If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck…

Surely you’ve done it: come home from the store and discovered you hadn’t bought what you’d thought you’d bought. Diet Coke instead of regular. The wrong kind of cream cheese. The wrong size light bulbs. So have I… but never like this.

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Today I picked up a chicken at the grocery store to roast for dinner. We’ve had mixed success with chickens here in Paris. The best one was from the little grocery store without much selection. The toughest, least flavorful one was sadly a spendy bird from the butcher. And none of them have been quite the same as what I’m used to at home. So when the one I picked up today seemed a touch narrow, the wings a bit more prominent, the flap of neck skin longer, I took note, but chalked it up to the fact I still don’t know my French chickens very well. I halved a mandarine orange and stuck it in the bird, popped it in the oven along with some quartered potatoes, sliced onions, carrots and garlic and roasted that thing.

Turns out it’s not just my chickens I don’t know very well. I started to carve the bird, taking off the first leg, the wing, and then moving onto the first side of the breast. As soon as I sliced into it, I knew: that’s no chicken… that’s dark meat!

But what was it? A small goose? A duck? But how could it be? I know the word for duck, it’s canard, and I knew I hadn’t seen that when I bought it. I dug the plastic wrapping the bird had come in out of the trash. In large, fancy script was emblazoned the word Canette. I’d taken that to be the brand name or something. Turns out it means duckling!

Oh well! I finished carving and served up. I’d never roasted a duck before, but I knew it wasn’t just like roasting a chicken. The girls were good sports, but none of us were exactly crazy about how it had turned out. Mind you, not that it was inedible or anything. Just a bit tougher than what we were hoping for.

Maybe I’ll buy one on purpose sometime and do it up proper, taking advantage of all that duck fat and getting the skin nice and crispy. Next time. Or maybe next time I’ll make sure I’m actually buying a chicken.

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Trouble in paradise

Life in Paris isn’t all days of wine and roses. Even here, some days are diamond, some days are stone; some days are pain au chocolat, some days are a pain in the… well, you know. So here we go: some of the challenges of living among the French.

Sarcasm alert: this post is full of it.

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Code? What code?

To get into your typical residential building in Paris you need a door code. Type in the code, press the button, and voilà, you’re in. Plenty of these buildings have doctors or lawyers or other professionals on the ground floor. Back in September when I needed to consult with my surgeon, I found the building, found the door, but I didn’t have the code! What to do? So I dug out my phone and called the receptionist (who barely spoke English) and explained I didn’t know the code to get in. She said something like “No code.” Right, exactly—I don’t have the code. Finally she came out and let me in. Come to discover all I had to do was press the button—without a code—and the door would open.

Danger: minefields everywhere

Ah Paris, city of culture, city of art, city of taste and refinement… city of dog-poop-on-sidewalks-all-over-town-and-especially-wherever-you-happen-to-be-walking. On the street around the corner from our apartment there is actually a sign that instructs the fine citizens of Paris to pick up after their pet. True story: I never even noticed that particular sign until the day I was walking by just as a woman stepped in a big pile of dog poop right in front of the unheeded sign. So far I’ve avoided all those nasty little land-mines. Not that everyone in our family can say as much…

Things heat up

Our rather small oven built by NEFF (company slogan: That’s not a bug, it’s a feature!) can overheat simply by running the broiler for a while. Or using it to, you know, roast something at a completely normal temperature. At which point the sensors inside its genius computer brain issue an Emergency Alert and increase the Oven Security Level to Defcon 1 (“Core Breach Imminent”) and engage Complete Oven Lockdown. Seriously—it locks the oven door closed and will not function! It has even gone into lockdown mode after we’re done cooking and the thing is turned off. This is more than mildly annoying, especially when I can’t get it to release the lockdown for more than a day. And even more super-especially-annoying when there is hot, tasty food inside the oven that I want to serve to guests!

Thanks to some googling—and no thanks to the French manual—I have learned the proper (non-intuitive) reset sequence to input, thus enabling us to get the dumb door open and rescue our food. Even so, we now leave the oven door open after use until it has completely for sure, no-doubt-about-it cooled down. Be assured: I will absolutely positively never ever voluntarily purchase an oven built by NEFF.

