Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas in Paris

Ok, it’s now the day after Christmas and I haven’t blogged for 2 days – but hey, I’ve been enjoying Paris!

Off we went to the Opera House. We took a tour of the magnificent building and since there is no way to describe how fantastically incredible it is, I’ll just show you some pictures.

After our tour stopped into a café for a quick salad. Off in the corner of Fayette Gourmet (yes, the famous department store) was a large glass urn of hot chocolate. The thick dark liquid was being stirred by something below and of course I couldn’t resist. We sat at the bar along the window and people watched while we had our snack. The hot chocolate, while not quite as amazing as the one yesterday, was definitely a hundred times better than anything I’d had in Canada. I took a sip and the scum from the milk stuck to my top lip - I licked it off – yum. It was pretty dam good. I’m looking forward to tomorrow and another hot cup of chocolate chaud - my new love.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas in Paris, Day 2

This morning we got up and made it out to Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in the 19th Arrondissement of Paris. The subway brought us 2 blocks away from the school and it was so quick we were there half an hour early. We walked the streets around the school and found a farmers market. Both sides of this street were lined with market vendors. There were florists, shoe salesmen, meat vendors, fresh produce and seafood mongers. At this market you could buy sweaters and scarves, pots and pans and carpets, there was even one guy with furniture for sale. The market was about 6 blocks in length and we had only gone a few blocks when we had to turn back so we could make it to Le Cordon Bleu on time.

Le Cordon Bleu is tucked a few blocks away from the hustle and bustle of Paris’ busy streets. We walked into what looked like a small building and asked for Catherine Baschet, development manager.

Catherine walked us through the school, each floor was a different kitchen, pastry on the 3rd floor, demonstration kitchens on another level. We stood and watched a class making madeleines, then up to a pastry class making croissant. We tasted and talked, I took notes and Jon took pictures.

The history of Le Cordon Bleu dates back quite far to Marthe Distel who was a food journalist who began giving a few culinary classes by some of Paris best chefs around the late 1800’s. After Marthe, Madam Brassard bought the school and took it to the next level. This is when Julia Child took a class and it is true that under Brassard’s rule, she was very tough on the students – Julia included. Brassard ran the school for 45 years and retired at the age of 87, selling the school to the present owner, André Cointreau, a descendant of both the Cointreau and Rémy Martin dynasties. It was André that expanded the school into what is today an international school that teaches the highest standard of French cuisine around the world.

There are a few schools in The USA but there is only one in Canada and that is Le Cordon Bleu in Ottawa. After that inspiring experience, we went right back to the market. I bought another 6 escargot for dinner and a beautiful bouquet of holly and evergreen boughs.

We met Jordan back at the apartment and went on a hunt for Christmas lights. We took the subway to the Eiffel Tower and walked down the streets we became familiar with last year when we rented an apartment on Rue Sufferen. We walked into my favourite boulangerie, sure enough, a few of my favourite cheese buns were left and I quickly bought one for my evening escargot. We went into a department store and found some Christmas tree decorations; gold balls and red stars.

We walked around the Eiffel Tower and over to Rue Clare, the street famous for the food shops that spill into the pedestrian cobblestone street. Our friends rented an apartment here last year and we used to walk this way when we would rendezvous with them. We walked through the street and up La Montte Picquet. It was a beautiful street with quaint little shops. One in particular caught my attention, it was a bread and chocolate shop or, Pain & Chocolat. Outside were chocolate brown bistro tables with whicker chairs. Over each chair was a blanket to keep outdoor customers warm. The blankets were in alternating colours of red and white – how beautifully festive and tasteful. We couldn’t resist, we went in; the tiny little place had rich brown wooden furniture against antiqued walls with small tables, glass and brass accents that gave it a feel of a parlor of the 1800’s. We ordered hot chocolate and drank it outside – holey cow! It was pure chocolate. It was a pure drink of thick chocolate topped with foamed milk. It luxuriated across our palate like decadent velvet with a rich flavour. I’m beginning to fall in love with Paris’ version of hot chocolate.

