Monday, November 30, 2009

The fruit of the vine

We have now covered two thirds of the holy gastronomical trinity. With bread and cheese accounted for, let us now turn our attention to the oh-so-pleasant final installment: wine.

Where to begin? French wine, how do I love thee! Nor am I alone in my fondness; these two have been working their charms on mankind for millennia (which is not to say that I’m unoriginal). Both have played pivotal roles in my life thus far: France by drawing me abroad, wine by taking over once I got here. I spent over three years working in the French wine industry and even found inspiration for my Master’s thesis therein. And while I am today a recovering former wine marketer, wine itself continues to be a personal interest. Heck, I’m a Californian living in Paris—loving wine comes with the territory.

Prior to finding gainful employment in the sector, French wine revealed itself to me purely by chance. As in, I would be invited to a dinner party, garden party, house party, birthday party, anniversary party, wedding party or any party in between and lo and behold! Opportunities to get up close and personal with French wine would abound. But as random sampling can only get one so far, I began a more intellectual pursuit of the charms of the vine and took to reading books on wine, touring vineyards, lingering in the wine aisle of my local supermarket, and even frequenting specialty wine shops just for the thrill of it. As such, I managed to acquire a fair degree of knowledge about French wine. And while I certainly cannot qualify myself as a true expert, I can on occasion manage to make myself sound enough like one to fool most people, which is kind of neat.

But enough about me; let’s talk vin.

France may have recently conceded its place as the world’s leading wine producer to Italy, but its vineyards still yield some 45 million hectoliters of wine per annum. This sea of crushed grapes represents over 400 appellations d’origine contrôlée (certification granted to wines produced in strict observance of predefined geographical and qualitative regulations), 150 vins de pays (one step down from the AOC crowd in terms of quality, theoretically in any case) and innumerable vins de table (unassuming table wine). And yet, despite this plethoric range of wines, with surely something to please taste buds from all walks of life, many are those who have fallen out of love with French wine or, worse, have never fallen in love with it to begin with. Perceived as overly complicated, over-priced or just plain snooty, French wine today suffers from a serious image problem. As someone who loves both France and its wine, I feel a sort of moral, vaguely self-righteous obligation to refute these misconceptions. Except, um, they’re not entirely false.

Overly complicated

With its thousands of wines, hundreds of appellations, countless domaines and largely archaic labels, it’s fairly accurate to say that French wine tends toward the complicated. Most French wine labels feature information that the uninitiated are highly unlikely to understand. Where are the varietals indicated? How exactly is one expected to pronounce the wine’s name? What’s a fût de chêne? The approach isn’t terribly friendly, the labels aren’t terribly attractive and the marketing effort is virtually nonexistent. That said, information in this day and age is easier and faster to come by than ever before. All it takes is a bit of curiosity combined with a bit of research and voilà, French labels become much less intimidating. Can’t tell the difference between a Bourgogne and a Côtes-du-Rhône? Pick up a book on French wine, or at least a quick guide, or at the very, very minimum, Google it! Be proactive in your wine purchasing. No need to blame the French and their “unfriendly” labels/classifications/difficult-to-articulate names. Italian producers don’t make the job any easier, by the way. Nor do the Spanish, but for some reason no one ever complains about them.


This one is all a matter of where you live and where you shop. I live and shop in Paris, which means that I can buy all manner of seriously inexpensive French wine with incredible ease. My parents, on the other hand, live in California, which means that they can only get moderately to officially expensive French wine, and with much greater difficulty than I. However, in all fairness, they can also procure themselves all the delicious Napa wines they want, when they want, whereas I have to make a pilgrimage to a specialty wine store and hunt around for the one lonely Californian reference they have—which to add insult to injury is often a Gallo. Sigh. Have I mentioned that less than 3% of France’s wine imports are American?

But let’s get back to pricing. Within French borders I’ve seen everything from wine sold in plastic jugs at €1.66 per liter to a 1961 Côtes-du-Rhône Hermitage magnum sold at a mind-blowing €40,000. Between us, I’d say that unless said magnum grants everlasting life, that cash could definitely be better spent elsewhere. In any case, there may be no French wine available in the States for the same price as, say, a bottle of Two-Buck Chuck, but let us not compare the incomparable.

