A romantic weekend in Paris is the perfect antidote to chase away the dreary January blues. Pick up any newspaper, flick through the pages to the travel section, there will be a myriad of tempting weekend breaks, Vienna, Budapest, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Pragueâ€¦. If you are a â€˜whizzâ€™ on the internet you can pick up even better bargains. We made a spur of the moment decision to jump on a 5.40am flight to Paris on Saturday last. As well as strolling hand in hand under the bridges of Paris, there are many other attractions in this beautiful city – Paris, despite its staid frumpy image on the global gastronomic food scene, is till a serious food town.
Thereâ€™s lots of choice but unless you want to hit the three star Michelin luminaries, probably your best bet is to head for some of the legendary but still reasonably priced bistros and brasseries. Many have been around forever and offer the same classic dishes, year in year out – no fusion food here but delicious comforting winter dishes like soupe a lâ€™oignon, oeufs en gelee, marinated herrings, choux croute, traditional roast chicken or daube of beef.
We particularly enjoyed the bright and brassy Brasserie Balzar, a much loved stalwart close to the Sorbonne which seems to have survived the take over by the Flo group a few years ago.
There are innumerable restaurants, bistros, cafes, wine bars, but unless you do a little homework before you leave, you can quite easily pass the whole weekend without getting a decent bite to eat. In fact, I was particularly saddened recently when an Irish friend who travels a lot and is really passionate about food, told me that he feels France is losing its food tradition faster than any other country in Europe – scary. Nonetheless, Iâ€™m thrilled to see that after many years of little innovation, things are beginning to happen on the Parisian food scene.
So where is the excitement? – The fashion restaurant where â€˜the sceneâ€™ counts for everything is back in full swing in Paris again – Spoon and 59 Poincare, Alain Ducasseâ€™s World Food Restaurants, attract media types, movie stars and models. The food is not great, but the menu is fun, divided into categories like â€˜vegetablesâ€™ and â€˜lambâ€™ which the diner can combine in any way they choose, not always a success! The Costes brothers whom many credit with livening up the stagnant Paris restaurant scene, are responsible for Lâ€™Esplanade, Hotel Costes, and Georges at the top of the Pompidou Centre. Count on amazing, sometimes sumptuous dÃ©cor, a glamorous clientele and service with attitude. The food is rarely brilliant though we had a delicious lunch at Georges last year. Korora with its 70â€™s dÃ©cor, named after the bar in â€˜A Clockwork Orangeâ€™, draws the Prada and Gucci set, thereâ€™s an enticing menu but donâ€™t be tempted by the Chicken in Coca Cola Sauce! Le Tanjia is the spot to head for if you want to nibble on tagines and bâ€™stillas with models and actresses. Colette on Rue St HonorÃ© is the hip shop with a Water bar downstairs to revive you when youâ€™ve shopped for Ireland. When you get tired of the scene perhaps youâ€™ll want to browse in some of the cityâ€™s temples of food. Fauchon in Place de la Madeleine, or Hediard just around the corner are a must. I defy even the most disinterested to come out of the shop without having succumbed to temptation, even if its only a little box of truffles. Less expensive but just as impressive because of its variety and scale is La Grande Epicerie de Paris, a deluxe grocery just beside the huge Bon Marche store.
The woman chef everyone is talking about at present is Helen Darroze
We tried to book a table at Restaurant Helene Darroze on Rue dâ€™Assas but it was choc a bloc, so we had to content ourselves with reading the menu which offers delicious sounding dishes like Champignons des bois et ravioli de Romans, Foie gras de canard des landes grille au feu de bois, Filets de rouge de roche cuits en croute dâ€™Ã©pices royals, Fruits de saison rotisâ€¦â€¦
Instead we managed by the skin of our teeth to get a table at on Sunday night at the other happening spot – Market on Rue Matignon. This new restaurant was opened by Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten who has been the toast of New York for decades now with his restaurants Jean Georges, Vong and the Mercier Kitchen. His new venture in Paris has had very mixed reviews at both sides of the Atlantic, nonetheless it is packed with the rich and famous. The food was good, but in my opinion not as good as his restaurant in the Big Apple. Donâ€™t miss another of my favourite haunts in Paris, Angelina a salon du thÃ©, across the street from the Jardin des Tuileries, on Rue de Rivoli. The elegant and sumptuous interior embellished with murals and gilded antique mirrors is utterly beautiful and the hot chocolate, thick and unctuous, is quite simply divine. It is served with a huge blob of whipped cream and a glass of water to aid digestion.
A weekend is a pretty short time and if you are to check out some of the places Iâ€™ve mentioned youâ€™ll need lots of exercise. Paris is a wonderful city to walk through with splendid art galleries, hidden museums, a myriad of specialist shops run by passionate eccentrics and so many beautiful buildings and breath-taking vistas. I love the wonderfully flamboyant Roue de Paris in the Place de la Concorde. At present Parisians are divided over whether the splendid 60 metre ferris wheel should be retained. It was erected for the Millennium and should now be dismantled, however it is the subject of a bitter court case at present and a big row is brewing. We signed the petition to keep it and queued for half an hour, it was worth every second to soar over the rooftops of the Louvre and have unparalleled views over Paris at night – the fairytale domes of Montmartre, the Eiffel Tower and the glittering lights of the Champs ElysÃ©es in the distance.
