“Mangez bien, riez souvent, aimez beaucoup”

I’ve had many firsts with Paris; the city of love, the city of lights. But until our most recent trip, I had never truly eaten an amazing Parisian meal.

I remember my first day ever in Paris as one of the biggest disappointments in my travels up to that point.  The “friends” hostel I was booked in was horrific, and I was sexually harassed as part of the check-in process. My evening trek up the Eiffel Tower was expensive and the lift was filled with the twang of a tour group from Texas.  I learned that this amazing view sadly meant nothing to me without the glistening Eiffel Tower as part of it.  And when I tried to salvage such a bad first start with a nice meal in a restaurant near the tower, I was utterly disappointed by the bland, touristy and way-too-expensive-for-a-backpacker dinner I endured. Oh Paris. Quel dommage.

Of course after that first day, Paris was wonderful. I spent two glorious weeks that December walking and absorbing as much as I possibly could of this amazing place.  And in my many other trips since then, I have had the full gamut of Parisian experiences – the grungy bars near Moulin Rouge, drinking beer and watching the drunken world stumble by, a romantic afternoon picnic in Champs de Mars and hand-in-hand walks through the Jardin des Tuilleries on a Sunday afternoon, that first bite of a macaron from bakery extraordinaire Laduree while watching the cars juggle for space around the l’Arc de Triomphe. All glorious moments in Paris that I will always remember.

Surprisingly, for a foodie, I had never had that perfect Paris meal that everybody hopes for. I have had some nice lunches, a few reasonable dinners, and many delicious DIY picnics on previous trips to Paris. I had even learned (the hard way) that this city does in fact sometimes sleep, and having a meal in one of Paris’s proper bistros during the month of August was near to impossible.

Such was our disappointment when, for my husband Nick’s 30th birthday, we discovered that every decent bistro, every recommended restaurant, everywhere we had read about and planned to eat at, wouldn’t be possible on this trip because we had chosen to come in August when all the best places are “fermé pour les vacances“. Ugh. My North American brain couldn’t contemplate how these places could get away with actually closing down – aren’t they here to serve the tourists, I thought? Well the answer, in a word, is non. And while I was disappointed that trip as we sat in the Marais, dressed in our finest outfits to eat pizza, I vowed to do better the next time.

On our most recent trip, we tried to live as much as possible like Parisians – living in an apartment in the 12th, shopping in Marche d’Aligre, our local (non-touristy) market, drinking in teeny wine bars with the local tradesmen and shopkeepers, and doing my best to parler en francais as much as possible. We decided that a meal in the perfect Paris bistro would be the cherry on the sundae of our holiday, and so we went to work researching websites, guidebooks, and numerous blogs on the subject. Many places were mentioned, but the one that seemed much revered by locals, chefs, and Parisphiles alike, was Bistrot Paul Bert in the 11ième arrondissement. Reservations are a must we were warned, so off we walked on Thursday afternoon to check out Woody Allen’s favourite bistro and secure a table for Saturday night, figuring that making a reservation in person would be a less stressful experience than on the phone, as my flustered French sometimes requires a few hand gestures to get the message across.

We arrived on rue Paul Bert to find what could only be described as the quintessential Paris bistro. I wondered if Woody had actually filmed Midnight in Paris here. It was just too perfect – we MUST have a meal here it was decided.  Sadly my polite request for a table, ANY table, on Saturday was met with a curt “non” and a glance to a waiter that to me said “how crazy are they to think we’d have any openings at this late notice?” Mon dieu. Sunday and Monday they were closed. They would reopen for lunch on Tuesday I was informed. We sunk out of the bistro feeling quite low.

A table at another bistro in the Marais was secured for our Saturday night dinner with Nick’s parents, who were joining us for a couple of days in Paris. And a lovely bistro it was, where we enjoyed a delicious meal and the ambiance that one can only experience in a picturesque street in the Marais. But still, that ultimate bistro experience we had hoped for at Bistrot Paul Bert eluded us.

We were set to leave Paris for London on Tuesday afternoon. Could we squeeze in lunch first at Paul Bert? We decided we must. After a harrowing few hours dragging too much luggage (and too much wine, cheese and shopping) to the station to deposit into lockers, we took the Metro to the 11th, arriving just after noon. Surely we could get a table easily on a Tuesday at lunch – I mean, who goes out Tuesday for lunch?

