02 November 2008

Paris on a Budget

We've decided we probably won't make it back to France in calendar 2009. For one thing, we've got some home repairs and upgrades next year, and for another, I feel a bit guilty spending the money.

But we will return for at least a week sometime in the next 18 months. We know how to do Paris on a very small budget.

When my husband and I look back on our trips, the moments we cherish most are those that cost us very little in the way of financial outlay.

On a warm spring May Day four years ago, our favorite moment came when we fed pigeons in Place Paul Langevin in the Latin Quarter. I had a half-bag of cashews in my purse, and we enjoy teasing the ubiquitous critters while children played nearby in the sun-dappled little square not far from the Pantheon.

In 2007, an afternoon in Musee Carnavalet on a rainy afternoon and a visit to Square Georges Cain provided us with an equally low-cost and enjoyable moment on our last day in Paris.

We've found great pleasure simply exploring and lingering in the many gardens in Paris. We even enjoyed a wet walk along the Seine one Sunday afternoon when buses were infrequent.

Recently we found pure joy in the Places des Vosges (above), just watching children play.

You can enjoy Paris on very little money indeed, I assured a reader who recently e-mailed me.

We've all got favorite tips, but here are a few of mine.

• Choose a value hotel. They abound in Paris. I find hotels on Tripadvisor, and have yet to go wrong that way. Expect a small room. You can adjust for a few days or even a week. You'll do a lot of walking as soon as you step outside the hotel.

• Make sure you have a mini bar in the room. Mini bar prices are often very reasonable when compared to those in snack shops and cafés. Your body clock will be off, and you may get hungry at odd hours.

• Fill up at the hotel breakfast, if it is reasonably priced, or buy a croissant from a bakery.

• If you will be in Paris for a week, rent a studio apartment. Most have microwaves and many have stovetops. Some even have ovens and all have coffeemakers. In 2007, we ate well for two weeks with just a stovetop and microwave.

• Shop for food basics at Ed l'Epicier, FranPrix or LeaderPrice. I found prices had gone up a bit from 2007, but they were still reasonable.

• Buy a carnet and use it to ride the Paris bus system. You will see a lot, observe real Parisians close up and not have to worry too much about pick pockets on the Metro. You can use public transport to get to and from Charles de Gaulle airport.

• Check out the city's free museums and sites. We thoroughly enjoyed Carnavalet and the Crypts. There are other freebies to enjoy.

• Walk. Explore hidden spaces. In my book, they - not the well-known monuments and open spaces which teem with tourists - are the true essence of Paris.

• Consider cafés and cafeterias located in one of the city's train stations. I found Le Train Bleu a bit steep, so we ate at the cafeteria just below and enjoyed a pretty darned good meal for a fraction of the cost of the fancy lady upstairs.

• Looking for entertainment? We chanced upon a string ensemble on Oct. 4 at the Place des Vosges (below). The music was sweeter than anything I'd pay for - it was spirited and spontaneous.

I'd love to hear your favorite tips for traveling anywhere and not spending a bundle.

18 October 2008

France: The Market in Old Cahors

Today I visited the farm market in my town to buy a pumpkin and some organic tomatoes. We have two local markets, running a total of three mornings and one afternoon a week, June through October. One of them is located in a designated market area, which offers a small covered stall. The other is sited along the water, a wonderful place even when the bay breezes are cool.

I lingered for an hour, talking to the vendors and catching up with friends and acquaintances. Because the market also offers space to non-food vendors, I often purchase quilted items, soaps, rag rugs or other locally made crafts. Today a "garage sale" element was added, so there were many other items available. Several of our local non-profit organizations also raise money by selling cider, hot chocolate, brats and hotdogs and candy.

I did not bring my camera, but I remembered it three weeks ago when we visited the Wednesday and Saturday markets in old Cahors, at the foot of the cathedral of St. Etienne. Food vendors set up shop in the cathedral square, while non-food vendors arrange their goods along streets that shoot off or even snake off to the west of the church.

I thought you might enjoy these photos from one of our visits. Aren't those grapes enticing?

I love the spice vendor. The colors and the aromas transport me to the spice countries.

Can you see why I was so tempted by these Jesuites from Lou Boulbil's stall?

The market is a prime source for these darling little rounds of cabecou.

You can also find Provencal fabrics, blankets and mats. Did I mention jewelry, woven market baskets and kitchenware?

Throughout the world, open-air markets are such a wonderful, time-honored source of good food and other intriguing sites and smells, and sometimes even sounds. There may be nothing I love more than an outdoor market.