Cool it now

It got pretty cold in the middle of October. Not Montana cold by any stretch, but unseasonably cold for Paris—cold enough that it might be nice to crank up the heat in the house for the sake of, oh I don’t know, sleeping without shivering. So I figured out how to say “the heat isn’t working” in French and went down to see if I could get any help from the guardian in our building. She understood me, smiled (she’s very friendly) and mimed shivering, rubbing her arms with her hands. Then she said a whole string of things I didn’t understand, got out a calendar and pointed to a date later in the month. That I understood.

Turns out our apartment is one of those old ones that has centralized heat—heat for the whole building that is turned on on a set date regardless of what the weather is like, arctic freeze or Indian summer. And turns out this is fairly common. That’s why there’s a little space heater on wheels in the corner of the living room. So for about ten days we’d wheel that thing around to wherever we were in order to take the edge off the chill until the building heat came on later in the month. At which point, right on cue, the weather warmed right back up.

Where the streets have no name

I had hoped in our year of living here I would never get behind the wheel of a car (I did a whole post on this). Well, I managed to make it a little more than a month before we rented a car from a local so we could get out to one of the suburbs instead of spending hours on the train.

At least the French drive on the right, but that’s about all I’ve got going for me. The first time I drove, negotiating the narrow streets, trying to see the tiny street signs hidden on the sides of buildings, dodging other drivers, and following Siri’s directions (in her robotic, mangled French pronunciation that makes me sound like a native speaker) was enough to get my heart beating right out of my chest.

But we made it—and I lived to drive again—and for the most part minus the stress. After Christmas we even rented a zipcar on a Sunday morning for a joyride around town to take in the sights while most Parisians were still sleeping (you don’t have to get up very early to do this). The streets were so empty, I even took a loop around the normally manic Arc de Triomphe. Whoo-hoo!

I’ve got this figured out, I know exactly what I’m doing—or not

I’m getting lots of things figured out in Paris, more and more all the time. But now and again I get humbled.

So there I am: confidently striding off the métro, down the platform, up the stairs, and onto the connecting train—and not realizing until it pulls into the next station that I’m going the wrong direction.

Or getting a good deal on a couple of boxes of coffee pods for our K-cup coffee maker (something I’d never used before moving to Paris) only to later discover that they’re for a completely different style of coffee maker. I didn’t know there was another style.

Or ordering a baguette sandwich at the bakery (in French, right after French class) and being handed two sandwiches—and not because it was buy-one-get-one-free day. Yeah, apparently I didn’t say what I thought I said.

Can you hear me now?

We don’t have a local bank account here since we’re short-timers. Meaning I can’t get an ongoing phone service plan for our phones. So every month I need to buy recharge slips for each of us at the tabac to get another month of service. Service that includes 600 megabytes of data for the month. Enough data to check my email and open four-and-half web pages before it’s exhausted. Okay, it’s not that bad, but I have to ration my cellular data usage like a miser if I don’t want to find myself wandering Paris at the end of the month unable to load the map on my phone. (No, I haven’t carried a paper map anywhere in months.) In some ways this is a good thing. No mindlessly scrolling Facebook while waiting for the train. No looking up some bit of trivia or watching Studio C videos just to kill time (although I love Studio C). It means being intentional about using the internet when I’m out and about. And that’s actually not so bad. There’s a lot more I could say about the frustrations of the recharge plans—like they’re always changing the deals, the rates are exorbitant, certain plans seem to expire mysteriously, and the Orange phone company website is cryptic… okay, I’ll stop now.

Hung out to dry

Our combination washer/dryer is another fine product brought to you by the people at NEFF. Another product I will never ever willingly buy. Who invented this Franken-combo? Sure, it washes clothes—to be precise, the tiny thing has a capacity of exactly two shirts, three socks and a washcloth—and then you have to switch if over to the dry function (sechage), where upon it will shake, rattle, and roll for a couple of hours, at which point you will have a pile (a very small pile) of hot, damp clothes that are now thoroughly wrinkled. We’re having to iron things we’ve never even thought of ironing before. What’s more, it’s not like anything comes out really dry. Sheets have to be hung over chairs for another few hours before you can make up a non-damp bed.

Now wait, you say—those things that get so wrinkled, can’t you pull them out early? You know, before the wrinkles set in? What an idea! Alas, no. This is another NEFF product, remember? Which means that once the door is closed and the cycle (no matter what cycle) has begun, it is in LOCKDOWN, baby. Don’t even think of getting your precious pants out until it is good and ready—and they’re good and wrinkled.

