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Posts from the ‘Shopping’ Category

No. 181-182: Reims and Champagne Country

The other day, we made a quick trip to the city of Reims (pronounced ““rINce”—sort of rhymes with a nasally “France”) on our way to the Champagne region.

According to legend, Reims, 80 miles northeast of Paris, was founded by those naughty Roman brothers, Remus and Romulus, and houses some impressive Roman artifacts. Whether or not the brothers as founding fathers is true, Reims has always been an important city for the French monarchy, its beautiful cathedral could be called the Westminster Abbey of France. Not only was this historic cathedral the site of 25 royal coronations, it is also a glorious example of Gothic architecture.


Unfortunately it sustained terrible damage during WWI and was further damaged during WWII. Thankfully it has been restored (no small thanks to John D. Rockefeller) to all its splendor. In addition to housing an amazing original rose window (dating from 1255), it also holds a luminous set of Marc Chagall’s stained-glass windows.The windows are dazzling and the church a welcoming spiritual home for believers and non-believers alike.

chagall-windows-reins. jpg

Reims is also famous for its red schoolhouse which now houses the Museum of Surrender (Musée de la Reddition). It was here that on May 7, 1945 at 2:41 in the wee hours of the morning, the Germans under General Jodl surrendered unconditionally to General Eisenhower, ending World War II in Europe. This fascinating museum houses photographs, press clippings, relics, and a good film detailing the last days of the war in France. The small signing room remains exactly as it was on that day in May and is exceptionally moving to see.


From Reims we headed to the countryside on an arduous trek (someone had to do it) to learn the ins-and-outs of the journey champagne makes from grapevine to glass.


As you know, champagne gets its name from the region in France of the same name: a strictly defined area encompassing 634 villages in five different départaments. What you might not know is that during the Middle Ages, church wine used for the Eucharist was one decidedly sought after commodity. As luck would have it, the English preferred the “light and crisp” wines made in the Champagne region. Their high demand and the low supply led to the continued cultivation of grapes in the region, which with new techniques, eventually evolved into our favorite apéritif. Although the first sparkling wines were produced near Carcassonne, France, when the “sparkling” technique was applied to Champagne’s wines in the 1700s, champagne as we know it was born.

In our quest to appreciate and sample champagne, we toured both swanky champagne houses and homey and relaxed estates. In the name of research, we burrowed hundreds of metres below ground into the dark and chilly caves and listened to several Chef de Cave explain what makes champagne, champagne. Personally, I found the champagne making process fascinating and instructive. The tasting wasn’t so bad either.

I now understand why champagne is so expensive (the double fermentation process and a minimum of 2-years ageing) and the historic and climatic reasons that the grapes are grown in the Champagne region.

Next stop, Chablis…



Chef de Cave: The cellarmaster, who is typically the person in charge of the winemaking team. In the New World this person might be called a “winemaker”, but in many champagne houses the winemaking team is large, involving multiple winemakers, and the chef de cave is the one who heads the group and provides overall direction.

No. 180: Stravaganza: The Fine Art of Embroidery in Haute Couture

This morning I was thrilled to visit an atelier of another talented artisan, Fabienne Debastiani, at her purple digs in Paris.

Fabienne is a passionate creator of jewelry, costumes and haute couture. She began her career as a dancer and choreographer and her handcrafted designs are heavily influenced by the world of cabaret and Cancan. Her specialty is fine embroidery and her work is breathtaking. Like the flower artists at La Maison Légeron, Fabienne, seems to magically spin gilded thread, tiny beads and sparkling sequence into exquisite, wearable art.


She is another one of Frances treasured artists who is taking care of the details.

All her pieces are one-of-a-kind, and each one reflects her enthusiasm for her craft and for life. Somehow she has managed to continue to combine her love of this unique handcraft with her passion for dance. She choreographs and dances throughout Paris and Versailles and even found the time to choreograph and perform in the Cancan scenes in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. On top of that she has begun to hold embroidery workshops for the public sharing her joy of creating while helping to keep her craft alive. She is versatile and kind, and she moves through many different worlds, some days creating wedding gowns for real princesses, while on other days offering to repair this American’s treasured Siamese beaded clutch.


