When America’s leading baking magazine, Bake from Scratch, asks you to contribute a story on how bread baking has changed in Paris in recent years, you not only jump at the chance, you jump ensuring you have an appetite for the nibbling you’ll do while researching!
If you read the food and dining chapter in my book The New Paris, you’ve had a solid introduction into the symbolic role of bread on Parisian tables, at home and in restaurants, and how a handful of bakers worked to make hearty loaves made from sourdough and ancient grains a real companion to any meal, not merely a side affair. In Beyond the Baguette, published in Bake from Scratch Magazine’s French issue (March / April 2019), I take it a bit further and look at a wide range of bakers who weren’t about to let the tradition and art of bread making become a cultural footnote due to mediocrity and mass production and have pioneered a spirited bread revival.
In case you need more enticing, the issue also features kitchen tours and interviews with David Lebovitz and Dorie Greenspan, incredible cake recipes from my dear friend Frank Barron (also known as Cake Boy Paris!), that were inspired by specific French patisseries, a trip to Beaune to meet two of my favorite women in Burgundy — The Cook’s Atelier — and so much more. Plus, all of the stories I mentioned above were photographed by my talented friend Joann Pai, whom you will see more of on my site very soon since she photographed my second book!
In case you don’t have access to the magazine near you in the United States (I’ve been told it’s readily available at Whole Foods markets and Barnes & Noble but you can also order it online), you can download a digital version — you’ll want the recipes inside, no matter what form they come in! Bonne lecture and happy baking this spring.
2 — SPECIALTY COFFEE SUBSCRIPTION Get freshly roasted specialty coffee delivered to your door from Parisian coffee roasters Belleville Brulerie (France and Europe delivery only… for now!)
3 — TRAVEL-INSPIRED FRAGRANCES FROM L’ARTISAN PARFUMEUR L’Artisan Parfumeur, the original small-batch perfumer launched in 1976 that regularly works with the world’s leading noses, has launched travel-inspired scents that I can’t get enough of (and that’s saying a lot since it’s taken me *years* to find fragrances that didn’t set off a migraine!). The house began by rolling out Bucoliques de Provence, a scent that evokes the lavender fields in Grasse (which I wear almost every day), then Un Air de Bretagne, a scent inspired by Brittany’s sea breeze and most recently, Mandarina Corsica ,which recalls the island’s warm nights in early summer through a sweet and sharp citrus notes. I highly recommend them all for fragrance lovers.
4 — LIMITED EDITION DIPTYQUE CANDLES (Shown: Exquisite Almond) Confession: a Diptyque candle at the holidays is as much about the specially-commissioned design as the scent itself. That said, I’ve been a big fan of these collections in recent years and this year’s iteration is equally as beautiful. Dreamed up by French designer and artist Pierre Marie (who regularly designs prints for Hermes scarves), the collection features whimsical folkore-inspired illustrations that make them keepsakes long after the last burn.
5 — PETIT TEA CUPS BY GIEN 200-year old Faience maker Gien is still going strong with new collaborations and new collections, including these tea and espresso cups (or gobelets, as they call them). I discovered them at La Trésorerie, a homewares store I love in the 10th arrondissement, and bought some in mint green. Fortunately, you don’t have to come to Paris to find them — they ship internationally and their products are carried at stores around the world. If you don’t know the brand’s back story, you’re in for a treat!
6 — SCENTED MATCHES FROM L’OFFICINE UNIVERSELLE BULY Old-timey in the best way possible. Why scented matches? They’re far less expensive than a candle and equally as effective at perfuming ambient air (and slip into a stocking very nicely). According to Buly, the deodorizing power of matches has been attested for centuries and are excellent for sanitizing a restroom quickly and innocuously (in other words: put down the chemical air freshener!).
7 — HANDMADE HANDBAG FROM PARISIAN LABEL FAUVETTE If you read “The New Paris”, you already know about Fauvette, the leather goods brand from Claire Rischette. My father gave me one of her small bucket bags from an earlier collection for a milestone birthday and I’ve followed her ever since. Her latest collection is stunning and can be personalized — a different color leather, monogrammed, etc. Far more unique than an LV, wouldn’t you say?
