11 articles Articles posted in France

Provencal Specialties in Nice

For my last post on France, I want to share with you some Provençal dishes we tried.

We actually didn’t have too much luck finding good Provençal food while we were in Provence (we probably weren’t looking in the right places). Ironically, it wasn’t until we got to Nice (technically part of La Côte d’Azur rather than Provence) that we finally got to sample some pretty great Provençal specialties.

It was almost luck that brought us to Le Safari in Nice’s Cours Saleya — the long strip in the center of the old town that serves as a marketplace in the mornings and a square and extended terrace to the bordering (mostly overpriced) cafés the rest of the time. It was drizzly and cold in Nice that day, and we were rather tired, uninspired, and unmotivated in terms of where we should eat. So we turned to our guidebook (lately I’ve been preferring Fodor’s over Lonely Planet) and found an affordable option that came well recommended. Despite the hokey-sounding name, this nevertheless turned out to be a classy restaurant serving up some excellent food. And in cold weather, the terraces are also covered and heated, so that made dinner extra cozy.

We knew we had to order daube when we saw it written on the chalkboard menu. This is a classic Provençal beef stew braised with red wine and vegetables. This version was deep and rich and flavorful and served over a bed of beautifully made ravioli.

We also had tripes nicoise — tender cooked tripe with carrots and potatoes in a tomato-based sauce. (This was a bit tomatoey for me, and I could’ve used some pasta to go with it.)

There was actually a lot of Italian food in Nice, being so close to the border. This scallop risotto we ordered was perfect — the scallops just barely cooked, and the risotto creamy but still retaining plenty of bite to it. All this sat in a sea of, if I remember correctly, fresh pea sauce, which helped offset the richness with a brighter flavor.

But the highlight, I think, was the gnocchi in gorgonzola sauce. This was the pillowiest gnocchi ever, coated in luscious gorgonzola cream. We savored every bite!

I felt especially grateful to have had such a good meal on our second-to-last night in France, despite this area being rather touristy. In fact, when we defaulted to this neighborhood again for our last meal the next night, we ended up having rather lackluster renditions of salade niçoise, ratatouille, pasta, and a few other unmemorable dishes.

We did, however, sample socca a couple times while in Nice, where this chickpea flour crêpe originates. Once was at the morning market, where the socca was softer and more crêpe-like. And once at a restaurant, where the socca was denser, thicker, and more cakelike. This specialty seems to have a number of variations, one of which is more crispy from a more authentic wood-fire cooking method.

Here is the socca that topped the Provençal sampler plate on our last night in France. I have a feeling it is not so authentic of a socca, but I really have not had enough socca to say.

And so, friends, that is how it all went down in France. If you’ve been following along, thanks for making it through to the end! I know I have been so backlogged on travel posts, and since I’m still learning my way around Beijing, cooking these days has been more figuring out what I can do with where I happen to have gotten groceries on a given week. I’ll have to share more about that process.

What’s next: I hope to have a couple recipes for you and, as I mentioned, some updates on what it’s like to live and cook and eat in Beijing. I also have much to share with you about my trip to Saigon back in September. And in three days, we’ll be heading to Seoul! It’s a much-needed vacation for my husband after a tough month of work (and he had not gone to Saigon with us, so he is definitely in need of a vacay). Be back soon!

Le Safari
1 cours Saleya
Old Town / Port
Phone: 04-93-80-18-44

For more posts on France, see…
Eating in Paris
Not Eating in Paris
The Bastille Quarter
Bistrot Paul Bert
Markets (Paris)
Oh, the Cheeses We Ate
Aix-en-Provence
Markets (Provence)
(La Vraie) Bouillabaisse in Marseille

Provence: (La Vraie) Bouillabaisse in Marseille

During our week in southern France this past spring, we took a day trip to Marseille.

