Versailles

Hall of Mirrors

I have been waiting for a sunny day to do Versailles, but it’s nearing the end of the trip so I’m going to just have to roll the dice and settle for a day that’s ‘cloudy with showers’ instead. Hopefully the showers hold off. The weather has been very unpredictable the entire time I’ve been in Paris and the forecast changes daily. At least there haven’t been that many days with non-stop rain. Most days it will rain for a bit and then clear up and be sunny. The saying “April showers” definitely applies to Paris.

So today I decided to bite the bullet and do a bike tour of Versailles. My goodness it was chilly but at least there was no rain while we were biking (it did hail however, but that was after the cycling portion was over and we were safely inside the Chateau). Versailles is nice, and I will definitely be going again. I wanted to see the Petite and Grande Trianons and explore the gardens more. Mary Antionette’s hamlet, however was damaged 10 years ago in a windstorm and hasn’t been open to the public ever since. So sad! I really wanted to see that.

Versaille gardens

Versaille gardens

The thing about the bike tour is that we spent so much time cycling around the grand canal and the areas behind the palace, that we only had around 2 hours to check out the palace and the manicured gardens. Next time I will take the RER on my own (it runs every 15 minutes), arrive early in the morning and spend the whole day there. I could easily spend the entire day in the gardens alone. And this summer, they even happen to have a special night fountain and fireworks show from 9pm-11:30pm that you can buy tickets to go see (Note: this is different that the typical fountain show that runs on the weekends at Versailles). How cool is that?!

This got me thinking, it would be really cool to have a scavenger hunt in the Louvre or the Gardens of Versaille. But only during the day, at night it might be a little scary!

The little things…a fresh baked baguette

There is nothing like picking up a freshly baked baguette (still warm) from the neighbourhood bakery on the way home from a long, chilly day at Versailles. I will talk more about my day at Versailles later, but coming to home to a warm baguette, still warm to the touch with a soft crunch to the exterior and soft, warm interior – C’est manifique! And the great thing is that I bought this baguette at 7pm in the evening! The French bake their bread twice a day, once in the morning and once later on in the afternoon. Très bien! An even bigger bonus is that this baguette only cost me 1 euro! I’ve heard that eating out in Paris can be expensive, but sampling the local fare including French cheeses (Neufchâtel, Blue d’Auvergne, Compté, not to mention the crazy variety of goat cheeses that there are right now), seasonal produce such as Gariguette strawberries and freshly baked baguettes that only cost 1 euro, I’ve done pretty good on my food budget. Of note, cheese in general is cheaper out here than in Canada. I don’t know why – perhaps it’s because of supply and demand. Sadly, a lot of the cheese that they have out here aren’t available in Canada either.

Another thing I noticed is that there aren’t any Lululemon stores in France and hence, no one wearing Lululemon on the street (except for me). 🙂 Hey, I had to be comfortable during my bike ride. I didn’t notice any curious/strange looks from the Parisians though. But it is true, no one wears sweatpants in Paris.

I am going to be so sad when I go home in two days. *Le sigh* However, I’m already planning my next trip back.

Taste of Paris walking tour – Les Halles

So after my last experience with Paris Walks and the “Paris Fashion Tour” (ie. Mary Antoniette/history of French monarchy fashion) I was a little apprehensive about going on the “Taste of Paris Tour”. What if it’s a bust like the last one? However, I had signed up for them both at the same time and had already paid a deposit so there was no turning back now.

It turns out that the tour was going to take place around the Les Halles area. I had actually walked around the area the day before and didn’t have a very good impression of it. Les Halles (or what I call ‘the eyesore formally known as Les Halles’) consists of a dated looking shopping arcade. Plus it doesn’t help that the surrounding area is currently undergoing a major facelift.

Les Halles

The eyesore formerly known as Les Halles

Right now it is nothing but an underground shopping mall surrounded by a very, very large construction zone in the middle of the city. (the new Les Halles isn’t scheduled to be done until 2016 – *sigh*). The surrounding areas consist of brasseries, bistros, Saint Eustache and Fountaine des Innocents which I’m sure might be lovely on a sunny day. But it was raining on the day I went and I found it hard to make any connections to this area and the history of the famous Les Halles market.