8 — SNUGGLY SLIPPERS FROM LE SLIP FRANCAIS Or Charentaises as these guys are officially known since they’re made in Charente! Le Slip Français began as an undergarment brand and evolved into broader leisure items but one of my favorites are their comfortable slippers. What makes all of their goods special is their craftsmanship — the brand works exclusively with specialized ateliers and workshops across France (hence the higher cost) and has effectively kept many of these companies in business as a result. Not only for the items themselves but for their tags and all of the furnishings in their brick-and-mortar shops.
9 — A SUSTAINABLE WEEKENDER BAG BY RIVE DROITE PARIS I’ve turned so many people onto this small, women-run brand and am happy to do so because I love their designs and their commitment to fighting fashion waste: their goods are upcycled, made from offcut and surplus fabrics. More about their vision here!
10 — MESSAGE ON A KEYCHAIN Back to Fauvette! Another stocking stuffer (or anytime gift, really) that is affordable and absolutely lovely — a leather keychain that she’ll personalize with a word or two. You can also choose from the pre-designed models like Maison, Bisou, and Maman <3 Order online or pick them up directly at Atelier Couronnes, the boutique she co-owns with jewelry designer Louise Damas (also featured in “The New Paris”!).
11 — A LITTLE LOTION BY BULY After the scented matches, you might as well go for the très utile Pommade Concrète, hand and foot cream, another stocking/handbag/briefcase stuffer and nightstand staple you’ll be glad to have in the dryness of winter.
And coming in January 2019: “The New Paris” audio book! Many of you have written to inquire about the availability of such a version and it’s finally being produced as we speak. More on this soon! Until then, have a wonderful end of the year, bonnes fêtes, and see you back here soon.
For the French, the fleeting interlude between a long workday and the evening meal is not meant to be hectic or crazed. Instead, that time is a much needed chance to pause, take a breath, and reset with light drinks and snacks. As a ritual, it goes back generations. Whether it’s a quick affair before dinner or a lead-up to a more lavish party, apéritif is about kicking off the night, rousing the appetite, and doing so with social connection.
For food stylist and author Rebekah Peppler, a longtime fan of spirits, the fascination with the tradition of apéro actually began when she was still in Brooklyn, unaware of its existence. In her new book Apéritif: Cocktail Hour the French Way(Clarkson Potter) she writes, “I was sick of paying twelve dollars a round, so I started stocking my bar and bringing cocktail hour home. While my lovely, sun-drenched, 250-square-foot studio was, well, 250 square feet, there was a roof. It wasn’t much, but it was big with a view of Manhattan. In good weather, the roof became an extension of my apartment: a dining room, a living room, a place to gather to watch the sun drop and usher in the evening, drinks in hand.“ When she moved to France, she understood that very ritual had a name.
The act of making time for apéro itself is as ingrained as the drinks and snacks served — all of which are covered in the book, its chapters divided by the (environmental) temperatures in which one would likely consume them. Peppeler includes original cocktail recipes that use lighter, low-alcohol spirits, fortified wines, and bitter liqueurs that have influences from both Old World and New, but are always low fuss and served barely embellished—an easy feat to pull off for the relaxed host at home. The bites she includes are equally as breezy (think Radishes with Poppy Butter, Gougères, Ratatouille Dip, and Buckwheat-Sel Gris Crackers). Favorite recipes from leading bartenders and historical context/pop-culture anecdotes for each of the go-to aperitif spirits make it a smart and useful guide.
But writing the book was also a revelatory experience for Rebekah, something she explains in depth in my interview with her on the latest episode of The New Paris podcast. There, we talk about the tradition of apéro, the spirits, the modern execution of the ritual, the photography by Joann Pai and a whole lot more. Stream the episode on my website HERE or subscribe and listen on iTunes! And of course, pick up your copy — the book hits shelves today!
Podcaster Oliver Gee is midway through a massive scooter ride across France with his wife. He says the unusual experience has skyrocketed his French skills. Here’s how…..
There’s no better way to improve your French than to drive through 200 French villages. Preferably on a little red scooter. And I should know, because I’ve just done exactly that.
Now let’s put a few things in perspective before I share the story with you. When I left Paris on this honeymoon adventure six weeks ago, I spoke about a 7/10 French. Now I’d give it a 9/10. A 10/10, for the record, would be another foreigner who speaks French fluently (let’s face it, few of us are ever going to match the natives at their own game).
And why? Because it’s hard to improve your French in Paris. As soon as a Parisian smells a native English-speaker’s accent, they love to switch to English. To make matters worse, it’s criminally easy to befriend fellow immigrants – especially if you don’t have a French partner – and to languish forever in your native language.