I was hoping to take more of a laid-back approach in Provence, since we’d packed a lot of things into the Paris portion of our trip, so I’d only done minimal preparation to find out what the market days were in some of the cities we wanted to visit. In fact, I even decided to leave my camera at home the day we went to Marseille (which, of course, I immediately regretted; photos here courtesy of my cell phone) because I thought I’d just enjoy a leisurely day in the Mediterranean. When lunchtime rolled around, however, I really wish I’d done just a little more planning. But it all worked out in the end.

It was the first time in Marseille for my husband, my cousin, and me, and one of the things we were looking forward to was trying the town’s famous bouillabaisse. (Personally, I would’ve been more excited about the sea urchin street parties that Marseille is also known for, but we had just missed the tail end of that season.)

Now, the origins of bouillabaisse are slightly controversial. Traditionally, people attribute the origins of the dish to poor fishermen, who made it out of leftover scraps from the day’s catch, as this recent NPR story relates. However, a few skeptics believe this to be simply a romantic notion, as pointed out by Traveler’s Lunchbox, and that bouillabaisse has always been a dish of the elite, given the price and quality of the ingredients, including saffron and no less than four to six types of fish, many of which found only in the Mediterranean.

And then there are those who say the dish originated from the goddess Venus, who made it to lull her husband, Vulcan, to sleep so that she could seduce Mars.

Whichever camp you belong to, suffice it to say that bouillabaisse is a fish stew cooked in a saffron broth, and it is native to Marseille (or Marseille via ancient Greece if you subscribe to the last theory).

In true French fashion, chefs in Marseille drew up a charter stipulating just how many (at least four) and what approved types of fish may be included in a proper bouillabaisse. These include John Dory, monkfish, conger eel, and the indispensable, ever-elusive, untranslatable rascasse (which some call scorpionfish). Purists argue that a proper bouillabaisse can only be had in the Mediterranean because it must include fresh fish found only in this region.

Other requirements of a proper bouillabaisse: saffron, fennel, tomatoes, a saffron aïoli called rouille… and apparently a hefty price tag.

That last part was what made me wish I had done a little more research. But I think even if I had, it wouldn’t have made too much difference. Because, as the aforementioned NPR story reports, bouillabaisse has become a high-class tourist meal costing upwards of 45€.

The preparation is involved, so many restaurants require a 24- to 48-hour reservation in advance and will only make it for groups of two or more people. Well, since we didn’t have any reservations, it seemed our only options were the tourist traps surrounding the pier, which have their bouillabaisse at the ready, or just to forgo the whole thing altogether.

Fortunately, one of said tourist traps surrounding the pier seemed to be among the few acknowledged restaurants serving la vraie bouillabaisse: Le Miramar. Since it was approved by our guidebook, as well as by Traveler’s Lunchbox in her Marseille post, after some discussion we agreed that after coming all the way here, maybe we ought not to pass up a vraie bouillabaisse experience at a place that at least came well recommended and did not require advance reservation.

It was not until much later that I learned that Le Miramar supposedly serves a very reputable bouillabaisse. The restaurant, in fact, was one of the original signers of the the aforementioned “bouillabaisse charter” (of course this whole production can also be seen as a marketing ploy in itself). Le Miramar is also the recipient of a Michelin star, and the restaurant has quite literally become synonymous with bouillabaisse: If you go to www.bouillabaisse.com you will be redirected to the restaurant website. :)

Our meal started out with some complimentary small plates, including what I thought was crackers and deli meat of some sort, but actually turned out to be a flatbread with thinly shaved truffle slices. My cousin then realized that that was what she had been smelling as soon as the waitress set this in front of her. My previous encounters with truffles have only been in oil form, so it was interesting to try the actual truffle here. It was less earthy and more fishy than I expected, but it was not unpleasant. I’d need more truffle experience to figure out exactly how I feel about it. :)

Also served early is the rouille, a garlicky mayonnaise infused with saffron. I’ve found that I’m not a huge fan of saffron, but I really loved this rouille. The saffron flavor was not overpowering but just enough to perfume the spread, which was wonderfully garlicky. And in case it wasn’t garlicky enough for anyone, there was also raw garlic on the side you could rub on the croutons. This was meant to be eaten with the bouillabaisse but was also good on its own.