Final disclaimer:

It’s not that I’m not complaining; living in Paris continues to be a fantastic experience. The dog poop I’ve accepted, the appliances I’m tolerating, and the continual phone service recharging—well, maybe I am complaining just a little bit…

Come to think of it, I think I need a crêpe.

Cooking with Julia Child… sort of

It’s the end of the year. My sister and her family are staying with us, and some other friends are in Paris as well. Sounds like a good time for a big meal. We’ve done well with getting ready-to-eat things from our local grocer and butcher, like an amazing Beef Wellington (my favorite) for Christmas Eve that was as good as anything we’ve made at home. But this time I decided to go all out and cook something from scratch. And we’re in Paris, so why not Beef Bourguignon a la Julia Child? Why not, indeed!

Shopping is getting easier all the time as I figure out the French stores and so I managed to find all the things I needed that we didn’t have on hand, like a bouquet garni, pods of beef broth, tomato paste (it comes in a tube, like toothpaste—I love that!), and of course, two kilograms of beef. I had a hard time pronouncing “bourguignon” correctly, but the butcher was patient and figured out what I meant. He picked out a beautiful piece and got it all cut it up for me.

Back home, everything started off well, even though our place doesn’t have a dutch oven; our kitchen has a thousand skillets, a pile of pots (but just one lid for all of them), two, yes two pressure cookers, but nothing with a lid that can go in the oven. Well, we found three ceramic baking dish kind of things. With some aluminum foil to cover them, it seemed like we should be able to get by—or so we thought.

It was all going so well, the bacon and meat and veggies all nicely browned. We got it all divided among the ceramic dishes, the stock and wine added, and were bringing them all up to a simmer on the stove top…

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Then it happened: one of the ceramic dishes practically cracked in half and a whole section of the side broke off, releasing a flood of broth all over the stovetop. A second one cracked a few seconds later. Houston, we have a problem!

But all was not lost. That’s why you buy extra bottles of wine! We got everything turned off and quickly transferred the contents of the two dishes that hadn’t totally failed along with the meat and veggies from the broken dish into the largest pot we had, poured in some more wine and finished it on the stove, skipping the oven. It’s not how Julia would have done it, but it still turned out delicious.

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Green salad with goat cheese rounds rolled in herbs. You can buy pre-sliced rounds of goat cheese at the grocery store. Perfect!

Happy eaters. Twelve people for dinner, but only seven chairs. Some of the kids got to eat around the coffee table.

For dessert, Merideth picked up a Gateau Saint-Honoré from one of our favorite pastry shops, La pâtisserie des rêves. Worth every euro!

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Happy New Year! We’re looking forward to more adventures in the year to come. I hope you are, too.

Baking diversion

Carolyn is turning 13 and she really wanted to make chocolate chip cookies, so we embarked on our baking adventures in France–which of course has entailed its own learning curve. For one thing, our apartment’s kitchen isn’t exactly fully equipped for even all the cooking things I’ve wanted to do, much less for baking. We bought a baking sheet yesterday, but didn’t manage to find a hand mixer. No worries, we’ll figure something out; after all, humankind baked for centuries without electric mixers.

Only once we were underway did we realize that we didn’t have real cooling racks or even a real mixing bowl. But we got by. Another crucial element of hardware that wasn’t to be found was anything to measure with—either measuring cups or spoons! But no problem, there’s a great kitchen shop right nearby. Except they don’t even sell measuring cups or spoons. Instead they have these glass containers that have all sorts of measuring systems on them. Okay, got it.

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Then there are the most crucial things of all—ingredients. Butter? No problem. Sugar? Check. Brown sugar—uh, Google to the rescue. I picked up two things that look like brown sugar: sucre complet muscovado and sucre roux de canne. My French translation app said sucre roux was what to look for and a baking forum I found said muscovado was expensive and unnecessary to seek out. Still, I bought them both—and was glad I did. The sucre roux turned out to have the coarse consistency of Sugar in the Raw while the muscovado was much finer and packed like brown sugar. (Looks like I’ll be saving the sucre roux for coffee.)

