La durée (staying power) of Ladurée –


Ever since I moved to France, I have been aware of the name of the “House” of Ladurée, which has been associated with the prettily coloured almond meringue shells we know today as Macarons. The Macaron appeared in Europe in the middle ages, but it antecedent appears to have been from Morocco and before that from Syria under the different name of the “Louzieh”. It is believed to have passed to France from Italy during the Renaissance and  is likely that Catherine de Médicis  introduced it to the French when she entered the French royal family. The first recipe for the macaron is found in a publication in the XVII century. Enriched by spices, liqueurs and jams the shells of the macaron were paired together in 1830 to form the shape of the macaron we recognise today. They were found in Belleville, the Parisian quarter with ganache or cream fillings in 1880 and were also fabricated by the “Maison Ladurée” which tinted the shells in pastel colours indicating their flavours.

Despite living a stone’s throw from Paris, I have never, until yesterday tried one Ladurée’s masterpieces, but have always wanted to, and it is somewhat ironic that when I finally came to taste one, it wasn’t in France at all, but thousands of miles away in Bangkok! It wasn’t even that I was desperately hungry, or desperately curious. Since I regularly cook Macarons myself, and act as translator for the Institute Nationale de Boulangerie Patisserie for, amongst other things, the Macaron, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, and if the Maison de Ladurée warrented the title of the grand master of the Macaron.

So why did I come to finally splurge on a Ladurée macaron in Bangkok of all places. Well the answer was the queue at the Skyrail BTS platform at Siam. Anyone who has travelled in Bangkok in public transport will know that it’s a pretty overwhelming affair, not least at rush-hour when there are literally thousands of bodies crushing into the train carriages. But of course getting into a carriage isn’t the only hurdle. First buy your ticket!

The skyrail platforms have a few booths which at first glance look like  ticket offices. So on our first outing we queued for tickets only to find that despite being six of us, the  person behind the screen would only change our notes for coins, leaving us in the somewhat unenviable position of having to queue again at a little slot machine to actually get hold of the tickets, which we had to do one at a time.

So yesterday when I looked at the heaving masses on the concourse, and then into my purse noticing with a grimace that I had only notes, there were only two choices, to queue twice, or to nip back into the mall and stop at the first shop possible, buying something innoccuous and getting some change as a result. The first shop that I fell upon was Ladurée!


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To hand it to Ladurée, the display looked tempting. One macaron was even half dipped in gold! I selected my one solitary raspberry Macaron only to have a major heart attack at the price demanded. As their cheapest, the rapberry Macaron costed a whopping 200 baht (5€), and I was agast to see, whilst one server wrapped my little macaron in a beautifully crafted napkin “envelope” concoction, the other was pulling from the till a wad of notes for my change. It took much gesticulating to get across the message that I wanted a handfull of coins.

I carefully cradled my little “treasure” back to the Skyrail station where my children were still manning their position in the queue for tickets, and egged on by them I took my first bite into my Ladurée macaron. There was expectant anticipation that for a few moments I would be transported to some higher realm of conciousness, a sort of gastronomic paradise.

“Well” demanded the children, a few moments later, “Was it worth the inflated price tag, and was Ladurée synonymous with “heaven”.

In a word, “No!”, it tasted like all other macarons the world over!

Perhaps If i’d bought a gold dipped one, and melted down the gold, I might have appreciated its value. Perhaps Ladurée can be thanked for their clever idea of pairing the shells, and colouring them to denote their flavour, but the rest, as they say, is history. There are many patisserie chefs out there just as capable of making lovely macarons as the famous Maison de Ladurée for a fraction of the price. And I do hope that Ladurée has something else up its sleeve, as an excellent macaron rests with the imagination of it’s creator, and that could as easily be you and I.

For its 4€ Ladurée price tag you could make a trayful at home, freezing the left-overs for instant gratification moments another day. So when it comes to “la durée” in minutes of munching…

Ladurée gives a total of about one!

Enjoy it while it lasts!