Snooty in general

Actually I think the problem here is really just residual snootiness from centuries of justifiable French superiority in this domain. France once used to be the be all and end all of fine wine, a position it smugly enjoyed (as would you). Wine aficionados embraced France’s thousands of wines and fantastically complicated system of distinguishing them, while those who didn’t hold a Ph.D in oenology were intimidated by the perplexing variety and societal pressure to understand the predominantly French selection filling every restaurant’s fine wine list.

Then, along came New World wines, whose taste, variety and friendly labels changed everything. Delicious wines from such diverse lands as Chile, New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, and the United States literally poured into the market and met with roaring success, while France, Italy, Spain and other Old World countries suddenly found themselves reeling from the one-two punch of New World competition AND steadily decreasing consumption on the home front. To make matters worse, most European producers had been resting on their proverbial laurels for decades—nay, centuries—without ever having made the effort to render their wines attractive to modern consumers. Thus, the savvy sales approach of New World wines was able to out-maneuver European wines with surprising ease, leaving France and its fellow producer countries laden with excess bottles that no one seemed to want to buy anymore.

This, in essence, is the origin of the “French wine crisis,” a problem that I spent years working on while employed by a Paris-based wine company whose goal was to apply New World marketing techniques to French wine in order to sell more of it. It sounded like a good idea at the time. I would happily relate in minute detail the twists and turns of that little adventure into the surreal, but I don’t want to be sued for libel. Not immediately, anyway; I figure it will be much more fun to be sued later on, once I’ve written an entire book about it (I’ll keep you posted).

So are French wines still snooty? In large part, yes. But to their credit, this is much less the case today than it was even five years ago. Many French vintners have adopted sales and marketing techniques (oh misery! Oh damnation!) that have done a great deal for consumer comprehension among mid-range wines. As for la crème de la crème (not a real French expression, by the way), France’s finest will never need an ounce of marketing because its audience was born knowing the significance of Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru. And if we’re being honest, how consumer friendly should French wine really become? Would it still be French if it didn’t have at least a soupçon of snootiness to it? Moreover, isn’t that part of the fun? Doesn’t the wine drinking world have enough happy-go-lucky labels jockeying for attention on supermarket shelves the world over without the French having to jump aboard the bandwagon of flashy colors and animal emblems? Maybe those monochromatic Gallic labels and complicated names are exactly what they should be; maybe it’s up to the informed consumer to take enough interest in what he or she is drinking to go to the minimal effort of learning a few French wine basics. N’est-ce pas?

In closing, French wine is indeed surrounded by a great many preconceived notions. My advice is to set them aside and to go forth and taste, for only by tasting its unfathomable diversity can one get any idea of the myriad delights that France’s vineyards truly have to offer.

And now that I’m done singing the praises of French wine, I’ll let you in on a little secret: in matters of pure taste, my Californian palate remains steadfast and loyal to its homeland. In other words, I think the Judgment of Paris was pretty right on the money. There, I said it (duck, cringe). Now, taste by definition is totally and completely subjective, but this is my blog and I’m allowed to be as subjective as I like! I may deeply love France and its wines, and will continue to advocate their appreciation and enlightened consumption, but my wine drinker’s heart still belongs to Napa Valley. What can I say? The heart has its raisins, and the raisins know nothing about it.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Say cheese!

This entry is the second installment in a 3-part series on the crown jewels of French cuisine. Last week, we covered the wide world of Parisian bread; next week, we seriously get into the vino. But today it’s all about the cheese.

As Meg Ryan’s character says to Kevin Kline’s character in French Kiss (one of my all-time favorite movies, even if it is a bit … cheesy. Har har), “Did you know that there are 452 official government cheeses in this country? Don't you think that's incredible? To come up with 452 ways of classifying what is basically a bacterial process?”