The unique artisans of this country continue to astound me and never let me forget how important art is to a culture…just one more thing I love about France.

No. 162: France, London-style

I’m traveling to London and environs again to lend support to Button as she auditions for more Musical Theatre programs and to spend time with the much missed Kitcat in Epsom.

I feel like I haven’t been in Paris forever and I have really been missing my life in France. Lucky for me, London seems to (secretly) love the French, as much as I do, as every time I turn around, I seem to run into a little bit of France—London-style, i.e. a bit on the larger (and sometimes slightly cheekier) side of the scale.

As I’ve mentioned before, London is the sixth largest French city in the world with more than 400,000 Frenchies making their home here—in fact, there are more French in London than in Bordeaux.

Here’s a glimpse of why I’m feeling right at home this weekend.

These pastries are all at least twice the size of their compatriots in France…but, bigger is not necessarily better…

Maison Ladurée looks just about the same, although with a much smaller selection at this one…

And of course, Pret à Manger, one of my favorite "French" quick food alternatives...

And of course, Pret à Manger, one of my favorite “French” quick food alternatives…

No. 157: Even Burnt Cake!

Yesterday at the Salon l’Agriculture one of the many interesting things I came across was this:


My first thought was, “Yum! A large chocolate globe.” My second thought was, “Is that burnt?”

Turns out I was right on track with the whole overcooked thing. After taking a few pictures and catching the twinkle in the eye of the vendeur, I summoned up the courage to ask him just exactly what the heck those big black, burnt things were. Noticing of course, that I speak French with an accent, he asked me where I was from. When I told him I was from the States, he said, in French, “This is the French version of New York Cheese Cake, the Tourteau Fromagé”, or the Cheese Crab.

cheese crabs….

cheese crabs….

They do look a little like giant crabs, don’t you think? They are also known as Tortue Fromagé (Cheese Turtle) and Tourteaux Fromagé (Cheese Cakes).

I had never laid eyes on a Tourteau Fromagé until 24-hours ago, but already I’m a convert. How is it that the French can even make burnt cake taste good??

The Cheese Crab/Cake is a specialty of the Poitou-Charente region in Southwest France, and not usually found at a boulangerie or a pâtisserie, but rather in a fromagerie—especially those that specialize in goat cheese.

To set the record straight, it is nothing like New York Cheese Cake, but it is a lot like a springy and airy Angel Food Cake, with a bit of tangy sweetness.

The cake’s story is one I can relate to: a harried baker accidently shoved a goat-cheesy gâteau into a blistering-hot oven. She smelled something burning, and opened the oven to find a blackened and hardened crusted cake. Obviously she must have been having company, because she tried desperately to salvage it. She lowered the temperature, crossed her fingers, and hoped for the best. To her surprise, the burnt crust protected the inside of the cake, and her finished creation was a spongy, sweet but slightly tart, absolutely perfect cake.

After sharing one with my family last night, I must admit, it seems like a very versatile creation. You could eat it as a breakfast cake with a café au lait, or at lunch with a little fruit on top, or it would be divine after dinner with some strawberry ice cream, and maybe just a wee bit of chocolat noir. It also seems very well suited for a picnic or car trip as it would take a good deal of force to flatten this crab / turtle en route.


When I asked the vendeur if I should eat the crust, his response was, “Comme vous voulez!” I liked it better without the crust, but admittedly, I ate a slice with the crust. Yes. It tasted markedly burnt. Mais it’s a thin crust, and the inside is most definitely worth tasting.


boulangerie: bakery

chocolat noir: dark chocolate

Comme vous voulez: As you like.

fromagerie: cheese shop

gâteau: cake

mais: but

pâtisserie: pastry shop

vendeur: seller, merchant

No.142: The Delicious Colors of Winter








Moi, j’adore!


Moi, j’adore! Me, I love (it)!

