It’s inevitable: When I go on vacation and stay with friends, we all pitch in with the cooking. Invariably. I’m put in the position of making dessert.
A few years back I posted Things I Bring When I’m a Guest for a Weekend listing a few items I bring when I’m a houseguest. A few were startled (and a few with disgruntled) that I would have the nerve to arrive at someone’s home with my own kitchen tools. I don’t consider myself a food snob and while I don’t understand the ease of buying pre-ground black pepper, and wonder how people can chop an onion with a kitchen knife with a blade that wouldn’t cut butter, it’s hard to make good food without good ingredients, and it’s much more enjoyable if you have the right tool, especially a sharp knife…or a spatula, if you’re making a cake.
I do the best I can with what’s on hand. But if you’ve ever been asked to bake a cake and don’t have a cake pan, scale, mixing bowl, spatula and/or a whisk, it’s a chore to just “whip something up,” although it can be done. (But it’s frustrating if you’re used to folding egg whites into a batter with a spatula, rather than a broken wooden spoon.) And for those who hate U.S.-style measuring cups, I’ve brought my scale with me in my travels, but people get freaked out when you’re unpacking your luggage and you pull out an electrical contraption, like a scale. It also raises expectations, which can be hard to meet if you have to peel and slice apples with an old, and not very sharp, steak knife, which I’ve done more than I’d like to.
So I’ve been known to bring along a paring knife, a cake pan, some measuring cups (to keep things low-tech) and I’ve also brought a disk of tart dough I’ve made in advance (at home, with my trusty scale and mixing bowls), and even already baked cake or cookies. However for our vacances, we were en route for a few weeks, staying with friends here and there, so those weren’t viable options.
I’ve decided that next year, I’m going make up gift bags for my hosts, each containing a silicone spatula, a mixing bowl, a cake or tart pan, perhaps a rolling pin, and a sharp knife of some sort. It’ll be my way of being a good guest, and keep me from getting grumpy in the kitchen.
In my quest to be the perfect houseguest, I put together this French Chocolate Cake one night, that won major raves, which doesn’t require any special equipment and can withstand being baked in a clunky, uneven oven.
One guest who chided me for wanting a scale to measure out the ingredients (she said “You can just guess!”) which I didn’t find, called us in a panic when we were out-and-about the next day, when she was trying to make a dessert: She needed a scale, and asked if we could stop at a store and buy one for her to use.
People often say “I hate to say I told you so…” Me? I love saying that…but didn’t.
Another straightforward recipe that takes advantage of whatever fruit you can get your hands on is my Summer Fruit Tart with Almond Cream. It’s perfect to make when space and equipment are limited. The almond cream can be stirred together in a bowl, the dough is so forgiving you’ll forget that you’re obliged to make dessert, and you just need a half dozen nectarines or whatever fruit you’d like, and it baked up nicely, even if the oven you’re baking it in makes your college dorm oven look like a Gaggenau in comparison.
The good thing about France is that people are more impressed that you made dessert, rather than how perfect - or imperfect - it looks. People are used to home-style desserts and don’t expect a host to present them with a Fraisier (strawberry cream cake) or Gâteau Saint-Honoré, a caramelized choux ring layered with puff pastry, crème chiboust, and decorated with vanilla chantilly. A simple, yet delicious, plum tart over nutty almond cream is just fine.
One thing I did forget to bring was my moka coffee pot. Aargh. A lot of people don’t believe this (until they come to France and have a cup of coffee…) but the French are not coffee connoisseurs. Also, many drink tea in the morning. I’d say 85% of the people we visited drank tea, not coffee, as their wake-up drink.
I’ve learned to cope with a lot of things in my life, but when I wake up in the morning, my sole pleasure (and requirement) is a large dark coffee tempered with a little milk. I respect people who drink tea, but it just doesn’t do it for me in the matin. I like a big bowl of dark coffee and exactly the right amount of milk. It’s not a lot to ask, and I often joke that you need to be a molecular biologist to get the coffee-and-milk balance just right for my coffee. Once I have that perfect coffee in front of me, I can take whatever life throws at me.
During my trip, someone asked me on social media, where in France they should travel to. It’s hard to say since the country has beaches, alps, cities, islands, and countrysides that differ considerably depending on the region (the southern Basque region is very different than northern Brittany, for example), so it depends on what you want to do.
My friend Heather of Secrets of Paris posted about her travels through the French countryside this summer in her membership newsletter with some tips for traveling in France. In case you plan to take a trip in the future, here are a few pointers from me:
Always reserve at restaurants for lunch and dinner, no matter how small a restaurant is. Seats fill up fast, even in the off-season, and since most places just do one seating, if you just arrive without notice, you’ll likely be disappointed. We saw people get turned away from even very basic restaurants so always reserve if you can. It’s particularly important on Sunday since very few restaurants are open, outside of major cities.
