Monday, April 21, 2014

Our Daily Bread

You really can't go much more than one block in Paris without passing a "boulangerie" (bakery). We have four on our "foodie" rue Montorgeuil: Eric Kayser up at our end; a block away, an independent one, Boulangerie Blouet; one block further there's a Paul Bakery, and two doors down from that the Boulangerie Monge. Plus the three supermarkets carry bread, as do some of the specialty shops. No shortage of bread, although they don't all bake on the premises. And mostly, the biggest seller and front and centre in all the displays, is "la baguette".

I've often wondered how these bakeries turn out so many baguettes each day, especially those who do all their baking right there at the "shop". So, when I had the chance to go behind-the-scenes at this bakery up on rue Levis in the 17th arrondissement, I signed up right away. The tour was offered by the lovely folks at Meeting the French (‎), who offer all kinds of Parisian experiences for visitors and residents alike.

Our tour guide, Marion, started us off in the front of the shop, where the breads line the back wall whilst the main counter displays a mouth-watering array of pastries, tarts, cakes, quiches, sandwiches and salads, all made on the premises. She walked us along the display, explaining what they all were...

...from these flaky, delicious individual quiches... these delectable little fruit tarts...

...past this amazing column of eclairs, which now come in all kinds of flavors and icings...

...and she explained the origin of these round pastries here that look like bagels, but which are a choux pastry filled with praline flavored cream, topped with almonds. They are called "Paris-Brest-Paris" pastries and are the symbol of the Paris to Brest to Paris bicycle race that first took place in 1891 -- the pastries made their arrival in 1910, and their shape represents the bicycle wheel. They became a popular energy booster for the riders (major calorie content!). Nowadays, they can be bought in most patisseries, whether you are a cyclist, or not!

Squeezing ourselves past all these tempting goodies, we went behind the counter, through to the back of the bakery and began to learn how this operation works.  Starting with the baguettes and these bowls of soft, almost cream-colored flour, stacked on racks, waiting to be transformed.

A small beater was busy at work mixing flour, water and yeast. This particular bakery makes its own yeast from flower blossoms.

And next to it, a large "kneader" had just finished its work, delivering a mound of dough that was set aside to rise, to do its magic!

When it comes out of the warming spot, the dough is flattened under that big round press you see in the background, then cut in squares, then roughly rolled into little sausage shapes and placed in a floured linen-lined trough. One at a time, they are picked out and hand-rolled into a baguette shape...

...tucked into racks of floured linen folds, and set aside one more time.

One  by one, the racks come over to the head baker, Thierry, who makes five swift cuts across each piece of dough.

It's just an old-fashioned razor blade, attached to a stick! Thierry arrives at work five days out of seven at 3:00 am and works until 1:00 pm. He trained for six years -- two to be a baker, two more to be a pastry chef, and two more to be a master baker.

With a quick push from Thierry, the breads slip off their tray and into the oven, "whoosh", just like that!

Whilst that batch bakes, Thierry explains how to tell when the baguette is perfectly cooked: the underneath needs to have these darker blotches running down the length. That tells him that the crust has the right amount of "crunch", and the inside the right amount of airy space!

He's happy and proud to show us a batch of perfectly cooked baguettes, ready for the front of the shop!

He also told us that those four are but a tiny fraction of the 1000 baguettes they bake every day!!

(By now, some of us are getting seriously hungry...)

But Marion was not finished with her tour. We followed her downstairs, where we found Celeste, who is preparing the dough for croissants. That's a giant slab of frozen, sweet butter she is pounding with a rolling pin. A batch of dough waits on the side.

Now, the pounded butter is placed on the rolled-out dough...

...the dough is folded, corner by corner, over the butter, and the whole package is run through a heavy roller machine, then hand-rolled out and re-folded two times more. At this point, the dough is put in the freezer until it's time to bake the croissants. This bakery prepares enough dough for two to three days at a time...

...allowing them to have fresh croissants on hand at all times...

...or pain au chocolat, made from the same dough.

Back up in the shop, the list and prices of breads are updated regularly. The baguettes are first in line.

