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I have many memories of my trip to Paris. Taking a boat ride along the Seine river, touring the cobblestone streets of the Marais, sitting in the pew of the Sacre Coeur on Easter. I’m not much of a diarist but during my trip to Paris I recorded every detail so as not to forget all those moments that seemed so significant at the time but are already fading like the edges of an old piece of vellum. You can’t choose what you want to remember; as my first glimpse at the Mona Lisa slowly recedes from my mind, the memories of what I ate in Paris will remain. To my mind, food and memory are inextricably linked. Strange to some people, perhaps, but I think it makes perfect sense. If you are to truly experience a culture, you must experience its food. A nation’s cuisine is a confluence of centuries–sometimes even millennia–of tradition and history. It bears witness to whether a nation lives in wealth or poverty, whether it has been well endowed by nature. Culinary traditions teach us about a nation’s cultural level, about how people cultivated their fields and grazed their livestock, and about whether the land was crossed by main trade routes bringing in other nationalities, customs, foods, and spices. In other words, to eat a country’s food is to glimpse into its past.
Although food historians surmise that the precursor to modern pastry was the Mediterranean paper-thin phyllo brought to medieval Europe by way of the crusaders, it was the Renaissance chefs who are crediting for developing puff and choux pastries. For me, the tart is the crown jewel of pastries, and none as quintessentially French as the tarte aux pommes.
You only have to be in Paris for a very short time to realize that there is a pâtisserie on every streetcorner, the windows displaying a variety of tarts and tartelets, each crafted with tradition and the utmost care. I spent many a day in Paris with my nose pressed up to the glass of a pastry shop, trying to figure out which one beckoned the most. They all seemed too pretty to eat.
Although I have never been much of a baker, when I returned home I was determined to master the tart. No more Tenderflake crusts with all their bad fats for me. I wanted the real thing, and I wanted to be able to make it myself. Your first attempts at pastry hardly ever turn out the way you want them to, but it doesn’t take long to master a good sweet short paste. And what can be easier than filling it with some sliced apples, sugar, and a coating of apricot jam?
Which brings me to Julia Child’s tarte aux pommes. This week I continue to cook with Julia from Mastering the Art of French Cooking in anticipation of Julie & Julia, written and directed by Nora Ephron of Sleepless in Seattle fame and highly awaited by foodies everywhere. This classic French apple tart is, well–forgive the pun–easy as pie.
Tarte aux Pommes
from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child
10-inch partially cooked pastry shell
4 pounds cooking apples (Golden Delicious)
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/3 cup apricot jam/preserves
1/3 cup Calvados, rum or cognac (or 1 tablespoon vanilla)
2/3 cup granualted sugar for topping
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1) Preheat oven to 375F. Quarter, core, and peel the apples. Cut enough to make 3 cups into 1/8-inch lengthwise slices and toss them in a bowl with the lemon juice and sugar. Reserve them for the top of the tart.
2) Cut the rest of the apples into rough slices. You should have about 8 cups. Place in a pan and cook over low heat for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until tender.
3) Beat in apricot jam, Calvados, sugar, butter, and cinnamon. Raise heat and boil, stirring, until applesauce is thick enough to hold in a mass in the spoon.
4) Spread the applesauce in the pastry shell. Cover with a neat, closely overlapping layer of sliced apples arranged in concentric circles, as illustrated below:
5) Bake in upper third of preheated oven for about 30 minutes, or until the apples have browned lightly and are tender. Slide the tart onto a serving dish and paint over it with a light coating of apricot glaze. Serve warm or cold with whipping cream or a scoop of ice cream.
1/2 cup apricot preserves, forced through a sieve
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
Stir the strained apricot preserves and sugar over moderately high heat until thick enough to coat the spoon with a light film, and the last drops are sticky as they fall from the spoon (225-228 degrees on a candy thermometer). Do not boil past this point or the glaze will become brittle as it cools.
Apply the glaze while it is still warm. Unused glaze will keep indefinitely in a screw-top jar.
A year ago I was in Paris for the first time. It was a trip I’d dreamed of going on for years, and when the opportunity presented itself I didn’t hesitate to take it. I love to travel, and although I like lying on a sandy beach with a strawberry margarita as much as the next girl, my idea of a great holiday is a couple of weeks touring any of Europe’s great cities. I love museum hopping, wandering through art galleries, and sitting at a sidewalk cafe people-watching. I love to sample the local cuisine and wander aimlessly through the city streets, trying to soak up the energy of the place so I can always remember how it felt to be there.
I had some niggling doubts about Paris before I went. I was visiting a friend but during the week I would be on my own a lot while he was at work. I didn’t speak a lick of French, although I’m Canadian and we’re required to study it in school. I always found the pronunciation impossible, the grammar and spelling arduous. I studied Italian in university. I really liked Italian. Unlike French, it’s a phonetic language; once you learn the alphabet you can pretty much read it and write it.