13 October 2008

Jesuites and Other Pastries

I entered a building I have not entered in decades today. Never mind the circumstances. I had to steel myself to do it as my departure from there was a sad one.

I was a child then, and I did not understand the circumstances. I only knew something was amiss, and I was a study in abject misery. "I want to go home," I kept saying to my mother, though I did not understand the concept of home. I only knew I wanted safety.

As an adult, I frequently feel the need to find a safe harbor, and the same phrase enters my mind. It coursed through my thoughts again and again when we were away. The news on television was grim, and my French is utilitarian enough to understand and become somewhat alarmed. By day we had the beauty of the French countryside to distract us, but by night we often hunkered down by the television, listening and watching disturbing reports about the American economy.

I found myself reaching for soft, comforting sweets, Like the creamy puffs above or the Jesuite below.

Called Jesuites because they were once coated with chocolate (which would have resembled the long cassock of the Jesuit priest), the pastry triangles are filled with frangipane. Jesuites are a staple of the patisserie.

In France, I was drawn to pastries as I have never been drawn before. Slowly savoring my Jesuite, I felt like a the naughty Catholic schoolgirl I once was, and perhaps will forever be.

But sometimes you just need a little comfort...

10 October 2008

Cooking in Cahors: Makeshift Tarte Tatin and A Visit to Le Vinois

I like a man who knows his way around the kitchen.

When I was young and dating, I thought this was endearing. Sexy even. I married my husband because of his Beef Stroganoff. Never mind that he sometimes forgets a key ingredient, like sour cream. I mean, he's my guy and sharing a meal with him is a gift.

I like a chef who knows his way around apples. Jean-Claude Voisin of Le Vinois in Caillac, just to the northwest of Cahors, knows his apples.

Last January, I told you about Jean-Claude's visit to my city and the wonderful meals he prepared here. One of them included a trio of apple desserts. I believe I went into frenzies of ecstasy over that. But I liked everything that came out of his kitchen. I believe I may have embarrassed myself online with my raves.

So I was looking forward to seeing Jean-Claude on his home turf when we spent 16 days in France recently. Unfortunately, both my husband and I came down with head colds and had to delay our visit a bit. It was nearly our last day in the Lot when we finally made it up to Le Vinois, Jean-Claude's sleek-and-chic restaurant/inn, and meet his lovely wife, Elizabeth.

We were not disappointed with our meal. Our amuse bouche included two small and slender glasses of a cream appetizer soup and salmon with avocado. Our next course was ravioli pockets in a garlic sauce. Our main dish was a duck confit with whipped potatoes and a cabbage leaf stuffed with vegetables and folded to look like a large Brussels sprout.

"Best duck I ever had," said my husband.

Our dessert was a moist and crustless tarte tatin with a lemony-tang and a zig-zag of banana-y sauce spiked with ginger that tasted like the inside of my mother's spice drawer smelled when I was a little girl. The ice cream was light and fruity and topped with two toffee crisps.

By the time the dessert came along, my husband and I were nearly rolling on the floor with ecstasy.

Next came another unexpected treat: A small jar - yes, I said jar - of applesauce topped with a crust of rich chocolate. Then we had a lovely visit with Jean-Claude.

Local ingredients with a touch of classic style meet exotic accents and creative combinations: That's how I would describe Jean-Claude's culinary approach, though he may disagree. It is all presented with artistic flair in a contemporary ambience that is the perfect foil for the food.

I can recommend Le Vinois without reservations. But you had better make reservations. Elizabeth Voisin, who may answer the phone, is happy to speak with you in English, if you prefer.

We hope to return, this time spending a night or two in the inn. Caillac is a lovely little village with a 12th century church, a cafe and a spa. It is about 20 minutes from Cahors, and is perhaps best reached from Mercues or Pradines.

Le Vinois (Jean-Claude and Elizabeth Voisin)
Le Bourg
46140 Caillac
05-65-30-53-60
www.levinois.com

The night before, I'd made my own version of tarte tatin, using what I had on hand: Two Granny Smith apples and a bit of pie crust. It was pretty rustic, but tasted fine. I would never have thought of using Granny Smith apples back home, but they were perfect sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon.

08 October 2008

Cooking in Cahors: Fig-Walnut Tarte with Cognac


It was summer when we arrived just four days ago but it feels like autumn now. The days are sunny and mild but the nights are cool and today we turned on the radiators.

