PARIS: PART ONE

No year abroad jaunt in France would be complete without a trip to Paris, famously branded as city of love, city of lights, and host to more than 25 million tourists every year.

Sightseeing is all very well – yes we visited the Louvre, yes we went to Notre Dame, and we even went a little further afield, westwards to Versailles and core-bound down to the eery catacombs of Paris (highly recommended) – but this being my third visit, the trip constituted an unmissable opportunity to visit the city with, this time, the intention of tasting my way around the famous rues and ruettes of the great capital.

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But unfortunately, I must admit to being a little disappointed. With everyone around the world catching the travel bug and visiting every corner of the globe there is to see, I’ve long given up on the fantasy of really discovering somewhere new and unexplored, and of all the cities  in the world Paris is probably the most explored of them all, so I was never expecting to stumble across a true hidden gem. However, what really shattered the illusion was having to come to terms with what was actually left on offer: a wide selection of either astronomically-priced and snooty “bistrots” – the kind that charge you a fortune for an artistic smear of some mediocre sauce with service about as warm as the tepid, watery soup they just set down in front of you – or countless characterless fast food joints, complete with fluorescent lighting, plastic tables and photos of their decidedly unappetizing dishes.

Recently I’ve found myself getting more and more frustrated with how the French look down their noses on English food. In their eyes we are a population of culinary simpletons, without a shred of savoir faire when it comes to gastronomy and practically unable to tell the difference between an aubergine and an orange. And yet I can’t help but notice how devoid France seems to be of genuinely good food. I’ve been lucky enough to have rooted out some little gems here and there along the way, but the country seems to be in dire need of independent, decently-priced, good-quality establishments serving simple food done well. From what I gather, the bouchons of Lyon used to be fine upholders of these kinds of restaurants, but even their good name is being dragged through the dirt by profit-hungry restaurateurs who realised what deceivingly branding their sub-standard restaurant as a bouchon authentique lyonnais could do for their business.

But perhaps the most frustrating thing is that not only has the standard of food served in France’s numerous restaurants slipped to such an appalling level, but that they have managed to do so in spite of the incredible food on offer. Market day in France is quite simply a pleasure to behold, with stands bursting to the brim with local produce, and the country has equally managed to maintain the age-old tradition of buying independently: butchers’ and bakers’ flourish as ever, powered by the families who refuse to give in to the allure of the supermarket which sadly seems to have bewitched the hearts of the English.

On the other hand, to put it quite simply, I believe that the quality of food served in British establishments has skyrocketed over the last decade or so. Horse-meat scandal aside (in any case, my idea of a good restaurant is one that prefers home-made meat products as opposed to Tescos finest) the food philosophy has changed: people are actually takng an interest in what they are eating, where it comes from, how it was prepared and who cooked it. In a nutshell, we are slowly learning to really appreciate good food. Don’t get me wrong, there still remains a huge amount of work to be done – the price, produce and general mindset concerning market and independent sale is still in need of serious improvement – but on the whole it is my firm belief that the country has made a real breakthrough.

And so we are now confronted with a strange situation: On one side of the Channel we have England struggling to source the ingredients and produce to support the new food philosophy being pioneered, whilst on the other side France is abundant in the stuff, but seems to have forgotten how to use it. As a result, it appears the two nations have something to learn from one other: Britain would do well to take a leaf out of France’s book and reinvent its markets, creating an affordable environment where people can actually carry out their weekly shop, whereas the French desperately need to rediscover the love of good food they seem to have lost to the English. Unfortunately the country’s greatest hindrance is its denial that they have actually lost it. The ridiculous French pride and refusal to accept the gradual decline of food standards is the only thing ruining the country’s greatest export (and its reputation): simply good food.

 

Café Mokxa

DSC_0702It’s to be expected, I know, but Sundays in France really do take some getting used to. Not only is everywhere closed for business, but the streets are practically empty; I feel like I should be seeing tumbleweed drifting slowly past me down Rue Herriot. It’s a well-known fact that the French are fiercely proud of their Day of Rest, but as an English expat used to being able to treat Sundays like any other day of the week, the whole concept is a little disorientating.