No. 140: La Dernière Démarque

Today is the last day of the winter sales in France. Over the last 6 weeks, boutiques, department stores, shoe and bag shops, and even hardware stores have been clearing out items from the previous season, gradually slashing prices as the weeks tick by. Paris has been plastered with colorful soldes signs and we have been in the thick of deep markdowns for the last two weeks. This is the stage of the sales called the dernière démarque, or the final markdown (as opposed to the nouvelle démarque or the deuxième démarque) of the biannual government-sanctioned sale.

sometimes the nouvelle démarque is just as good as the dernière démarque

sometimes the nouvelle démarque is just as good as the dernière démarque

The dernière démarque is usually as much as 75 percent off the original price, but one year I bought a coat on the last day for ten percent of the original cost. Sometimes good things truly do come to those who wait.

However, this year, I haven’t really had the heart, money or patience to hit the sales. I did come across some deeply discounted sweaters and a few basics on my way to the cinema the other day. I couldn’t resist them. Picking them up for a mere 33€ in total.

Coming from a culture of “Sales! Sales! Sales!”—where you can find some sort of massive discount on something nearly 24/7—moving to a country with sales only twice a year was a bit of a shockeroo to the system. But I have to say, I have really come to appreciate and love this aspect of France. I find that biannual sales force you to buy less and buy better. I used to wonder how so many Parisians succeed in looking so flawless every day. Now I know. They wait, they scheme, and they work the soldes to their advantage. Their closets are less full, but full of great pieces.

It’s certainly something to aim for, and something to consciously save for, and of course, something to find the will to cultivate the patience for: la dernière démarque.


dernière démarque: final markdown

deuxième démarque: second markdown 

nouvelle démarque: the new, and first markdown of a sale

soldes: sales


No. 138: Brioche: Let them Eat Cake

Qu’ils mangent de la brioche,” or the most common English translation: “Let them eat cake,” was supposedly uttered by Marie Antoinette, wife to King Louis XVI, the last, and possibly most extravagant queen of France. The story goes that upon hearing that her people were enduring difficult times and ongoing bread shortages, she proclaimed, “Then let them eat brioche.”

qu'ils mangent de la brioche...let them eat brioche…

qu’ils mangent de la brioche…let them eat brioche…

As brioche is made from sweeter dough enhanced with butter, eggs, and sugar (limited and luxurious ingredients at the time), brioche was even more out of the reach of the peasants than bread. This declaration was said to reflect the Queen’s obliviousness to the shocking condition of her people, and in the end contributed to her losing her head by guillotine.

source: Kirsten Dunst in “Marie Antoinette,” directed by Sofia Coppola, NYT

source: Kirsten Dunst in “Marie Antoinette,” directed by Sofia Coppola, NYT

Well it turns out there is no evidence that the Queen ever uttered these words et en fait this anecdote was never cited by opponents of the monarchy at the time of the French Revolution. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, political philosopher and composer, more likely wrote it when Marie Antoinette was a young child living in Austria. But even before Rousseau’s writings, it was attributed to Queen Marie-Thérèse the wife of Louis XIV, a hundred years earlier. And way before that, Chinese scholars claim that the phrase originated with an ancient Chinese emperor who, altogether unsympathetic to the fact that his subjects had no rice to eat, said, “Why don’t they eat meat?

Regardless of who did or didn’t say this, or who, unfortunately, lost their head and who didn’t, I have recently been introduced to this slightly sweet, funny-shaped, golden, eggy morning staple, and I can confirm that when I have a choice, I would rather eat brioche than bread, at least for breakfast. And these days, une petite brioche et un petit pain à Paris are each 1€ apiece, so on rare occasions, I let myself eat both.

petite brioche et petit pain

petite brioche et petit pain

Click here for a yummy airy brioche recipe from Fine Cooking. Best served with strawberry jam, lemon curd, or caramel à la fleur de sel.



caramel à la fleur de sel: salted caramel

et en fait : and in fact

Qu’ils mangent de la brioche. Let them eat brioche.

une petite brioche et un petit pain à Paris… a small brioche or small roll in Paris…