Christmas decorations are not nearly as obvious in Paris as anywhere in North America but what they do have is stunning. Rue Domonique had beautiful lights that resembled long icicles. The lights streamed from the top to the bottom of these 3-foot icicles that were draped across the street. There were hundreds of them and the white lights of each of them fell from top to bottom – in the dark they looked like snow falling – the Eiffel Tower was in the distance and the scene was one of pure Parisian magic.

We walked over to the Christmas Market on the Champs Elyse. It was dark and the Champs Elyse was it up like an elaborate Christmas wonderland. The modern lights circled the street lights in brilliant blue and others in bright white. The hundreds of little cabins that make up the Christmas market were all decorated in white lights. There were thousands of people at the market and as Jordan put it, we were walking through “a sea of people”. At times it was impossible to make your way through. Some people were eating churros from large paper cones. Churros are a sweet dough piped into oil, deep fried and rolled in sugar. I bought a few Boules, they are the size and shape of a short fat candle. They’re some kind of individual cake covered in chocolate with different flavours; I got the mint chocolate one and dark chocolate with nuts. We’ll have them for dessert tonight.

Jordan is getting tired and I have to admit, so am I. Jon is taking hundreds of pictures and we’ve just walked about 10 miles this afternoon. Jordan and I headed back to the apartment through the mile long promenade along Rue Rivoli.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas in Paris

We arrived in Paris at 4 in the afternoon. The sun wasn’t shining but the weather was warm and dry. Paris was bustling and as we walked the streets around the Louvre, our new neighbourhood, we noticed the unusually large amounts of café’s still with outdoor seating that were bustling with people, drinking, smoking and some were even eating. As we walked by we could feel the warm air from the heaters escaping into the cool evening air.

We couldn’t resist and stopped at a cafe and had a hot bowl of onion soup – they don’t call it “French Onion Soup” here and I’ve learned that this is probably the one dish that Paris can call its own.

Day One

We all slept in this morning When we did get up we were fighting to use the one bathroom in the apartment. We’re so used to our own bathrooms back home that we almost didn’t know what to do, but before long, we had a routine worked out so we could all get ready efficiently with the few facilities we had. We made mushrooms omelets and spooned sweet cherries over yogurt.

We ventured out in the direction of the Champs Elyse Christmas Market. It was misting, not really raining but if you stayed outside for a long time like we did, you would get wet but the weather was warm enough so we were't cold. About one block from where we started, we entered a promenade that covered us the entire distance from where we were to the Champs Elyse – perfect! Through the promenade there were small shops with their goods spilling out onto the walkway. There were stores after stores of beautiful scarves, hats and gloves. In between there were patisserie’s that made the eyes in your head bulge right out and boulangerie’s that made your drool. There were jewellery stores with diamonds and glitter and antique stores with treasure and antiquities.

Finally we could see it. Off in the distance were hundreds of small white cabins, the size of a farmers’ market tents back home, but instead, they were white wooden cabins. They lined either side of the Champs Elyse. The grounds were decorated with transplanted evergreen trees and glittering lights. The each little cabin was a different shop overflowing with goods. Surprisingly there were few Christmas decorations but there was lots of hot wine, hot beer and of course hot chocolate. Here they have a machine that dispenses hot milk and then you buy a large square of chocolate that is stuck on the end of a wooden spoon. I played it safe with a milk chocolate square. It goes into the cup and you stir. By the time it’s cool enough to drink, the chocolate square has completely melted – it was sooo yummy!

The chocolate cabin was overflowing with giant slabs of different kinds of chocolate. Walk along and there were multi coloured macaroons by the hundreds, mountains of cheese and a small city of charcuterie. There was hand made wooden toys and candle shops; Christmas cards and Swiss army knives. Some of the cabins were full of foods from sausages on a bun to giant steel bowls filled with simmering foods over portable flames. Jordan got a bowl of luscious mushrooms in a creamy mustard sauce.

