Sunday, August 24, 2014

The top 10 food products a French expat yearns for outside of France

Food is life. Food is anticipation. Food is pleasure. 

Food is memories. Food is nostalgia. Food reminds you where you are from. 

When I meet French people in the United States, we may discuss French current events, or our respective American locales of choice; but without fail, at some point in the conversation, food is brought up. "Where do you find Maille/Antésite/Levure Alsa/La Comtesse du Barry, here?" "Where do you find a decent baguette?" Code names, exchanged by expatriates who need not explain: They speak the same language.

I have lived in the United States for almost twenty years. I have sampled great food all over the country. Because I manage a blog named French Girl in Seattle, followed by a fast-growing community of francophiles, I have made it a game - no, my mission - to look for French food during my travels. Driven and focused, this French Girl investigates... and scores.

Nothing stands between a Gaul and his boar... uh... food.

In the United States, I have sampled wonderful French products, some imported, some locally made: bread, cheese, charcuterie, salt, pastries, wine, and more. It can be a struggle to locate them locally, but there are online suppliers too. My favorites are the well-stocked d'Artagnan (as a Toulouse native, how could I not patronize a business named after the famous Gascon?;) and the more affordable le Panier Français and So if you absolutely need to purchase French food specialties - and are willing to pay at least twice what they cost in France - there are places you can go. Ah, the sweet taste of victory, when you finally get your hands on the prize!

What about cravings? What about instant gratification? Sure, it's a great feeling to open the care packages shipped by your French relatives, but you often wish you had easy access to all these delicious products you used to find around the corner in your French neighborhood. And you think to yourself: "J'ai tellement envie de..." [insert the French product name.] I would so love...

So, without further ado, voilà this French Girl's top 10: The hard-to-find, dearly missed food items that immediately bring her back home, as she savors them with sheer delectation. 

1. La Baguette Tradition

Not just any bread; a French icon. Supermarket bread can't compete. Bâtard, flûte, ficelle can't compete either. La baguette de tradition française is the Queen of the French boulangerie. Eat it alone, or with butter.  You must eat le quignon (the tip) on the way home. Buy two, just in case. 

Fellow expat, actor Olivier Martinez:
His Los Angeles grocery runs always include a baguette!

2. Le beurre demi-sel

Not sweet. Not salted. Just right. This is the butter that will make you forget all other butters. Spread it on toast in the morning; use it to make crêpes. Substitute for all other standard (boring?) butters in recipes. 

French butter is really good, folks. Do not take my word for it. Try it! This week, when I posted this photo online with the caption: "Incredible. Albertsons sells this for only $2.99," French Girl in Seattle readers went mad. I stocked up. They stocked up. 

A few hours later, the folks at Albertsons were seen scratching their heads in front of empty shelves. They likely checked in with their chi-chi competitors at Whole Foods, who replied: "Are you CRAZY? Don't you know you can charge three times as much for that French stuff?"

3. La graisse de canard (la graisse d'oie.) 

Duck (or goose) fat. Sounds bad for you? But you use so little of it. Un peu. A smidge. How bad can that be? Besides, if you have ever sampled a serving of crisp, fragrant pommes de terre sarladaises, you know why you will never sauté dishes with anything else. 

4. Les pâtes prêtes à dérouler.

Store-bought doughs. Ready to use. Monoprix makes excellent ones. So do Marie or Herta. You're not a baker? Not to worry. From now on, you will impress your guests with perfect pâte brisée, pâte sablée, or pâte feuilletée. It is that easy.

When I lived in Paris, my girlfriends and I had a favorite dinner:  Tarte aux tomates, fromage and herbes de Provence, served with a green salad, and followed by a cheese course, or dessert. Voilà. The most delicious dinner in the world, whipped in a few minutes. 

5. Les Rillettes de Canard (duck rillettes.) 

It's not pâté. It's not foie gras either. Find a baguette tradition (see above,) a good bottle of wine, and you're in business. 

6. Les Yaourts. 

You have not eaten yogurt until you have had yogurt in France. Fact. The yogurt aisle in any self-respecting French supermarket is a beautiful sight. The photo below will probably make many French expats sigh. I get it. 

7. La faisselle. Le fromage blanc.

It's not crème fraîche, it's not cream cheese. La faisselle and le fromage blanc (whipped faisselle) is fresh cheese, with half the calories and cholesterol of cream cheese. 

"Fromage blanc à la louche," served with a ladle at outdoor markets

It makes a tasty dip when mixed with fresh herbs. People cook with it. It was for a long time French women's go-to *healthy* dessert on restaurant menus (maybe it still is?) 

Faisselle au coulis de fruits rouges

8. Café Carte Noire.

The top-selling coffee brand in France. A couple of Carte Noire bags often find their way into my suitcase before I leave France. Oh, and the brand has produced some awesome TV commercials over the years!