But this doesn’t happen in the French countryside. For one thing, people in small French villages typically speak less English than their distant Parisian neighbours. And on top of that, they’ve got a lot more patience than Parisians to allow you to get through whatever you’re trying to say.
And then, perhaps most importantly, actually living through daily life and struggles in the French villages catapults you way past the boulangerie-level French you may be used to speaking in Paris.
For example, I wish I’d never had to learn the translation for maladie de lyme (Lyme Disease) but that was exactly the diagnosis of my doctor in La Sourn.
The deputy mayor of Castelmoron d’Albret, the smallest village in France, went scrambling for his thesaurus to explain what he meant when he called me “malin” (which meant, it turned out, something between clever and smart-alec).
Further south near Toulouse, a woman gave me my first glimpse of the famous southern twang when she offered me what sounded like “peng”, but which turned out to be “pain” (bread). Everywhere else it’s pronounced puh, but not in the southwest. I’m still getting used to it.
And I had no idea how how to talk about brake pads on a scooter until mine failed somewhere near La Rochelle. They’re called les plaquettes de frein, in case you ever need to know too. And it was two wheat farmers who came to the rescue, telling me they’d never met an Australian and wanted to know about life on the other side of the world.
In short, the best way to improve your French is obviously to use it, which can be harder than you’d think in a big city like Paris. But my advice: Take on an adventure, add a dash of danger and a hint of romance, and you’ll find a willing and attentive audience across the French countryside. Just remember to clean your brake pads.
Oliver Gee runs The Earful Tower podcast. He’s currently halfway through his honeymoon trip and he’s podcasting every step of the way. Join him for the next 2,500 km by following on Facebook and listening to his show HERE.
A few of the books I’ve picked up and enjoyed this summer — more coming throughout the fall! Bonne lecture!
In the French Kitchen with Kids This debut cookbooks by my friend Mardi Michels, a Toronto-based food blogger, teacher, and lifelong Francophile, takes all of the complication out of French cooking and baking with step-by-step guidance and tips to make the process fun for the whole family. Mardi brings to the table years of experience running cooking classes twice a week for 7-12 year-old boys from her school (they go by the name Les Petits Chefs!). You can be sure these recipes have been vetted, tasted, practiced a hundred times or more and loved. Spoiler: everyone I know who cooks with their children is getting a copy from me for the holidays!
Travels Through the French Riviera
This is a beautiful, illustrated guide to France’s cinematic coastline by artist Virginia Johnson. Some first land in Paris, others somewhere along the French Riviera, like Johnson. Charmed by the light, « absurd beauty » and abundance of rich colors after a first visit during adolescence, the artist returned to dream up this guide, as inspirational as it is practical.
The Lost Vintage I first discovered Ann Mah’s work years ago, when she was living in Paris full time and had recently published her first novel, Kitchen Chinese. She went on to write a tremendous reference for the cuisines of France with Mastering the Art of French Eating, equal parts memoir and historical guide. With her latest novel, we’re taken on a much different kind of journey but one that is as historically rich and personally moving as her previous work. Mah’s story largely takes place in Burgundy where her heroine returns to her family’s home to prepare for her Master of Wine exam. Unexpectedly, she finds herself faced with more than just the history of her family’s vineyard; she uncovers WWII resistance relics and wine hidden from the Germans, leading her on a trail to discover the truth about their involvement during the occupation. A profound, exquisitely written book whose end you’ll never want to reach.
The Measure of My Powers
The Paris-memoir genre, as written by foreign authors, generally follows a theme with little variation: whether by luck, circumstance or perserverence, the narrator ends up in Paris. After the intense urban love affair peaks, drama unfolds — heartbreak, rejection, linguistic fails, you name it. Eventually, the city either succeeds or fails to ease the narrator along on the path of self-reflection and integration and we follow them as they grow or move on. What I loved about Jackie Kai Ellis’s book was that Paris wasn’t the headlining star — it was truly Ellis herself, documenting her journey through an unhappy marriage, crippling depression, pastry school in Paris, the success of Beaucoup Bakery, the company she started and eventually sold in Vancouver, and transformative travel experiences in France, Italy and the Congo, to ultimately finding herself and crafting a future for herself in Paris. Though in more of a supporting role, the city ultimately taught Ellis the abiding lessons she needed to learn to shore up her sense of self when she needed it most and nourished her — both figuratively and literally — on the long road to joy. It’s precisely the edifying power of Paris as Ellis describes, with great insight and honesty, that can open our own eyes to an entirely different side of the city.