We finished at the market and took the subway to the Bastille district where we thought the market was open every day. Unfortunately it’s just on Saturday so we stopped for a hot bowl of onion soup at a cafe. Once refreshed, we headed towards our apartment on foot. We hadn’t gone too far when we found someone selling Christmas trees on the street corner. Fresh Christmas trees here are all stuck into a tree stump to stand them up. Not like back home where we fight with the waterproof metal tree stands that end up leaking all over your hardwood floor. We picked out a perfect tree and brought it back to our apartment.

We walked down Rue Rivoli with the small 3-foot tree, wrapped in its mesh sock. We passed a small outdoor market and I bought some garlic butter escargot for my dinner. The pedestrian traffic started to get thicker by the block – we were entering the district where most of the reasonable shopping is to be found in Paris and there we were marching with our little tree against the now thick flow of shoppers. The store windows were beautifully decorated, some with animated Christmas displays. There were a few men walking with TV screens on their shoulders – I guess it’s a new kind of advertising – wow! We’re certainly getting into the holiday spirit now.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Different Christmas

I’m having a different kind of Christmas this year. Not by choice but by circumstance. The plumbing in my newly renovated bathroom decided to give way and take with it my living room ceiling. So now I have a 15-foot exposed living room ceiling (aka Christmas room) showing off my newly fixed plumbing while all the furniture sits in one corner, covered with sheets.

I suppose I could get upset and have the worse December ever, but instead I decided to cancel Christmas. What happened next was totally unexpected. I felt lighter and began thinking about what I’d like to do with my December while everyone else was engaged in the holidays.

It wasn’t long before I found something to do. I’m going away but while I wait for my departure date, I find myself going about my days feeling very detached from the bustling activities around me, like I’m watching the holidays pass me by and I have nothing to do. I have to say, it feels pretty good.

The malls are busy but people are mostly stressed instead of happy, conversations of family gatherings take on a tone of frustration and anxious anticipation and people are talking practically about money and waste.

But I’m sort of walking through it, enjoying the nicest parts of Christmas. I get a warm fuzzy feeling in my heart when I hear Christmas carols, am amazed at how beautiful some of the houses are decorated, especially at night and there are so many candle light strolls and choir performances that I’m actually being swept away with the best bits of the holidays – how glorious!

As I sit on the sidelines to Christmas this year I’m incredibly thankful I’m not caught up in what I now see as holiday madness. Each and every Christmas I try to recreate the amazing Christmas of my youth for my own family. My family would always put on an incredibly memorable event. It was never about the presents because they would have them all “made” by the end of November. The first few weeks in December was spent making a special outfit to wear on Christmas Eve, then the week prior to Christmas was for preparing special dishes, a little at a time. For my family, Christmas was all about the Christmas table, the food and the gathering. I’m sure it wasn’t always manageable but the effort was always made because – well, it’s Christmas.

This year I didn’t really cancel Christmas but I cancelled the madness that Christmas has become. As you read this, I’ll be in Paris, France with my family strolling the Christmas Markets on the Champs Elyse with a hot cup of cocoa in my hands. I have an apartment just off the Louvre, I brought my Julia Child cookbooks and I’ll be making beef Bourgogne for Christmas dinner along with garlic butter escargot I'll buy at the farmers market and a stunning tourte aux pommes (apple tart) I'll pick up at one of Paris’ famous patisseries. We’ll light some candles, decorate a tiny tree with a few ornaments we found at the Christmas market and our presents will be ourselves. This year is a very simple Christmas, a return to the memorable ones – my gosh, how did things get so out of hand?

I’m not sure that you need a house disaster to remove the holiday madness from Christmas nor do I think you need to travel to the other side of the world for a simpler, more enjoyable Christmas but it’s amazing how beautiful Christmas can be when you let go and focus on what really matters.