Bourse de Commerce

Bourse de Commerce located next to Les Halles

Les Halles was historically a place where the food vendors were all situated over 100 years ago but there isn’t much evidence of that now. The major food market is now at Rungis but it’s only accessible to industry professionals (you need to have credentials to enter). It wasn’t obvious where major landmarks were and overall it felt a little touristy. Given its current state, it’s one of those places that you need to know what to look for just because there is so much construction happening around the surrounding area.

Thankfully, the tour provided the insight that I needed. I really lucked out and was pleasantly surprised! Our tour guide was very knowledgeable and knew a lot about the foods specific to certain regions in France. From the tour I learned that many foods are closely regulated (chocolate, for example, cannot be called chocolate unless it contains at least 70% cocoa solids (for dark) and 36% cocoa solids (for milk) – Hershey kisses which only contain around 5% cocoa soilds are called “chocolate flavoured” candies in France). I even learned that there are specific seasons for goat cheese and blue cheese – I didn’t even know that cheese had a season!

French chickens

I was introduced to a particular type of strawberry called Gariguettes (grown in the South of France) and the famous Bresse chickens! She explained that the famous Bresse chickens are grown in a certain region in France (called Bresse – makes sense). They are a certain breed, characterized by their blue feet, red comb and white feathers (which are also the colors of the national flag) and are required to have a certain amount of open air square footage in which to roam. Even their diet is controlled and regulated. Our tour guide also bought samples of prunes, Gariguette strawberries and macarons for us to try as well.

macarons

Macaron de Nancy – the original macaron

We walked along the main market street in the 2nd arr. (Rue Montorgueil) which is the major food market street in the area. We stopped by a cheese shop and had a tasting of different varieties of cheeses (with wine of course) along with Poilâne bread (she mentioned that Poilâne bread was a big deal in France). We also stopped by two chocolate shops and sampled an assortment of dark, milk and flavour infused chocolates, hot chocolate, sampled eclairs from La Maison Stohrer and stopped by a wine and chocolate pairing shop which is quite a new idea in Paris. Along the way, our tour guide pointed out various well-known kitchenware stores (many which were listed in my “Le Cordon Bleu – Welcome to Paris!” booklet) and talked about the history of Les Halles.

Cheese platter

Cheese tasting!

After the tour, I stepped into E. Dehillerin (where Julia Child would buy her copper pots) and saw one of the couples who was in the tour with us. When they saw me they said “Quelle surprise!”. I guess it’s because I specifically asked the tour guide where the store was. E. Dehillerin (also in my guidebook) is a huge restaurant supply store that has a great selection of items at reasonable prices. Don’t be taken aback by the warehouse-like interior. I got a couple of items for my kitchen as well as souvenirs (and I had a 10% off discount card that I got from La Cuisine Paris when I took the souffle class). Sweet!

Dehillerin

E. Dehillerin – Restaurant supply store where Julia Child shopped!

Here is an interesting note: The French use a different type of spatula than in North America. Their version looks like a flat wooden spoon. You will be hard pressed to find the silicon or rubber spatula that we have in North America (although I think it’s far superior because you can really scrape everything out). Apparently, certain traditions die hard in France.

The Louvre

I quickly decided that since it rains so much in Paris in the spring, that I would reserve a rainy day for visiting the Louvre. Apparently it seems like everyone else felt the same way because it was a crazy gong show with all the crowds at the Louvre today – and this isn’t even the busy season! I wonder if it had to do with the rain or if the Louvre is, in fact, always that busy.

The Mona Lisa

My least favourite part of the Louvre

However, on Wednesday and Friday nights the Louvre is open until 10pm and since almost all tours take place in the afternoon, the best time to go to the Louvre is after 6pm until closing on these days. This is also when the artists come out and sit in the French sculpture pavilion to sketch/draw for a couple hours. It is absolute tranquility. That is my absolute favourite part of the Louvre along with Napoleon’s apartments.

French sculpture pavillion

My most favourite part of the Louvre

Surprisingly, another highlight of the Louvre for me was the Nintendo DS audio guide (which just got released this month). It is seriously the best 5 euro ever spent for a day at the museum. It’s like the Da Vinci code meets the Legend of Zelda! The interactive audio guide detects where you are in the Louvre and updates the screen with the artwork of interest based on your location. You can hover over a certain art piece, select it and it will play the audio commentary. Or if there is a certain piece you are looking for in the museum, you can select it and it will map the shortest route to it.