The bakery owner kindly gave each of us one of his "Baguette La Tradi du Patron" and a pain au chocolat... with a final glance at the astonishing cakes that this small bakery had produced down "below stairs", I headed for home...

...where Matthew and I had a delicious lunch of our fresh baguette with traditional slices of baked ham and Emmental cheese.

And Matthew's pain au chocolat awaits as a late afternoon treat!

À bientôt!

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Maid of Orleans

Intrepid travelers that we are, Matthew and I try to take good advantage of our senior travel cards issued by the SNCF. They offer generous discounts to us "elders" on the national train lines, sometimes up to 50% off normal fares. Last Thursday night, we decided, on the spur of the moment, to go spend the following day at Orléans, some 111 kilometers southwest of Paris. A quick jump onto the SNCF website, and we had our train tickets booked (20 euros each, roundtrip!), and next morning hopped on the 9:27 express train.

An hour later, we pulled into this historic city, capital of the Loiret department of France, that sits beside the Loire River. Once a Gallic stronghold, destroyed by Julius Caesar, then rebuilt by the Roman Empire, a strategic center of river navigation for centuries, it is today the heart and soul of the story of Jeanne d'Arc (Joan of Arc), the 15th century "heroine" who liberated the city from the Plantaganets during the Hundred Years War.

We took one of the excellent trams from the train station into town, and before we knew it we stepped out right in front of la Maison de Jeanne d'Arc.

This wasn't exactly Joan of Arc's house, but it is where she stayed when she came to Orléans in 1429 as the standard bearer of the Dauphin Charles during the siege. The house belonged to the Duc d'Orléans' treasurer and stayed in his family for many centuries. In 1940, under another siege -- this one at the hands of German bombs -- the house burned, along with much of the city. Restored under the auspices of Cultural Minister André Malraux in the 1960s, it is now the official Joan of Arc museum.

Inside, we followed a timeline of events, and watched a multi-media, animated video tracing the story of the young girl who "heard" voices telling her to support Charles VII, to help him recover France from the English. Sent by Charles to Orléans as part of a relief mission, Joan succeeded in the triumphant lifting of the siege of that city.

Several more victories followed, with Joan of Arc gaining more and more popularity, including attending the coronation of Charles VII, until her capture by the English-allied Burgundians at Compiègne. Following her trial by the Bishop of Beauvais, she was -- as the world knows -- declared a heretic and burned at the stake in Rouen in 1431. She was 19 years old. Twenty-five years later, her conviction was overturned, and she was declared a martyr. In 1919 she was beatified, and in 1920, canonized as Ste. Jeanne d'Arc.

No big surprise, then, that today's city of Orléans is almost completely devoted to her memory. In the main square, this imposing statue dominates the broad plaza. Badly damaged during WWII, it was restored in 1950, thanks to the generosity of the inhabitants of New Orleans, Louisana.

Passing through the square, we made our way down the rue Jeanne d'Arc to the imposing Cathedral Sainte-Croix, so-named (according to legend) after the arrival of a relic of the "true cross" in the 8th century.

The unusual towers are unique in Europe. 82 meters tall, they consist of two square shaped storeys topped by a third storey ringed with delicate columns and crowned with a lace-like rim. At the corners stand four angels, sculpted in 1790 by Nogaret, after drawings by Delaistre. They are so pretty!

Inside, the soaring neo-gothic ceiling reaches to heaven and the main knave stretches almost to infinity...

...lined with brightly colored banners of the heraldry of the region.

Along with a very pretty rose window...


..a series of brightly illuminated stained glass windows depict the story of Jeanne d'Arc -- this one showing her being tied to the stake in Rouen before her grisly end.

 Stepping out into the old part of the city, we found ourselves in narrow streets, lined with traditional timber houses. We were looking for a particular address because on the train I had unearthed on Google an old New York Times travel piece "36 hours in Orléans, France", that listed a well-reviewed restaurant, and we were hungry for lunch!

As our good fortune would have it, the restaurant, "Chez Jules" (with a very unprepossessing exterior and interior) had as its chef Yvan Cardinaux, one of Les Toques du Loiret, an association of chefs of the region, devoted to culinary richness. Chef Yvan Cardinaux did not disappoint!