It is incredible, all this French cheese. Not to bash my motherland or anything, but let’s face it: American cheese is a joke. I mean, I like sharp cheddar as much as the next guy, but let’s be honest: our cheese comes in two colors—orange and off-white—and we turn it into such oddities as string cheese, cottage cheese, hamburger cheese, low-fat and non-fat cheese, soy cheese, spray cheese, Velveeta and my personal favorite, Cheez Whiz (at which point it is no longer appropriate to refer to the product as
cheese per se, but rather “cheez,” just to truly express the extent of the denaturalization to which it has been subjected). Sad, I tell you; sad, sad, sad.

Some will point out that America also makes delicious farm cheeses and that I’m being too harsh because Wisconsin and Vermont and even my own California all make great American cheese. Just look:

I have never understood this ad campaign. California makes incredible wine, grows delicious avocados and citrus and also produces some really tasty almonds. But I’m sorry; never have I been wowed by the cheese selection at any of the many, many, many Californian grocery stores that I have frequented.

France, on the other hand, will never be beat when it comes to cheese. Mmmmm. Walk into any French grocery store, no matter how small, and you’ll be offered a range of cheeses that commands respect. And those are just the grocery stores! Fromageries are a whole other category! I can actually smell the cheese just thinking about it. Oh wait, that’s because my boyfriend just opened the refrigerator. (Side note: I think I’ll start referring to him in this blog as “G.” so as to semi-preserve his anonymity while avoiding overuse of the sophomoric term “my boyfriend.”)

Yes, it
s true: French cheese is stinky. Delicious, mind you, but stinky. G. and I keep our cheese selection in a Tupperware container in the refrigerator, next to an open box of baking soda (sold only in pharmacies here, incidentally; perhaps to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands?). But do you think that has any real effect on the odor? Not really, no. However, the alternative—cheese elimination—is unthinkable, and so we ignore the odor. Or rather, I ignore the odor. Being French, G. probably thinks that that’s just how cheese smells. And if we’re being technical, he’s right; that is how cheese smells … when you haven’t pasteurized the hell out of it (eh-hem FDA). What is so scary about raw-milk cheese? The French have been eating it for centuries, and the last I heard, raw-milk cheese consumption has yet to have any impact on French mortality rates. So what’s the deal? On the flip side, you can of course get pasteurized cheese in France, too (Pasteur was French after all), but it only serves as a bland—albeit less stinky—alternative to real cheese.

As we celebrated Thanksgiving this past week, I think the following cheese and Thanksgiving-related story is appropriate: in 1999, I was living with a French family just outside of Paris while participating in my university’s foreign exchange program. At the end of November, my brother flew out from California to spend a few weeks with me and celebrate Thanksgiving à la française. Over the course of his stay, he had many opportunities to sample a wide array of French cheeses, all of which he just LOVED but, sadly, none of which he could find in the US upon his return. 

So two years ago for Christmas I thought I would surprise him with a real raw milk camembert. I lovingly selected it at the airport boutiques at Charles de Gaulle airport, had it double wrapped in tinfoil and put into a little container that I had brought along with me to mask its odor. The flight went just fine; I even put the bag in the overhead compartment so as to avoid any telltale scents from escaping. However, as is often the case, my connecting flight was canceled due to poor weather (which the airline naturally classified as an “act of God,” as if God Himself had wanted to teach me a lesson about smuggling unpasteurized dairy products into America). The result was that I had to spend the night in a hotel near the airport and take the first available flight the next morning. Did the hotel room have a refrigerator in it? No. 

By the time my cheese and I finally touched down the following day, I was more than ready to hop into my brother’s truck and begin the 90-minute commute to our parents’ home in the mountains. However, after greetings and hugs, my brother’s first comment was something along the lines of, “WHAT is that smell?!” Terribly proud of myself, I answered, “I brought you a surprise!” His response: You’re not putting that thing in my truck. I just cleaned it.” So we put the cheese in the truck bed with my suitcase and headed off. In the end, my family was touched that I had gone to such lengths to bring them this cheesy treat from across the Atlantic, but no one wanted to eat it. “It smells like sweaty feet!” was my mom’s first reaction. “Pheeeeew! Something's ripe in here!” was my dad’s (of course, by that time the cheese had been traveling for something like 42 hours. How would you smell?). Being the good sports that they are, though, they at least tried it. The verdict? The taste was great, but the odor was just too overpowering for their uninitiated noses. So in the end, we brought the cheese to the annual Christmas party thrown by some very dear friends of ours who know and celebrate France and its 452 glorious cheeses. They loved it. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Give us this day