Nintendo DS Audio Guide

Love the Nintendo DS audio guide!

The Louvre is a huge labyrinth of hallways, pavilions and corridors so it makes perfect sense to have some sort of interactive map. I loved it! For someone who isn’t generally a museum person, the audio guide is a total game changer!

The hike up to Sacre Coeur

Sacre Coeur

The weather in Paris has been uncharacteristically cold over the past week and rainy for the most part. So I’ve been waiting for a sunny/clear day to head up to Montmartre to see the Sacre Coeur. Apparently the look out from the top of the dome gives you a wonderful view of the city of Paris. The area of Montmartre is located on a hill which also happens to be the highest point in Paris. I knew that the church was built on the top of a hill but I didn’t realize just how hilly the neighbourhood was. One thing that I’ve noticed is that there aren’t a lot of escalators in the subway (and even fewer elevators). I really should have clued in when I got off at Abbesses station and walked past a bunch of people who filed into the elevator.

There is a reason why Abbesses has an elevator – it’s because the station is situated very deep underground. So in order to exit the station you can either take the elevator or walk up a spiral staircase consisting of 90 steps (there is even a sign at the bottom informing you of this – how thoughtful). I didn’t mind the 90 steps (it’s really deceiving how many steps there are because you can’t see all the steps because it spirals around) but I did choose to take the funicular up to the base of the Sacre Coeur once I was at street level. However, to get to the dome of the Sacre Coeur, you have to climb another 300 steps (there is a sign – again, how thoughtful)!

The funiculaire to Sacre Coeur

The funiculaire to Sacre Coeur

Stairs to the Dome

However, the lookout at the top was well worth the hike. It was a nice sunny day and the view was amazing! However, my legs now feel like jello and ever since my visit to Montmartre, every time I see stairs in the subway I let out a small whimper.  There are stairs everywhere! I even started counting them. Each staircase in the metro consists of around 20 steps. There are stairs to get into the station and stairs to get onto the platform. So each time someone takes the subway, they have to climb 40-50 stairs to get into the station and onto the platform, and the same to get out. That’s around 100 stairs for each subway ride. And there are no escalators! Your only option is to take the stairs (it really is a good form of exercise).  And this is one of the reasons why I think the French don’t get fat.

At the top looking at the base of the Sacre CoeurSo between hiking up the Arc de Triomphe, the towers at Notre Dame Cathedral and the dome of the Sacre Coeur, plus all the stairs in the subway, I must have climbed at least 2000 stairs within the past week. I don’t think I’ve ever climbed so many stairs within a one week period as I have in Paris in my entire life. This city is kicking my butt!

The view points at the top of these places make it all worth it though.

View from the top of Sacre Coeur

View from the dome of the Sacre Coeur

View from Notre Dame Tower

View  of the Seine from Notre Dame Tower

View from Notre Dame

View of the Île de la Cité

Tranquility after Rouen – Claude Monet’s garden at Giverny

Monet's lily pad pondI woke up this morning with hardly a hangover. Thank goodness for that because there aren’t that many trains that run on Sunday. I hopped on the SCNF train and made my way to the town of Giverny where Claude Monet’s house and garden are located. Oh my goodness – it is absolutely beautiful!!! The air literally smells like perfume when the wind blows because of all the flowers that are in the garden. I could have easily spent the entire day there! Lucky for me, coming from the town of Rouen (and not Paris), I was able to avoid the crowds because I arrived at a different time than the trains that come from the Paris direction. When my friend went last week she told me it was a total gong show with the number of tourists that were there (I can believe it). I still think that the garden’s are a great site to see despite the crowds.

I took a look at the flower gardens, the lily pond (my FAVOURITE place) and Claude Monet’s house. The two gardens combined are huge. It don’t know how many landscapers or time it takes to maintain them but they are gorgeous. (I later read up on the history and Monet had seven gardeners at one time to take care of the grounds). There are so many types of flowers and plants. I saw tulips, cherry blossoms, bamboo and countless others. I could have easily just have sat on a bench, enjoyed the gardens and watch time pass by. The garden’s also have livestock (chickens, turkeys, etc.) so you can hear a rooster call every minute or so. Surreal!