That’s why every now and again it’s so refreshing to find somewhere that is actually open at the end of the week. In my experience, the majority of this small scattering of seven-days-a-week advocates are to be found in the Croix Rousse district of Lyon, the city’s answer to Manchester’s Northern Quarter, and indeed it was on the sloping cobbles of Rue de l’Abbé Rozier that we tumbled in to Café Mokxa from a blistering February wind.

DSC_0698I was lucky that there was even space for me. A pocket-sized little café perching on the street corner, I can imagine the place could be described as “bustling” even with only a few customers, and today there were a far greater number. In the summer months you can quite easily envisage customers spilling out onto the little circus but on this particularly biting day everyone was keen to be inside: wedged around little tables lined around the edge of the room, customers were seated elbow-to-elbow in front of steamy windows, interspersed with shelves here and there selling various coffee-making paraphernalia.

DSC_0700Indeed, the place prides itself on its coffee. Stocking several varieties of bean, freshly ground and filtered according to your command, and putting to good use a coffee machine somewhat resembling a small rocket ship, the place is renowned as one of the best coffee merchants in Lyon. I, however, was distracted by the offer of a mysterious elixir d’hiver. A tall glass of steaming lemon juice (freshly squeezed if I’m not mistaken) with a dash of honey and chunks of fresh ginger arrived, and constituted a delicious change from the usual run-of-the-mill tea: Refreshing yet warming, with the ginger adding a pleasant tingle down the back of the throat.

 

DSC_0693The cake cabinet and cookie jars beckoned irresistibly, but having recently read that the place offers the best carrot cake in town, my choice was already made. Having been served a generously large slab, I tucked in : a liberal spreading of icing dotted with orange zest coupled with a moist, dense and perfectly spiced sponge, which could almost have been described as ‘bouncy’, I was far from disappointed. Topped with walnuts to add a little crunch, this cake had definitely earned its reputation.

Totting up to a grand total of 8€, the place isn’t cheap, but for a large slice and large drink, it’s just about reasonable. Would we return? Definitely, though with a friend. Sitting alone in such a tiny and busy environment I felt a little pressured to be quick and make room for others. Despite the fact that we were technically a party of two, others don’t seem to think that a fork needs a whole chair all to himself, poor dear.

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Café Mokxa
3 Rue de l’Abbé Rozier 69001 Lyon
http://www.cafemokxa.com/

Le Salon Anglais

Unable to contain my excitement about the upcoming Sunday Brunch, I’d mentioned it to many people throughout week. Proud to be attending such a special event, I inadvertently linguistically shot myself in the foot: whilst the pop-up/supperclub phenomenon has slowly been making itself known over the last five years or so in the UK and the States, in France it remains, for the most part, an unknown concept. Thus the first question people asked upon my slight boasting (the obvious “where are you going?”) shut me up – a disjointed and stumbling explanation filled with English loanwords tended to leave people looking even more confused.

Luckily for me, this blog only requires me to explain in English (hoorah!). Le Salon Anglais is, as far as I am aware, the only regular supperclub to be found in the city of Lyon, and one of only a handful in the whole of France. Hosted by a Kiwi chef and his French wife (aka Little Red Rooster and Ms Jones), Le Salon Anglais started up in Lyon after leaving its previous residence of New Zealand, where they had already established themselves as a supperclub known as The French House. The idea is simple: bringing together likeminded people (oh for the love of food) to talk, share and, most importantly, eat great food, prepared with love and hosted in the intimate and relaxed environment of someone’s home.

Following previous themes such as a Reveillon Blanc and a Thanksgiving dinner, our brunch was entitled Breakfast at Tiffany’s (cue pearls and liquid eyeliner). Upon arrival, we were greeted with mimosa cocktails and ushered into the dining room, where a beautifully decorated living room awaited our presence. The attention to detail and amount of effort put into the decoration did not go unmissed: sipping our aperitifs we were seated on sofas and chairs draped in turquoise fabric and hand made cushion covers, clustered around a small coffee table dressed up under a lace tablecloth. Meanwhile the dining table beckoned gloriously, adorned with orchids, turquoise buttons and gold-rimmed crockery.

