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Sunday, November 22, 2015

Dining with History at "Le Procope" in Paris

     For the first day of my first visit to Paris, I wanted to take a traditional approach.  So after a morning at the Eiffel Tower, I walked east, towards the 6th Arrondissement, and headed to Le Procope for lunch.  Le Procope was the first restaurant ever created, which functioned under the concept of what we nowadays today a restaurant to be, where customers were served at the table with porcelain service.  It opened its doors in 1686, at the highlight of the Enlightment Age.  The likes of Voltaire (who considered it his second home), Rousseau and even very American Benjamin Franklin dined here while discussing the politics of the times.  Its owner was an Italian from Sardinia, Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, who created a pleasant atmosphere in his establishment that made people linger while having a meal.

     As it was customary during those times, Mr. Procopio started serving coffee and hot chocolate on marble tables at his establishment but, as the true innovator that he was, soon added his own distilled alcohols and home-made ice-creams, these latter the first ever to be sold in Paris.

     Dining at Le Procope felt very much like dining in a sort of time capsule.  The restaurant is quite large for Paris standards, and has two floors.  Tables are crammed throughout different areas that don’t necessarily follow a pattern, and all are quite close to each other.  But even though you may listen to pieces of your neighbor’s conversation, the feeling is quite cosy, as in Paris people are reserved and maintain a low tone while sitting at the table.

Crisp white tablecloths, old books and ancient paintings of its regulars.  Le Procope
is a place of history.

Part of a ceiling, showing original text for the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” from August 1789.
     I started my meal with a splendid kir royal, served in the traditional champagne tulip glass.  It was so impressive, it dressed the table by itself.  I’m not sure what champagne was used in it, very it tasted very much like a millesimé (although I'm sure it wasn't.  Probably a high end Pommery).

    Le Procope is known both for its large oyster platters they serve mostly as a tourist attraction, and traditional French bourgeois dishes, such as Coq au vin, or Tete de veau, prepared as it was when the restaurant first opened.  It really intrigued me how some of the biggest minds mankind has produced would have eaten.  I ordered the Tete de veau, which came cooked in its own tarragon-flavoured juice, its recipe kept from the restaurants old records.

     I was quite surprised at the simplicity of the dish.  It was very much like the Argentinian “puchero” my mom used to serve, the meat boiled until it falls of the bone and one doesn’t even need a knife to cut it, served alongside vegetables like carrots, potatoes and some other white one that escaped me.  At first, I thought it too simple for the price paid (27.70€), however, it makes sense that back in 1686, people ate from the land, in a natural, made-at-home way.  I suppose the cost is due to the traditional fame associated with the restaurant, or maybe the fact that it is served in a traditional copper saucepan (yes, they use these things in actual restaurants in Paris!),  which the waiter leaves with you so you may serve yourself later at your own pace, and also dip the bread into the wonderful juices.  A truly convivial dish, which can very well serve two, especially if ordering an appetizer and a dessert.

     As for the proverbial dessert, and continuing with the idea of tradition in mind, the Sabayon Glacé à l’Amaretto fitted the Procope’s beginnings as an ice-cream parlour.

     It was the perfect end to a copious meal, light, a mixture between a mousse and an ice-cream, served along a croquant tuile (which could have been more croquant) and wonderful Amaretto caramel sauce. 

     The whole lunch, with drinks included, cost 57.10€.  I found it overpriced, but then again, at a restaurant where history is its protagonist, one can only expect to pay more.  At least, the food was good, with a nice “homey” feeling, and it set me up for the rest of the day, which turned out to be quite wet and with lots of walking to do.  It’s what Paris is all about.

Monday, November 2, 2015

The Fête des Vendanges 2015

     Recently I had the good fortune of taking my first trip to France.  It was a dream of mine, for which I researched, researched and researched and prepared, prepared, prepared for over 1 year.  As I’m sure it happens to almost everyone, even though I was there for a week and a half, I got to do half of what I had planned and, being a foodie, bring half of what I wanted to bring.  Not only did I not have the sufficient budget, but I would have needed an extra pair or arms and legs to carry it all.

     I started, of course, in Paris, which is an amazing city.  Its architecture is unique, unlike that of every other city I’ve been to.  As one walks it streets, one sighs almost constantly.  Besides doing the obvious clichés of visiting the Eiffel Tower and going to the Louvre museum (among others), I chose to pair my visit with the 82nd Fête des Vendanges in Montmartre, and I rented an apartment just two blocks from the Sacré Cœur Basilica.  The location could not have been more perfect.  Central to everything Montmartre and to several Métro lines, I could be anywhere in Paris with 20 to 30 minutes or, a few steps away.

The street where I stayed in
     The Fête des Vendanges is an event that commemorates the grape harvest, which in that area has taken place for centuries.  History shows us that when Paris was Lutéce, the Romans planted vineyards that extended from Montmartre all the way into the area now occupied by the Eiffel Tower.  The only vestige of these times is the Clos Montmartre, which is meticulously tendered by hand and has never been touched by any pesticides.  The small square on Rue de Saules escaped the phylloxera devastation and still produces a medium quality rosé that is sold during the event for the astronomical sum of 50€ for a half bottle - reason why I didn’t bring any.

Clos Montmartre is easily accessible from the Musée Montmartre, which at the time I visited
 was hosting a special exhibition on the 150th anniversary of Suzanne Valadon

     I did however, found my way throughout the Parcours du Goût, a sort of food and wine festival situated all around Sacré Cœur, featuring vendors and producers from all the regions of France.  It was a madhouse for the senses.

     I tried as much as I could, and what I could not I photographed.  There were escargots, oysters from Brittany, foie gras from Cognac, Strasbourg and the Southwest, cheeses I never even dreamed of existed… the pictures speak for themselves.

The typical Parisian quick fix for midday.  Baguette with ham and cheese sandwhich.  Just not any ham,
not any cheese.  Here we have 3 varities, 2 with prosciutto – with either Cantal or fromage de chêvre, and one
with salami and chêvre

Aligot is a specialty from the Auvergne, where the potato purée is loaded
with a regional tomé cheese until it forms strings that won’t break.
They were making it in situ for degustation.

A world of sausages, with walnuts, figs, made with duck…

This was a type of tomé cheese with pesto and pimente d’espelette.  Too bad I was leaving the next
day and couldn’t get any.  The flavors mixed so well together and yet could distinguish them all.

A plate of sausages, brasserie-style

Cognac from the region of the same name, bottled into pretty Tour Eiffel bottles makes for an elegant souvenir.

Huge calissons de Provence, with flavors as audacious as raspberry-basil, pineapple and coconut.

Another exclusive cheese from the Savoie region, this time flavoured with lavender and rosemary.
Its colour was as seductive as its flavour.  

A stall offering Gratin Dauphinois with every sort of cheese you may conceive of.

     The Fête des Vendanges takes place every first weekend in October and is a MUST for any foodie.  It will prepare you for the gastronomic emporium France is, and the fact that it takes place in Montmartre makes for a nostalgic, typical rendez-vous with the customs of France.  The fact that Montmartre is full of stairs also helps in burning out all those calories (trust me on this one!)  There is a parade - which I did not attend, too tired, both physically and mentally - on the last day of the event, where all the vignerons showcase their pride in being montmartroises, and fireworks later in the night - which I did attend and almost died, pushed and shoved in the middle of the mob.

     What I did bring home was the spirit of exquisiteness, gourmandise and superb products - including some foie gras, which at the fête was acceptably priced.

     And yes, my very own glass.  Bon dégustation!