

2. On your feet! To see Paris inexpensively you will do a lot of walking, so bring comfortable shoes, and this will often mean eating and drinking as you go. There are supermarkets everywhere, and this is their price heirarchy:
Top end: Grand Magasins like Le Bon Marché (think Harrods) Galaries Lafayette (think Selfridges) and BHV (think Harvey Nichols).
High: Monoprix (Waitrose / Marks and Spencer)
Middle: Franprix and Carrefour (think Sainsbury's. Likely to have later opening hours. Carrefour's tend to have a larger range).
Low: Intermarché (think Tesco), Leader Price (Asda) and multinational LIDL.
Cornershop: G20 (likely to be open at awkward hours, to stock bizarre items you never realised you needed but to also have staples priced more expensively than they should be).
Bottled water is inexpensive in supermarkets but, as with anywhere else, is massively marked up anywhere you can sit to eat. Baguette prices are closely monitored and should be fairly consistent, and fruit, vegetables and meat prices are linked to their seasonality, so bear this in mind when buying for a picnic. The quintessential European experience of enjoying an espresso in a café is cheaper if you drink it at the bar, shoulder to shoulder with the locals.

3, To market, to market. Sadly, Paris' enormous Les Halles market, which provided food for the tables of all Parisians whether at home or in restaurants, has been gone for some time now, but Paris still has a wealth of markets and specialist food areas to explore, each with its own personality. Take a sturdy bag with you, an iceblock perhaps if it's warm weather. My favourite markets are:
Les Enfants Rouges (closed Monday. Open 8.30-13.30 otherwise, and 16.00-19.30 except Sunday) is Paris' oldest market and houses Moroccan, Afro-Caribbean and Indian food stalls as well as organic fruit and vegetables, cheese, meat, fish and flowers. It is near the trendy Marais district which makes it an excellent pit-stop on a wander.
St. Quentin (closed Monday. Open 8.00 - 13.00 otherwise, and 15.30 - 19.30 except Sunday) is a covered market between Montmartre and Republique, near the Gare de l'Est, and hence in quite a good location for many visitors. The produce, sadly, is often from far afield, but it has lots of little stalls selling meats, fish, charcuteries and flowers.
Rue Mouffetard is a key 'tourist' market as it's rather picturesque but the prices reflect this and I personally don't rate it very highly because of the lack of range.
I would also mention the market in Place d'Aligre as being worth a visit for it's atmosphere and range of international foods and spices.

4. Lunch like a king, dinner like a jester. Lunch menus are always cheaper than dinner menus, and you are also more likely to get a lunchtime booking at popular restaurants. Having special meals at lunchtime also earns the je ne sais quoi of being surrounded by Parisians rather than other tourists, helping you to feel like you're part of some secret club. Bear in mind, however, that not all of the greatest places to eat are open at lunchtime. My favourite lunchtime spots are Metropolitain in the Marais, and for a special treat I loved Agapé Substance in St Germain, an up-and-coming molecular gastronomy gem that you will need to book in advance. They recommended my new favourite for nibbles or a light dinner - L'Avant Comptoir, a standing-room only wine bar which serves excellent basque tapas. Similarly, there are a variety of wonderful bars that serve charcuterie platters with wine by the glass, carafe or bottle and have a fantastic atmosphere. My favourite is La Cave des Abbesses in Montmartre, get there early as its tiny back room fills up fast!

5. Do your research! There are so many websites out there listing best bits, must-sees and must-dos in Paris, and lots of them offer tours. I have been known to scrutinise tour descriptions and work out the tour stops on my own so that I could enjoy the same goodies for a tiny fraction of the cost. Obviously you miss out on the narrative, but at the end of the day, you still get to enjoy the recommended food/drink! Such websites also often list events, such as wine tastings, which are often free.

6. Be a Culture Vulture. If you can book your trip on a variety of different weekends, and want to make a museum visit or few a focus of your days here, bear in mind that all Paris museums and art galleries are free to visit on the first Sunday of every month. If such a Sunday is part of your trip, bear in mind that queues may be longer, so this is perhaps a good time to explore one of the lesser-visited museums that are no less worth a visit, such as the Orangerie, the Rodin Museum or the Dalì Museum. Or to get up very early!

