Sunday, October 23, 2011

La grande gastronomie

I think I may have fallen back in love with French food.

When I came to Toulouse the first time, I threw myself into la grande gastronomie francaise. I devoured foie gras, pate and all sorts of patisserie. I learned how to make coq au vin, pot au feu, daube, cassoulet, blanquette de veau, French onion soup (yes, it is actually French), crepes and mousse au chocolat. But after a while, I started to get a little bored. It was all the same—butter-heavy and rich. Five of the dishes I just mentioned boil down to x protein plus y vegetable cooked in a Z liquid, with a sauce made from the remaining liquid at the end. It was getting old, to the point that Christina and I debated whether French or Italian food was better.

(This happened in a restaurant in Venice. I conceded that Italians may have beaten the French when I came to main dishes, but added, perhaps too loudly, “but not dessert. No one beats the French at dessert. Besides, what does Italy have for dessert, besides like tiramisu and gelato?” A free slice of rum cake magically appeared on our table. Guess our waiter spoke English.)

But this place has proven once again, when it comes to food, no one, beats the French. L’Assiette, buried in the 14th arrondisement, far from any tourist spot, only came to my attention because my train back to Toulouse after taking the GRE Literature test left from the nearby Gare de Montparnasse. I wanted to reward myself (and kill some time before my train) with a long lunch at a good restaurant. L’Assiette fit the bill exactly. It had a small dining room that probably couldn’t hold more than twenty-five people maximum, a painted tile mural on the ceiling as well as a large hunk of cheese and an entire cured pork leg sitting on an old wood and ceramic buffet.

In fact, when you take your seat (old wooden tables, starched linen napkins, silver tableware) the first thing the waiter does is slice off some of that cured ham onto a plate and bring it to you with a basket of bread and some butter. Even the butter is marvelous. Thick, creamy and deliciously salty, it was well, the butteriest butter I have had in a long time. You know how butter-flavored popcorn has that artificial yellow butter taste? Well, this is what the manufacturers are trying to imitate—and it’s sublime. The bread was everything I expected of French bread- crunchy exterior, soft interior and slightly tart, though I was surpised to see that L’Assiette serves at least partially whole-wheat bread instead of white. The ham was also excellent—moist and flavorful. I think maybe it had been cured with thyme or maybe rosemary.

I ordered their lunch menu at 23 euros, which gave a choice of a first course (cream of cauliflower soup or “Blue Crystal” shrimp tartare) and a main course (quenelles de Sandre au sauce nautua or poitrine de cochon fermier), plus an expresso to end your meal. Fair warning—ordering off the menu will be significantly more expensive. I ordered the shrimp tartare and the quenelles as well as a glass of Sancerre (a Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley). Obviously, L’Assiette doesn’t make the wine, but they did choose to put this on the menu. This may be because I have never tried a Loire Valley wine (to my knowledge), but this Sancerre was a hell of a white wine. It had a strong and distinct bouquet of grapefruit as well as a “damp” minerality and maybe some apricot. It was a light-bodied and well-balanced wine with a clean, almost mineral finish that lasted for over a minute. It was entirely unlike the Sauvignon Blancs I have had—(Bordeaux and New Zealand)—lacking the creamy mouthfeel and significantly drier. I would have guessed that it was a Pinot Gris, maybe, or another varietal rather that a Sauvignon Blanc. The minerality was also quite intriguing, since there was an earthiness to it that was almost herbal.

Now finally, onto the food.

The shrimp tartare was a blend of chopped raw shrimp, shallots and a type of seed that I couldn’t identify (I think it might be flax), moistened with some oil and lemon juice. There was a little bit of chives and lettuce on top and drizzled on the sides of the plate was a brown sauce, sweet and tart at the same time. I think there was a little bit of soy sauce in it. It was simply sublime. The shrimp was plump and juicy and the other ingredients (shallots, lemon juice, seeds) provided the perfect accent without distracting from the shrimp. The sauce was also delicious—sweet and tart but for the life of me I cannot identify what was in it. Balsamic vinegar? Soy sauce? It definitely struck me as a Franco-Asian fusion.

The quenelles are going to take significantly longer to explain. Firstly, they look a little bit like this.

A quenelle is a white fish (usually pike) that has been forced through a sieve, then mixed with a cream sauce called panade. This makes a slightly sticky blend which you then form into an oblong and poach. The ultimate result is an incredibly light and tender fish “croquette.” I’d like to try and make these, but they take a lot of work, at least according to my waiter at L’Assiette. (More proof of how excellent this restaurant is—the waiter very patiently answered all the questions that my foodie, non-native speaker self could come up with.) The sauce was a red sauce that (at least to me) tasted like it had cream and shrimp it—at the very least, there were little bits of shrimp floating in the sauce. I also thought I tasted a strong cheese—Roquefort or another blue.

Research suggests that sauce nantua does not usually involve cheese, but this chef obviously could have done something different. A traditional sauce nantua is a béchamel (or classic white) sauce that has been flavored with beurre d’ecrevisse—butter that has been melted and simmered with crayfish meat and shells, then rehardened. This also looks incredibly difficult to do, but most department stores apparently sell crayfish butter in the fish aisle, so I can cheat--- at least until I go back to the United States!