In all its elegance, such a table really needed to be accompanied by food of a matching standard to have the full effect. Another tick for Le Salon Anglais – our small party of 11 was treated to four courses brimming with flavour and of a standard which (far too often) is usually reserved for only the richest of diners. The first course consisted of a tartelette (or two, if you were lucky/greedy) a generous spoonful of wonderfully soft scrambled egg drizzled with truffle oil and nestling in a little cup of homemade pastry. For such a thin case, it steered well clear of crunchy and instead crumbled beautifully at first bite.

Mini-pancakes followed, drowning in a honey butter and cooked just enough to have a very slight crispy outer layer, crowned with a wafer-thin slice of pancetta, adding a touch of pleasant saltiness. It didn’t need the extra maple syrup offered in the slightest, needless to say I added some anyway. When does one indulge if not on a Sunday? This course, in turn, was followed by baked salmon, fennel à la Grecque and perfectly poached eggs. Tucked underneath a rich hollandaise sauce,  this was all topped off with a touch of class in the shape of a small dollop of caviar.

However, the pièce de résistance was without doubt the dessert. What could easily have been a heavy and filling final course was executed to perfection: Light and spongy chunks of pain perdu (French toast) slathered in a sweetened goats cheese, managing at once to be creamy but not too thick, were topped with dates soaked in a spiced syrup and orange segments, which provided a different and refreshing kind of sweetness. The combination of flavours and textures was simply outstanding.

I can quite honestly say that this was one of the best meals I have eaten to date in Lyon. Not only was the food itself superb, the unusual experience of dining around a table filled with people I had never met before was memorable to say the least. Yes, it’s a cliché, but you just never know who you are going to meet and attending such a gathering is, in short, inspiring. When you think about the stereotypical French attitude towards the importance of food and dining together, it’s surprising that such a phenomenon is still only in its teething stages. Regardless of whether you charge for this kind of event (this one in particular was 25€, and well worth it!), to host a dinner in your own home, for complete strangers, kind of embodies the French way of thinking: food is a huge part of our lives, whether you like it or not, so what better way to benefit from such a normal and routine part of daily life than to make an occasion out of it and share not only the experience of eating and enjoying food with other people, but taking the opportunity to try it with someone new? Le Salon Anglais, like all other pop-up organisations, doesn’t make a profit from such projects: the foundations of supperclubs stem simply from an interest in food and an interest in people. And yet, for them to work, they require the combination of curiosity and generosity that people like Ms Jones and Little Red Rooster possess. It’s thanks to these kinds of people that the rest of us can benefit from such a eye-opening, unique and convivial experience.

And in amongst all this Sunday indulgence where was Spike, you ask? It’s not often that a fork succumbs to shyness, but alas, for reasons involving the risk of a breach of identity, he stayed tucked in my pocket. Stay tuned though, he won’t stay quiet for long!

http://www.le-salon-anglais.blogspot.fr

Photos courtesy of Le Salon Anglais

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COUSIN COUSINE ET CO

Spike and I had a real stumble-upon moment this week. I’d never heard of CCCO before – I didn’t even know the road it’s on existed – but happily the glacial Lyon wind swept us inside, and we couldn’t quite resist having a bite to eat.

Cousin, Cousine et Co is one of those great places that makes you feel cooler simply for having walked in. The atmosphere is laidback and informal, with the Buena Vista Social Club playing somewhere in the background; stunning tilework carpets the ground floor, which is dominated by the wood-topped bar and open kitchen; and the majority of tables and chairs are on the upper mezzanine floor, allowing for those dining with only their forks for company to sit peacefully at the bar, undisturbed by the larger parties.

I wasn’t even hungry, but something was nagging at me to try the formule de la Fête des Lumières, so I threw caution to the winds and ordered the pesto ravioli. And thank goodness I did: it was possibly one of the best pasta dishes I have ever eaten (bear in mind I have just been to Italy, of all places). It was nothing short of a delight to devour the little pockets of ravioli, stuffed with cheese and piled plentifully into an oven dish, swamped in a rich and creamy sauce, and topped off with a homemade pesto crunch bursting with fresh basil and parmesan. Served simplistically, on a rustic chopping board covered with baking parchment and a side salad, it came in the dish it was cooked in, which Spike and I highly appreciated: there’s nothing quite like that satisfying little crust at the edge of the dish.