7. On yer bike! Paris is not a big city, and it has an excellent network of cycle lanes and paths, as well as a vast wealth of Vélib bike points, usually at most 200m apart. It's possible to get a week's ticket for €8, allowing you to cycle as much as you like for 30minutes at a time, and enabling you to cover more ground than you might think. At a relaxed pace, this would easily get you from the Champs-Elysées to St Germain, for example. Most maps will show where bike parks can be found, and at each park point you can find out where the nearest station is for you to pick up your next bike. This is a lovely way to see the city, helps (a little!) to burn off that chocolate and cheese, is cheaper than travelling by metro but faster than going on foot, and also gives you a unique way to get home at 3am without needing a taxi...

8. Not alone. As much as everybody's Paris is different, there's no denying that wherever you go, someone else has bravely gone before, and there are so many networks out there, people's experiences and mistakes to learn from that to not make the most of this will waste not only your time but also your money. Which is possibly why you're reading this to start with! If your stay is more longterm, check out the expat networks such as those advertised in Fusac, a magazine available everywhere. Ask questions, explore and you'll be rewarded with new experiences.

9. Learn the lingo. I always like to learn a few key phrases when I go abroad, and being able to express yourself in the language of the country you find yourself in opens doors, ensures you better treatment, and can get you information that you wouldn't have access to otherwise. I've been saddened to see what I considered to be the best part of an exhibition left untranslated and squirmed at mistranslations and incomplete information. It also gives you the means with which to ask further questions.

10. Somewhere not so far away... Don't forget that a trip to Paris doesn't have to be a once-in-a-lifetime thing. As I'm approaching the end of my adventure here, I'm rapidly learning that it's simply not possible to do it all, see it all, eat it all, and that's where the wonder of inexpensive international travel comes in. You can always go back.

And once you've fallen in love with Paris, you will.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Hints and tips from the Paris Cookbook fair 2012

Between the 7th and 11th of March this year, Paris hosted its 3rd annual Gourmand International Cookbook fair at 104 centquatre, a cultural space, as a culmination of this year's international cookbook awards and as part of a larger 'See it, Eat it' festival. 

I knew I had to go as soon as I heard tweet of it in England earlier in the year, and go I did, on the last day when it was open to the public. I wish I could have made it to some of the other events in the festival, such as a dance/cook performance, an interactive installation where the audience is invited to dine with contorted cutlery, and a stop-motion film with cakes as stars. However, the cookbook fair in itself was a feast for the mind and ignited lots of ideas. The space is dedicated during the festival to publishing houses specialising in cookbooks, to talks and live demonstrations from prolific culinary figures and to the international winners of the cookbook awards. Categories include best printing, best first book, best world/vegetarian/childrens cuisine and best charity project. Past winners are a hall of fame of the big guns, and many appear on my Amazon Wishlist: Paul Bocuse, On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, El Bulli 1983-2002, Pierre Hermé... 

I was pleased to see some books I own appear in the winner's catalogue (Lorraine Pascale, River Cottage Veg), as well as a healthy number of 'UK' talents (the McCartneys, Bocca and Galvin at Windows). I saw books I had never heard of before but really should have by now, such as the remarkable 'Modernist Cuisine', a snip at $625 for 6 volumes of incredibly beautiful photography and truly inspirational information from the intricacies of basic food preparation to the pinnacles of molecular gastronomy. If anyone wants to gift me a copy, I promise to treasure it forever. In the space of a couple of pages I learnt that french-style vegetables taste so sweetly delicious because of their final cooking in butter, which discourages osmosis of natural sugars out of the vegetable, whereas cooking in water means these sugars disappear into the cooking water. Similarly, potatoes should be cooked in water that has had a small amount of sugar added, so that the natural sugars do not escape.