Finally, they served the quenelles with mashed potatoes on the sides. Can I mention how much I love mashed potatoes? They were made in a ricer rather than with a potato masher, which produces an incredibly smooth, creamy mashed potato. Then, of course, they are very thoroughly doused with cream and butter. These were the Platonian ideal of mashed potatoes. I felt drunk (simply from food) by the end of the meal.

And of course, a perfectly made espresso, with raw cane sugar and a mini-cannele to go with. How could I have ever doubted that France is the queen of the kitchen?

Monday, October 17, 2011


I had a surprisingly light day of work today. My host teacher at Chaumeton managed to arrange for two baseball coaches to come give her 9th graders a lesson!

Firstly, I didn't even know that the French played baseball at all, but there apparently are some teams. Frederic, the one coach, told me there was a team at Toulouse, at Bordeaux and three teams in Paris as well as some others that I don't remember. He also tried to talk me into playing, but being that I was in a sweater and jeans, I managed to dissuade him.

(Good lesson for my French readers-- not all Americans play baseball. I haven't played since I was eight and had a ball hit right into my shoulder. I cried for an hour.)

Either way, the students seemed to have a blast as the two coaches put them through their paces. I have quite a few pictures for you, but Blogger seems to be being mean about how many pictures I can put up, so here's the Photobucket album!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Books in a Train Station

These are the things that I can read in French: romance novels and the free newspapers they hand out in the metro. I think this is what being someone who doesn’t like to read is like—it took me twelve hours of straight reading to get through a romance novel.

Still, I’m a little bit proud of myself. I think this is the first time I’ve gotten through a novel in French simply for pleasure. I’ve read Mme Bovary in French, but that was for a class and I wanted to gouge my eyes out. Any other time I’ve read in French for fun it’s been short stories, poetry or occasionally a graphic novel, which, while worthy mediums, are not quite as long.

Which brings me to another point. This generalization may be highly off-base, but where are all the French fantasy authors? There are plenty of policiers (cop novels) in the little bookstores in the Gare Montparnasse in Paris, where I am writing this post, but only one of them had any fantasy or sci-fi. Of that section, I recognized nearly all the names as being Anglophone authors. Robert Jordan. George R. R. Martin. Tolkien. Heinlein. Gaiman. Terry Pratchett. Douglas Adams. I’m going to try Castela or Ombres Blanches, the two large bookstores in Toulouse and see if they have a better selection. (Also, to my fantasy friends: am I going to regret trying to read George R. R. Martin in French?)

This leads me to one final note on books, based once again, solely on my very bored and very unscientific perusal of Montparnasse’s bookstore offerings. The French seem to read much more “literature” than we do. Every bookstore had a fairly large section (about the same size as the section dedicated to children’s lit) dedicated to “Livres de Poche,” a brand known for publishing classic literature at low prices. (For instance, I bought a copy of Mme Bovary, Adolphe by Benjamin Constant and a third classic that I can’t remember for one of my classes two years ago. Altogether, I paid twelve euros for three books). If these small bookstores (about the size of my bedroom) have decided that the classic literature deserves the space, it must mean that they sell. Otherwise, they’d put in another cooler of Coke.

See? Aren’t you proud of me? I went an entire blog post without talking about food. But that will change. Next post is about one of the best meals I have ever had.

Monday, October 10, 2011

A “Dear John” Letter to French Sandwicheries:

(Hello lovely internet people! I have not forgotten you. I have just been busy and I have many things to tell you, but we shall start with the funniest first. Thus, I present to you this letter.)

Dear Sandwicheries,

I must admit my deep and abiding fondness for you. You come from a land with brilliant bread, fantastic fromage and marvelous meat. I love you so much, in fact, that I alliterate. Because you, you lovely little stores, combine these three things in delectable combinations, like chicken-tomato-Roquefort or chorizo-gruyere.

But I have to admit, dear Sandwicherie, our relationship is threatened by a matter of faith. You see, I believe in mayonnaise and/or mustard. I believe deeply and fundamentally in these things. I have so much faith that I believe every sandwich should be blessed by their presence, that even your brilliant bread, my lovely, is made better by having something to moisten it.

You do not. At first, I thought I could cope. You humored me sometimes, giving me sandwiches like ham-mayo-goat cheese. But then….too often were your sandwiches dry and left me desperately needing water in order to swallow.

Sandwicherie, I cannot live unevenly yoked. You either must convert to my ways of mayo and mustard, or we may have to end our relationship.

With deepest love,


Monday, October 3, 2011

Surviving the First Day (or Man, are Adolescents Weird)

I had my first day of work today—four hours at Collège Georges Chaumeton. I spent a lot of it observing, since it was my first day, a slightly smaller portion being a dancing monkey to my host teacher’s accordion, and the last portion being utterly confused. Hopefully at some point, there will be an additional section—that being “knowing what I’m doing.”

But we’ll see.

