The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World's Most Glorious - and Perplexing - City (6 page)

  1. Prepare an ice bath by filling a large bowl with ice and water. Nest another bowl inside it that will hold at least 2 quarts. Set a mesh strainer over the top.

  2. Spread the sugar in an even layer in a medium heavy-duty metal saucepan; I recommend one that’s 4 to 6 quarts (4 to 6 L). Have the cream ready nearby. Heat the sugar slowly until the edges begin to melt and liquefy. Continue to cook, stirring with a heatproof spatula, until the sugar turns deep brown and begins to smoke.

  3. Continue to cook until the sugar just starts to smell slightly burnt, then immediately pour in the cream while stirring. The sugar will seize and harden, so stir the mixture over low heat until the sugar dissolves. (Don’t worry about any lumps; they’ll dissolve later. But you may wish to wear oven mitts since the steam can be rather hot.)

  4. Add the milk and salt and heat until warm.

  5. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg yolks. Slowly pour the warm caramel mixture into the yolks, whisking constantly; then scrape the warmed egg yolks back into the saucepan.

  6. Stir the custard constantly over medium heat, scraping the bottom as you stir, until it thickens and coats the back of the spoon.

  7. Immediately pour the custard through the strainer into the bowl nesting in the ice bath. Cool the custard by stirring it frequently.

  8. Once cool, stir in the espresso, then chill the mixture at least 4 hours or overnight.

  9. Before churning, taste the custard and add more espresso, if desired. Freeze in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Chocolate sauce
MAKES 1 CUP (250 ML)

You can spike this very easy chocolate sauce with a big pinch of ground cinnamon or a shot of rum to suit your taste. Depending on which brand of chocolate you use, the sauce may be too thick; if so, stir in a few more tablespoons of milk until it reaches the desired consistency.

4 ounces (115 g) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped

½ cup (125 ml) whole or low-fat milk, plus a few additional tablespoons, if necessary

1 tablespoon sugar

Heat the chocolate, milk, and sugar in a saucepan over the lowest possible heat, stirring constantly with a whisk until the chocolate is melted and the sauce is smooth.

STORAGE:
Sauce can be stored in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. Reheat gently before using.

Candied Almonds
MAKES ½ CUP (60 G) CANDIED NUTS

2 tablespoons sugar

½ cup (40 g) sliced almonds

⅛ teaspoon ground cinnamon

  1. Spread the sugar in a heavy-bottomed skillet and strew the almonds over the top.

  2. Cook over medium heat until the sugar begins to melt. Start to stir the almonds and sugar with a heatproof spatula or spoon until the nuts start toasting and the sugar begins to darken and caramelize.

  3. Sprinkle with the cinnamon and stir a couple of times, then scrape the mixture onto a plate or baking sheet to cool.

  4. Once cool, break into small pieces.

STORAGE:
Keep in an airtight container until ready to use. The almonds can be made up to one week ahead.

WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE—BUT YOU CAN’T HAVE ANY

If you ever peered closely into the brackish water of the Seine, you’d probably lose your thirst in Paris. Because that’s where most of the drinking water comes from. Yuck! Over the past few years, the city of Paris has been making a big push to get Parisians to use less of those environmentally unfriendly plastic bottles and head back to the tap. Not only is the tap water safe to drink, or so they say, but its high calcium content is supposedly good for preventing osteoporosis. One thing they did gloss over was the fact that the heavy doses of chalky
calcaire
ruin our wine
glasses and block our shower heads. And good wineglasses are as important as good posture in Paris. The calcium requires us to add a dash of environmentally unfriendly
anti-calcaire
to the laundry so that for those of us who bathe regularly, our towels don’t scrape off a couple of layers of skin. (Unlike my neighbor down the hall, who evidently doesn’t consider showering all that important.)

In response, scare tactics were employed by bottler Cristaline in ads showing a toilet bowl with a big red
X
across it accompanied by the words
Je ne bois pas l’eau que j’utilise
(“I don’t drink water that I use”), a campaign intended as a response to our green-spirited Mayor Bertrand Delanoë’s attempts to wean us off plastic.