There were some obvious signs of food trends amongst the books in the winner's room, such as street food and burgers, Peruvian cuisine, as predicted by Sara Edwards at a Stylist Magazine event I attended last year, and baked treats. There were stands about food apps and ebooks, live sugarwork demonstrations and most importantly, a cook-book free-for all where browsing was actively encouraged. 

I thought I'd share with you some nuggets of wisdom I gleaned from the day. In 'Lucky Peach', a quarterly magazine by Momofuku's David Chang, I learnt how to make ramen (hooray for my new pasta machine!). Recipe here. I also learnt a DIY version of slow-poached eggs: Set a large bowl in the biggest pot you have and invert a smaller bowl inside it, balancing the eggs between them so that they do not come into direct contact with the hot water. Using a cooking thermometer, cook the eggs for 50 minutes between 60-63 degrees C.

In the 'Mere de Famille' cookbook, I learnt how to confit fruits in sugar, such as orange, lemon and pineapple (which I had to find out having spotted this in the window of Pain de Sucre). Basically, use 1.2kg of sugar for 1 litre of water. Make a boiling syrup with half the sugar, pour over the fruit and cover overnight. the next day, remove the fruit, add 200g of sugar, bring to the boil and simmer with the fruit for three minutes. Repeat this step twice more, adding 200g sugar each time. Finally, leave to soak covered for a week before draining to enjoy - in moderation! 
I also read how to make the delicious dulche de leche - basically a spreadable  gooey mess brought into being by cooking a litre of whole milk, 400g of sugar, 50g of honey and a spilt, scraped vanilla pod. I noted how marshmallows are made, and will give this a try once I've bought myself a proper cook's thermometer, perhaps after the eggs above!

The genius Ferran Adrià has a book out at the moment called 'The Family Meal' which is along the same lines as Heston's similar oeuvre. I like that each recipe has an ingredients table ready adapted for differing portion numbers, more like a chef's recipe than a cookbook recipe. I sneaked the ingredients list of the mexican pulled pork recipe but will have to get my hands on a copy for the full proper method. Happily, I have found an amazing gourmet ingredients shop in the Marais called Izrael where I've already bought long-sought kampot peppercorns for a Rick Stein recipe and where I can also get hold of habanero chillies and, hopefully, achiote paste.  

My only criticism of the day was that some of the talks I was really looking forward to hearing had been rescheduled, but nobody could tell me when to, and the most interesting-looking talks in the guide had no name attached to them. But that did mean I got to sit in, albeit unexpectedly, on a talk given by Xavier Denamur, restauranteur and producer of a new documentary about how French food is going to the dogs and is no longer respectful of provenance or consumer. All in all, the day inspired me to carry on doing just what I'm doing - learning about food, immersing myself in recipes as often as possible and to keep on tasting with mouth as well as eyes. And, of course, sharing that with you!

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Jour du Macaron

Just a quick post this evening, to share a fun little video I put together after yesterday's Jour du Macaron.

I visited 15 different patisseries participating all across Paris, whereby a voluntary donation to this year's chosen charity 'Autistes sans frontiers' equalled a free macaron of my choice!

I still haven't eaten my way through all of them yet, but special points go to Hermés' aged Balsamic Vinegar macaron and to Hévin for giving out three macarons at a time! A 'boo' goes to Dalloyau, who were participating according to the website but knew nothing about it at each branch I cycled / trekked / mapread to find.

It was a thoroughly exhausting day, but so much fun; I got to explore all over Paris, and as frivolous a plan as it was, I'm really proud of myself for making it all the way through my intricately-planned day, especially considering I had a shift at Gontran Cherrier to organise it around!

Right, back to the hard work of eating them all...

(Music - '1 2 3' by Camille)

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Born and Bread

I've started reading Mireille Guiliano's 'French Women Don't Get Fat ' as a type of literary insurance policy, hoping that I will absorb the necessary wisdom to ensure that my time in Paris is indulgent but not overly destructive. So far, it has not told me much that I didn't know already, if I took a little time to reflect, but it has definitely reminded me that the true secret to staying healthy does not lie in restraint, guilt, punishment or denial. It is, rather, all about maintaining an inner sense of equilibrium. This is something that an increasing number of Americans and Brits are losing or in fact have never had, and derives from something that seems to be almost a continental birthright. French women, by and large, are not slaves to the scales, do not have gym memberships, and do not put themselves through weeks of milkshake lunches before holidays. They manage their health simply by being sensible, and are more likely to recognise the need for a little restraint by they way their clothes feel.