Then there’s the flour. I found two small bags in the kitchen, so I should be set right? Not so fast. Maybe I should call on the power of Google to see what kinds of flour I’m dealing with. After all, even I know there are differences between all purpose, whole wheat, and cake flour. Here’s what David Lebovitz, the American baker-gourmand in Paris, has to say:

Flour varies from country-to-country. French ‘all-purpose’ flour (type 45 and type 55) is closer to American cake flour: it’s milled very finely and has less-protein and gluten (strength). In most cases, you can’t just substitute French all-purpose flour in American recipes like cookies and cakes. I know too many Americans who opened the oven door and found all their carefully rolled-out chocolate chip cookies, melded into one, giant blob. [Learn more here.]

Wonderful! Guess what kind of flour we’ve got—that’s right, one is Type 45, while the other? It’s not clear. Maybe I’ll just do half of each…

So we get the butter and sugar creamed and the eggs beaten in. Without a mixer we found that Carolyn’s hands worked better than a wooden spoon or whisk (thanks again to an internet tip). Next up: vanilla—or at least the closest thing I could find: Arôme Vanille, which is really flavored sugar syrup. Oh well. Then baking soda, which turned out to be called bicarbonate alimentaire and not anywhere near the other baking items in the store. (Thanks to the English speaking woman at the grocery who sent her little girl to go find some for us since I didn’t know what it would be called or where it would be! The French are rude? Not in my experience. Given that I’m the one who’s trying to get along without being able to speak much of their language, I’ve received no end of patience.)

Okay, time to measure in the flour. I decided to go with half of each kind we had. Only later did I discover that both bags were “Type 45”—the kind that’s not supposed to work correctly…

We interrupt this baking account to remind you of an amusing moment from Star Trek IV:

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Kirk: Mr. Spock, have you accounted for the variable mass of whales and water in your time re-entry program?
Spock: Mr. Scott cannot give me exact figures, Admiral, so… I will make a guess.
Kirk: A guess? You, Spock? That’s extraordinary.
Spock: [to Dr. McCoy] I don’t think he understands.
McCoy: No, Spock. He means that he feels safer about your guesses than most other people’s facts.

What does any of this have to do with baking? Everything! I’m bad enough keeping my cups and pints straight without having to convert ounces to grams or Fahrenheit to Celsius. First off we had a 500g brick of butter and according to my math, needed 225 grams. And the packaging doesn’t have any kind of unit markers printed on it, so right of the bat I’m guesstimating how much to use. Then comes the sugar and the flour. I’m pretty sure I got the sugar right, but the flour? Our measuring glass has units for measuring farine (flour) but to my eye it looks like way more than what I’m expecting a cup of flour to look like. So I guessed again and used only about 2/3 of what my math said I needed. We got it mixed in to what seemed like a reasonable consistency and Carolyn loaded up the first sheet for the oven. Here’s hoping my guesses are as good as Spock’s…

Well, it took longer than the recommended ten minutes (who knows how accurate the oven is–another unknown!), but in the end… we had tasty chocolate chip cookies! The consistency was slightly more cake-like at first, but they firmed up and at least we didn’t end up with a giant cookie glob.

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See–not bad! In fact, they’re pretty good. The flavor isn’t exactly what we get in the U.S., but then we’re using different flour, different butter, different vanilla… really, different everything (along with some dodgy measurements). So I’m pretty happy.

Now I can get some rest. ‘Cause it’s time for surgery in the morning!

Adventures in shopping

Getting the kitchen set up has been the most work since we’ve moved into the apartment. Each time we make another meal, we discover something else we don’t have… like aluminum foil, saran wrap, paper towels… and so on. It wasn’t too hard to find those at one of the markets. But many other things I’ve taken for granted we’ve discovered are nowhere to be found in our kitchen–usually when we need them. I had to use a coffee cup to mix up a dressing since there isn’t any kind of pitcher or even a measuring cup (or measuring spoons). Evelyn picked up a little “cheese and bacon crisp bake” from the British food store and we discovered there wasn’t a baking sheet to heat it up on.

We do, however have plenty of tea sets and loads of sugar in little packets. We also have some great things like escargot utensils, a selection of pastry crimpers, and a wooden holder for protecting your hand while you open oysters. (I’m sure we’ll be putting all of those to use right away!)