To encourage consumption of
l’eau du robinet
, thirty thousand fashionable glass carafes were given away at a highly orchestrated publicity event at the Hôtel de Ville, the city hall. Styled by some hot-shot French designer and emblazoned with the logo in blocky blue letters,
EAU DE PARIS
, the carafes garnered a lot of publicity because of their sleek design and the massive giveaway. I’ve yet to see one anywhere—except on eBay.fr.

Paris has always had a pretty close relationship with water, which runs through it and around it. Paris, or Lutetia, as it was originally called, actually began as an island surrounded by the Seine, which explains why the symbol of Paris is a boat. As the city grew larger, Paris spiraled outward and the water continued to shape the city: the name of the trendy Marais refers to its history as a mucky swamp, and there’s still a puddle of water in the basement of the Opéra Gamier, although nothing nowadays resembling the deep lake depicted in the popular musical.

With water all around and beneath us, you’d think it would be easy to get a glass of the stuff. But it can take a daunting amount of effort to get a sip. Unlike their American counterparts, who live under some decree that one
must
drink eight 8-ounce glasses per day, you’ll never see a Parisian gulping down a tumbler full or chugging a bottle of water. Water for drinking is parsimoniously rationed in tiny shotlike glasses in restaurants and cafés, meant to be consumed in carefully controlled, measured doses. If
you’re invited to a private home for dinner, water usually won’t be offered until the very end of the meal, if at all.

I attended a dinner party where the hostess kept the bottle of water sequestered under the table, guarded by her feet during the entire meal. Midway through dinner, completely dessicated, I could hold out no longer and summoned up the last bit of moisture in my mouth to form the words to ask for a sip. With some reluctance, she reached down to extract the bottle and poured a tiny trickle into my glass. Right after my ration was doled out, she screwed the top back on and stowed away the bottle.

There’s a French aesthetic about drinking glasses, whether for wine or water: they’re small and they’re never filled more than halfway. It’s not that everyone is being so parsimonious with wine, it’s just that smaller glasses look nicer on the table. Big glasses are considered
pas jolis
(not beautiful), a term the French use to justify any cultural quirk that can’t easily be explained. And I agree. After all, what’s the point of being in Paris if you’re going to be
pas joli?
And you don’t want to ruin things for the rest of us by drinking water, do you?

It can be tricky to order water in France, since there’s a panopoly of options. Simply saying, “I’d like water,” in a café or restaurant is like going into Starbucks and saying, “I’d like coffee,” or going to a multiplex cinema and telling the cashier, “I’d like a ticket to see a movie.” An online search revealed there are 214 brands of bottled water available in France, versus 179 in America, which has five times the population of France.

Before ordering, you need to decide whether you want a bottle, or
eau du robinet
from the tap. If bottled is your choice, do you want still or sparkling? San Pellegrino or Perrier? Châteldon or Salvetat? Badoit or Evian? If Badoit, do you want
verte
or hyper-bubbly
rouge?
There’s also Volvic, Vichy, and Vittel. But wait, you’re not done yet!
Demie
or
grande?

Unless you specify, you’re likely to get the biggest and priciest of the
lot, since no waiter anywhere enjoys playing twenty questions in his non-native language and that’s your punishment. If you’re terribly thirsty, spring for a bottle. Ordering
eau du robinet
means you may need to ask the waiter two—perhaps three—times before you get it, if you get it at all. They seem to have no trouble remembering those money-making bottles, but free carafes are somehow easily forgotten.

Yet there’s relief for the parched palates walking the streets: a law on the books dictates that all cafés in France have to give anyone who comes in a glass of tap water upon request. Unless they have a sign posted somewhere saying they don’t do that. I haven’t built up the courage to ask anywhere to see if it’s true, but I wish they’d pass a similar law when it comes to another urgent need around here.

The flip side of finding a drink of water is finding a place to get rid of it. This is nearly impossible if you’re out and about, so it’s easy to understand why the French avoid drinking it in the first place.