We weren’t going to have pudding… and then gave in. This is France. You can’t not have pudding. It’s just impolite. The waitress kindly allowed me to convert my café gourmand into a thé gourmand (if she hadn’t already deduced I’m English I definitely gave the game away by asking for milk) which came with three mini desserts: chocolate brownie, lemon cheesecake and tarte tatin, presented tastefully on a slate. I wasn’t blown away by them – the brownie a little too dry and the cheesecake too lemon-infused for my liking – but they were tasty and just the right size.

Unfortunately, the standard of the food and general laidback atmosphere only highlighted the one down-side: it’s amazing how much more obvious bad service can become when everything else is so pleasant. Whilst one waitress was friendly, responsive and downright charming, the other was surly and curt, almost to the point where I felt like my mere presence was annoying her. Not quite so charming.

The visit was short but sweet, a pleasant refuge from the biting cold on a winter’s day in Lyon. If you’re looking for somewhere easy-going and unpretentious, head to Rue des Feuillants. At 15€ for a formule of plat + café + gourmandises, it’s not at the cheap end of the spectrum, but certainly worth the visit.

Cousin Cousine et Co
1 Grande Rue des Feuillants, 69001 Lyon

Le Musée

You know somewhere’s going to be good when you sit down and there’s complimentary crackling on the table.

The time had come to try my first real authentique bouchon lyonnais, and I’d chosen Le Musée for my initiation. Typically of these traditional Lyon eateries, the décor seemed somewhat dated, with bizarre paintings dotted on the walls, fittings from the 50s and lace curtains covering the windows… and yet it all seemed to add the buzzing atmosphere which wouldn’t have been the same without the strange little idiosyncracies.

Did I mention the mural of a massive sow that appears to be suckling various fruits and vegetables?

Upon entering, it was encouraging to see that the place was already packed, with people crammed in around little tables covered in blue-and-white checked linen and staff deftly manoeuvring the maze of chairs. It should have felt cramped and uncomfortable but any fewer tables would only have been detrimental to the convivial atmosphere. It’s clear that the place thrives on feeding the masses.

The service here, put quite simply, is top-notch. The waiter, a suitably rotund gentleman who also happens to be the owner of the establishment, comes to the table and goes through his hand-written menu of the day, adding personal recommendations and explanations where necessary. A baker himself, the bread here is soft and fresh and he treated the group party next to us to a giant slab of pull-apart bread with an affectionate “c’est mon travail”. I won’t lie, it was a little bit stressful having to decide on our courses as soon as he had dictated them to us, but he was friendly and patient and ready to reiterate anything. We finally opted for saucisson brioché and salade aux champignons to start, followed by joue de porc and andouillette for the mains.

In all honesty, I was expecting to be disappointed with the mushroom salad; it’s not exactly what jumped out at me from the menu but he recommended it so insistently we decided to put our faith in him, even if a little reservedly. One forkful sufficed to show me how wrong I was: possibly the tastiest meal of the night, the pleurotes (oyster mushrooms) were hot, spongy and as tender as the kind of oysters you find on chicken, drizzled with a sticky, almost honeyed, sauce of reduced double cream , all laid on a bed of crunchy salad leaves. It was so delicious I’m almost positive there was meat in it. In comparison, I was a little disappointed in the accompanying starter, the saucisson brioché, which was a little lacklustre. The brioche itself was excellently cooked; buttery in taste and light, spongy and airy in texture, but the meat was a little plain, especially for supposedly the best of its kind found in the bouchons of Lyon.

After a minimal wait, the waitress surprised us with an unanticipated dish to accompany our mains, consisting of Swiss chard, Jerusalem artichokes and gratin dauphinois. The potatoes were creamy and soft, whilst managing not to turn to mush, and just oozed buttery goodness. Our main courses followed, and soon enough I found myself face to face with another Lyonnais speciality: andouillette. Not for the faint of fork, this dish is, to put it simply, pig intestine stuffed with more pig intestine, and considered a delicacy in France. The sausage was cooked to perfection: an almost crispy skin bursting with chitterlings, which just fell apart once pierced. If anything, its typically dominant flavour was slightly overpowered by the sauce; rich and creamy but perhaps a little too mustard-enriched. The joue de porc, on the other hand, was outstanding; without doubt the pièce de résistance of the entire meal. So succulent, so tender, no effort on Spike’s part was made whatsoever – bathing in a sauce of onions and its own juices, the meat collapsed beautifully at first prod.