Paris in Stride With her new book Paris in Stride, my friend, la très talentueuse illustrator Jessie Kanelos Weiner alongside writer Sarah Moroz, dreamed up a clever and inspiring guide to strolling Paris with must-visits, things to eat and facts to remember along the way. “When developing the idea behind Paris in Stride, I asked myself the question, ‘what makes Paris timeless? What are the little details that preserve its visual DNA, drawing tourists back time and time again?’” explained Jessie when I asked her about the particular challenge she faced in producing a book like this. The result is a book that is as pragmatic as it is beautiful with over 150 gorgeous watercolor illustrations and maps of architectural marvels, gardens, historical highlights, cultural hubs, markets, food and wine favorites, and a host of other elements that draw generations of dreamers and artists to Paris.
Eat Like a Local in Paris Slight self-promotion: I was one of the handful of writers / photographers asked to contribute her thoughts on a whole host of dining options in Paris for the Paris edition of the series Eat like a Local. It came out this summer and is an incredibly useful, visual tool to where to eat and for what occasion! On top of that, it was photographed by my friend Joann Pai, who will be photographing my next book! More news on that coming soon.
Two chefs, Lise Kvan and Eric Monteleon, bought a van, fixed it up, named it Marcel and plotted their course for a cross-country adventure. Their purpose? A search for the abundance of France through its sustainable farming and the people preserving traditional methods of organic agriculture, animal husbandry, butchery, cheese-making, baking, smoking, and preserving. Though their journey continues, they’re making a quick stop in Paris this week for a special pop-up dinner at one of my favorite places in town, Cafe Mericourt (Reserve fast for April 11 and 12) using ingredients supplied by the producers they’ve met along their tour. You’ll also hear the duo on a forthcoming episode of The New Paris podcast.
Until then, Lise shares the back story behind their decision to hit the road with Bon Fond, who they’ve met so far and where you can find their goods in Paris.
As we packed our bags, organized the van, and drove away from the city, I knew I’d miss Paris. But the promise of meeting artisans and farmers across France was about to become a reality, a journey I had dreamt of since working at Astrance, a three-star Michelin restaurant in the 16th arrondissement in Paris. Every day, we would receive the most precious of ingredients, delivered to the restaurant doorstep, often by the producer themselves. To cook with the fruits of the producer’s labor was an honor and I yearned to see where the exquisite vegetables were grown, the tender meat was raised, or in which field the fragrant flowers had been foraged.
In January, after lots of handwork and planning, my partner, Eric, also a cook, and I set off to work with artisanal food producers and organic farmers to better understand their creations, motivations, ethics and standards. We’ve now been on the road for three months and have met fantastic, passionate individuals who are truly devoted to their craft.
Sharing our experiences is, without a doubt, one of our most important goals for our project, which we named Bon Fond. We knew that heaps of people would love to follow along on our journey and discover the savoir faire of the artisans with us. Each time we visit a producer, we document their production and their daily rituals, so people across the world can also understand why artisanal and organic production is vital to our ecosystem. We also want to give you the opportunity to taste all these brilliant flavors with us, too!
Here is our list of a few producers that we’ve visited thus far and where to find their products in Paris. Many producers also have international importers, so if you are determined to find that special product close to home, have a look on their individual websites. If you’d like to meet new French producers each week with us, follow along on Instagram and Facebook. We hope you enjoy these delights as much as we do.
1/ Cyril Zangs – Cidre 2 Table – Heirloom Normand Cider We began our journey in Normandy with Cyril Zangs, a cider maker whose bubbly spirits are cult classics among the bistronomy scene with the likes of Septime, Le Mary Celeste, Elmer and L’Entrée des Artistes. Cyril makes his cider with heirloom apple varieties and uses several winemaking techniques to cultivate the finest expression of his Normand terroir. If you are new to cider or a connoisseur, you must try Cyril’s crisp, vibrant cider to fully comprehend the art of cider making. If you’re looking to buy a bottle for a picnic lunch or a dinner at home, several choice cavistes across Paris stock his limited edition bottles.