The Le Fooding app lists restaurants in France that use fresh ingredients and serve cuisine fait maison (homemade), which is rarer than you think. The website and app lists will help you find places to eat by location and I find it’s quite accurate, although you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the app as the search feature requires some futzing and swiping. Yelp never really caught on in Europe but I will sometimes do a Google search for nearby restaurants on Maps, which will show you what’s close by.
Pro tip: Look at the pictures of the food, rather than the descriptions, which aren’t always accurate. I tend to avoid places with square plates, purple tablecloths, food served on slate or “unique” serving containers, colored glassware, and balsamic scribbles on plates. I’ve only been proven wrong about one of those, once. (Someone recommended a bistro and when I looked at the pictures, the dining room was filled with mannequins in various poses, draped with scarves. Even if the food was good, I’m not sure I could have enjoyed a meal in that dining room.
In spite of the promise of making France a ‘tech paradise,’ the reality is that outside of cities and towns (and sometimes, even in cities and towns), internet access can be spotty or non-existent. If you need to use the internet to find a restaurant, try to do it when you’re somewhere with a decent connection. Similarly, if you use GPS to get from one place to the next, it’s best to set your route when you have a connection, not when you’re on a back road. (Note that “Free” wifi on your phone is an internet network from a paid internet service provider; it’s not free. So Free doesn’t mean free.)
Back up your vacation pictures as you go. I had a memory card get damaged (which was odd because it was in my camera the whole time) and I lost a vacation-load of photos, which I discovered when I got home and saw in place of my pictures, rows of scratchy icons on my computer. A photographer friend told me that everyone will experience data loss in their lifetime so back up as best you can, when you can.
If you’re as obsessed with eating well as I am, carry snack food with you. We had a few not-great meals - a crêpe made from a store-bought batter mix that was filled with low-end supermarket ham and cheese come to mind. So bring a few snacks along, just in case. I also like/need to snack, and after twenty years, I still have a hard time biding the time between lunch at 1pm and dinner 8-11 hours later at 9pm or 10pm, which isn’t uncommon in France. (I once stayed with friends in Corsica who ate dinner at 11pm, who probably would have eaten even later if I hadn’t started putting food out on the table. There are only so many potato chips and olives one can eat before I need dinner.) So I keep a bar of dark chocolate on hand. While not as popular in France as in the US, you can get muesli (granola) bars at the grocery store. They’re rather petite compared to their American counterparts, but make a decent snack in a pinch.
Look for routiers (truck stops) on the highways. Highway gas station rest stops can be elaborate affairs; think dozens of coffee vending machines (which curiously, often offer tomato soup, too), supermarkets, and restaurants, sometimes fast food, sometimes, something better. Routiers serve honest fare at reasonable prices.
It’s not always fait maison, but if you want to “live like a local,” those are where in-the-know locals eat, along with truck drivers of course. I couldn’t find a comprehensive list of them in France online, except for an early 90s-style website here, but if you see a sign with a signature red/blue sphere (above) on an autoroute, that’s a routier. Usually you don’t need a reservation but one we went to in Noth (photo above), did.
Be prepared to pay some stiff tolls. Some are as much as 34€ - yikes! (And gas prices are roughly 3 to 4x what they are in the United States.) The upside is that the highways are in very good condition and there are plenty of rest stops. Note that the “T” lanes at the pèages (toll collection booths, which are almost all automated now, with no humans) aren’t for people with the paper Tickets you get when you enter the autoroute; the T is for télépéage users with an electronic toll collection pass so they can go through without stopping. (Romain didn’t get that memo and we spent a few times blocking a lane of wildly honking cars while Romain finagled things with the person on the other end of the microphone in the booth, as they walked and talked him through how to pay… #mylife.)
Autoroute stops called aires don’t have gas stations or stores, but are usually adjacent to woods and do have picnic tables where you can sit and spread out your lunch, as we did. (below) We brought our plates and silverware along, and reusable plastic containers. And don’t worry: That quarter bottle of rosé was leftover from the previous evening and was all the wine we drank. The driver only drank a very small amount of it.
As for the trip itself, we mostly focused on Burgundy, a beautiful region in France that - yup, has amazing wines. Not only that, it’s the land of gougères, including giant cheese puffs as big as burger buns, and not surprisingly, even more tasty. I considered them to be the perfect accompaniment to local wines.
So I drank everything from Chablis to Aligoté, the latter considered a “lesser” wine, used traditionally as a base for a kir (some say the kir was invented to pawn off inferior aligoté), but it’s coming into its own and people aren’t turning their noses up at it anymore. Maison A&S is doing a lovely Aligoté. Two of my favorites whites we had were a Mâcon-Villages from Comté Lafon (their website isn’t terrific, there’s a better description of their wines here) and at dinner with Marte Henry Boillot in Mersault, she poured lovely wines from her selection. In addition to making superb wines, she also has an enviable collection of café au lait bowls in her kitchen...