The bouillabaisse itself comes in two courses. First, the soup arrives — a rich, saffron-infused, thick seafood stew. Le Miramar is known for also using pastis, a liquorice-y Provençal apéritif, in their bouillabaisse. I didn’t realize or detect this at the time, so if it was there it must have been subtle. If I remember correctly, the soup was just a tad overly salty for me, but it was very flavorful and filling.

I was starting to get stuffed after the starters and the soup, but that was really just the beginning of the meal. The highlight is the second course, which consists of the various fish and shellfish that went into the bouillabaisse. Some restaurants will bring all this out on a platter and cut the fish at the table for you. At Le Miramar, they bring you a platter beforehand to show you all the ingredients of the stew and then take it back to prepare. The fish and shellfish are then presented to you in more stew. I think it can be assumed that you didn’t get the exact ingredients seen in the platter (and definitely not in that amount) in your actual dish, but you do get the full variety.

What did we all think of la vraie bouillabaisse? Well, two out of three of us ordered it (and only because the menu says bouillabaisse must be prepared for a minimum of two people, though we later saw other tables with only one order), but we all tried it, and we all agreed that while it was fine, we probably would not order it again, especially at that price.

No doubt the bouillabaisse was prepared with good ingredients and was well done. I enjoyed trying the different types of fish — some of them quite firm fleshed, and others more delicate. The soup was very rich and filling — even too much so for me. Neither my cousin nor I came even close to finishing our meals. The dish felt quite heavy to me, and I had to give most of it to my husband. My favorite part of the meal was actually the rouille, the saffron garlic mayo.

My husband had ordered le grand aïoli, and we all actually loved this dish much more than the bouillabaisse. Le grand aïoli is another traditional Provençal specialty featuring the garlic mayonnaise it is named for, poached cod, and blanched crudités (vegetables). I enjoyed this dish for being better balanced and better portioned. Every component stood well on its own but also complemented everything else. The cod was perfect, the broth flavorful, the aïoli creamy and spicy with garlic, and the vegetables just barely cooked so that they retained their crisp.

Apparently, another tradition surrounding bouillabaisse is la sieste, because who can do anything after all that food? (You can understand now how Vulcan lapsed into a bouillabaisse-induced coma while Venus traipsed off with Mars.) We took part in this tradition without even being aware of it. Here is the square where we rested after our bouillabaisse feast.

After recovering from our meal, we drove around the Azure Coast, as the French call the Mediterranean, stopping to see coves and walk along the shores.

In the end, my experience of bouillabaisse in Marseille did feel slightly more like an obligation than a highlight. The mystique surrounding the whole thing just comes across as a bit contrived to me, but maybe if we had gone to a less touristy spot we would’ve had a more heartfelt experience. If you enjoy hearty stews and seafood, you may very well love bouillabaisse. In that case, I would suggest doing a little planning to find a good restaurant recommendation and then calling in your order in advance. But should you ever find yourself in Marseille without a restaurant reservation, Le Miramar is conveniently located along the Vieux Port and serves a solid, albeit pricey, bouillabaisse without requiring advance notice. They also serve an excellent grand aïoli, which is what I would order if I went back.

Le Miramar
12 quai du Port
Vieux Port, Marseille
Phone: 04-91-91-10-40

Check out Traveler’s Lunchbox’s  “7 Reasons You Should Go to Marseille” for more recommendations.

For more posts on France, see…
Eating in Paris
Not Eating in Paris
The Bastille Quarter
Bistrot Paul Bert
Markets (Paris)
Oh, the Cheeses We Ate
Markets (Provence)
Aix-en-Provence
Provençal Specialties in Nice

Provence: Aix-en-Provence

I’ve always wanted to visit Aix-en-Provence, the quintessential Provençal town known for its sun-dappled streets, vibrant café life, old fountains, Roman architecture, and not least of all, being home to Cézanne. Because there wasn’t a direct train to the town from Montpellier, where I was studying back in the day, it always seemed more difficult than necessary to get to Aix, and so I never actually made it there. (There is now a direct TGV train from Paris.)