2/ Olivier Hélibert – Charcuterie Hélibert – Top 20 Best Charcutiers of France Olivier and his wife Christine Hélibert make some of the best pâté, boudin, andouille and sausages in the country. No wonder the likes of Gault & Millau list them as one of the Top 20 Best Charcutiers of France. All their pigs are well-raised in Brittany, resulting in a succulent and flavourful product. We highly suggest tasting the Hélibert Saucisse d’Abers aux Algues (seaweed sausage, a nod to the stormy coasts of the Breton region) et pâté Breton at the Breizh Café at Odéon.
3/ Wilfrid Quinveros – Le Fumoir de Saint Cast – Cold Smoked Scallops Wilfrid Quinveros is a highly inventive, savvy businessman who built his successful smoke house, Le Fumoir de Saint Cast, in a matter of a few years. Chefs across France were quickly seduced by his cold smoked scallops and his award-winning salmon, trout, and haddock. If you’d like to try the product in its purest form, Terra Gourma has a selection of Le Fumoir de Saint Cast’s seafood. And if you’d like to see what chefs create with his sublime gamme, Chef Marine Thomas at her restaurant Padam Padam in Montmartre will blow you away.
4/ Stephan Perrotte – Maison Perrotte – World Champion Jam maker Stephan Perrotte’s preparations are such pure expressions of the fruit, with a lower quantity of sugar and pectine than traditional preparations, that he cannot even legally call his jam “confiture.” Throwing convention to the wind, Stephan’s jams have rocked the world and he consistently wins several gold medals each year at the Concours General Agricole, the most important food competition in France. He also custom makes jams for Michelin-starred chefs around the world. Our favorites include Pineapple Vanilla Rum, Apricot Timut Pepper, Palermo Mandarin, and Banana Vanilla Rhum. You can find his jams at select épiceries around Paris:
Opoa Epicerie, Saisons, Tricot, Maison Lillo, Comptoir des Producteurs, Black Kat Delicatessen, and Patisserie Plume.
5/ Françoise Fleuriet – La Conserverie de Fleuriet – Pineau des Charentes Vinegar Françoise and Philippe Fleuriet are the only artisanal producers in the world to make Pineau des Charentes vinegar. Using the best four year old Pineau, which is a distilled and fortified grape aperitif, Françoise and Philippe make their vinegar in aged oak barrels, resulting in a floral vinegar – either white or red. They then use this vinegar to create divine condiments, like their barbecue sauce, ketchup, soups, or one of our favorites, their ginger sushi condiment. French chefs, like Thierry Marx, are hooked on their vinegar and won’t touch any other vinegar in the world. We suggest you don’t either. Their vinegars and condiments are available around Paris at establishments like Papa Sapiens, La Grande Epicerie de Paris, Epices Roellinger, and La Maison Plisson.
In the pantheon of legendary pastry talents, the French will point to Marie-Antoine Carême, Gaston Lenôtre, Pierre Hermé, perhaps Dominique Ansel for his culture-bending cronut, and now Cédric Grolet who, at 31, is arguably the most recognizable figure in the pastry world today.
Head pastry chef at Le Meurice hotel since 2012, Grolet’s imaginative trompe l’oeil desserts, like the lemon, apple, or hazelnut that he featured in his first book Fruits, and his inexhaustible capacity for experimentation, has earned him high honors; he was named the Best Pastry Chef in the World by Les Grandes Tables du Monde collective and again best-of for 2018 by the influential restaurant guide Gault & Millau. His creations aren’t just devastatingly beautiful works of art that should be admired and contemplated with the same consideration bestowed on any painting or sculpture, but perfectly of the moment.
He has excelled at what the French call désucrage or de-sweetening/moderating the level of added sugar in favor of revealing the natural sugars in other ingredients like fruits and high quality dark chocolate. In real terms, this means you can taste the nuanced textures in his fruit-based desserts because they aren’t masked by added sugar. But beyond that, it is his mastery of balance, flavor and presentation that elevates his work above that of almost all other chefs and has generated attention from pastry schools and students all over the world. When he’s not in the kitchen developing his next statement piece (though it is hard to imagine concocting anything more intricate and labor intensive than his sculptured fruit collection or his Rubik’s cake), he can be found leading master classes everywhere from Malaysia to Russia and Australia, simultaneously boosting the hotel’s name recognition in markets traditionally dominated by Asian hotel groups (Le Meurice is part of Dorchester Collection).