Somehow we managed to find room for dessert, so in keeping with the Lyonnais theme I’d opted for all evening I selected the tarte aux pralines. Another of Lyon’s specialities, tarte aux pralines is traditionally made using the pink praline, so be warned: if you don’t have a sweet tooth, this is definitely a dish to steer clear of. I must admit that I have had better than the one served at Le Musée: in my opinion the pastry base needs to pack a real crunch to help slice through the sugariness of this dessert, and on this occasion I found it too spongy and sugar-soaked, quite literally oozing syrup at one tentative poke from Spike.

All too soon it was time to go home. Or so we thought: to our surprise the waiter informed us he would soon be guiding all the customers around the hidden traboule at the back of the restaurant. He even offered us a cigarette to apologise for our having to wait. Upon our polite declination, he insisted we try some eau de vie, or gnole, as it is more fondly known, on the house. Having never tried (or even heard of) this digestif before, I took one massive whiff and nearly choked. Peeking at the bottle on the counter I spied a “47%” lurking in the corner of the label – it turns out gnole is actually something similar to what we would call brandy. Free brandy? Another brownie point for Le Musée.

Vis-à-vis the traboule tour, I’m reluctant to give everything away and ruin the experience of going to visit yourself, but I would recommend finding a companion who speaks very good French! I could tell that the owner’s speech outside was entertaining, and amused everyone standing in the courtyard, but as it was packed full of French in-jokes, political commentary and play-on words I won’t pretend I didn’t have difficulty understanding! Our friendly waiter outdid himself once again though, and was more than happy to reiterate the main points for me in a slower, more condensed manner.

The food was better-than-average, on occasion outstanding, and the atmosphere buzzing and lively, but what stood out the most here was the service. If I ever find a friendlier waiter in France, I’ll eat my fork.

ITALY IS EATALY

The promised land?

So this post isn’t technically about Lyon. Or even France for that matter. No, Spike had a little treat this weekend: in recognition of last week’s fork-up he came on a whirlwind trip to Turin, home of gianduja (that’s Nutella to you and me – but better) and the world-famous foodie’s paradise, Eataly.

Whilst this post will mostly concern the aforesaid food haven, I feel that the first meal of the day can’t simply go unmentioned; it would almost be worth staying at the Hotel Victoria just to benefit from the breakfast spread every morning. Along with the usual suspects of cheese and ham for the true continentals, pastries for those sweet of tooth and freshly squeezed juices, what really stood out was the fried Parma ham – how it had never crossed my mind before to bathe Parma ham in an oil-filled frying pan to create a wafer-thin and crispy golden treat is beyond me. With a packed day of eating ahead of us all, naturally breakfast was healthy, sustaining and packed full of nutrition (see photo). Yes, that’s a brownie with three different kinds of gianduja. Oh, and some pistachio cream (what was I supposed to do? It was just sitting there. It would have been almost rude not to take advantage). When in Turin…

photo (5)Gastronomic celebration is taken to a whole new level this side of the Alps, and nowhere is this more striking than in Turin’s very own branch of Eataly. Parading food in all its glory, this is so much more than a supermarket for lovers of fine cuisine: almost an art gallery of food displays awaits the hungry customer (and their fork) who is left with no choice but to quite literally feast their eyes upon a lavish exhibition worshipping the decadence of food.

Wooden stands heave with fruit tumbling from wicker baskets and overflowing crates of vegetables, including a pile of onions trapped beneath a butternut squash big enough to feed a family of forty. The ceiling drips with gourds of cheese and hanging hind legs above an overwhelming assortment of salami, complete with posters explaining the various cuts available. Under a brick archway, shelves of jam-filled jars gleam brightly in a rainbow of colours, paving the way to the pastificio which appears to be wallpapered with sheets and spirals of pasta. Behind a glass screen, a small, flustered Italian man uses a peel the length of a barge pole to shovel raw dough into an enormous bread oven roughly the size of Switzerland, from where they emerge crusty and golden and are promptly piled straight onto the shelves of the panetteria.