Monet's house and gardens

Unfortunately for me, I spent so much time enjoying the gardens that I missed the 12:15pm charter bus that takes people back to the train station. Without a taxi in site, I decided to kill the extra two hours and explore the town of Giverny. The town is a tourist attraction in itself (but doesn’t feel tacky) and you can see the church and cemetery where Monet is buried, the medieval buildings and several impressionist galleries.

tulips

My weekend in Rouen

Panoramic view of Rouen

Hello everyone. I had a great time in Rouen, Normandy – the place where they make all that fantastic camembert cheese! I met up with a friend of mine who is currently doing his post doc at a nearby university and he showed me around downtown Rouen. He lives in the old part of town that holds a lot of history. He told me about the history of the town, showed me the square where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, visited the local food markets and took me up to the lookout where you can view a panoramic view of the city.

Afterwards we were joined by a group of his friends and went out for dinner at a local place – La Petite Bouffe. I had a leek crumble with nuts and compté cheese, a grilled duck breast with carrots and potatoes followed by a wonderful salted caramel panna cotta for dessert. All for 19 euros! Oh, I also had an apertif of Kir (something that my friend recommended I try) which is blackcurrent syrup with white wine. Pas mal! (not bad). One major difference I noticed between the city of Rouen and Paris is that Paris feels international with the variety of people and ethnic backgrounds that live there. Not so much in the city of Rouen. However, the people of Rouen I found to be more friendly (which is usually the case in smaller cities).

I’ve used the phrase “Paris feels like a French New York City” (which people don’t find offensive – they love New York City). So here I was in the town of Rouen, asking the gentleman at the fromagerie and boucherie questions about their products and feeling quite comfortable. My french language skills are enough to get by but not good enough to have a full out conversation. But the vendors were more than happy to try to explain things to me. The town of Rouen is very pretty, with a lot of history, rolling hills, beautiful landscapes and the Seine River. We went up and took advantage of the sunny day (it rains all the time in Normandy apparently) and took in a panoramic view of the city. What a nice place! It was really nice to get away from the hustle and bustle of Paris and go somewhere more laid back.

Local market in Rouen

Having dinner with the locals was such a treat. Although I couldn’t follow the majority of the dinner conversation (as they spoke in French) there were parts that I did pick up or were able to contribute to thanks to a couple people who could speak English (another thing I noticed is that most people can speak basic-intermediate English in France. There are some other people who are a bit more advanced with their English – usually because they’ve had more opportunity to practice it). One thing that I noticed earlier in the day was that there are so many wonderful flower markets in Rouen (flowers are very affordable here too). My friend made a joke that it’s because everyone cheats in France so they have to buy flowers to say they’re sorry. He had me going for quite a bit because I had heard a rumour about open marriages in the past. I had always wondered if this was true or not because it is something that I had heard of (although I don’t know where I had originally heard this). So I took the opportunity to ask the local French people if having ‘open marriages’ was actually true in France or just a misconception. The answer…..

dinner in Rouen

Having dinner with the locals

…it is, in fact, a misconception! They said it can happen, but it’s not really approved of just like anywhere else. It might be talked about it in the open more but it’s still not approved, whereas in North America it is very taboo to do or even talk about. They think the rumour might have stemmed from a philosopher who was visiting France (can’t remember his name) and somehow the idea spread to North America and it was considered posh. But modern day France is not like that.

Now, I don’t think a trip is really complete without having one truly local experience. Having said that I really should be careful what I wish for. What followed after dinner was a house party consisting of 30 people who lived in the city of Rouen. My friend really wanted me to come because it would be “such a great experience for me while visiting France other than the museums and food”. My friend who has been living in Rouen for 6 months, first found accommodations by CouchSurfing. It just so happened, that the day I was visiting Rouen, that a couch surfer he knew was throwing a party within the couch surfing community at his place. So the group of us made our way after dinner to his house where the party was happening. I don’t think I have ever seen so much wine and booze at a party before! I tried several (all good – and cheap too!) You can buy wine at the grocery store, corner store or department store starting at 4 euros and it all tastes decent.