No series of reflections on life in France would be complete without exploring the gastronomical Sainte Trinité: bread, cheese and wine. All are near and dear to my heart, as attested to by the fact that I even devoted several years of my life to working with one of them. But that is a tale for another day. My next few posts will cover these three delights one by one. And while each is a topic that could easily transform itself into an entire book, the nature of the blog format requires that I be (relatively) succinct, which is not necessarily a bad thing considering the literary realm of edible Paris isn’t exactly what one might call unexplored. But food in the French capital sure is fun to write about, so here we go.

Bread: the staff of life. What would France be without its legendary loaves? There are some 35,000 boulangeries in France, over 1,200 of which are in Paris. Over the past 10 years, I’ve frequented all manner of these fine establishments and sampled countless examples of their creations. Some have been delicious; some have been perfectly mediocre; some have been flat-out bad. Some have been surprisingly cheap; some have been surprisingly expensive. Some have been over-rated and some under-rated, but few have ever left me indifferent.

Having had the privilege of growing up with the soul-nourishing scent of homemade bread often wafting through the house, I have an innate appreciation for the real deal. Chewy on the inside, crusty on the outside, aromatic and still warm from the oven.... Is there any food more wholesome, more comforting? You can certainly get that kind in Paris. You can also get the opposite, and more often than should be the case.

Appropriately enough, this point is best illustrated by the baguette, undoubtedly the quintessential French bread. Baguettes come in white, sourdough, whole wheat, pumpernickel, 6-grain, poppy seed or even more imaginative variations. They can range anywhere from golden, fragrant, lovingly baked and packed full of chewy goodness to tasteless, odorless, industrial impostors containing nothing but cottony fluff. There are two ways to distinguish a real, hand-made baguette from an inferior, mass-made one: either by its weight (a real baguette should have some sturdiness to it, otherwise it’s all crust) or by a close examination of its underside (if a criss-cross pattern resembling dental gauze has been baked into what should be perfectly smooth crust, then that poor baguette is about as authentic as a 50-buck Rolex and would best be left alone or fed to the pigeons, who have absolutely no qualms about swallowing such things).

Incidentally, this rule also provides a key to differentiating good French restaurants from poor ones; the sign of an establishment of quality lies in the contents of its breadbaskets. Restaurants worth frequenting all serve superior bread, period. I have never been to a good French restaurant that serves mediocre bread, just as I have never been to a mediocre one that serves decent bread. Restaurateurs who really care about what they do will go to the trouble of ensuring that their bread (generally baguette) is purchased from a good bakery, even if it means walking an extra 50 meters. C’est normal.

As a true lover of real French bread, I have always been shocked—and to a certain extent offended—by those willing to turn a blind eye to the quality of the baguette they buy on their way home. With so many boulangeries to choose from, what exactly is their excuse? It can neither be time, nor scarcity. Nor can it be price; a mere 50 cents separates the most expensive baguette from the least expensive one. What, then? Gustatory indifference? Can it be?

At one point, a friend of mine and I jokingly created the two-person “Baguette Brigade,” dedicated to promoting responsible baguette consumption and fighting inferior bread on a daily basis. When one of us would spot an unsuspecting consumer strolling blithely along holding an obviously industrial baguette (e.g. a baguette folded in half, carried under the arm as one would a newspaper—gasp!), she would immediately take action (primarily in the form of pointing and laughing). Good times.

In closing, take my advice: when in Paris, put all carb counting on hold and enjoy the bread! It’s real, it’s wholesome, and it’s fabulous. Only do your taste buds a favor and buy the real stuff. Avoid any and all depressing, flimsy, unsatisfying, industrial baguettes, for which there is absolutely NO excuse! If you need a bakery recommendation, email me and let me help. You don’t want to leave Paris with bad bread memories, and you really don’t want to risk a run-in with the Baguette Brigade.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

War and Paris

I’m on a book kick right now. This is odd, really, since for ages I’ve merely accumulated books without ever bothering to actually sit down and read them (cookbooks and dictionaries aside). Be that as it may, I recently decided to stop looking at my book collection and instead start reading it. Maybe it’s my new job, whose distance with respect to my apartment provides me with a whopping 90 minutes of quality reading time every day, or maybe I’ve just awoken the sleeping book lover in me, but I’m racing through those pages so fast that if Hussein Bolt himself were to see me in action he would probably say, “Wow, now that’s fast.”