On our most recent trip, we wanted to spend our second week in France driving around Provence, and so we decided to base ourselves right in Aix…

We were in an apartment just off the Place des Prêcheurs, which is where the town’s main market sets up several times a week, so this made it perfect for getting to the market bright and early. (See more on the market here.)

In retrospect, I think it would’ve been more quiet and calming to situate ourselves deeper into the center of town — that is to say, farther from the Cours Mirabeau, the main thoroughfare downtown where many of the cafés are and which turned out to be a little more bustling than I expected. The town is small enough that it’s not that far of a walk to get to any of the sights, and really, everything is pretty quaint and beautiful in Aix’s centreville.

After a week of squeezing in many of our must-see, must-do, must-eat stops in Paris, we were really ready to slow down in Provence. We didn’t even go to many of the sights in town. Instead, we blended in by enjoying lazy mornings and afternoons reading, sipping coffee, and generally lounging around at cafés. I love all the little squares around town that make for such scenic coffee sipping and people watching. I kept joking that I wanted to spend a whole day taking leisurely, hours-long meals, from morning to night. That didn’t really happen, but wouldn’t it be great? :)

We took some long, ambling walks about town. Aix reminded me a lot of Montpellier. It’s got a sizable student population, but at the same time, is fairly small, very walkable, and full of quaint lanes and beautiful old buildings. It’s the perfect place to get lost in.

On one of my walks, I came upon this little macaron shop called Meresse and was very intrigued by some of the flavors displayed in the window (they had savory macarons involving things like smoked salmon, foie gras, truffle, trout roe, and onion confit). Unfortunately, it being Sunday, the shop was closed. :(

We also paid a visit to La Cure Gourmande, the kind of candy shop of every kid’s dream.

We mostly got foods from the markets and ate at home in Aix. We were eager to try some local Provençal dishes, but we had a little trouble finding them, or at least memorable versions of them. For those, we’d have to wait for Marseille and Nice…

For more posts on France, see…
Eating in Paris
Not Eating in Paris
The Bastille Quarter
Bistrot Paul Bert
Markets (Paris)
Oh, the Cheeses We Ate
Markets (Provence)
(La Vraie) Bouillabaisse in Marseille
Provençal Specialties in Nice

Not Eating in Paris

We did actually do things other than eat (and eat and eat and eat) in Paris. And there are photos to prove it. :)

We visited museums.

Like the Orsay, where apparently you are no longer allowed to take photos. (I thought I must’ve heard incorrectly when the guard warned me the first time, and the second time he really threatened me! So I went to a different floor…)

We returned to the beautiful Musée Rodin. I absolutely love the single-artist museums all over Europe, and I also have a fondness for sculpture, so the Musée Rodin is one of my very favorites. This museum also has special meaning to my husband and me because we came here together over 10 years ago. I actually wrote him an essay about it called “The Secret” (after one of Rodin’s pieces), which ended up being part of a reading we gave at our wedding.

The Musée de l’Orangerie was closed for renovation the entire year I was last in France, so we were very glad to finally see this for the first time. (B decided to create an impressionistic photo of the impressionist artwork. :P)

We didn’t go inside the Louvre this time (beyond the main lobby) but did walk around the outside…

We spent a day in Montmartre.

E took a couple rides on the carousel, we hiked up to Sacré Coeur, walked around Place du Tertre admiring the artists’ work (we found out artists actually have to apply to get a coveted spot at this square), and roamed up and down the hilly streets. We got a bit lost, so ended up not getting to Café des Deux Moulins (of Amélie fame) or the Moulin Rouge.

 

We went shopping.