In Burgundy, we also spent a few days with my friend Mat Sabbagh, a distiller I met while writing Drinking French. He is one of the few distilleurs ambulants, a roving distiller who brings his alembic still to French villages to make brandy and eau-de-vie from local fruits and botanicals. When I met him, he was out in the fields, but I spent a few days with him in Beaune tasting his gin and his excellent Fine de Bourgogne, a distillation of wine lees (the leftover grape sediment after Burgundy wine is made) that’s aged in oak before bottlings. Mat made sure we drank well, and ate well, too, directing us to a local boulanger who makes naturally leavened croissants in his wood-fired oven which sell out by 9am.
Romain is a trooper and perhaps The World’s Best Partner for waking up early and nabbing a few croissants for us. Needless to say, our car was loaded up with wine, brandy, and a few items we scored at some local flea markets, which were fewer this year due to Covid restrictions. That proved to be a good thing since my apartment is packed. Fortunately wine doesn’t take up much space, and eventually, somehow disappears. 😇 When we made it home, we unpacked, took a deep breath, ready for the rentrée, the big return to work and school, and I got on a plane for a trip to the States.
Speaking of travel, many travelers have asked me about having their vaccination cards from other countries, especially the U.S., turned into a French Pass Sanitaire. The French government published a page in English on how to do it here. The pass contains a QR code which is required to go into restaurants, cafés, and bars in France, as well as museums and other venues. (If you don’t have a vaccination card, you can show the results of a recent negative Covid test instead.) People I know who’ve emailed through the link got a response within 1 to 2 days, but I’ve also heard from visitors that their CDC cards were accepted. As I’ve mentioned before, the idea isn’t to hassle visitors, it’s to keep people healthy and safe.
Shortly I’m going to be sending out a special newsletter with a forum to discuss my newsletter to all subscribers, paid and free, on what you’d like to see in the future newsletters. When you get it, if you’d like to hop in and let me know, please feel free to participate in the conversation there with me. I’m always appreciative of everyone who subscribes to my newsletter, and I’m interested in exploring some of the new features (podcasts, videos, etc.) that are possible to include in future newsletters.
PS: Say what? Drinking French is a finalist for the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation Spirited Award. Winners for Best New Cocktail or Bartending Book (my category) will be announced on September 23rd. There are some heavy-hitters, and some friends, in my category, and I’m honored my book is in good company.
Links I’m Liking
Aligoté from Burgundy…not to be confused with the stretched potato & cheese dish, aligote, finally gets some respect. (Wine Spectator)
Jay Rayner let’s loose on the pricey Polo Lounge pop-up in London. (Guardian)
The “Marvels” of French pastry, the merveilleux, gets a new flagship location in New York City. (Eater)
Charlotte Druckerman tackles the hand-wringing over the safety of preserving homemade jam. (Washington Post, possible paywall)
The praise-worthy High on the Hog gets renewed for a second season. (Hollywood Spectator)
The cutthroat world of $10 ice cream. (NYT)
Want to move to France? An inside look at taking the integration classes to obtain a French residency card. (Washington Post, possible paywall)
Errant cigarette butt likely lights French winemaking region on fire. (RFI)
The man who swam the Seine. (GQ)
Fascinating look at whatever happened to the late, great Gina DePalma’s second unpublished Italian dessert cookbook. (Taste)
New Search Engine on my Blog
I’ve installed a new search engine on my blog that’s better, more direct, and is “phrased based.” This means that if you search for “Wine bars in Paris” you’ll get my posts on wine bars in Paris. Duh. That seems simple, but the other search engine gave you a bunch of other results and ads before you scrolled down to what you’re looking for. The new search engine will take you right there…right away!
The European Union announced this week that they’re removing the United States from their list of ‘safe’ countries, which means that the 27 countries that make up the EU can modify their requirements for incoming travelers, including denying entry, due to the increase in infections and low vaccination rates. Some have also hinted that it’s retaliation against the U.S. for not reciprocating and lifting the ban on travelers from the EU, who can’t visit the United States. (I am in the US right now and am surprised that most Americans don’t know the borders are closed to Europeans.) It’s unclear what each country will do, including France. If you have travel plans, do keep tabs on the situation as it evolves.
Many people have asked me if it’s safe to travel to France (72% of the French population has had their first vaccine dose versus 62% in the US) although both countries are in the “high risk” category. In Paris, life is going on pretty much as usual, with masks are required indoors in most venues, and restaurants, cafés, bakeries serving food, and museums open (as mentioned above, you’ll need proof of vaccination or negative test results at restaurants and other venues), but international travel depends on your risk tolerance and if you go anywhere, expect possible delays, additional paperwork, and realize that things can change day-by-day. Only you can assess your personal risk level.
If you do travel to France, give yourself plenty of extra time to pass through security and cross frontiers, to take Covid tests, and know that you may be expected to show extra paperwork. As always, check your airline’s website and the official website for France for the latest.
I recently met some animators who are creating videos about French pastries. Here’s their latest…
Thanks for subscribing to my newsletter! Paid subscribers got me asking them to Consider the Gougère (French cheese puffs) pondering about how the French dine outdoors in the summer, or curiously, not. And my response to the Washington Post article that created such a stir, and included my recipe for naan fromage.