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We’ve gone shopping at four different groceries in the neighborhood. We found a large Monoprix with a pretty good selection of everything in the lower level of a small shopping mall here in the Passy neighborhood–it even has a Starbucks (Carolyn’s has high hopes for some frappuccinos). There’s another Monoprix even closer, although from the street all we could see was clothing and makeup. But sure enough, tucked way in the back it had a small grocery. Marks & Spencer has plenty of cool imported items; we picked up some cheddar cheese, some Scottish salmon, and Evelyn’s crisp bakes as well as stroopwafles (a family favorite) and honeycomb candy (another family favorite).

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Today we went to yet another grocery called Luce and stocked up on more basics, like spices (since we had none), Milka hot chocolate (yes!), keurig capsules (since we have one of those now–I’d never used one before), a new kind of peanut butter to try, tomato soup, rice, and more.

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Oh, and we also picked up some Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Paris isn’t so different from home after all!

Arrival in the City of Light

On French soil
We made it! From Seattle to Vegas to JFK and at last to L’aéroport de Paris-Charles-de-Gaulle. That’s the routing you get when you book with mileage on Alaska—a bit more involved than the direct flight from Seattle, but we got here all the same. Customs turned out to be a breeze–we literally walked right up and showed our passports with our hard-earned visas. The officer gave me a brief look, said nothing, stamped them all and waved us through. Since customs took almost no time at all, we ended up waiting a while for our car to arrive. But once it did, we quickly got into the city and to our hotel for the first night. After getting settled in the hotel (and naps for everyone) we took a walk around the neighborhood. We found our apartment and then walked from there to the girls’ school—just six minutes away (450 meters according to Google). We were so jet-lagged, none of us felt like going to a restaurant, so we grabbed some things at a local market and ate back in the hotel room before staying up as late as we could to try to get on Paris time (not that it worked!).

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The steps down to The International School of Paris on rue Beethoven

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A view just a few blocks from the girls’ school

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Dinner back at the hotel

Setting up house On Saturday, August 1st, we moved into our apartment at 20 rue Raynouard in the Passy neighborhood of the 16th arrondissement, on the west side of the Seine. It was only a ten minute walk from the hotel, but our checked baggage was so heavy we got a taxi to get all of our things there!

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The front door

These first days were definitely unlike normal days of being a tourist. We went shopping at a couple of different grocery stores and a pharmacie down the street. We spent our first few hours unpacking and trying to figure out where everything in the apartment is (still not done with that task). In our first two days here we didn’t use the Metro at all! We rented a furnished apartment, which is much easier than renting an empty place. Still, we’ve had things to buy, and we keep discovering more things we don’t have yet. I’m sure that will continue for a while. I made dinner our first night here and then realized there are no napkins or paper towels of any kind in the apartment. I’m still not sure if there are measuring cups. I’ve found one piece of tupperware.

IMG_5905 IMG_5907 IMG_5908 The decor is wonderful, but not exactly what we’re used to… and alas, the gramophone doesn’t appear to have worked in a long time…

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Ready to make our first dinner in the apartment

We have managed to get some nice views of la tour Eiffel and enjoyed les jardins du Trocadéro (the park with the big fountains and pools opposite the Tower). We even saw the police chase down what appeared to be a rogue trinket seller and corner him by the fountains. Such excitement in our first few days!

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The Tower at night

Shopping for essentials… and a shocking discovery!
The fridge was bare, of course, so we made an initial shopping trip for some basics (eggs, cheese, ketchup, mustard, tomato sauce, etc.). We’ve learned—much to Carolyn’s disappointment—that cheddar cheese is almost impossible to come by. Apparently in this land of hundreds of cheeses, cheddar is scoffed at as hardly even a real cheese, although we found some Emmental that made for some tasty omelets as well as one called saint-félicien that’s not bad. (Carolyn’s comment to her friends on Instagram: “What will we do? How will I live!?! These are the questions in my head.”) Well, this is part of why we came, right? To live in another culture. So I picked up some orange colored cheese called mimolette. It turned out to be a French version of edam and one of the closest things to cheddar we’ll be able to get. Learn more about the lack of cheddar in France here.

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Evelyn stocking the fridge

We’re glad to have wifi, and relieved it’s been easy to connect to. I’ve even gotten my Macbook to recognize the printer! We also have a landline (haven’t had one of those in years). There aren’t many outlets—we’ll be swapping things in and out of the two outlets in the kitchen a lot, I fear. On Sunday, we met our some friends at the American Church in Paris for the service and spent the day together–but that’s for another post.