bunny drinking bourbon

Bourbon drinking bunny

I had a chance to talk to several people (most of whom could speak a bit of English) which was very nice of them. They didn’t mind speaking English to me at all. I asked them where they learned their English and most of them learned it in school or were born in other European countries where it was spoken. But there were others who also watched a lot of American television and sitcoms (How I Met Your Mother came into the conversation at one point). I had originally planned to catch the 7:05am train the next morning but that wasn’t going to happen. After several attempts to leave (the French are very hospitable) and a variety of phrases muttered by me – “Je veux couchez” which later became “Je veux dormir, Je doit dormir, Je veux allez maintenant” I finally left the party at 3am. They even explained the slight (but very important) difference between the verb coucher (to go to bed) and dormir (to sleep). Good information to know to avoid any possible misinterpretation! I didn’t get back to my friend’s apartment until 3am  – so much for catching the 7am train the next morning. That’s okay. Pas de problème. I can just catch the next one. But what a great experience it was! The people from Rouen know how to let loose and have fun (and they are all so friendly). What a great memory to have of France.

Heading up to Normandy

Bonjour mes amis!

Just sending a quick note to let you know that I’ll be MIA for a couple days since I’m heading up to Normandy for the weekend to visit a friend of mine who is living in Rouen. I’m going to check out Rouen and then stop by Giverny on my way back to see Monet’s gardens. I will be back on Monday and will update you all on my weekend adventure at that time.

À bientôt!

Eurostar train

Soufflé class

dessert souffleI had so much fun cooking at my Cordon Bleu classes that I really wanted to take another cooking class while in Paris – this time at a more casual institute called La Cuisine Paris. This is a boutique cooking school located in the Marais that offers English speaking classes (mostly to tourists) that focus on a traditional french food (eg. macarons, croissants, pain au chocolate, baguettes and breads, market tours and soufflés). At first I was interested in taking the boulangerie course (where you learn how to make croissants, pain au chocolate and brioche and which is very popular) but it was sold out and I noticed it was only 3 hours. Having made croissants from scratch before, I know that it doesn’t take 3 hours to make them (it takes the whole day) and the website even says that things are prepped before hand. So I decided to sign up for a the souffle course – something that I really haven’t had a lot of practice making. I tried making a chocolate soufflé once but not having eaten a lot of soufflés in my day, I wasn’t sure if it turned out right or not.

I could not have picked a better course! We learned how to make a carrot and cheese soufflé and a grande marnier soufflé. There were 9 of us in the class so we split up into two teams with one team making the savory soufflé and another team making the dessert soufflé. Turns out I would be cooking the Grande Marnier soufflés with a family visiting Paris for their first time for a week (a mom, her two daughters and their aunt) from the California Bay area. The whole class was American (except for me). The other people in the class were from New York, Washington, DC and Seattle.

I couldn’t have asked for a better team. I could instantly tell that these ladies knew their stuff, were comfortable with weighing ingredients, beating egg whites and folding. I can’t say the same for the other team (who stirred their mixture instead of folding and spent an hour pushing cooked carrots through a tamis (I am totally going to buy one of those when I get back – I thought it was only used for sifting but you can also use it to puree).

souffles in oven

Overall the class was a lot of fun but it was definitely geared towards the “hobby/home cook”. Also, it felt a little bit like a production line because the chef had to clear us out for another class that was scheduled later on in the afternoon. But I am still glad that I took it. I have to say that the soufflés turned out perfect – they were beautiful! Yay team!

Another great thing is that after the class they provided us with a map of food places in the neighbourhood and a coupon for 10% off at a kitchen supply store called E. Dehillerin (apparently Julia Child would purchase cooking equipment there). Of course because there were locals who worked there, I picked their brains about how the Velib bikes work (Bixi’s European cousin) and where they got the bread that was served in class (it was delicious). Turns out, they got the bread from the same bakery (Au Petite Versailles du Marais) that I frequent. I have been having nothing but good luck when it comes to food on this trip!

bakery around the corner

Chef Randall was fun. He was telling us all these stories about when he cooked at a Chateau for a countess and how there were ghosts in the castle. He also met Julie Child when he was cooking for an event. He’s even written a book called “Cooking for Joy” (the countess’s name was Joy) about his experiences. That’s the second chef I’ve come across who has cooked at a castle. It sounds like the cooking culture is indeed, a lot different than in North America.