I already mentioned Paris’s many food markets and shops and our love for Monoprix, which we visited in several cities to pick up groceries and other tidbits like breakfast pastries, kids’ clothing, stationery, and French pharmacy products (what can’t you find at Monoprix?). But we also ventured out to other places, like the flea market at St-Ouen de Clignancourt. I was also eager to finally check out Merci (pictured below), the popular Anthropologie-like store by the creator of Bonpoint. Everything in this shop is just exquisite, from the darling red bug in the courtyard to the bookstore cafe to the exposed wooden beams in the gorgeous loft space. And to top it off, the profits go to charities.

One of my francophile self’s greatest loves is French bookstores and stationery, so this was one of the things I was most looking forward to about being back. The French are known for doing everyday things with style, and stationery is one of those things. When I was a student in Montpellier, I spent many hours in the student bookstores looking at all the pens, notebooks, paper, and art supplies. I don’t know if this is true anymore or if it is true throughout France, but at the time (and this was in 2000-2001), all students at my university in Montpellier were required to turn in handwritten papers. For real! This was quite an adjustment for us American students. But my writerly self was rather charmed by the whole thing. :)

So naturally, one of my musts in Paris was stopping by Gilbert Joseph, the bookstore in the student neighborhood of St. Michel. I picked up a new Waterman fountain pen to replace my old one of 12 years (and I was pleased to find that it still costs only about $10). I also stocked up on Clairefontaine notebooks!! These are expensive to get in the U.S. and are hard to find, so I got myself quite a few in various sizes on this trip. I adore French notebooks and paper because they are made for fountain pen ink, and so they are of thicker and smoother quality than normal. The only thing I’m not fond of is French-ruled paper, so I usually get the gridded kind.

In spite of the perpetual rain, we did lots and lots of strolling through amazing parks and elegant, historic neighborhoods.

Like the Jardin des Tuileries…

… and one of my favorite areas, the Île Saint-Louis and Île de la Cité…

… and many other neighborhoods, including the Canal St. Martin, which I had never seen before.

We spent plenty of time on the Paris Metro…

… and one time even came across an orchestra playing at one of the stops.

We even attempted to take Parisian metro photobooth pics, inspired by Amélie. :)

And, of course, we saw the Eiffel Tower.

Ah, Paris.

As I mentioned before, there was a time when I had mixed feelings about this city. Of course, there is a huge difference between living in a place and visiting for a short time. So no doubt I had my Parisian rose-tinted glasses on this time ’round. Still, this trip reminded me why I love the French way of life so much: priorities, details, sheer joie de vivre. Paris is a grand city that somehow exudes intimacy at every turn in every corner. People care about things enough that a certain degree of panache is inherent in even the humblest of tasks and objects. (Remember that scene in Amelie where she offers change to a homeless person, and he declines, saying, I don’t work on Sundays?) This is the kind of place where, right in the midst of finals week one time, I found myself invited over for a homemade lunch at another student’s home. It’s the kind of place where the rockstars aren’t so much the athletes or the savvy businessmen or the technological geniuses, but the philosophers, the poets… even your local boulanger!

For all these reasons and more, I hope I’ll have the opportunity to live in this country again some day.

– – – – –

In preparing for our trip, I found myself stumbling into the great rabbit hole of Paris blogs and websites by expats of various origins. I am indebted to these wonderful sites for helping us plan our time there. (Warning: It is very hard to find your way out of Parisian food blogosphere, so click at your own risk! :)

… Just to name a few!

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Update: The last photo of the Eiffel Tower reflections was a winner in the Inspired Art Challenge at Minted and is now available for order here. As the photographer, I do receive a small commission on orders of that print but otherwise am not affiliated with Minted.

For more posts on France, see…
Eating in Paris
The Bastille Quarter
Bistrot Paul Bert
Markets (Paris)
Oh, the Cheeses We Ate
Markets (Provence)
Aix-en-Provence
(La Vraie) Bouillabaisse in Marseille
Provençal Specialties in Nice