Tea obsession

When I was growing up, a familiar and comforting smell was the strong scent of French roast coffee wafting through the house as my dad brewed his standard two cups of coffee to start the day. Because I always loved the smell and would tell my dad how good it was, he would smile proudly and say that one day, I’d become just like him and be a coffee drinker.

Well, I quashed that pretty quickly when I got to college and decided I didn’t really care for coffee unless it was the occasional latte or cappuccino. What I really learned to love, and I’m not sure where it started, was tea, and tea of all kinds. And it became a bit of an obsession. I was having tea gifted to me from places like China, Taiwan, and Japan. Then, i started traveling and buying tea on my own. The collection of Mariage Freres tea I have from France has gotten a little absurd, and Chris added to that collection today by bringing home two more varieties from his Paris work trip. I picked up some very grassy senchas in Japan. And my mother-in-law lovingly brings me back my favorite standard English Breakfast tea from Australia because Dilmah, a Sri Lankan tea company, doesn’t distribute to the U.S. It’s the smoothest English tea I’ve had, especially with some milk.

A friend of mine told me he wanted to get into tea, and asked me what brands I’d recommend. I hesitated for a second and realized other than Ten Ren, which sells good Taiwanese tea in the U.S… there were no brands I’d readily recommend to him that are widely available here because most of the brands I drink and own are from travels abroad. I guess there are a few matchas, and you’re sometimes able to find Mariage Freres in tins at Dean and Deluca, but I’ve heard from acquaintances that the tea from these tins can taste stale.

I guess I’m the uppity one now.

Bastille Market’s poulet roti

I’ve been hyped up to go to Marche Bastille on our last Sunday for the last several weeks in great anticipation of our French version of the Last Supper in Paris: poulet roti from the famous poulet roti woman at the market, along with chicken-fat-drenched tiny yellow potatoes. Poulet roti is just French for roast chicken, but this roast chicken is marinated for two days in sesame, soy, and a large variety of herbs, then roasted on a rotating spit over tiny little yellow potatoes. I’d read about it on multiple food blogs as the thing to eat when visiting Marche Bastille, so I knew we had to have it.

When we picked the chicken up and I ripped into it with a sad random spoon we had in our bag and my fingers, I knew we had made the right decision. The skin was crackling, crunchy and very complex tasting and flavorful. It was sweet and slightly salty and herby all at once. The flesh of the chicken came apart quite easily, and the dark meat was perfect. The breast meat was tasty, but the star of this chicken was clearly the skin and the dark meat. It even came with its little giblets on the inside cavity; that’s something you don’t normally get when you buy roasted chicken in an American supermarket. Americans can’t really handle their giblets. I wanted to inhale the entire chicken, and I almost did since Chris’s dad doesn’t like to eat with his hands, and Chris’s cousins shied away from eating that much.

It was a sweet finale to an end in France. I practiced a lot of French here, was received more happily than I was last time, and bought enough chocolate, butter, caramels, and pharmacy products to last me the next year. I can’t wait to come back and eat the rest of France.

Les Restaurants et les chiens

I think this is the very first Sunday I’ve been in Paris because I don’t remember ever being here and having to worry or think about things being closed. We were trying to arrange a lunch with Chris’s parents, who arrived several days ago, and it took me almost half an hour to find something between TripAdvisor or Yelp that was actually open, affordable, and decently rated (I read both the French and the English reviews; thankfully, the Yelp presence seems quite good in this city, unlike many other parts of Europe). I ended up picking a cute and cozy creperie along a small street near the Paris Catacombs, which we planned on visiting afterward. The entire little street was full of creperies, one after the other. If I hadn’t done any research beforehand and were forced to pick one out of the many, I would have been overwhelmed. The place we picked turned out to be delicious – I had the classic buckwheat crepe with ham, egg, and cheese, and we all shared a bottle of red. The edges of the crepe were thin and crispy, and the ham was so good. The last time I had ham this enjoyable was in Brazil last year. Ham in the U.S. is so hit and miss… and usually miss.

When our meal ended and we were getting ready to leave, I went to the restroom and noticed a diner’s dog lying on the floor by their table with his eyes closed, his tail wagging. I smiled and thought about how that would never fly in the U.S. at any indoor restaurant because of the seemingly strict health codes. I’ve never really cared about people’s pets coming into stores like Walgreen’s or Duane Reade, or even grocery stores like Fairway or Lucky. What’s the big deal anyway if the animal is on a leash? We seem to pride ourselves on food safety and such in the U.S., but I don’t really think that people in France get food poisoning at a higher rate than back home, and even if they did, it definitely could not be because of the pets going into drug stores and restaurants.

Paris for me then vs. now

We spent our first full day in Paris today. After arriving on our overnight flight in six and a half hours, we took the train into the city, checked into our hotel, showered, and went off to see the City of Lights.