The fact that I didn’t speak French wouldn’t have bothered me as much had I not heard that French people are rude to you if you don’t. Actually, every person I knew who had been to Paris told me that they were rude no matter what you did. There’s a saying I’ve heard repeated ad naseum. Something like, “Wonderful country France…pity about the French.”
Granted, I didn’t spend a long time in Paris–eight days–but I didn’t find French people rude at all. They weren’t friendly in the same way North Americans are, which people from other cultures sometimes find superficial. But in my experience, they weren’t rude. I think that a bright smile and a friendly attitude can serve you well no matter where you go. I’d like to think that my positive spirit was reflected back to me.
So in that same positive spirit, today I’ve decided to reflect on a few of the reasons I love France–and the French. I’m happy in my city and when I get right down to it, I wouldn’t really want to live anywhere else. But there are some things that I appreciate about France so much that I wish they were bigger part of North American culture…
1. For me, and perhaps many of you since you read food blogs, what I love most about France is the food. It’s a food lover’s paradise. Every other storefront is a bakery or cheese shop. You can go into any Monoprix or basic supermarket and for a couple of euros come out with the type of quality Camembert you would pay at least twelve bucks for in North America. The French take food and eating very seriously. There are stringent laws that protect the quality of their breads and cheeses and their chickens. There are even laws that limit the number of big box type of supermarkets that are allowed to go up. Sure, bad food can be found everywhere–even in France. But as far as I’m concerned, the less there is of it, the better.
2. The markets. Farmer’s markets have grown more and more popular in North America but we need a lot more of them. One of the reasons I think the French eat so well is that it’s easy for them to drop by their neighborhood market and pick up whatever they’re going to make for dinner. The food is fresh and they don’t waste money hauling bags of vegetables home from the supermarket only to throw them away a week later because they couldn’t get around to eating them all.
This past weekend I went to the Granville Island Market , our most popular market here in Vancouver, where you can get fresh produce, artisan cheeses and a variety of gourmet foodstuffs all under one roof. Although I went there shortly after opening, it was so packed that I had difficulty finding parking. I think that people are more concerned about what they eat and how it affects the environment. They want to shop like this. What they don’t want is to have to get into their car and drive to five different shops for their meat, bread, and vegetables. The French way is more convenient, with markets peppered throughout small towns and every city neighborhood.
3. Bakeries. OK, so this is also related to food … but is there anything better than a freshly baked French baguette from a Paris bakery? I think non. I am one of those people who could live on bread alone and am always on the search for the perfect ciabbatta or the flakiest croissant. One of the best meals I had in Paris was my first–a few slices of baguette smeared with Camembert cheese, eaten with a tomato and endive salad and chunks of sausage. I couldn’t believe the bread. It was crispy on the outside, chewy and unctuous on the inside. I would never dream of eating pastries for breakfast at home, but in France I started every morning off with an almond croissant or pain au chocolat without a scrap of guilt. They were just too good to pass up. Now I understand why people line up so patiently outside of French bakeries.
4. Cafe Culture. I saw one Starbucks when I was in Paris–at the Louvre museum. There is nothing more quintessentially French than a deep, dark espresso taken at a corner zinc bar or a cafe creme imbibed at a crowded sidewalk cafe. The French hold their traditions dear, and there is a lot of cultural resistance to the proliferation of companies like Starbucks, with its throwaway coffee cups and huge bakery sweets. Starbucks may have found a little niche in France, catering to tourists and French university students, but with the high costs of doing business over there, it’s not making a profit.
I’m not bashing Starbucks. I do my fair share of hanging out there. But the European-style combination of the cafe/bar is what I like the most. It’s nice to get together with friends and have coffee when you don’t feel like drinking, or have a beer or an aperitif while they have coffee, if that’s what you feel like. I’m not much of a drinker but I like to go to bars for a leisurely glass of wine with a friend. To me there is nothing more annoying than a waitress coming around every five minutes asking me if I want another drink or requesting my beverage order in a restaurant before I’ve even opened the menu. That doesn’t happen in France.
5. French people read. And we’re not talking cheesy romance novels on the Metro. We’re talking Sartre. Camus. Alexandre Dumas. I first noticed this on the plane from Frankfurt to Paris. Every other French person had their nose in a book. On the transcontinental flight to Europe I hadn’t noticed one person reading anything but a magazine. The Metro is full of people reading novels on their way to work. If the publishing industry is in decline and people are buying less books, its not happening in France.
Books have always been a big passion of mine. It’s nice to see that in this age of technology that books are still important to a lot of people. Being intellectual is highly prized in France, unlike in Anglo-Saxon culture, where its seems quirky or pretentious. Out of all the little things I noticed about the French and their ways, this impressed me the most.
These are some of the things that I really liked about my stay in Paris. What about you? Have you been to France? What did you like about French culture?
Note: The top two photos of Paris shown here come from Microsoft Office clipart, as my own pictures of Paris were lost in a hard drive malfunction.