As I walk across the lawn to the pool now, wine-dark leaves crunch underfoot and the dry ones scuttle across the cement tiles that surround the pool and hold the variety of wrought-iron chairs and tables and chaises. I sit out here in a sweater and a book, but I barely read. I am distracted by the hang gliders over Douelle – 10 of them one day! – the jets streaming out of Toulouse and the song of the autumn birds. The cuckoos are gone now, but the magpies are cackling and now and then I hear a whip-poor-will or a nightingale.

The figs on the northeastern side of the fig tree are ripening and I have picked a dozen or so for fig tarte.

Fig Walnut Tarte

your favorite recipe for pie crust
10-16 ripe figs, halved from top to bottom
¼ cup Armagnac, Cognac or Calvados
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
5 tablespoons brown sugar
¾-1 cup walnuts
dash sea salt

Prepare your pie crust as usual (I used a pate brisée mix from Carrefour and it was pretty good). Place in a round tarte pan or pie plate. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Note that this is a tarte and thus needs only a bottom crust.

Drizzle figs with Cognac, brown sugar and 1/2 of melted butter. Place open side up in pan. Sprinkle walnuts on top and drizle with the remainder of the butter and a dash of sea salt.

Bake tarte for about 55 minutes on lower shelf in oven for 40-50 minutes. Watch carefully to ensure walnuts do not turn too dark.

It was rich and rustic and tasted of the terroir. The one touch I would add would have been whipped cream topping and some orange zest for an accent.

07 October 2008

Cooking in Cahors: Green Onion Dressing on Bitter Greens, Chicken with Rosemary


It makes me happy to putter around the kitchen and use whatever ingredients I have on hand to come up with a makeshift meal.

I find a sense of contentment in this task and find it more fulfilling than having a recipe to follow and the most costly ingredients. Perhaps this makes me a peasant in the kitchen. So be it.

On hand were truffle oil, some very fresh green onions and some seasonings. The sun was shining, the birds were chattering and the village church bells were ringing. I set to work.

I chopped three onions and set them aside. I poured a small amount of truffle oil and a dash of balsamic vinegar into one of those little French yogurt jars. I added the onions, and set the dressing aside for an hour or two, then added a dash of sea salt and some freshly ground pepper. I used this on some bitter greens for a simple salad.

I snipped rosemary from the herb garden. Even at noon, the breeze smelled of wood fires. This adds a bit of magic to the whole process.

I sliced onions and put them in the bottom of a buttered casserole dish, layering rosemary, chicken breasts and small red potatoes. Another layer of rosemary, some sea salt and freshly ground pepper, and they went into a preheated oven.

It was a simple meal, and we washed it down with an inexpensive white table wine.

06 October 2008

France: The Black Wine of Cahors

The first thing I noticed was the smell; the aroma of Chez Bateau, the pleasant mix of must and wood smoke. It filled my nostrils and bade me welcome as we entered the house.

We were home. Not our home, of course, but a home we are privileged to call ours for a fortnight.

Outside the door was the oily aroma of herbs from the wild tangle of garden. I remembered this from last time.

I stood by the pool and looked out over the valley and the vineyards and heard the cooing of doves.

This was what I came for.

The air is always fresh here. Today, the day after our arrival, the air is again filled with sunshine and conifers and the faint smell of autumn on the rise.

The leaves are beginning to turn here, but most of the summer flowers are still in full bloom. The hydrangea are stunning, a blend of coral and pale chartreuse; only the roses are fading.

There is a breeze today, and it moans low in the trees and shrubs that dot the meadow running down to the grapevines.

We saw a falcon pirouette against the sky, and in the woods below the vineyards we could hear the frenzied barking of hunting dogs chasing some unfortunate prey.

Yes, this is home. A sensual but spiritual home. Such a vast array of riches to savor.

Among them are the three bottles of the famous black wine of Cahors that were waiting for us when we arrived. The first thing we did was take the Mini Cooper down to the supermarché for provisions to get us through the weekend. The second thing was to open a bottle and take it out to the pool so we could look out over the vineyards, woods and valley while we savored its rich, dark promise.

The wine (which must be 70 percent Malbec grape) is fruity and tannic and - depending on its age - a little bit tart. It has been historically considered easy on the stomach. According to its pedigree, Cahors wine was offered at the wedding of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II of England. Its history is inextricably linked to that of the meandering Lot River. Its vineyards have been wiped out - or nearly wiped out - twice.

It is - like Chez Bateau and the country around it - pure magic.