Having recently finished “Autobiography of a Yogi,” “Eat, Pray, Love,” “Mirror, Mirror,” “Les Yeux Jaunes des Crocodiles” and “Les Etoiles de Compostelle,” I’m currently about a third of the way through “Suite Française,” a World War II tale written by Irène Némirovsky, a Jewish woman who lived in German-occupied France until 1942, when she was arrested and ultimately sent to her death at Auschwitz. I’ve never been a huge fan of war history; that’s more my dad’s area of predilection. But this book is excellent, even if the subject matter is perfectly heart-wrenching (hence my dislike of war history).

While I’m on the topic of war, yesterday was the first Wednesday of the month, and like every first Wednesday of the month, air raid sirens all across France began wailing at 12 o’clock noon and lasted roughly 60 seconds (this is a monthly test of the alert system that ensures its proper functioning in case of real disaster). So, as I often do on first Wednesdays, I made the same oh-so-clever remark: “Ahhh! The Germans are back! The Germans are back!” which actually drew some laughter, since my new colleagues hadn’t heard that one yet.

All jokes aside, the sirens naturally made me think of the book I’m reading, which in turn made me think that not all that long ago the concept of air raids wasn’t funny at all. I actually wonder why on earth they waited until 1987 to start using them. Isn’t that closing the proverbial barn door some 50 years after the proverbial horse has gotten away? For argument’s sake, let’s imagine that another country (not necessarily Germany, which is enjoying quite close ties with France these days. More on that later) decided to bomb Paris. Would anyone react to hearing those sirens go off? I for one would not. I’d think to myself, “Hmmm, that’s odd. It’s not the first Wednesday of the mo…” BOOM! The end. So why bother? Even my French boyfriend, who knows everything about everything, has no answer to this one.

As for current Franco-German relations, the media on this side of the pond are constantly going on about how much respect and admiration Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy have for one another. This relatively newfound friendship between the two countries is unquestionably a great thing, but I must admit that it is truly amazing to me that France and Germany have come so far in what has actually been a very small amount of time. Only last week I was strolling near the Ecole Militaire, and for the first time in what must be hundreds of strolls along this same street, I noticed an entire length of it riddled with bullet holes. “From the war,” my boyfriend informed me. And these aren’t the only signs of unhappier times in Paris. In addition to multiple, albeit discreet, architectural wounds scattered about the city, the alert flâneur will notice all manner of withered bouquets, faded tricolor ribbons and marble plaques dedicated to patriots who were killed on the spot.

These are all subtle yet chilling reminders that not so long ago France and Germany were locked in a horrendous war that cost 600,000 French lives and over 6 million German ones. And yet, despite two world wars and over three centuries of open hostility, these same two countries seem to bear no ill will; today, Sarkozy and Merkel are the power couple driving the progress of the European Union. And if I may venture to say so, the strength of their alliance is not so much a tribute to diplomacy as it is a tribute to collective forgiveness.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

As the leaf turns

Autumn in Paris has always been a treat for me. I love the changing colors of the chestnut trees; I love the crisp, envigorating air; I love the spicy smells of autumnal things like chimney smoke and wet leaves; I love quiet Sunday strolls through fragrant woods. I also love the soulful melancholy that accompanies all of it. November, a time of transition between the burnished richness of autumn and the first soft chimes of Christmas bells, is indeed upon us and in no time at all I will be humming Handel airs beneath my breath while crunching through the leaves on my way to work.