Spring in Paris – the neo bistro

Jardin du Palais RoyalFinally – a sunny day in Paris! It’s been a mix of clouds and showers since I arrived so I was so happy to wake up to blue skies this morning. Today started off with a Paris Walks – Fashion Tour that I signed up for which, to be honest, ended up being a bit disappointing. I was expecting them to talk about the original house of Chanel, Prada and the Louis Vuitton museum but instead the tour was about the history of fashion during the time of King Louis XIV. Seriously?! I was expecting something more along the lines of The Devil Wears Prada and instead I got Marie Antoinette. Oh well. C’est la vie.

However, I did make it to the Rodin Museum, l’hôtel des Invalides, the army museum (which was actually quite cool) and Napoleon’s Tomb. But the real highlight of today, was going out to dinner with a couple of my friends from Toronto who were passing by through Paris on their way to Prague. I made a reservation (or rather, I asked my french speaking friend to call in a reservation a week ago from Toronto) at a neo bistro called Spring. Only offering one dinner seating at 8:30pm Tuesday-Saturday, there is no printed menu because the chef basically decides what the menu is going to be on that day (depending on which ingredients are in season and available).

Okay, I know a lot of my friends at home really want to know what the meal was like so I have provided a list of what we had (complete with pictures). I was fully living up to the Asian stereotype of taking pictures of food (which I don’t do very often) so I hope you guys enjoy it.

Deep fried/breaded blood sausage, trout, a white sauce with trout roe and horseradish (for dipping the trout),  asparagus with cream sauce and fresh turnips.

Apertifs

Mackeral prepared Japanese style (grilled – crispy skin while still raw in centre – similar to how you would prepare Ahi tuna steaks) with fois gros, veal jus and asparagas spear.

Mackerel

Breaded and fried lamb sweet breads with lobster mousse and mint (this was absolutely delicious!)

Sweetbreads

Duck with fois gros (also delicious!)

Duck with fois gros

Cheese plate – camembert, brie (I think), goat cheese and a blue cheese called Blue d’Auvergne. I don’t normally like blue cheese but I asked for the name of it because it tasted so good.

Cheese plate

Goat milk sorbet with hazelnuts, strawberries with chantilly cream and meringue crisps (so good!)

Strawberries with goat milk sorbet

Prailine gelato

Praline gelato

Coconut cookies and truffles

Coconut cookies and truffles

Sorry if the descriptions are a little uncreative but there is no printed menu so I’m going off what the waiter/waitress said (in their mixture of french/english) and by memory after a couple glasses of wine. This meal did not disappoint. It was sublime! Tasting menus are definitely special occasions because haute cuisine doesn’t come cheap. The 7 course tasting menu costs 70 euros (but I can appreciate how much work goes into each dish). We each had two glasses of wine and the small cheese plate (which we shared because we were so full) was an additional 12 euro. I insisted on the cheese plate because the cheeses in France are different than what we get in Canada (and of course I had to get another glass of wine to go with it).

WineOh ya, the wine was EXCELLENT! I also asked for the name of the wine I had and found out that it only costs 8 euro per bottle and they ship internationally. Woo hoo! All in all, the dinner came out to just under 110 euros. Yikes! But it was worth it (and still cheaper than what I paid at Lumiere in Vancouver with Chef Rob Feenie (before it closed down). This dinner wasn’t without a couple surprises, however. Blood sausage and sweet breads are both things that I don’t eat on the best of days but when you have a tasting menu you have no choice. But they were both delicious! I guess anything can taste good if you deep fry it!

Also, based on my Edible Adventures in Paris guidebook, it lists the tasting menu of consisting of 4 items and costing 36 euros (the tasting menu that night consisted of 6 plates and costed 70 euros). It also says that the restaurant is located in the 9th arr. (which is where they used to be located until they moved to the 1st arr. two years ago). Sadly, this is something that I found out that night after walking up the hill to the old location in Pigalle for my reservation which was at 8:30pm. That made for quite the adventure of trying to find the correct address, calling the restaurant (which has a pre-recorded message most of the time) and hailing a cab knowing full well that my friends were at the restaurant waiting for me. Thank goodness for my iPhone! I eventually made it to the new location and my friends, in the meantime, had befriended an American couple from Miami who were celebrating their sixth year anniversary. We all had a great evening of dinner conversation sitting around the family style table. Definitely a great evening despite the bumpy start!