I love the fact that the plastic sachets used at the bakery for sliced-to-order loaves are all stamped with a smiley baker and the motto 'Bread - your health's friend '. Now, I recognise that cigarettes were once thought of this way, and that Guinness tried this too, and although midwives of old were possibly onto something by giving an iron-restoring pint to new Mums (and I'm guessing that as much as alcohol at this point is definitely not a good idea, to be fair many probably feel like they deserve something a lot stronger!) it is not a healthy tipple to be enjoyed often. My point is that in France, carbs are not the enemy. If you sit a French couple and and English couple on adjacent tables in a French restaurant, it is likely that the English couple will eat all the bread offered and ask for more. French bread is lovely, they're on holiday, and it is simply not the same at home. The French couple will probably not, however. They recognise that all good things are best enjoyed in moderation (and, incidentally, they will know if that bread is as good as what they get from their favourite local boulangerie). They enjoy their food slowly, and treat meal times with due reverence, which means not accompanying them with a TV soundtrack. I lived in France for the best part of a year in 2005 and remember being struck back then by how underwhelming the ready-meal world is here. Since then I have worked in a UK supermarket, where the ready-meal aisles were among the busiest. In seven years, little seems to have changed in France, regardless of world economic crises and harder work lives.

I'm not trying to say that the French have everything right about food, nor am I trying to say that the UK or US have it all wrong. I'm just saying that, like the laws of physics, every action has a reaction, and that seeking balance is no bad thing. Being balanced is, we are always being told, healthy. A few ways to be more balanced when it comes to health and diet are below.

Drink more water. French women in particular are at this all the time (and note that the French recycle more than the Brits, due in no small part to the increased volume of plastic bottles, but this is a discussion for another time). Studies have shown that a significant proportion of UK adults don't drink enough water. Not only does this make our bodies have to work harder, but it makes us retain fluid and feel bloated and it slows our digestion. It also possibly makes us eat more as dehydration can cause feelings of hunger.

Practise mindful eating. 'Mindfulness' is one of those buzz words doing the rounds at the moment, and when it comes to food it makes sense. In order to feel sated when we eat, our brain has to register that we have eaten. Chewing food properly triggers this response, which is also more effective the fewer things our brain has to juggle while we are eating. It is still very common for French schoolchildren and parents to come home for lunch, and whilst this isn't necessarily practical, making sure you do get a change in scenery when eating, sitting to do so in order that you can concentrate on what you're doing, will make you feel fuller for longer.

Make meals interesting. This doesn't mean every meal has to be an exploration in molecular gastronomy, it just means making sure your brain is stimulated by what you eat, and that you enjoy your food. Shake things up a bit once in a while if you're falling back on the same meals regularly, because if you have a happy, comfortable relationship with your food, it is more likely to treat you right. Whilst eating a variety of different foods on the same plate is more likely to increase the chances of getting one's 5-a-day, a word of caution - having too many different things on one plate over-stimulates the brain and increases the amount of time needed to feel sated. As before, everything in moderation.

Try it from scratch. Few of us have the luxury of time, equipment or energy to make all of every meal from scratch, all of the time. But once in a while it's good to try to get back to basics. This connects you with what you are putting into your body and helps you to reflect on ingredients and provenance. For example, I bought my first pasta machine last week and have used it twice already. I'm finding different ways of making pasta, enjoying the pride of eating tagliatelle I've rolled and cut myself, and actually eating much smaller portions than I would if I had bought it. Plus, it's great fun!

Patiently drying pasta. Clothes airers have many uses.

Explore seasonal produce. By trying to restrict what you buy to an extent by what is in season, you are helping to minimise food miles, saving yourself money, and getting everything in its prime. This means your food is in fact better for you. Not only will it taste better (meaning that you will need less of it) but it will be richer in nutrients. A seasonality chart can be seen here.