You’ll find the recipé here

Le Potager de Sophie and La Source Gaalor


WP_20131204_004[1]Over a year ago I was bemused by the way the local French authorities allowed thousands of litres of apparently fresh water to run unheeded the length of our street with no semblence of urgency to stem the flow. The construction company building a huge new apartment building on the opposite side of the road even went as far as to construct for us a tarmac  ‘bridge’ in order to access our courtyard. Since then, in a slow threatening way, the buildings around and about, most noteworthily, the Hotel Dieppe, began to suffer severe structural subsidence, and still the French attitude was to ‘prop’ rather than to repair. It was all quite disconcerting!

Then, during a bout of research on the fountains of Rouen, I started to piece together the real story. My neighbourhood, now in the thick of the urban fabric of the city centre was once pasture land just outside the medieval city walls. Towering above it was the Chateau Bouvreuil built in 1204, of which only the Donjon (sometimes erroniously named Tour Jeanne d’Arc), one of the original seven towers now remains. The boulevard which separates us from the Donjon was once the site of the ramparts to the city walls, which themselves played host to ‘echoppes’, small roofed stalls selling artisan and market produce from the pasturelands just beyond the gates. And bubbling up from deep below ground in this fertile landscape beyond the walls, a stream, the Source Gaalor.

The Source Gaalor was hugely important for the city, and was one of several streams to provide clean drinking water for the city within the walls whilst irregating the kitchen gardens and potagers and farms which fed the city outside. One of the most important fountains fed by it, still present, but no longer running, is that of the Gros Horloge, the Western gate of the city until the end of the 12th century. In 1525 Jaques Le Lieur, Grand-Maitre des Eaux et Forêts (grand master of water and forests) charted Rouen in a spectacular ‘Livre des Fontaines’, a book of watercolour paintings showing cross-sections through the city detailing the location of sources and fountains, which still exists to this day in the museum archives. The ‘Livre des Fontaines’ is a work of art.

livre de fontaines When I began to investigate more thoroughly, along with other ancient maps of my neighbourhood I couldn’t help noticing that the source Gaalor seemed to burst through the ground in line with my very own gateway! It dawned on me why the city council had not rushed to stem the flow of our 2012 giant water leak. The construction workers at the building site across the road had clearly pierced the underground culvert that carries the 21st century Gaalor’s unstemmable waters down through the city to the Seine. Despite this life source, destruction was hapening. The source of water, and the demolition of the existing buildings to make way for the new apartement block had acted together to wash away and destabilise the foundations of many of the surrounding buildings. Pavements now tilt at an alarming 45°, and a local empty shop closed during the height of the recession remained gloomily closed, despite rumours that someone had bought it. Gossip had been running boundless since early last summer that we would once again have a vegetable shop in the quarter.

Then suddenly in September, the blacked out windows were scrubbed clean, the lights switched on, and the shop front decorated. Instead of the tatty, down at heel fruitshop of yester-year, a real phoenix from the  ashes. Its presence somehow all the more appropriate thanks to the history of the area. We have a new ‘Primeur’ in Quartier Gare, and its fruits and vegetables are luscious, its cheeses ripe and oozing, its wines and coffees sophisticated. And just as we can credit Jaques Le Lieur’s watercolour paintings as a real work of art, the new owners have created their own delicious ‘still life’. The ‘Potager de Sophie’ where a real potager once would have been far back down the time-line.

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So shopping for vegetables has become something of a visual delight, and I wish Sophie all the best for the new year, hoping that the gossipy queues of her predecessor are quick to rediscover our new primeur, and to regroup while she weighs up Normandy apples for a Tarte Tatin, or a crotte de Chevre for a crusty piece of bread!

And to all my eighteen thousand readers of 2013, WordPress tells me that you would have filled 7 ‘sold-out’ performances at Sidney Opera House if you had all got together.

Thank you for reading and a
happy new year to you all!

La Fête de la Ventre à Rouen – Revisited!