Last weekend was Halloween, a sad little holiday that came and went nearly unnoticed in Paris this year. I’ve never seen the French get overly excited about October 31; it seems to be an American export that never really found a serious following among the Gauls, who class it alongside Valentine’s Day as a commercial (read: American) holiday for the unsophisticated masses. This year, however, was even more of a non-event than usual. Blame la crise économique if you will, but I didn’t see so much as ONE tiny little nod to Halloween in the Parisian streets. Not a single jack o’ lantern, rubber spider or orange and black motif to be found. No, this time around the French seem to have skipped right over Halloween and gone straight to Christmas. Bizarre to enter the neighborhood Monoprix supermarket in the middle of last week and find it bedecked with over-sized decorative gift boxes, the ceiling strung with Christmas ornaments in fuchsia and black (I believe they’re reusing last year’s color scheme, incidentally. No doubt further fall-out from la crise).

When I was a child, Halloween was first runner-up in the Best Annual Event category (first place naturally belonging to Christmas). It wasn’t dressing up that I looked forward to so much as the gleeful saccharine orgy that accompanied said dressing up. I should specify here that our mother raised my brother and me on a strictly no-sugar policy, knowing full well that sugar (alias “white death”) leads to cavities, hyperactivity and all manner of other evils. Thus, all throughout our childhood we were given a regimen of fantastically healthy food that had little in common with what the normal neighborhood children were eating. While they happily sucked away on Tootsie Pops, we had to content ourselves with a bizarre sugar-free variety, whose surprisingly chemical lemon flavor I can still conjure up if I try (*shudder*); instead of fruit roll-ups, we got relatively tasteless 100% fruit leather (“fruithide would have been a more accurate name); in place of chocolate chip cookies, we munched on carob raisin bars, and so on and so forth.

Yet be that as it may, Halloween was always the one time of year when my mother would put aside the tofu and allow us to take part in a ritual that went entirely against her naturopathic instincts. I reveled in the spoils of Halloween until I had reached an age when dressing up and begging for candy started to feel weird, at which point I abandoned it to the same “I’m too old for this now, but I wish I werent” domain as pet mice and 25¢ slime. Since then I may have donned a costume once or twice for the occasional eccentric (very French) party, but just between us I cannot dress up without feeling perfectly ridiculous, even after a few glasses of wine. Maybe I have unresolved issues with Halloween.

This year I turned 30, an event that many face with anxiety, loathing, or even mild depression. Not me. I have found my entry into a new decade to be liberating. For one, it has granted me a sudden sense of legitimacy as a real adult person. And as an adult person, I decided this year that it was time to celebrate Halloween differently. I thus devoted the entire evening to a more elegant form of decadence than heaps of candy or barrels of chardonnay. Instead, I popped over to the nearest Pierre Hermé boutique, a veritable temple to the sugar gods, where I bought six perfect miniature French macarons, a specialty for which this particular pastry chef is known throughout France (and undoubtedly beyond). Upon returning home, I ran myself a lovely hot bubble bath, artistically arranged my macarons on a little plate, put on some background music and cracked open the half bottle of chilled champagne that I had been saving since July. It was, as the French would say, awesome.

Conclusion: I may have found a way to re-market Halloween to 30-somethings. But if not, at least I can find comfort in knowing that I have created a new personal tradition that will provide me with an excellent reason to cherish October 31 once more.

Monday, November 2, 2009


Ca y est, je me lance.

I’ve been meaning to do this for years, really, but for one reason or another I always found a good excuse to put it off to tomorrow, or after tomorrow, or after that. I could say the same thing of my book, a project that has been sitting on my conscience since the day my 11th grade English teacher scribbled a note in my yearbook saying that he looked forward to one day reading me. Maybe he was being facetious, but I’d like to think otherwise.

I may be the only one to read this blog, my ramblings then serving no purpose other than personal bemusement sprinkled with just a bit of self-satisfaction because at least I’m writing, even if no one is reading it. Or, what I send spiraling into the ether may find itself an unexpected audience, and thus make of this ongoing monologue something more than just a sort of mildly censored online diary. Either way, this is a big moment for me, and I think that I’ll email my parents later on to tell them that I have joined the legions of would-be authors who find solace in blogging while waiting to finish their first opus.

Whoever and wherever you are, be you one or be you many, welcome.