Food shop little and often. This goes with above, but it stands to reason that the more food you buy at once, the more food you eat at once. It is also likely to increase the amount you throw away, and so should by association mean that your food expenditure is less.

A Kouign Amann, a delicious breton speciality
made with salted, rather than sweet butter.
Lovingly bought and enjoyed from La Pâtisserie des Rêves. 
I won't ever be French, nor will I ever be a size 8, but I am happy with who I am and am trying to borrow some of the French's best bits to become a bit healthier. I haven't got there yet - the bakery is non-stop, so I'm definitely not drinking enough. The amount of bread left over at the end of the day for staff to take is staggering at times, and the first time I helped to close, I fell prey to a carb-induced coma with my spoils. I set out the other day determined to make rabbit ragu followed by a rhubarb compote without realising that now is not the best time for buying rabbits, hence why I couldn't find any, and that I'm a little early for rhubarb here. But I've also discovered Paris' network of hire bikes and worn out shoes with all my exploration by foot, and after a particularly successful jogging exploration this week I treated myself with a trip to La Pâtisserie des Rêves. I am learning new food vocabulary as I familiarise myself with early spring's seasonal produce, and I sit at a table for every meal with the TV off.

Well, almost every meal. Everything in moderation, after all.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Une Tradition!

A few days into my undefined séjour in Paris I seem to have landed on my feet. After arriving late on Tuesday, I spent Wednesday collecting my suitcase (which I'd had to check in separately due to it containing my chef knives) and hauling it up three flights of stairs, trying to open a bank account and wandering aimlessly around several food shops wearing a huge grin. Thursday was CV translating and tweaking day, and by Friday I was a woman on a mission and with a plan to hand out aforementioned CVs to a carefully considered selection of establishments that I would be happy and proud to work for whilst here. These ranged from high end boutique chocolate shops and delicatessens to trendy cupcake shops to homely bistros and quaint bookshops. It was an interesting day, filled with metro changes as I travelled across several different areas, brief discussions with managers as they asked me questions about my CV, apparently quite interested in what I could offer, and a healthy number of strides.

Barely had dusk fallen when I'd received a voice message from the first place I'd handed my CV into - Gontran Cherrier, very hot property on the Paris bread scene, asking if I could start the next day at 9am. It so happened that someone had called in sick, so this, coupled with recent expansion into a second branch and a need to re-evaluate the size of the team meant that my arrival with what they considered a strong CV was perfect timing. M. Cherrier is a TV chef and author of several books and his 'edge' comes from his focus on flavours, traditional (apricot and cinnamon) as well as unusual (squid ink buns with nigella seeds and red miso loaves).  His main bakery is in Montmartre, 20 minutes walk and a climb up 111 of those devastatingly Parisien steps, from where I'm living, and gets very busy at weekends.

Although my role here is strictly sales rather than baking, it's a fantastic opportunity to immerse myself in the world of bread, invigorate my rusty language skills under pressure and get to know a bit more about how the French do things. And after a few shifts there I'm beginning to get an idea.

Pain De Sucre's 'Oasis' - Green apple and coriander compote,
citrus sponge, grapefrui, orange and pistachio milk jelly.
With a popping candy lollipop, of course.
Aside from this, my first week has been a gentle immersion into the sort of stay I want to have. I've achieved the self-set mission to roast a chicken in the flat's tiny oven (see my recipe here). I've eaten out at a carefully considered and highly recommended bistro in Montmartre - Café Burq - where I had a decadent honey-baked camembert, a pig-cheek pot-au-feu and a chocolate soup - my kind of meal. I've visited and purchased from a chocolate god (Pralus), from Pain de Sucre, an innovative treat shop divided in half by a dischordant oriental deli into two separate shops for savoury (re-invented sausage rolls, buns and vol-au-vents) and sweet (rum babas with DIY pipettes of rum, verrines of layered desserts topped with rosemary sprigs or flowers amongst others), and from Da Rosa, naturally, all in preparation for a decadent meal for one. I've sat and absorbed inspiring food books in a comfy armchair at Shakespeare & Co. I've walked miles.