This morning, as I headed down into the historic centre of Rouen to meet a group of 30 American tourists, I was assailed by the heady smell of bacon! I don’t usually associate a Sunday breakfast in France with bacon, but rather with the smell of warm brioche which I had hastily eaten this morning before setting out, so I quickened my step to find out where the delicious smell was coming from. I should have guessed, only one street further on, the pavements were crammed with colourful stalls, and a huge display of ‘everything edible’ from all over Normandy. Today the city celebrates La Fête de la Ventre’, literally translated as the ‘Festival of the Stomach’ and what a festival it was!

It was somewhat difficult to head my group of tourists in the opposite direction to visit the sombre and macabre gloom of the Black Death Cemetery, the Aitre St Maclou, while all the gaiety, aroma and colour of the market was only a few streets away. The group were disappointed that the Cathedral and Eglise Jeanne d’Arc were both closed for the Dioscesan Assembly, the huge ecclesiatical gathering had regrouped at the Zenith, several kilometers from the city centre. It was certainly ironic that in the face of all this gluttony and merimaking, the church had chosen to escape temptation with a Diocesan ‘Day of Prayer’ far from the city and its habitual place of worship!

Having successfully led my Americans through the burgeoning crowds building up around the Vieux Marché, and delivered them to the site of the burning of Joan of Arc, where we attempted to view the 15th century stained glass from the outside the locked and gated church, I let them loose into the face of temptation, with the instruction to return to their coach by one. How many made it back in time is one question, whether I arrived home in time for lunch is another!

I sent the following text to my daughter..

“I may be some time..!”

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The band’s great rythm added to the convivial atmosphere,

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A make-shift oyster bar was at the centre of the festivities – but between you and me, the real feast was all around us, and there were plenty of ‘goûters’ (tasters) to try at every stall for free!

WP_20131020_005Who can reist the freshest fish?

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WP_20131020_036WP_20131020_037or handgrown cress from the bank of the smallest river in France, at Veules les Roses,

WP_20131020_048Not just cress, but cress soup and tapenade of cress with garlic!

WP_20131020_045Seasonal pupkins and squashes, with the stall owner sautéing the produce in butter..

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WP_20131020_076Fresh Neufchatel cheese made in the form of a heart by the Normandy dairymaids to thank the allied soldiers for their liberation!

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WP_20131020_061Savory cakes with feta, olives or leek and salmon..

WP_20131020_059The dreaded Andoillette, both raw..

WP_20131020_041and cooked!

It smelled and looked better than it tastes!

WP_20131020_042Who can resist little “goûters” of Chorizo..

WP_20131020_035and dried sausage,

WP_20131020_030or Cerf (venison) and Sanglier (Wild Boar)?

WP_20131020_033Everywhere I looked, local specialities were being cooked.

WP_20131020_022The stall owners were jovial and good-humoured and I couldn’t resist some artisan produced fresh bread!

And at the next stall small boules of bread were infused with scented pressed olive oils

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WP_20131020_019and the huge cheeses and the Feuillettes de Chevre (goats cheese puff pastries) were heavenly!

WP_20131020_026But then I came across the display of cakes, Amandines avec Framboises, (almond frangipan cakes with crushed raspberries) and my thoughts turned to sweeter things!

WP_20131020_051a huge vat of molten chocolate,

WP_20131020_049and an expert confisseur making alcohol laden truffles on the street with little morsels to taste.

Need I say that the purchase of  a bag was essential!

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But if chocolate doesn’t do it for you, then there were freshly made Macroons of every flavour,

WP_20131020_015and several expert crèpe and galette makers hard at work!

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It was with huge regret that I finally tore myself away from the fête and headed home..

But the sounds and smells followed me half the way,

and the Truffles? All the way of course!

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The Fête de Ventre? A perfect way to spend a Sunday on a warm October day!

The Rouen Puces .. And The Tête de Veau!


Yesterday ‘Husband à l’Etranger’ and I went to the Rouen Puces together for the first time since living in France. The Rouen Puces are advertised as ‘the most beautiful indoor brocante in France’ and for a nominal entry fee it is a wonderful way to pass a day wandering amongst beautiful antiques and bric-a-brac.