While
la loi
does give you
le droit
to ask for water in a café, there’s no law that gives you the right to demand to get rid of it thereafter. Cafés are notoriously less than accommodating about allowing you to use their often shabby accommodations
sans
purchase, unless you’re pregnant or can distend your stomach and rub it lovingly to make a convincing demonstration that you might be. Considering how many
macarons
and
pains au chocolat
I tuck in, I may soon be able to pull it off. For the rest of you, if you want to use the bathroom, paradoxically, you must drink something first, thus perpetuating a vicious cycle that works for the café owners, but not so well their patrons.

I used to buy my weekly
carnet
of Métro tickets at a grubby local
tabac
on the rue Faubourg Saint-Antoine. One day I headed to the back of the place to relieve myself of the excitement from making such a transaction. I didn’t think it’d be a problem since I was a steady, paying customer.

As I reached for the doorknob, the proprietor hollered across the room, his voice booming to all the patrons (who stopped what they were doing to turn and watch), yelling that that room was off-limits unless I had a drink. He clarified the verbal assault by making a drinking motion, rocking his extended thumb and little finger toward and away from his mouth, in case I didn’t get the point.

I got it. But he almost got my middle finger back, and I never got my Métro tickets there again.

He wasn’t acting alone, though. Parisians have little sympathy for those who have to go to the bathroom because they don’t ever have to go themselves. They have no idea what it’s like. I’ve spent eight to nine uninterrupted hours with my partner, Romain, and not once did he excuse himself to go. I guess they know better, and lay off the water.

When men do get the urge, they simply pull up to a little corner of
la belle France
and take a break. If you’ve searched your guidebook to find the historical significance of those corners of semicircular iron bars guarding historic buildings, now you know: they’re to discourage men from relieving themselves on history.

The problem’s gotten so bad that the authorities in Paris came up with
le mur anti-pipi
, a sloping wall designed to “water the waterer” by redirecting the stream, soaking the offender’s trousers. The prototype is now being tested on the most
pipi-soaked
street: the cour des Petites-Ecuries. (Don’t ask me how they figured that one out. I don’t want to know.)

Perhaps you remember the old solution, the city-sanctioned open-air
pissotières
, where men were allowed to do their business
en plein air.
In the early ‘90s, though, Paris started replacing those stinky yet terribly convenient (for us men) outdoor
pissotières
with Sanisettes, the automated self-cleaning toilets that are installed at various spots around the city. If you’re feeling nostalgic, there’s one
pissotière
left, the last malodorous holdout, way out on the boulevard Arago.

Some give kudos to the Sanisettes for giving women equal opportunity to use the streets. Except every woman I know refuses to go in one. They’re also overclustered in the touristed neighborhoods instead of where the rest
of us need them most. No matter where you are, it seems the more urgent the need, the more likely you’ll find that the little illuminated button says the cabin is unfortunately
Hors Service.

So why is it the French never feel the need to go? I searched for the answer from Romain’s mother, who raised four children in an apartment that has four bedrooms, but only one
toilette.
That means six people—plus the au pair—shared one bathroom for twenty years.

“C’est pas possible!”
I exclaimed. She shrugged off my incredulity and said there were never any problems. I guess they coach’em right from the start, because if I had to share one bathroom with my two parents, three siblings, and a live-in sitter, I’d probably be better trained than I currently am, too.

Although we find it funny, and at times excruciating, that French bathrooms are few and far between, they think it’s
très bizarre
that we drag guests on grand tours of our homes, which include the bedrooms and bathroom as part of the itinerary. And when you think about it, isn’t it a little odd that we invite strangers for a look at where we conduct our most intimate business?

The French keep those rooms discreetly off-limits and there’s no “Come! See the rest of the house!” when you visit someone. Which is great, since you’re never subjected to people bragging about their wok burners or $6,800 state-of-the-art wine refrigerators stocked with California Chardonnay. Or maybe I’m just jealous, since I have nothing to brag about in my kitchen but a half-empty jar of molasses and a few bags of dried onion soup mix.

It sure is nice not having to make your bed or scrub the toilet when company’s coming, though. Unfortunately, I have a few American friends who have the nerve to use the bathroom when they come over. And admittedly when I visit friends, even though I know the WC is off-limits, if I haven’t stopped first at a nearby building (inside or out), I sometimes do need to ask permission to go. Which is, I think, the least embarrassing of my options.

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