But, of course, there is the bakery. It is teaching me about La Tradition, and innovation, and how Parisians embrace both in their ritualistic love of bread. Gontran is one of the few bakeries in Paris to sell large loaves by weight, a practise which is becoming increasingly popular and in fact encourages experimentation with flavours as customers opt to take home a little taste of fig and fennel and give it a try. Trying something new is exciting and customers are keen to know what would best accompany the squid ink-baguette. But at the same time it is the markers of routine that fly out the door the quickest, as we sell baguettes and croissants in their hundreds. And this is what I'm enjoying seeing the most, as it simply doesn't exist back home. Most customers fall into the 'tradition' camp when it comes to their daily bread - opting not for a standard baguette, but for one that has been proven longer and therefore has a richer flavour, softer 'mie' (as Clotilde Desoulier points out here there is no equivalent word for this in English; 'crumb' simply does not cut it), and a longer life. Customers re-appear as part of their schedule, buying just a half if that's all they need, asking for multiples to be halved if they're travelling by bike. Children barely tall enough to see what they are after are sent in by parents to buy their after-school 'goûter' of a croissant, pain au chocolat or sugared brioche along with a baguette for dinner, waiting patiently for their change and showing an endearing politeness that is hopefully not just due to their young age.

I'm yet to make it into the kitchen to work but a brief glimpse into the bakery's underbelly gave me excited and hopeful goosepimples. Ginormous baguette ovens stood alongside racks of patiently waiting and proving baguettes, snuggled in folds of polenta-dusted linen. The gentle hum of a paint gun spraying beaten egg on the pastries for an even shine provided a backing track to the delicate work of experimenting with the citrus balance in the Valentine's day special dessert, and everywhere, people had floured hands and quietly concentrating faces.

For now, I will content myself with my end-of-day hauls of staff goodies (research purposes only, you understand) and work on building French traditions of my own.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Springtime in Paris

Exciting times are ahead. I have decided to take a one-off opportunity to live in Paris for a few months, and am leaving behind my job in the café. I have no job ready and waiting, just a roof to myself, a translated CV and a sense of adventure.

I thought for some time about the possibility of undertaking a pastry course whilst there but as this is a distinct time and financial investment and needs to a certain extent to become my "path" once chosen I am instead using this trip as a chance to reflect on whether this is what I really want to do. Ideally I will get some kitchen experience but I do appreciate that this can be in no greater capacity than as a kitchen hand. I am a worthy investment in a kitchen but this does mean that my skills need to be nurtured.

Such is my sense of priorities that, at the time of writing, I have only just bought my ticket and have nothing packed - but I have spent hours researching French bank accounts, looked into local jogging routes, how to transport chef knives legally and planned which cooking implements have to be brought with me. I spent an evening with R&S of The Chocolate Revolution recently and much time was spent looking up desirable places to eat, foodshop or foodbrowse and consequently how to apply for jobs there.

I plan to, on at least one occasion, turn up at a restaurant I respect with my chef knives and trousers and offer to help out for the evening. Aside from this, I am pinging my CV and cover letter out there as much as I can before I arrive and can start handing copies over in person. I'm also researching where I want to eat, what I want to do with my free time and what adventures I want to have.

Of course, there is also a great deal of apprehension at this massive leap. What if I don't find a job? What if my rusty French never buffs up? What if I become immensely lonely? How will I cope away from my family, friends and the home I am used to? What if I don't want to come back? And most importantly, which cookery books will I have to leave behind and how will I bake cakes in my friend's tiny oven?

All that aside, I have known for some time that this is something I just have to do. I'm very lucky to have such an opportunity to enjoy my own company and take some time out to explore where my love of food could take me, such an accommodating Parisian friend and so many loving supporters excited about my adventure. Here's to working on the next piece of my puzzle!

Rest assured that you can read all about what I get up to right here.

"Luxury is not a pleasure,
But pleasure is a luxury."

Thursday, 12 January 2012

The customer is always….. riiiiiight..