Up until last month, his exquisite creations were reserved for tea time guests of Le Meurice. That means, booking a table and spending a few hours with formal service. Though the hotel’s tea time experience and à la carte pastry menu are priced comparably to other high-end hotels around the world (including most high tea experiences in London), it remains a more costly affair. That certainly hasn’t prevented an influx of impassioned pastry fanatics to use their travel budget toward an unparalleled gastronomic experience but the atmosphere can be intimidating, inaccessible even, for the uninitiated. Now, there’s a slightly more democratic place to get your hands on Grolet’s confections.
Around the corner from the hotel’s entrance on rue de Castiglione is a sliver of a boutique where a short selection of Grolet’s pastries are available for take-away. It also serves as a lab for his team: the first station to the left when you enter serves as the preparation and finishing area for the madeleines, kouglofs and out-of-this world cookies (peanuts and caramel) that are replenished throughout the day and all served fresh from the oven, visible at the back of the space.
Then, it’s over to the five haute pâtisseries of the moment that are priced from 7 euros to, yes, 17 euros — let’s not forget, these are still Palace hotel confections. Still, when you consider the price we are often willing to pay for a cocktail or a glass of Champagne, there’s no reason an artisanal product like pastry, prepared using the market’s top-shelf ingredients, should warrant gasps. On top of that, the time it takes to prepare one of Grolet’s trompe l’oeil lemons or apples is worth the price tag alone. And if you’re not eating pastry like this every day (you’re not, right?) it’s a little luxury worth experiencing.
Each treat is tucked neatly inside a keepsake box and ready to be enjoyed outside or, preferably if weather allows, in the Tuileries Gardens across the street. Expect lines and go before or right at opening to ensure you can walk away with one of these prized creations: quantities are limited.
If I may recommend one of the five signature pastries available at the moment: I urge you try to the tarte au chocolat (shown second from the left in the top photo). It sounds basic enough, perhaps less adventurous than the fruit-leaning desserts at first glance. But the play on textures, the harmonious balance of sweet and bitter, the smooth mouthfeel had me euphoric. If you have even the slightest affection for chocolate, this tarte will be a revelation (and maybe set your standards higher, as it did for me).
I’ve talked about how chefs and pastry chefs have been elevated to near celebrities, a trend that is certainly not unique to France. Most of the time that veneration comes across as excessive and unfounded. But I have spent quite a bit of time with Cédric, talking about his career, understanding his approach and observing his evolution and I can say that he deserves the fanfare. Not only because his unmatched talent shines through each new recipe but because he is living out his childhood fantasy and that means that permanent smile on his face isn’t disingenuous, it’s a sign of unabashed joy. He enjoys every second of the journey and meeting every admirer or aspiring pastry chef he encounters. The humility and love for the craft that radiates from Grolet — qualities we sometimes blithely ascribe to all artisans, even when unwarranted, by dint of their professions — has brought him this far. I can’t wait to see where he takes the industry next.
La Pâtisserie du Meurice par Cédric Grolet 6 rue de Castiglione, 75001
Metro Tuileries (line 1)
Open Tuesday-Sunday, noon until they sell out
Some people have a gift for entertaining, others do not and choose to outsource that help (moi!). Fortunately, I have a talented friend who both has the eye for design and wants to help people like me. Ajiri Aki’s new company Madame de la Maison is an online home for beautiful linens and antique French tableware and accessories to buy or rent. She sources her pieces at flea markets and sidewalk sales across France and has styled events small (intimate dinner parties) and large (photo shoots, weddings, and more). Accessories may not replace the beauty of a shared moment but they go a long way in enhancing the experience. Here, she offers a few tips for hosting à la française, whether you have a robust collection of antique pieces, are in the market for them, or are prepared to get creative!
As a Nigerian girl raised in Texas, a love of celebration and gathering has been in my blood since birth. I have always enjoyed entertaining but prior to living in Paris, my hosting skills were often sloppy or stressed. As an adopted Parisian, entertaining has become a way for me to meet and connect with people so I do it as often as I can. After many (and I mean many) disastrous dinners, I started to find entertaining easier thanks to a few tips I picked up from my French friends. While I don’t subscribe to the French-do-everything-better business, I do prefer decorating and entertaining à la Française. Here are five tips for the next time you want to give your gathering a chill and chic French edge:
1/ Keep the menu simple. I can’t tell you how many times I went completely over the top preparing insanely complex meals and ended up spending half of the dinner in the kitchen, frantic and missing out on the fun. A French girlfriend once waltzed into the kitchen where I was meticulously plating my dish to resemble something I saw on Pinterest. She was entirely unimpressed and asked me what all the fuss was about, handed me a glass and insisted I just flop the food down and come hang out. I was a bit disappointed after I had gone bananas to make elaborate dishes. When I was invited to the same girlfriend’s apartment for dinner, she served a blanquette de veau with white rice. It was damn delicious and she was so right!
