Suzi's Blog

Cookbook Review: Paris to Provence by Ethel Brennan and Sara Remington

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It’s awkward to come clean in public, but I have a problem. I travel to France with grand intentions, flying to Paris loaded with guidebooks about things to do throughout the country. To do, that is, after just a couple of days in Paris. A couple of days becomes a few days becomes two weeks.

I’m a Left Bank guy and between the bookstores, the cafes, and the ever expanding list of bakeries and candy stores, I find it very, very hard to think about leaving the city for the rest of the country.

Now, I have a new guidebook, one that I know will get me free of the food evils of Paris and into the delicacies of the byways from Paris to Provence. That is exactly the title: Paris to Provence by Ethel Brennan and Sara Remington. The subtitle gives away the clever tact of this lovely book: Childhood Memories of Food and France.

Ethel and Sara did not grow up together, but became friends in adulthood. And learned they have a shared tradition. As young girls, they lived in families that summered in France and explored and sampled the entire country, not just Paris.

Their families drove the back roads and byways of France. And the girls enjoyed the “casual” food of everyday France. This is not the high cuisine of Right Bank restaurants. This is the food of the people. But, oh, what lucky people. For casual food in France is a treasure trove.

There are chapters here devoted to the food of truck stops, the regional and very seasonal markets, café and bistros, plus afternoon snacks [gouter].

The book is a charming combination of travel remembrances and a portfolio of real, authentic recipes. Some of the recipes are standards, like Ratatouille. But there are unexpected exotics here, too, like Beignets de Fleurs de Courgettes [aka Zucchini Blossom Fritters]. There is a fig tart with custard cream, strawberries in red wine syrup, roasted chestnuts, French lemonade with mint, and potato salad with poached egg.

That last recipe idea is typical of Paris to Provence. A common dish is given an uncommon twist or flare. You’ll find yourself asking: “Why didn’t I ever think of that?” Well, we can’t think of every combination. We can rely on the great food cultures to instruct us. Paris to Provence gives us a superior tour of insights into the flavor avenues of a country we all enjoy.

On my next flight to Paris, Paris to Provence is coming along. And, yes, I will rent a damn car and I brave the interesting traffic patterns of French roads. Why? Because somewhere south of the city there is a roast pork loin with rosemary and porcini mushrooms. I’m going to find it.

Paris Patisseries: History, Shops and Recipes

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The importance of Paris patisseries can hardly be overstated. Particularly in the past forty years, the art of pastry has been revolutionized. And Paris has been the center of that revolution.

Paris creations are immediately noticed. The sheer physical beauty of those desserts is amazing, and stunningly revealed as you walk Paris, block by block, shop by shop. One artist after another vying to having the most eye-catching, mouth-watering window display. If you try to pick “the best” you are doomed. Your brain will be in an endless cycle of remembering colors, textures, … All the glories of appearance.

And, now, what happens when you cross the portal, hand over some Euros, and receive a pastry that is brain stunning? And then on the next block, and the next? Sometimes your taste buds will find extravagance, sometimes subtly, and always surprise.

Working with the superior publisher Flammerion, Pierre Hermé has collaborated with many of his skilled peers to fashion Paris Patisseries: History, Shops, Recipes. If you love desserts — the look, the taste, and the history — then this book is a treasure you will read over and over. There are stunning pictures that make you want to find you passport. And intriguing facts that give you a much deeper understanding of the journey that has been required to today’s dessert paradise. And, yes, some of the best recipes are here, too.

The book is presented in four chapters, each a stepping stone on the journey.

Cakes from Our Childhood begins the story. Dessert, in the supreme forms we think of now, is relatively new. Just three or four centuries in our joint history. Before that, there were “biscuits” and honey and fruits and surely simple cakes and tarts. But today’s cakes and tarts, those rich combinations of butter and flour and flavorings, and those creamy fillings, well that’s the history of this chapter.

Recipes for lemon tart in France date from 1651 and this tart is distinguished by the fact that it does not contain a single piece of fruit. Other tarts then were rustic and fruit filled. This lemon tart was the beginning of the texture transition. Now, as this book describes, tarts have become ethereal.

Many of the classic cakes, like the religieuse [or “the nun”] have their creation cataloged here. The religieuse dates from 1856, the work of the famous chef Frascati. You’ll learn that a properly made mille-feuille [a “thousand leaves”] really has exactly 729 layers of pastry. And the first meringue is from 1720 in Austria [yes, egg whites and sugar and almond flour had been mixed for a bit but not just the pure egg white and sugar]. The evolution of meringue, and its marriage with different fillings, are lovingly detailed here.

The chapter Chocolate Magic describes the passion that is naturally invoked by the complexity of chocolate chemistry. The vast sea of different chocolates types and powders simply adds new dimensions that suggest an infinite path of flavors. There are examples here from the great patisseries of the city.

Macaroons, Verrine, and Caramel starts with history of the macaroon over the last century but accelerates to describe the new vertical designs [those verrines that may have been inspired by catering companies] and the intense use of caramel. Caramel, salt, and chocolate are a legitimate ménage-a-trois. Even a necessary one.

The book concludes in Croissants, Loaves, and Galettes that focuses on both the past and the present. Yes, the croissant dates from Vienna in 1683, but today’s croissant, based on puff pastry, is from the 1920s. It’s a new classic.

But that puff pastry isn’t new. The Crusaders brought back the original concept from the Middle East, and European bakers have been refining it for all these centuries. Beyond the croissant, puff pastry is the basis for so many of the fruit-based desserts we consider “special.” Paris Patisseries describes the spectrum of these treats to be found in the best of Paris shops.

And where are those shops? There are five pages of “favorite addresses.” Touring all of them, comparing them, evaluating them, well, that would take you more than a day or two. Your best way to start that journey? Paris Patisseries.

And the book ends with five pages of recipes from the very best shops in Paris. Only God knows how long it will take you to enjoy each of these.

On this blog recently, there has been keen attention to the craze of the year: macaroons [or macarons!]. Pierre Herme’s wonderful new Macaron book has been described here along with a host of other resources. Paris Patisseries is an excellent companion describing both the history and the daily race in Paris now to vault over the competition with some new flavor and color combination. It’s a mouthwatering read.

And if you are planning a trip to Paris, this is great foodie guide that could be the core of your stay.