I had either three or four classes today, depending on how you count, starting at two o’clock in the afternoon.

2-3: Troisième, section éuropeene: Ninth grade “honors” roughly. Section éuropeene means that they’ve opted to have five hours of English a week, as opposed to three. During this class, I mostly observed, though Aline (my host teacher), had me read their dictation quiz. This provoked a great deal of grumbling, since they are used to Aline’s British accent rather than my (admittedly atrocious) American accent. For a test that was based almost entirely on the ability to understand and transcribe spoken English, it didn’t quite seem fair, but I’m guessing Aline will take that into account.

3-4: Quatrième: eighth grade. The difference between their language skills and that of the class before is astonishing. Aline says that this class in general also struggles with English and that, for some, you wouldn’t realize that they’ve already studied English for two years. They were a lively bunch though and asked me a ton of questions (a metric ton, of course).

Two students stuck out for me—Justine and Vincent. Justine, a tiny brunette in the very back, seems both very shy and very studious. Her notebook is organized to perfection and she listens intently to everything Aline says—she just rarely talks. Vincent, on the other hand, is bold and charismatic, though his English is atrocious. He asked me several questions, including: “So, are you married?” Heh.

Ultimately, what I think I need to learn here is how to balance the Justines and the Vincents of the world. I don’t want to squash him, since that enthusiasm is valuable, but I need to make sure she knows that her diligence is valued and that I want to hear her voice in class. Teachers of the world, how do I do this subtly, without embarrassing Justine or squashing Vincent?

4-5: Troisieme, section europeene: For the second time of the day, which is why I said I had three or four classes. Three classes in four periods. I had half of the class on my own this time, for a half an hour each. I started by introducing myself and answering any questions, then we moved on to reading some letters they had written to their penpals aloud and correcting them. I had expected, after quatrieme, to find the same enthusiasm.


The first half was dead. Not a single question, and it was like pulling teeth to get someone up to read or to suggest a correction for a classmate’s letter. (Except Adrien, who always wants to read and who always has an answer and whose English is excellent. Unfortunately, he’s not the only person in the class.) The second half was more enthusiastic, but only about reading aloud. Except for one poor soul, who was incredibly anxious about correcting his mistakes, they bounced up to the front of the room, sprinted through their letters, and then bounced right back into their seats, grinning all the while. Advice here is also helpful—how do you spark enthusiasm? Also, how do you redirect enthusiasm that’s not going the direction you need?

I’ll leave talking about my last class until tomorrow, otherwise you’ll have to hear about doing laundry, since that’s my plan for the day.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Wine Review: White Bordeaux

Hey all. So this is my first wine review—of many, I hope. Like all consumers, I have a budget, thus, I will not review any bottle that costs more than ten euros. However, as I am in France, the wines I am drinking may end up being significantly more in the States (or indeed, not available), since there’s a long plane ride and an import tax between the wineries here and the consumers in America. Secondly, the wines I choose are ultimately subject to my palate. I don’t like tannic wines, as much as I make an effort, and I’m partially to elegant, creamy whites. Thirdly, the French don’t really drink wine without food, so I’ll also be talking about the dinner I made to go with the bottle and how well that worked.

So, with those precautions, let’s meet:

The Wine:

Benjamin de Vieux Chateau Gaubert Blanc 2009

Origin: Bordeaux, Left Bank

AOC: Graves

ABV: 12.5%

Awards: Bronze Medal, Concours de Bordeaux 2010

Varietals: 60% Semillon (“which brings roundness and body to the mouth”), 40% Sauvignon Blanc (“for the richness in bouquet”)

Aging: 80% in stainless steel, low temperature, 20% in new barriques

Serve: at 50 degrees Fahrenheit, with fish in sauce, shellfish, white meats, or cheese

The Food:

Broiled Lemon Thyme Pollock

I followed the recipe almost to the letter, but I left out the anchovy paste. I don’t like anchovies, in general. Additionally, I didn’t have any anchovy paste and didn’t feel like buying any specifically for this recipe. Additionally, it’s worth noting that the mayonnaise I used was flavored with Dijon mustard, which added another flavor to the fish.

Diced potatoes, sautéed in butter and garnished with chives.

Green salad with a mustard vinaigrette.

The Verdict:

The Benjamin Gaubert starts with lemon and grapefruit on the nose, then opens up to some floral scents and a little bit of green apple. The bouquet is fairly indicative of the flavors, but the Gaubert also boasts a nice, creamy mouthfeel and a little bit of butter on the mid-palate, maybe because of the barrique aging. I didn’t notice quite as much green apple as I expected from a Sauvignon Blanc, but then again, this is majority Semillon, a varietal with which I don’t have a whole lot of experience. Fairly creamy throughout, but with a fairly long and fairly tart finish, which gives it a nice balance.

It paired very nice with the fish, since it was tart enough to punch through the mayonnaise crust but without overwhelming the taste of the fish. However, it did not work as well with the salad. The mustard vinaigrette was a bit too, well, mustardy to go well with this wine, but I think a simple oil and vinegar dressing would have worked perfectly.Link