We each chose the "formule" lunch, but before the first course arrived, this delectable "extra" was placed on the table:  a creamy aubergine mousse, topped by kernels of sweet (!) popcorn. On the side, a slice of black boudin sausage sits on a little toastie, with another very thin sausage on top, all skewered through with a chilled grape. We knew at once that this was going to be a special lunch!

The entrée (first course) came beautifully presented: Lamelles d'Encornets aux aromates (layers of squid with aromatic spices, capped with a long thin toast, decorated with tapenade and four fresh green peas, the whole dish surrounded with dribbles of olive oil and chives). Are you hungry yet?!!

Up next, le plat (main course): Saumon poelé huile basilic et vinaigre (braised salmon with basil-infused olive oil and balsamic vinegar). Again, the presentation was beautiful: the fish is sitting on a bed of orange and yellow carrots and scattered on top are tiny sauteed vegetables and a slice of radish. A small "pichet" of local red burgundy was the perfect accompaniment to all this splendor.

But we were not done. Matthew had ordered the 3-course formule menu, and this is what was served to him for dessert: Croustillant d'Ananas, glace vanille et sa note de chocolat (flaky, crusty pastry pocket stuffed with pineapple, scoop of vanilla ice cream, and all drizzled over with chocolate).  I was permitted several spoonfuls and can attest to its deliciousness!

But we were still not done! Believe it or not, between our two cups of espresso was a third small tray with two little tumblers of mousse au chocolat, and half a kiwi stuffed with more little bits of pineapple. Chef Cardinaux brought these goodies to us himself, so we were able to shake his hand and congratulate him on this superb lunch. And -- almost the best part of the whole experience -- my two-course lunch cost a mere 15 euros; Matthew's three-course extravaganza cost a grand total of 19 euros!! It was, without a doubt, the best food we have eaten since we arrived in France this year. And I should give a special "chapeau" (hat's off) to Seth Sherwood, whose NY Times piece sent us there in the first place. The building housing the restaurant is currently covered with scaffolding and completely shrouded, so had we not found his article, we would never have given it a second glance.

After such a feast, a "walkabout" was definitely in order, so we strolled down to the banks of the River Loire, France's longest river. Here in Orléans, it is broad and smooth flowing, on its way to the Bay of Biscay at Nazaire

Turning around and looking back across the street from the river bank, however, I noticed some markings on a gate-post...

 ...which revealed that the river is not always so placid, as these high flood levels from the 19th century show!

Strolling slowly back into the town centre, we visited the Musée des Beaux Arts, and the History Museum, both of which had several renderings of our Maid of Orléans, like this painting by Jean-Jacques Scherrer from 1916, depicting Jeanne's victorious entry into the city...

...this Maurice Denis 1909 work, "Jeanne d'Arc au Sacre de Charles VII"...

...a 1490 wool tapestry from a Basel atelier, showing Jeanne arriving at the Château de Loches...

...and this small bronze statue of Jeanne hoisting her banner, cast by Emmanuel Frémiet in 1873. A gilded, full-size version of this can be seen in Paris at the Place des Pyramides, near where Jeanne d'Arc was injured during her failed attempt to take Paris.
Our final stop was this magnificent 16th century mansion, which we only heard about by chance from a fellow selling snails at the Friday market up on the main square. "You cannot leave Orléans without visiting the Hôtel Groslot", he insisted. We had an hour before our train, so retraced our steps and found it standing in spacious gardens near the cathedral. It has been the Town Hall of Orléans since 1790, though today, its rooms are used for special occasions: weddings, receptions, etc.

This former meeting room just glowed with its rich wall coverings, massive fireplace and solid wood furniture...

In the main reception room, weddings are held under the glittering lights.

And all under the watchful eye of, yes, another painting of "La Pucelle" -- the Maid of Orléans!

Sadly, it was time to step away from 15th/16th Century Orléans, and return to present-day life. On the other hand, back then, it would have taken several days to make the journey to Paris, instead of just one hour on our fast SNCF train!

À bientôt!