9.  Teisseire mint syrup.

Because Vittel Menthe (mint syrup and mineral water) or its poor parent Menthe à l'eau (mint syrup and tap water,) is such a pretty, refreshing drink. In my childhood, kids were only allowed to drink soda occasionally. We were very grateful for the reliable Menthe à l'eau: It quenched our thirst on hot summer days. 

10. La crème de cassis (currant liquor.) 

A classic, and the indispensable ingredient to prepare the iconic French apéritif Kir (dry white wine and currant liquor.) My personal favorite, le Kir Royal, is the elegant, pretty drink that whets your appetite and makes your head spin before you order your meal. 

There are so many more I could list here. But this is a Top 10. Favorite French (and European) candy could be a Top 10 by itself. I once wrote a story about the candy of my childhood. You can find it here

You know my selection. What about yours? Whether you are a French expatriate, or someone who still lives in their homeland, what are favorite food products you miss -or would miss - away from home? C'est à vous. Speak up.

A bientôt. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Paris, that village... (Summer 2014 Travelogue - Part 3)

Paris is a bustling, crazy city.
Visitors often complain about the large crowds;
Nobody has gotten lost in la Joconde's smile (Mona Lisa) since the 1960s;
La Vieille Dame (the Eiffel Tower) will keep you waiting, and waiting;
Les Champs-Elysées look like a cosmopolitan ant world, day and night;
Notre-Dame only gets quiet if you climb her towers, looking for Quasimodo.

Paris is a city of villages. 
Former villages; now neighborhoods;
Each with a distinct flavor.
Venture out of the beaten path, visitor;
You shall be rewarded. 

Somewhere on the Left Bank, a special place hides. 
It is known as la Butte aux Cailles (Quail Hill.) 

Once a working-class neighborhood, it sat by the Bièvre river.
Today, the river still meets the Seine, but it runs underground.
On the shores of la Bièvre
there were tanneries, windmills, and limestone quarries.
The ground became so unstable it could not carry the weight of heavy construction.
That is why la Butte aux Cailles still looks like a village.
Private homes, tucked away from the street behind green metal gates.
Peaceful streets, sleeping in the summer sun.

Villa Daviel
A friendly local...

During la Commune, a violent civil insurrection in 1871, 
People in La Butte aux Cailles fought long and hard. 
Memories of the uprising linger on la Place de la Commune de Paris.

The only signs of rebellion today are tags and graffiti. 
In la Butte aux Cailles, they call this street art. 

There is a small square, la place Paul Verlaine
In the center, the fountain's water supply comes from
an old artesian well, sourced by natural spring water.

The fountain was closed when I stopped by in early July... Dommage.

Place Paul Verlaine, there is a swimming pool, inaugurated in the 1920s;
One of Paris' three public swimming pools at the time. 
Red brick façade. Art Nouveau style. Water pumped from the artesian well;
Kept at a comfortable 28 degrees Celsius (82 F) year round.
The old public baths are still there too.

The three pools (one indoors, two outdoors) were renovated and re-opened a few weeks ago
(Commons - Wikimedia) 

These days, nobody goes starving in la Butte aux Cailles.
This is Paris, after all. 
Visitors can sit in a wine bar; eat a crêpe, or sample traditional cuisine. 
At night, locals, artists and hipsters mingle.
The old neighborhood wakes up with the sound of animated conversations;
Tables and chairs crowd the sidewalks.

Loved my lunch at L'Oisive-Thé
restaurant; knitting and crochet club. 
La Butte aux Piafs (Piaf = small bird) 

In Paris, you get the visit you deserve. 
Mine always include a stroll in a favorite "village." 
And as villages go, la Butte aux Cailles is as authentic and special as any.

This is your lucky day. 
How about a stroll there, right here, right now?
The great Inès de la Fressange is more than a style icon.
She embodies the ultimate Parisienne.
Les Parisiennes know their city, and Inès has many scoops on Paris.
Follow her in this entertaining video clip, as she takes us to her favorite boutiques
in Paris' la Butte aux Cailles neighborhood. 
(Note: Isn't it great to see that even a fashion icon can be a total klutz?) 

Bonne visite et à bientôt. 

To visit la Butte aux Cailles:

Metro Line 6 
Station: Corvisart
Walk up la rue des 5 DIamants (street of the five diamonds)
until it meets la rue de la Butte aux Cailles. 
You have arrived. Explore. Relax. 

All photos unless otherwise noted by French Girl in Seattle.
Please do not reprint, use or Pin without Permission.
Thank you.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Living la Vie en Rose in Toulouse, France (Summer 2014 travelogue - Part 2)

Le Capitole, Toulouse

Je viens du sud. I come from the South. This summer, after a tumultuous and stressful year, I went back where everything started, to my hometown, Toulouse, or as it is known all over France, "la Ville Rose," the Pink City, because of its magnificent red brick buildings. 

The 4th largest city in France, with the third largest student population, Toulouse is young, vibrant, and dynamic: A European hub for the aerospace industry, it is host to many companies' headquarters, including Airbus industries, the Galileo positioning system, the Spot satellite system, Intel, and more. 