French Onion Soup with Gruyere Toasts
French onion soup is probably the best known and loved of all French soups. It was a favourite for breakfast in the cafes beside the old markets at Les Halles in Paris and is still a favourite on bistro menus at Rungis market. In France this soup is served in special white porcelain tureens.
Serve with a glass of gutsy French vin de table.
3lb (1.35kg) onions
2oz (55g) butter
3 pints (1.8 litres) good homemade beef or chicken stock or vegetable stock
Salt and freshly ground pepper
6 slices of baguette (French bread), 2 inch (1cm) thick toasted
3oz (85g) grated GruyÃ©re cheese
Peel the onions and slice thinly. Melt the butter in a saucepan. Add the onion and cook on a low heat for about 40-60 minutes with the lid off, stirring frequently – the onions should be dark and well caramelised but not burnt.
Add the stock, season with salt and freshly ground pepper, bring to the boil and cook for a further 10 minutes. Ladle into deep soup bowls, put a piece of toasted baguette covered with grated cheese on top of each one. Pop under the grill until the cheese melts and turns golden. Serve immediately but beware – it will be very hot. Bon appetit!
Useful tip: Hold your nerve: – The onions must be very well caramelized otherwise the soup will be too weak and sweet.
Ballymaloe Quiche Lorraine
4 ozs (110g) white flour
Pinch of salt
2-3 ozs (55-85g) butter
1 egg, preferably free range or 4-5 tablesp. cold water or a mixture of egg and water
1 tablespoon olive or sunflower oil
4 ozs (110g) chopped onion
4-6 ozs (110-170g) rindless streaky rashers (green or slightly smoked)
2 large eggs + 1 egg yolk, preferably free range
2 pint (300ml) cream or half milk, half cream
3 ozs (85g) freshly grated Cheddar cheese or 2 ozs (55g) finely grated GruyÃ©re cheese
Â¼ – Â½ oz (15g) Parmesan cheese, grated (optional)
1 teaspoon chopped parsley
2 teaspoon chopped chives
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Flan ring or deep quiche tin, 72 inch (19cm) diameter x 13 inch (3mm) high.
First make the pastry. Sieve the flour and salt into a bowl cut the butter into cubes and rub into the flour with the fingertips. Keep everything as cool as possible; if the fat is allowed to melt the finished pastry may be tough. When the mixture looks like coarse breadcrumbs stop.
Take a fork or knife (whichever you feel most comfortable with) and add just enough liquid to bring the pastry together, then discard the fork and collect the pastry into a ball with your hands. This way you can judge more accurately if you need a few more drops of liquid. Although slightly damp pastry is easier to handle and roll out, the resulting crust can be tough and may well shrink out of shape as the water evaporates in the oven. The drier and more difficult-to-handle pastry will give a crisper, shorter crust.
Line the flan ring or quiche tin and bake blind in a moderate oven 1801C/3501F/regulo 4, for 20-25 minutes.
Cut the bacon and cut into 2 inch lardons, blanch and refresh if necessary. Dry on kitchen paper. Heat the oil and crisp off the bacon, remove and sweat the onions gently in the oil and bacon fat for about 10 minutes. Cool.
Meanwhile, whisk the eggs, add the cream (or cream and milk), herbs, cheese, bacon and onions and cool. Season and taste.
Pour the filling into the par baked pastry shell and bake in a moderate oven 1801C/3501F/regulo 4,* for 30-40 minutes, or until the centre is just set and the top golden (don’t over cook or the filling will be slightly scrambled).
Serve warm with a green salad.
a conventional oven gives the best result
The Tatin sisters ran a restaurant at Lamotte-Beuvron in Sologne at the beginning of the century. They created this tart, some say accidentally, but however it came about it is a triumph – soft, buttery caramelised apples (or indeed you can also use pears) with crusty golden pastry underneath. It is unquestionably my favourite French tart!
2Â¾ lbs (1.24 kg) approx. Golden Delicious, Coxâ€™s Orange Pippin or Bramley Seedling cooking apples
6 ozs (170 g) puff pastry or rich sweet shortcrust pastry
4 ozs (110 g) unsalted butter
8 ozs (225 g) castor sugar
Heavy 8 inch (20.5 cm) copper or stainless steel saucepan with low sides
Preheat the oven to 220ÂºC/425ÂºF/regulo 7 for puff pastry. For shortcrust -180ÂºC/350ÂºF/regulo 4.
Peel, halve and core the apples. Melt the butter in the saucepan, add the sugar and cook over a medium heat until it turns golden – fudge colour. Put the apple halves in upright, packing them in very tightly side by side. Replace the pan on a low heat and cook until the sugar and juice are a dark caramel colour. Put into a hot oven for approx. 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, roll out the pastry into a round slightly larger than the saucepan. Prick it all over with a fork. Cover the apples with the pastry and nick in the edges. Put the saucepan into the fully preheated oven until the pastry is cooked and the apples are soft-25-30 minutes approx.
Take out of the oven and rest for 5-10 minutes or longer if you like. Put a plate over the top of the saucepan and flip the tart on to a serving plate. (Watch out – this is a rather tricky operation because the hot caramel and juice can ooze out!). Reshape the tart if necessary and serve warm with softly whipped cream.