Whether your Christmas table is elaborately festive or simple and delicious, may it be one for your family’s memory books and above all else, enjoy the holidays in which ever way you choose for Christmas is truly meant to be enjoyed. Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Ottawa's Christmas Market

Have you been to the new Christmas market at Lansdowne Park in Ottawa? It’s a romantic and festive market in one of Ontario’s most beautiful and historic buildings, the Aberdeen Pavilion. The Aberdeen Pavilion is a stunning 36,000 Victorian heritage building that held a variety of agricultural events in the late 1800’s and continues to do so today.

Christmas Markets are popular in Europe, they first began over 200 years ago. Cologne, Vienna, Nuremberg, Brussels, Munich, Prague, Berlin, Copenhagen, are the best (I’ve heard) and now they’ve spread to Rome and Paris. Christmas Markets are primarily outdoor markets that are different from farmers’ markets in that they have very few fresh fruits and vegetables and more items more appropriate for the season.

White tents decorated in colourful lights spill into village squares selling nutcrackers and Christmas ornaments, wooden toys and marionettes, candles and lambskin shoes. Foods offered include roasted chestnuts, baked apples, gingerbread biscuits, mulled cider and hot wine.

The beautiful new Christmas Market in Ottawa is indoors. Market stalls were decorated with twinkling lights, evergreen boughs and shiny presents. Carolers dressed in historic costume strolled the market singing Christmas carols. On the tables were prepared foods and one-of-a-kind gifts that added interest to the stalls of fresh produce.

It’s amazing how much fresh produce is still available in December. There were chestnuts, apples, pears, squash, kale, onions, garlic, leeks, beets, cranberries, green onions, spinach, potted herbs, fresh greenhouse tomatoes, carrots in rainbow colours and multi-coloured potatoes. There were long stocks of Brussel sprouts and pints of Jerusalem artichokes; pork and bison, sausages and pepperettes. I found green spiky cauliflower marketed as edible Christmas trees and a few honey stalls mixed in with maple syrup vendors; an artisan grain producer was busy grinding fresh flour.

In between the fresh produce was a wide range of wholesome and decadent foods made by culinary entrepreneurs. There was Ottawa’s popular Pascal’s Ice Cream (I had the egg nog flavour). There was sparkling apple cider, apple cider donuts and bags of dried apples, some dipped in yummy chocolate. Bakers with tables overflowing with artisan loaves of bread and bakers with pies; pies made of pumpkin, apple, turkey, steak and traditional tortierres. There were giant, soft cinnamon buns, vegetable stuffed breads and giant irresistible cookies.

There were cakes baked in mason jars, topped with icing and equipped with a silver spoon; bite size pieces of cake called Bombs, enrobed in chocolate and topped with yummy goodies of caramel, nuts, candy and fruit. There was a donut baker offering mini home made donuts in flavours of Pecan Turtle, Malted Milk, Coco Hazelnut and Maple Bacon.

Besides the fresh produce and decant foods there were pots of Christmas greens, holiday candles and wreaths of grape vines. There are hand crafted hats and beautiful scarves, jewellery, stunning cutting boards, artwork, hand made wooden toys and Christmas tree decorations.

Christmas markets are a step back to an old fashioned holiday where simple pleasures are paramount.

The worlds most decadent, beautiful and incredible Christmas market is in Paris, France where over 350 stalls spill out along the Champs Elyse with Christmas lights strung across the boulevard and around every tree, festive music plays while shoppers stroll casually with a cup of vin chaud (hot wine).

I can’t wait, I’m going to Paris for Christmas this year. I’ll be strolling the streets, shopping at the Christmas markets with a mug of hot chocolate. I have an apartment behind the Louve, I’ve packed my Julia Childs cookbooks and I’ll be making Beef Bourgogne on Christmas morning. I’ll write from Paris, but if I don’t, from my table to yours, have a very merry Christmas.