But there are other reasons why I so enjoyed my hometown after all these years. And I believe they are the same reasons you would enjoy visiting Toulouse, too.

1. Toulouse is eminently walkable - and bikeable; her protected historical center compact, with many pedestrian-only streets. A stroller's paradise.

Even on a busy Saturday afternoon, crowds remain manageable. One never feels cramped here. People visit museums casually, without the endless lines and chaos found this time of year in other places in France, and Europe. Toulouse, as a true Southern Belle, marches (strolls?) to the sound of her own drum. 

Place de la Bourse

2: Toulouse is a feast for the eyes. 

The architecture is spectacular, from old medieval buildings, to the massive and elegant private mansions built in the 16th century by affluent local merchants. And everywhere you look, pink bricks. Toulouse lives "la Vie en Rose," 365 days a year. 

Hôtel d'Assezat - Fondation Bemberg
Moving can be a perilous affair!

3: Toulouse is unmistakably Southern.

Ancient platanes (plane trees,) line her streets, squares, and waterways, providing dappled shade in the summer heat. Pastel blue wood shutters adorn most façades, and keep homes cool. Toulouse skies come in many shades of blue: C'est le sud. This is the South. 

The Canal du Midi, a civil engineering masterpiece, was built in the 17th century
and links the Mediterranean and the Atlantic
Somewhere on Toulouse's Left Bank.
Friends meet Place Wilson

4: Toulouse has world-class museums and two Unesco World Heritage sites.

In this city, art, history and culture are part of daily life. So many churches, cathedrals, and basilicas; testimonies of a deeply religious past. A long time ago, pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela stopped and prayed in Toulouse's iconic Saint-Sernain basilica, the largest romanesque church in Europe (11th century.) At les Augustins, a 14th century monastery complete with a church and spectacular cloister, was turned into the local Museum of Fine Arts, and boasts prized collections from European masters. 

St Sernain basilica, and its unique octogonal church tower
Les Augustins: A cloister... and lounge chairs. 
Inside les Augustins: Paintings from European masters (15th through 19th century)
Les Augustins: Special exhibit by artist Jorge Pardo showcasing
the museum's prized romanesque capitals collection
My personal favorite: A unique display of medieval gargoyles... standing vertically for once.

5. A river runs through it. 

All great cities are surrounded by water. Toulouse is no exception. The Canal du midi (pictured above,) is a local landmark. But her most famous waterway is the mighty Garonne river. Her most renowned bridge, le Pont Neuf (built 1544-1626) is also her oldest. It has survived all of the Garonne's destructive floods. On sunny days, les quais (the river banks) attract Toulousains and visitors, a delightful place to enjoy the city.

Le Pont Neuf

6. Toulouse has fantastic food.

This is Southwestern France, where duck reigns supreme. Visitors and locals sample Cassoulet, the hearty meat-studded specialty (it originated in the neighboring town of Castelnaudary,) or magret de canard (duck breast cooked in wine sauce and served with sauteed potatoes.) Fresh produce abounds at local markets. Boulangeries and pâtisseries display their tempting wares (this is France, after all.) 

Magret de canard
Marché des Carmes

7. Toulouse has great shopping. 

Toulouse is not picky: From designer brands to international chain stores; from chi-chi boutiques to cheaper apparel stores, she has it all. My favorite boutiques remain what they have always been: fleuristes (florists) and papeteries (stationery stores.) 

"Vert-Rose" (Green-Pink)
How perfect for the "Pink City..."
"Mes Aïeux" (My Ancestors) specializes in old postcards.
I had a blast there!

8. Les Toulousains.

The people of Toulouse. My people, still. I delighted in listening to their Southern accent, often elected "France's most charming accent," in national polls.

I enjoyed chatting with them in boutiques, and at restaurants. Unlike Parisians, they smile in the subway and start conversations with strangers. You might say they are more relaxed, and why shouldn't they be? They live in a beautiful city that has not yet suffered the impact of mass tourism. The French are in on the secret, however: Toulouse is the country's fastest growing city. 

As I watched les Toulousains for a few days, I can understand why. They know how to enjoy life, their city, and the fabulous restaurants. Many French people do, but there is something special in the air, here. Something irresistible. I will be back, Toulouse

Somewhere in les Carmes neighborhood 
Brasseries,  Place du Capitole

A bientôt.

A French Girl goes home
Toulouse, July 2014

All photos by French Girl in Seattle.
Do not reprint, Pin or copy without permission.
Thank you.

Travel information: 

Toulouse is easily accessible by air (Blagnac airport,) or by TGV (high speed train,) a 5.5 hour train ride from Paris (Gare Toulouse Matabiau.) 
The city has an excellent public transportation system: Buses, a modern subway, and a tramway. There is a free bike rental system (Vélo Toulouse.)
Mediterranean beaches are less than 2 hours away. There is great skiing in the Pyrenees south of Toulouse, less than 2 hours away. 
The Toulouse Tourist office is here.