   Fish      

A trip downstairs takes you to the takes you to the maturing rooms, where a little sign on the door politely forbids entry to non-lovers of cheese and salami – naturally we strolled right in. No sooner have you pushed open the door than you are bowled over by the smell which reaches right to the back of your nostrils: the pungent perfume emitted by the various wheels of cheese lining the walls and the salted scent of the hanging meats are so overwhelming that the power of food is clearer in these cellars than anywhere else in the building – it’s almost a relief to exit into the be-barrelled wine and beer cellar.

Forking and talkingGetting stuck in

As the place is dotted with various restaurants and bars according to department, we couldn’t really not stop for lunch. The pizza del giorno, cooked in less than 90 seconds in another gargantuan wood-fired oven, had deliciously soft and chewy dough, topped with the richest of tomato sauces, creamy mozzarella, olives and sausage meat, and provided Spike with a chance to explore and meet some of the locals over a bite.
Lyon might be able to boast Bocuse and bouchons, but even the famous Halles de Lyon have definitely met their match in the face of Eataly, home of alti cibi and general point of pilgrimage for those looking to manifest their love of simply good foodAlla prossima, Torino!

Of Corks and Candlewax

So Spike’s not too pleased with me at the moment. I can’t really blame him: abandoning him on a fork-free evening to a wine bar less than a week into the publishing of this blog isn’t exactly what you’d call a functioning fork-foodie relationship.

… But then again, I would stubbornly argue that the annual uncorking of the Beaujolais Nouveau would constitute a perfectly legitimate excuse for this kind of behaviour. Lyon finds itself neatly wedged in between two of France’s famous wine-growing regions, the Côte du Rhône and the Beaujolais, and so when it comes to celebrating the “déblocage” of the latter on the third Thursday of each November, you’re somewhat spoilt for choice of events and special openings in the city.

My forkless companion and I decided to head to La Cave d’à Côté, hiding down Rue Pleney in the 2ème arrondissement, to mark the occasion. This actually wasn’t the first time I’d been there (Spike just shot me a look that quite clearly said “fork you”), I’d also visited the previous week:

La Cave oozes at once allure and rustic charm from the outset. A pair of large, weathered, glass-paned doors gives way into the bar’s entrance hall. Cosy and almost seductive, it feels like the sort of place you should only be able to enter via a hidden trap-door lurking amongst the flagstones of some resplendent château: stacks of wine bottles line the walls, voluptuous old wooden barrels are scattered throughout the room and the candlelight almost melts into the entrance hall, filling the place with a mellow glow that makes you feel as though you’ve just walked into one of Lyon’s real hidden gems. Which you have, by the way.

I can’t stake any claim to be an educated wine connoisseur. To put it quite simply, I don’t know wine (yet). However, I can tell you that the Chardonnay, fût de Chêne, that I received upon asking for a regional speciality, was absolutely delicious. Easy on the palate, and… well, it just tasted NICE. The sommelier, a friendly and patient man who seemed impervious to (or politely ignored) our linguistic stumblings, seemed to know exactly what I wanted. Or at least he could just guess really well. The choices were simple: one board for red, one board for white, with about eight options on each. What makes this place so appealing is that there’s not a shadow of pretension to be seen – whether you’re an expert or a novice, the atmosphere is so laidback and unassuming that you can’t help but feel welcome and comfortable.

For the big night itself, the ambiance simply expanded, spilling out into the street along with the buzzing crowd that came with it. As the inside seating area was already filled to capacity we were obliged to take our pot (only 7,50€ – that was a good four glasses! Thank fork for one of the few things in France that’s actually cheaper) outside. No matter though, for there were heaters and benches for those of us who dared to brave the November chill, whether they were couples enjoying a glass together, old connoisseurs commenting lazily on this year’s crop or simply poor students like us, using the excuse to sample and celebrate a local treasure.

Sneaking a glance at the table next to me, I feel a pang (or should that be a prong?) of guilt as I spot a cheeseboard and selection of charcuterie. Next time Spike, I promise.

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