Your guests are there to spend time with you. Keep your menu simple. You don’t need a zillion sides or extravagant dishes. Serve something you can prepare the day before like a coq au vin or a boeuf bourguignon. Or go to the market, buy fresh vegetables to roast or sauté and serve with something you can throw in the oven. And don’t be afraid to buy the starter and/or dessert.
2/ Keep the decor chic. I love how most French hosts will serve you a simple meal, but the table is nicely set with linens and objects they picked up while strolling through a flea market or that were handed down from their grand-mère. They aren’t going to overdo the decoration or at least, it won’t look like too much effort went into it. You don’t even have to do too much to give your table a stylish setup. Cover your table with a tablecloth or a runner, if you want to show off a wood table, and use fabric napkins. Never even dream of using paper napkins if you are hosting a seated dinner. Light some candles and buy fresh flowers. Like the French, bust out your grandma’s china or pick up some cheap and chic antiques. If you don’t want to do a full antique place setting, add little additions to the table such as candelabras, salt cellars, crystal wine glasses or silverware. And if you can’t get to a flea market, visit the Madame de la Maison shop onlinefor a selection of treasures from across France. When your guests ask where your unique pieces came from you can say, “oh just something I found at the flea market in Paris.” And if you’re pressed for time, as I often am, set the table the evening before.
3/ Mix and match. If you are into antique plates, boldly mix different floral patterns together, or serve on a collection of different blue and white plates. You can even collect different little gold and white salad plates to serve with your blue or floral themes. If your style highlights modern pottery, you can mix in little French antique details like a copper oil can with flowers, silver tumblers on the table with flowers, or engraved crystal glasses.
4/ Whet the appetite, don’t kill it with hors d’oeuvres. I used to set out trays full of charcuterie, cheese, crackers, smoked salmon, spinach dips, and crudité for my dinner guests. A spread like this is wonderful if that is all you plan on serving and you’re gathering to graze and drink. However, if you’re entertaining for lunch or dinner, the French would be utterly confused as to why you put out so much food that would ruin one’s appetite before dinner is even served. In France it’s standard to set out 3 to 4 bowls with simple nibbles like nuts, olives, or little crackers.
5/ Bookend with booze. A French dinner always starts with an apéritif, traditionally designed to open up the appetite, and ends with a digestif, to aid digestion. An apéro also serves as a pre-game way to loosen people up and allow your guests time to arrive. In France, it’s often considered rude to be on time, so while your friends stroll in, serve champagne or kir. And if you really want a Provençal vibe, serve anise-flavored French specialties from the South such as Pernod or Pastis. After hors d’oeuvres, dinner, cheese, dessert, and coffee, your guests might appreciate a digestive like a port, calvados, or cognac. But of course they can also just keep drinking wine.
Et voila! If you want to entertain and decorate with a little French flair, keep the food simple, the drinks flowing, and think about the little details that will make your table look effortlessly stylish. Don’t be fussy, don’t apologize for anything, don’t overdo it and remember to keep the emphasis on gathering together at the table and making your guests happy and comfortable. People remember moments and feelings you create for them.
With her new book Paris in Stride, my friend, la très talentueuse illustrator Jessie Kanelos Weiner alongside writer Sarah Moroz, dreamed up a clever and inspiring guide to strolling Paris with must-visits, things to eat and facts to remember along the way.
“When developing the idea behind Paris in Stride, I asked myself the question, ‘what makes Paris timeless? What are the little details that preserve its visual DNA, drawing tourists back time and time again?'” explained Jessie when I asked her about the particular challenge she faced in producing a book like this. The result is a book that is as pragmatic as it is beautiful with over 150 gorgeous watercolor illustrations and maps of architectural marvels, gardens, historical highlights, cultural hubs, markets, food and wine favorites, and a host of other elements that draw generations of dreamers and artists to Paris.
In this series in particular (below), created for my website, Jessie was inspired by classic street sign typography and other Parisian visual cues as a jumping-off point for visualizing French vocabulary. May this mini linguistic guide come in handy as you’re navigating the city with Paris in Stride — now available for pre-order!