There are five halls to wander through, brocanteurs packed together, sometimes with tables loaded with lamps, or bibelots (ornaments) and othertimes with complete room-sets of beautiful French antique furniture, lamps and paintings on the walls. ‘Husband à l’Etranger and I were in heaven!

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This year we were both on a bit of a mission. Having stayed in the chateau a few weeks earlier and having some beautiful ornate plasterwork ceilings in our apartment, we were on the lookout for a chandelier, or at very least a pair of Girondoles (table top chandeliers). Having passed a good three hours ‘flaning’ the halls,(a word specific to strolling through brocantes) as every good ‘flaneur’ should, it began to dawn on us that we were getting hungry!

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The Rouen Puces have made over one hall to an impromptu restaurant. However, in true French style, this was not any old basic restaurant! At a guess the hall could seat a couple of hundred diners, and the ‘menu du jour’ was written out on huge blackboards, the tables were surrounded by ornamental urns and pillars each topped with an enormous fern, whilst here and there large cream-coloured outdoor canvas umbrellas helped us believe we were in the garden of a luxurious ‘Cote d’Azur’ hotel.

A small queue of a ‘dizaine’ were waiting patiently for a table, and the Maitre D was calmly shepherding people to vacant tables. Behind a couple of ‘femmes gourmandes’ we were also waiting our turn. Finally the Maitre D approached and said he had a table for four, and if we were happy to share with the ‘femmes gourmandes’ we could eat immediately.  No guessing that we readily agreed!

The ‘femmes gourmandes’ took the aisle seats, whilst we wriggled ourselves through the narrower gap between tables. Respectfully pulling our seats towards the edge of the table to allow the two women their conversational privacy, as much as one can when sharing a small square table, the ‘femme’ next to me grabbed the side of my seat to yank me closer saying..

“Je  ne mord pas”  “I won’t bite” (well thank heavens for that!) and we set to  to studying the menus.

‘Husband à l’etranger leaned conspiratorially across the table to whisper…

“I really think they are going to order the Tête de veau” (veal’s head)

..and a second later, at the table the other side of us, the waiter approached with a steaming blue enamel pot. ‘Husband à l’Etranger’ grimaced at the idea of the skull lurking within, and I leant over to ask them if there was really an entire ‘cerveau’ (brain) inside. The couple and the ‘femmes gourmandes’ roared with laughter and lifted the lid to reveal a fairly innocent looking stew of somewhat floppy meat and vegetables and declared it was delicious.

Moments later a blue enamel pot arrived at our table and the femmes gourmandes rubbed their hands in anticipation and lifted the lid; and just at that moment ‘Husband à l’Etranger’ let out a loud…

“MOOO”

Tête de veau will never be the same again for any of us!

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Clearly, the small ‘pichets’ of wine supplied at our meals were subsidized by the stall holders. Our innocent little pitcher contained a deceptive quantity of wine. We were rather more cavalier after the meal than before and it wasn’t long before we were once more standing in front of the chandeliers and girondolles. Some hard bartering and walking away a few times secured a good price for the pair and we left the Puces happy with our purchases, and having thoroughly enjoyed our day.

Pit Stops during the Tour de France in Rouen.


Thanks to the request of an English visitor coming to Rouen to enjoy the Tour de France, I am going to pass a few moments – a very few, about great places to eat out or drink at whilst soaking up the atmosphere. It’s not a hugely great idea to ask me, because although I have a few personal favorites – eating out is not a huge pass-time – my ‘husband à l’etranger’ might start to wonder who my new found dining companions were. Here are a few recommendations:

BREAKFAST

1. The Metropole: This is my favorite place to eat breakfast and one I savor for special occasions. It is not that it’s croissants are home made or that huge variety is the order of the day but it’s the atmosphere that counts for me. If you like people watching, it is situated a few metres from the station, a great example of Art Deco Architecture with an  awning under which you can sit, come rain or shine and watch the world go by. Their croissants and baguettes are deliciously fresh and go down well with their superb coffee (reliably sampled and verified by aforesaid ‘husband à l’etranger’ as being the best of the cafe’s in our Quartier. They serve freshly squeezed orange juice, and I don’t know where they source their oranges – but with a choice of a large or small glass, one would be mad to order anything other than a large based on how delicious it is. I may be slightly biased as I know the proprietor and his wife, and that always contributes to the conviviality of a place.