Apparently everybody.

The woman at the counter was the same woman we spoke with the previous week. She shook her head in a “how do they STILL not have a reservation?” kind of way, but looked pityingly at us and asked us to wait. Five minutes later we were seated at a table for four that had originally been occupied by two gentleman. Somehow these kind men had agreed to share their table with the two anglais who didn’t understand the rules of bistro dining, and for that we were eternally grateful.

As for the meal itself, well what can I say except merveilleux. It was absolutely and completely worth the complicated journey we took getting to that moment.

We elected to go for the slightly higher priced set menu (there was a three course menu for either 17 or 36 euros), as it had a few more intriguing options and still seemed reasonably priced. Nick chose marinated sardines in lemon and pepper to start, followed by seared veal liver served with baby vegetables.  My delicate omelette with baby girolle mushrooms was followed by a bistro classic I had never tried before – steak tartare with frites and salad. It seemed like the place to dive into a plate of raw meat, if ever there was such a place.  We savoured every mouthful, trying to not only enjoy the food but soak up the Bistro Paul Bert atmosphere – the beautiful dark wood features, the rustic tiled floors, the ancient chalk board listing the dishes of the day, and our fellow diners, whom all seemed unfazed by the act indulging in such a fine meal on a Tuesday at lunch. Such is the norm it would seem. We also tried to keep our non-Parisian behaviour in check, and as such only managed to take a few blurry photos of our dishes and the restaurant. I quickly realised that to eat like a true Parisian, one must be more interested in experiencing the meal rather than the act of capturing evidence to brag to others with.  We put out cameras away.

When the cheese board arrived to our table, I was overwhelmed, not just by the quality of the cheese selection, but also by the quantity of cheese in front of us – there were no less than six cheeses, large wedges of goat and brie, blue and crumbly, creamy and stinky, all sharing a thick wooden board that looked like it had been recently cut from a tree trunk. “Is this all…for US?” I asked the waitress incredulously in what I hope was a hushed whisper. She looked at me and then at Nick and waved her hand in that nonchalant way the French do so well – “You take as much as you like, then I’ll come and take the board to the next table.” At a table of boisterous workmen finishing their lunch, a rum baba arrived with an accompaniment of an entire bottle of rum. He took as much as he wanted.  Portion-control apparently is not an issue here.

It would seem that at Bistrot Paul Bert, satisfaction was the goal of the experience.  The staff wasn’t concerned with anyone overindulging, but more concerned that we were appropriately satiated with our Tuesday lunch. How very civilised. We certainly left that afternoon feeling full and completely satisfied with our ultimate bistro experience.

Thank god I didn’t have any Tupperware in my handbag.


Telling Tasty Tales

I like to tell stories.  I also like listening to stories – funny one, sad ones, delicious ones, I am all ears!  Lately, food stories have been of particular interest to me, probably because in my attempts to write more for this blog, I find myself listening a bit more too and really searching for stories.

I read an editorial recently where the author was begging people to stop taking pictures of their food. The ease with which we can take photos these days, using cameras in phones and quickly uploading to email, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram certainly does make it a lot easier to tell people what you’re doing, or eating, at any time.  Why do we feel the need to share this part of our life experience with others?  Is it sharing? Is it art?  Or is it just lazy-person storytelling?

I for one am an avid participant in what many call “food porn”.  I love to document the amazing meals and food experiences I’ve had and share them with others, just like I enjoy the voyage I get to take when people post pictures of their food adventures.  Recently I decided that it would be nice to have the skills to craft some images slightly nicer than my Blackberry can produce.

I took my second-hand DSLR and assortment of lenses one Saturday morning to a restaurant in Bermondsey and spent the day with food phog extraordinaire Paul Winch-Furness at #PhotoPopUp.  In addition to his professional work as a photographer, Paul runs small photography classes that focus on food in a variety of restaurants, cafes and markets and it had always been on my list of things to try out one day.

What an experience!  After a few hours of chatting with my classmates and going over the basics – and getting reacquainted with those pesky F-stops that one tends to forget when the fully automatic settings are so darn easy to use – Paul ordered a variety of dishes from the menu, pulled out some brightly coloured accessories for dressing the tables, and away we went.