Living in a capitalist society, we are all, whether we like it or not, customers.
Unfortunately, it is also a fact that a significant proportion of customers are utter morons. I’ve worked in retail in the past and so had become acutely aware already that Joe or indeed Josephine Bloggs is quite often rude, obnoxious, ungrateful and downright stupid but had for some reason thought that he or she would show up less often in the restaurant industry. Food is a leveller, I thought; as much as we all think we need a DVD player as much as we want it, food is clearly more closely linked to survival. There is also, by it’s nature, a more personal service required in being fed, and so by association, one would imagine more gratitude would also be required. Not always so.

I’m an intelligent, capable and helpful young lady. I know that if I wanted to, I could easily slip back into an arguably more complex job that paid significantly more than my current salary. But I also know that, regardless of intellect, like any other person delivering a service I’m a human being and that it costs nothing to give such a person a simple smile, please and/or thank you. Sure, we’ve all been subject to appalling service, but I’m an eternal optimist so would rather be surprised by it than expect it.

One thing that rude or moronic customers seem to forget very easily is that restaurant staff know a lot more about the food they will be eating than they do. They will have sampled it, taken some of it home perhaps, or might even be sick to death at the sight of it. They will know what dishes are good or to be avoided, which dishes irritate the chef to make and what your food looks like before the plate is prettied up for service. So in this sense, we have an advantage and our opinion is worth listening to if asked for. It does work both ways, however. If you have a specific request then that should be listened to carefully, and, within reason, complied with.

And this is where my definition of ‘within reason’ comes in. I have a catalogue of my favourite ‘sorry say that again?’ food requests from customers, and these extend far beyond gluten free (totally understandable and all good eating establishments should happily oblige) and vegan (I can almost tolerate this if it is all-encompassing to include shoes but maintain that most vegans look like they desperately need force-feeding a sirloin).
Here are my top ten examples of how special customers can be:

10. Mixed-leaf salad.
This means a salad comprising of a mixture of types of salad leaves. It does not mean a mixture of my rocket salad, Caesar salad and spinach salad, and if you are not happy about that please do not eat it all, and ask for the bill, before saying so.

9. Chicken.
Where I work is sandwiched between a Nando’s and a Pizza Express. I have two customers that seem to have stopped coming in for their baguettes after getting into an argument with one of the Directors about chicken. Each time they came to the café they would ask for a chicken baguette. I would explain that that was not possible, but that I could happily serve them a ham, or a beef, or a crayfish baguette instead. Every time. When they commented to the Director that chicken was missing from the lunchtime menu, he accurately, although possibly not quite appropriately, pointed out that Nando’s was next door.

8. Steak.
I used to insist on my steak being cooked well done, because this is what my Mother always had and I knew no better. On my 19th birthday, however, I found myself in Florence having a meal in a lovely restaurant that served Florentine steak and I thought, ‘When in Florence..’ and ordered it. It was enormous, the biggest steak I had ever seen, and prohibitively expensive. And definitely not well done. I was scared but realised I had to eat it due to its cost. So I started around the outside, where it was rare. And it was delicious. Eventually I got to the middle, where the steak had briefly seen the pan, but no more, and it was so sublime that I was immediately converted. These days, I see checks come in for well done steak and I just feel like striding over to the table and trying to spread the word about the evils of steak abuse. And when I see checks come in for ‘well done but still quite pink’ or something similarly bizarre, I just want to go and give them a slap.

7. Eggs.
The café serves an all-day breakfast with eggs cooked how you like them. However, if you like your eggs ‘well done but still a bit runny’ then maybe you should just eat at home.

6. Coffee.
If you ask for ‘just a coffee’ and stick with this request even when asked for more detail, you will get an Americano. If what you meant was a flat white, or a ‘large cappuccino without too much froth’ – otherwise known as a latte to the rest of the world, by the way – then you should have asked for that instead.