At 1 Rue Verte, a few paces from the station, a breakfast will cost just under 5€. A Menu du Jour will cost about 9.50€ if you find yourself in the area at lunch time. But remember they are closed on Sundays.

2. Le Couleur Café – Rue Eau de Robec. If several choices of coffee or tea are what you are looking for then head to Rue Eau de Robec. This is not far from the Mairie and the Eglise St Ouen, and the street is pretty with its little brook that gurgles the length of the street. This cafe has a large selection of everything including Vienoisserie and is a great choice for anyone thinking of making their way towards Place St Marc and the huge market which is held on both Saturdays and Sundays.

Again for 5€ you can expect a delicious breakfast. Saturday is an easy day for finding a traditional café. If you find yourself paying 5€ for a vienoisserie, a coffee and an orange juice, you are in the right place. If not – walk on and find somewhere else!

DEJEUNER

It’s important to remember that the French eat their main meal at lunchtime. On a saturday it is easy to find somewhere  to eat. The Rouen Gare area of town has severalcafé/restaurants all serving a main meal and display the Menu du Jour on a chalkboard outside. Some of the Cafés are more attractive than others but all serve their menu for about 10€ a head which usually includes Entrée, Assiette and Café, or Assiette, Dessert and Café.

If you have already discovered Rue Eau de Robec at Breakfast you will have noticed that the road is pedestrianised and lined with cafés and restaurants. There are a good variety, from Savory Crèpes to authentic French. Look out for the sister Atelier of ‘Fait Le Vous Même’ (where I took my Patisserie classes) where the food produced by students at the Atelier under the guidance of experienced French Chef’s is served in the small café attached. ( Note that Fait le Vous Meme is only open Monday to Friday – but a meal will cost between 7 and 10€). An average Menu du Jour should cost in the region of 10 – 15€ and the price will rise the closer to the cathedral and the Vieux Marché one goes.

3. Rue de l’Ecureuil

A stone’s throw from the Palais de Justice, on the north side, passing by the modern ‘FNAC’ store and it’s associated apartments, one passes into a large square with a fountain in the centre. (The fountain sometimes does not work, but do not confuse it for the preceeding fountainless square that forms part of the modern FNAC building.) There are several restaurants in this square, but my preferred is Le Socrates that sits on the semi-pedestrianised Rue de l’Ecureuil. This is great for a lunchtime serving a huge variety of very large salads. Caesar, Niçoise, Goats cheese to name but a few. At about 10-14€ this in another good place to eat bang in the centre of town and a great favorite with locals.

DINER

There are two main areas for eating out in the evening. Restaurants in both areas will need booking in advance.

The most expensive area is the Vieux Marché. There re several great restaurants facing onto the square. One that I have personally tried and loved was:

1. Le Petit Zinc

Le petit zinc is the old french word for the bar (describing the counter top). This restaurant, on the north side of the square is traditional french with a wide menu and a medium sized convivial setting. A couple of large traditional french ‘rooms’ with classic French decoration. The menus are always displayed outside, but last time I went a meal for two including wine was in the region of 70€ depending on the menu choice.

 

2. Rue de Vieux Palais

Not far away on the other side of the square, this small road runs southwards toward the river. This road houses two excellent pizza restaurants and also a delightful small ‘Kebab’ restaurant. I do not mean the ubiquitous ‘end of a night out’ style kebab. These are barbequed squewered meats of the customers choice served with potatoes, couscous and vegetables in an authentic french restaurant. The prices were significantly lower than the Vieux Marché whilst being only a few paces away.