Having the chance to photograph beautifully plated dishes that I didn’t have to slave over in the first place was a real treat – it was a nice change from being exhausted and hungry as I usually am during these types of photo shoots.  Anyone seeking to pimp their food photos should take one of Paul’s fantastic classes.  A couple of my best pics from that day are below.

Is food photography a bit of a cheat when it comes to telling food stories?  I think I’ll have to disagree.  Should we spend more time talking about food, telling others about our experiences, sharing our food stories?  Absolutely.  Stories can take any number of forms, from a quick pic on a camera phone to a handwritten recipe passed down from a family member.  The key is to keep telling those stories, in as many ways as possible, as often as possible.  The history of what we like to eat is a story worth telling, in any way you choose to do so.

Going the Whole Hog

“You should cut down on your porklife mate, get some exercise!” – Blur, Parklife

There are so many jokes you can make about a pig. Cop jokes, bacon jokes, swine jokes, fat jokes. But pork is no laughing matter in my adopted home of Britain. Never did I realise that the love of pork went so deep into the hearts and arteries of the British public. Not until I moved here and married one (a Brit – not a pig – just to be clear).

Now I come from what I thought was a bacon country – Canadians love bacon. In North America, we even have a type of bacon named after us (which was also the title of a 90s John Candy movie). But until your first visit to the bacon section of a British supermarket, where you can see the outstanding range and depth of available bacon products, do you begin to understand what’s going on here. Smoked. Unsmoked. Oak smoked. Applewood smoked. Streaky. Back. Top. Side. Economy. Posh. British. Danish. You get the point I’m sure. In Canada it’s much simpler to choose your bacon – regular, low-salt, maple syrup-infused, or turkey. And if you’re in a fancy market or butcher there’s peameal or back bacon.

But enough about bacon – what about the rest of the pig? It never fails to make me smile at how many ways the British have managed to get pork in all its forms into as many special occasions as possible. My first Christmas was an eye-opening experience – these people not only use minced pork to stuff the turkey, then bacon to wrap the turkey, but they serve the poor pork-drenched turkey with a side of bacon-wrapped sausages. For our London wedding reception, my husband found a pub that would do a hog roast. A hog roast. In the pub garden. In a city like London, not some rambling countryside. I was amazed. What a place. Pork is big here.

Last night N and I attended a pop-up restaurant event called @PorkLife at the Bull in Highgate, a great brewpub and restaurant not far from where we live in North London. This event was the brainchild of two pork-enthusiast chefs, Tim Anderson and Tom Whitaker. Some of you may remember them from a little show called MasterChef in 2011 – Tom was a finalist and Tim the glorious champion (I like Tim, I must admit – if it had been X-Factor, I would have voted for Tim every week and totally run up our phone bill). As true pork-lovers, Tim and Tom decided to host a meal where their guests ate a variety of dishes from every part of a single rare-breed pig, scary bits and all. Needless to say, it didn’t take me long to convince N that we should grab a couple of tickets before they sold out.

What a menu and what a fantastic night!  I won’t go into too many porky details, but needless to say the food was outstanding and I won’t be forgetting that meal for a long time.  A couple of dim photos for your viewing pleasure are attached below, with my apologies if they don’t capture the true porky essence of the dishes.  I was particularly fond of the nugget of brawn (headcheese to those in North America) that was breaded in panko crumbs, deep-fried and served with Korean chilli mayonnaise.  Kind of like a grown-up chicken nugget.  And of course the salad of romaine lettuce, watermelon, chilli, peanuts in fish sauce vinaigrette topped with crackling, trotters and pig’s ears.  Because bacon bits on a salad are old news it seems – you need a piece of crispy ear.  Who knew?

I truly admire Tim and Tom’s ability to make delicious, gourmet fare from parts of an animal that are not always popular.  It really is time for meat-eaters everywhere to realise that it is wasteful if we don’t try to use every part of the animal available.  Nose-to-tail eating shouldn’t just be the latest trend, but the way forward in responsible meat consumption.

On another note, I think I may have witnessed the tipping point of pork consumption for my pork-enthusiast husband – tonight I think we’re having chicken!