5. Closing time.
The kitchen must, at some point in the evening, close. If you come into a restaurant 15 minutes after this time, you are not going to get food. The chef is probably as friendly as an angry bear poked with a stick mid-winter by this point and the only consumption he is thinking about involves himself and a cold beer. Making us feel like we defecated directly onto your desk and then shredded your favourite teddy bear when we turn you away is simply not going to help anyone, and won’t make us change our minds either. This point also applies to customers – particularly those who are clearly established couples - who insist on lingering over their empty coffee cups when they are the only non-employees in the restaurant and the staff are clearly getting nervous about catching the last bus. What they are benefitting by this point baffles me. The cosy ambience of the restaurant has long gone, a quickie in the toilets is out of the question as we’d all notice, and we won’t be giving you any of our end-of-day freebies. We won’t kick you out until we absolutely have to, but please don’t forget that we have homes to get to as well.

4. Before and After.
A good restaurant will not have an extensive, all-encompassing menu. Some of the best meals I’ve had have been in places where you get no choice whatsoever. The chef’s job should be to ensure that the menu reflects whatever food is in season, and this helps him to make a more efficient profit as well as having benefits such as minimising food miles. This may also mean that there will be some recycling of produce to make more than one dish. Simple examples include ham ends contributing towards a ham terrine, butternut squash appearing in quiches as well as salads and mushroom trimmings becoming soup. At one point we had both chicken liver pâté and chicken livers on toast as starters. A customer ordered ‘chicken liver and toast’ and wondered why his starter was taking longer than his friend’s crayfish cocktail. When chicken livers on toast arrived to his table, he was heard to exclaim ‘Oh, I thought I was having chicken liver pâté. There’s no way I can eat that. That’s disgusting.’ Whilst I appreciate that in-your-face unadulterated chicken livers are not to everyone’s taste, I’m not entirely convinced that this guy realised that, basically, if you chucked it in a blender and put it in a ramekin, it would become that pâté he was after.

3. Dirty tables.
Inevitably, there will come a point in the day when every eating establishment has a quieter moment. This will coincide with the fewest number of staff being at work. This, in turn, may mean that tables are not cleared and cleaned the moment they are vacated. For some reason, such tables have a magnetic pull on certain customers. I have watched 5 customers – the only ones in the restaurant – squeeze onto a table for four that had not yet been cleared. I have no idea why.

2. Two and a half.
Where I work has an unadvertised and unspoken happy hour for yummy mummies, it seems. Actually, it's more like a happy four hours, and most gaggles (I am applying this collective noun in the absence of anything more appropriate) stay for the whole thing once they've installed themselves. I know I will one day understand their position and will look back on this post and laugh, but for now I can’t help but bristle at the exhibitionism apparently involved in manoeuvring a pushchair worth more than my car, the seemingly competitive synchronised endurance breastfeeding and the obstinate refusal to leave a tip or indeed to pre-warn that the bill will need splitting down to the millilitre of peppermint tea and suddenly require immediate settlement the instant a manager is unavailable. I also bristle, for some reason, at people who insist on referring to their family as ‘two and a half’. Your child is not a half person, it is a whole person who needs to be brought up feeling valued as such. And your child will also need a space at the table, so please let us know when you book ahead that you and your four friends are bringing their brood as this helps us give you all enough space!

1. Technically speaking, this is an elaboration on point 6. However, I feel this particular regular customer deserves a point all of her own.

No further elaboration necessary.

Having said all of this, there are of course always two sides to every story. Mad as their requests are, some of the above customers were a pleasure to serve. There are also other customers who are genuinely lovely and make your day a little brighter, for whom you want to go that extra mile. The old gentleman who comes in at the same time almost every day for his glass of house red with his paper, the guys from the office next door who conduct all of their business over our lattes and steaks, the children you watch eyeing up the biscuits and guarding their favourite from a distance until their parents say they can have it. The grandson treating his grandmother to lunch and enjoying her company as she takes 45 minutes to finish her crayfish cocktail.

And restaurant staff aren’t perfect either. We can be lazy, rude, we can ignore you when you arrive, fail to notice you're having a problem with your meal, forget your side orders, the list goes on. But hopefully, as you can see, we've probably had a few irritating customers to deal with.

And as long as you're not one of them, we're likely to get along just fine.