Post #423 Travels Abroad – Paris

October 5, 2015 at 11:03 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Post #423 Travels Abroad – Paris

Back in the late ’90s, I spent several weeks in Paris working a computer job.  The team arrived in early September.  I left about mid-November.  One of the nicest things about spending that much time there was we got to see the seasons changing.  One of the neatest things I saw was the birth, life, and death of a small sidewalk café on the corner near our hotel.  I was there 3-4 times a week.  I might have been their only customer.  I loved sitting there watching people go by while eating a baguette and drinking wine.

When we first got there, I was walking around the streets near the hotel with a coworker and we got hungry.  We didn’t want to go into a restaurant just then, and hadn’t discovered the sidewalk cafes yet, so we stopped at a food cart.  The smells coming from it were unbelievable.  We both ordered a basic panini and a drink.  We were handed a bottle of water (still, cuz that matters in Europe) and very soon a crusty toasted baguette about 15 inches long.  We continued walking and both took a bite at the same time.  It was okay, fresh bread toasted in a press, minimal cheese.  Another bite similar to the first and I was about to offer an opinion.  Then I took a third bite and stopped in my tracks.  It was a full bite of melted cheese, grilled ripe tomato, and fresh basil.  My coworker had stopped as well.  We looked at each other with the same look in our eyes.  This was Paris.  All too soon the entire sandwich was gone.  I’ve never forgotten that third bite.

One time, I wanted to make dinner in the kitchenette in my room.  I went to a nearby store and settled on a piece of salmon, some pasta, a small pastry, and I wanted a bottle of wine.  I knew I wanted white wine, but I wasn’t anywhere close to knowing wine like I do now.  There were two rows of wines.  Big rows.  All in French.  I was trying to puzzle it all out for over twenty minutes until I finally just grabbed a bottle at random.  I bought some fresh herbs and some butter to poach my salmon and a baguette, cuz when you’re in Paris it’s what you do.  I got home, settled in, put some music on and started cooking.  The wine was chilling and I was looking forward to a quiet evening of reading and drinking.  The salmon turned out perfectly.  I boiled the pasta and added herbs and butter to it.  I popped the wine open and poured a glass.  Then I took a sip, spat it out, and poured the wine down the sink.  In my inexperience (and language barrier) I’d chosen a sickeningly sweet wine.  I’m sure in the right context it was a good wine.  Not what I wanted though.  But, I had a corner café and I ran down, bought another chilled bottle (which is what I should have done in the first place) and ran home.  Crisis resolved.

As the season changed, and it got cooler, new vendors were showing up, particularly along the river.  Sometimes in carts, sometimes just individuals with belts around their waists, and more frequently in the sidewalk cafes and restaurants.  Hot chocolate was showing up with greater frequency.  It was the most amazing hot chocolate I’ve ever had.

hot chocolate to go

This picture in no way conveys the quality of the hot chocolate I drank on an evening in Paris in Autumn.  It was creamy, succulent, rich and delicious.  It was set to the perfect temperature for drinking.  It kept you warm on a chilly evening, but it didn’t burn your mouth or tongue.  The quality of the chocolate was amazing, some of the best I’ve tasted, and perfect for the warm drink.  I’ve decided in later years that it was the combination of cream and chocolate.  I’m not a fan of hot drinks, but this one I’m working on.  If I ever figure it out, I’ll let you know.  But it’s spoiled me for other hot chocolate drinks.

Another food my time in Paris ruined for me is croissants.  Here in the U.S. we call them crescent rolls.  Here in the U.S. they tend to be doughy.  In Paris, it’s an art form.  In Paris, it’s a source of pride.  In Paris, you don’t get bad croissants.

French Croissant

Since I worked on the database at work, I needed to be able to have a good couple of hours on the system when no other people were accessing it.  I would be on Le Metro when the bakeries would be putting out fresh croissants.  Initially, I’d order two croissants and a bottle of water and take them to work.  They’d sit in their paper bag all warm and smelling so good.  Other commuters would look at me in disbelief that I wasn’t stuffing them in my face right there.  Once at work and set up, I’d start savoring these flaky treats.

A true croissant takes hours to make.  You create a large sheet of light pastry dough and put a sheet of chilled butter on it.  Fold it over the butter and beat the pastry into a large sheet again.  Fold it into thirds and beat or roll the pastry into a large sheet.  Fold it into thirds and chill.  Repeat the above steps two more times.  Eventually you have a million layers of pastry and chilled butter.  On the last roll out, you cut and shape the pastry and bake it.  The butter (which hasn’t melted into the pastry since it stays chilled throughout the process) creates flaky layers and bubbles which makes the croissant light and airy and crispy throughout.

Then, one day when I was a little early and not so rushed, I looked at the other offerings and discovered this:

French Pain au Chocolat

It’s called pain au chocolat and is a chocolate croissant.  You make the croissant pastry but instead of shaping into the traditional shape, you shape rectangles and add two small bars of bittersweet chocolate.  When they’re fresh, and the chocolate is all melty and gooey, it’s an amazing thing that will make grown men weep.  It did me.  Even when they’re hours old, they’re still pretty damn good.  So my standing order turned into two regular croissants and two pain au chocolat.  I got so fat in Paris.  There was so much that was good to eat.



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