The other side of the Cathedral:

3. Rue de Martainville/ Eglise St Maclou

Passing the cathedral on the left hand side (walking away from the Gros Horlodge) and passing through the narrow Rue St Romain, and crossing Rue de la Republique one comes to the Eglise St Maclou Square (sadly covered in scaffolding). Taking the lane on the left side of the church there are several restaurants with outside seating jumbled together in traditional colombage timber framed buildings. The architecture is delightful, the restaurants engaging but I cannot comment on the prices. The menu du jour comes in at about 17€.

Get the Tourist information office in the Cathedral square to mark the four prime areas on a map:

1. Rouen Gare

2. FNAC and Rue de l’Ecureuil

3. Rue Eau de Robec and Eglise St Maclou

4. Vieux Marché

As for drinks, most of the cafe’s in the the region about FNAC, and also Rouen gare serve drinks independently of food. One can expect to pay in the region of 1.50€ for a coffee, 2-4€ for a glass of wine depending on the decorative level of the café, and around 4€50 for a beer depending on the brand. Soft drinks , coke, lemonade etc will always be in the region of 2.5€

HAPPY EATING!

The Tour de France

Au Nom de la Rose – Atelier d’art floral à Rouen.


Version Français – click ici

It was indecent, the number of bags I was carrying. People were staring – women particularly, and should I ever win a million, I should like to carry this many flowers home with me every day. But then if I was so abundantly overwhelmed with roses every day maybe it wouldn’t be so delicious, so perfumed or so heavenly. Don’t let my husband read this lest he get the wrong idea – an abundance of roses everyday is the direct route to my heart – but this isn’t carte blanche for investing in a rose farm in equatorial Africa – at least not yet!

We spotted the notice tucked between the glorious display of roses.

…cours d’art floral!

This is absolutely my favorite flower shop and usually as I pass I take a peek at this little round table. If I am lucky, they have bouquets of  ‘Roses du Jardin’,usually about five blooms that they consider past their prime, charmingly arranged, but which often last longer than a week.

But today there was no skulking about the edges, wishing and hoping; I entered ‘Au nom de la Rose’ with the assurance of a habitual customer. I was going to participate in the Atelier d’Art Floral…absolument gratuit!

The first shop ‘Au Nom de la Rose’ was opened in Paris in the 6ième arrondissement in 1991, the store being supplied by its own rose bushes in Provence. Now there are are about 80 boutiques worldwide and their roses are grown in Provence and Brittany, and on the equator. The roses from France are notable for their smaller blooms, whilst those from the equatorial regions, profiting from increased sunshine and humidity are substantially larger. The amazing scent of the blousy tea-roses assailed us the minute we stepped across the threshold; and the quantity and variety of blooms were stunning.

The equatorial blooms are now sourced from African run rose farms.

First we select our choice of blooms from large buckets. We then watch as the stems are cleaned and de-thorned.

Once done we are shown how to start laying the roses and feuillage (greenery) stem by stem in a rotating spiral.

The boys have finished before the girls!

The youngest seems to have found a natural talent..

“‘Ee’ is better” says the proprieteur proprietorially, reverting to a foreign language to disguise his comment. Unfortunately he chooses English.

“I heard that” squeaks the older one indignantly.

After a bit of raffia know-how for the boys,

We are shown our next arrangement.

We are instructed not to force submerge the ‘mousse’, shown how to cut and place the stems and head off to select a pot.

It’s time for the girls raffia training!

But the afternoon doesn’t end until we try some other rose products, Rose perfumed tea, Syrop de Rose, and Gelée de Rose. The Rose Tea is subtly fragrant, whilst the Rose Syrop (cordial) which is recommended diluted with water or added to Kir(now there’s a thought) and the Rose Gelée on brioche remind one of Arabian Nights and Turkish Delight.

It’s time to pack up, and we discover what happens to all those petals we discarded earlier..

as we liberally sprinkle them over our bags..

These aren’t any old shopping bags, they’re rose filled, rose scented, rose adorned shopping bags!

We splashed out a little so that we could have a rose perfumed apartment every day of the year…

even on our impecunious days!

I wonder if one could have too many bags of flowers?

My mantle-piece doesn’t seem to think so…

and nor do I!