As for our first few destinations, I dragged Chris to Poilane, the famous boulangerie known for its round loaves of sourdough, punition cookies, and croissant. The chausson au pomme and pain au chocolat did not disappoint, but unfortunately, the punition (little punishment) cookies weren’t as great as I was hoping. I’d actually picked up Dorie Greenspan’s Paris Sweets baking book many years ago, and she had included the punitions cookie recipe from Poilane in it. I made them several times and really enjoyed the simplicity of this slightly crunchy butter cookie that is so delicate that its dough requires very light kneading and a cookie mold. The punitions today, which were handed out complimentary to visitors at the bakery, were hard, almost brick like to bite into, and Chris was less than impressed (“that was crap,” he muttered afterwards). My dreams were shattered a bit. And I felt myself feeling a little snobbish; I thought that my version of punition was better than the punition creator’s and the bakery that made them so famous that they export these cookies around the world.

A number of other things were top of mind as we wandered through the city today. The last time I came to Paris, I made less money, was more of a traveler-newbie, and came with rose-colored glasses; everything seemed amazing here because it was new and exciting and shiny. But there were a lot of disappointments on that trip if I had to be completely honest; the food overall didn’t impress me other than maybe one or two meals and a few bakery visits. I had some disappointing steak and some overly buttery and creamy stews that likely masked the poor ingredients used to make them. My very first croissant from Eric Kayser, who has now built up a massive empire that has even extended its way to New York City, was an absolute disappointment. It barely flaked and shattered the way the ideal croissant should, and it almost seemed too soft… the way a Costco croissant is (no offense to Costco. It has its strengths and I love it, but not for its croissants or cakes). I was upset when the local French folks responded rudely and gruffly to my attempt to revive my French from high school and responded in blunt English. I was told before I left that if I at least attempted to speak French, they would respond warmly to me. That only happened once during an entire 4.5 days in Paris, and that was at the Mariage Freres tea salon, where I had a beautiful brunch and where the server encouraged me to practice my French and not speak in English to him.

Many books I’ve read as well as people I’ve met have said that Paris reeks of urine and there is dog poo everywhere. I barely noticed this the last time I came, but today, I noticed it pretty much in every neighborhood except along Champs Elysees. I had forgotten that the public bathrooms, even in shopping centers, require a payment of two to three Euros, so most people won’t pay it and will just pee in the streets, hence the strong stench of human urine everywhere.

It was still a fun day, packed with lots of eating and walking around, and even visiting Chris’s company’s office, which is literally right next door to the Eiffel Tower with great views of it. But after our first day, for the most part, people have responded warmly to my attempts to speak French and have responded back in French or a mix of French and English. French phrases are coming back to me, and I’m seeing Paris for what it really is instead of what I had romanticized it to be the very first time I came. The idealization has chipped away, but I still love it and all of its glorious butter and sugar.


La Joie de Vivre et Manger à Paris

It’s been over two years since I have updated this blog. I stopped mainly because my new job at the time was forcing me to work long hours, and also because it already required me to be in front of a computer for so many hours of the day that once the weekend came, the last thing I wanted to do was be in front of a computer again.

A lot of things have happened in the last two years – lots of new experiences, realizations, and traveling. The most recent and notable travel experience I have had was my first time in Western Europe (France, Italy, Greece, and Turkey). I spent two and a half weeks this summer exploring Europe, and my first stop was in Paris. I’d wanted to come to Paris for as long as I could remember, and this past summer, it finally became a reality. When I had to chose a language to study in freshman year of high school, I unhesitatingly chose French. Although those language skills are close to dead now, during those four years studying French, I gained a deep love of French culture and ways of life. The “je ne sais quoi” leisurely lifestyle and appreciation of fine art and gastronomy were big reasons I’ve been so drawn to French culture. In my mind, the French have a deep understanding of the most important thing in life, and that is the art of living and living well.

Paris is a city that likes to enjoy a glass of wine at every meal, a city that relishes its two-hour lunch breaks, and a city that encourages seeing and walking to appreciate her complete beauty. She is a city that is somehow so green that when I look around at all the lush, vibrant shrubs and trees that have been trimmed and hedged to perfection, I sometimes think that someone just took a can of forest and pine green spray paint and had a field day running through her streets.

Our first night, we walked from the Champs-Elysees to the Tour Eiffel. Although I had seen it so many times in TV shows, movies, postcards, and photos, seeing the Tour Eiffel in person was like a revelation. I was so stunned by its massive size, curves, and light. I felt different emotions as I walked around it and along the Seine, but most of all, I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude – gratitude for the fact that I was so privileged to be able to visit one of the most stunning cities in the world, gratitude for all of my life’s experiences, both painful and happy, and gratitude for the people who I have loved and who have loved me and contributed to who I am now. In a city I had never before visited, I began to feel nostalgic and introspective.

As these feelings of nostalgia and introspection fell upon me, I realized exactly how much I missed writing, and almost every day that I was in Europe, I blocked out an hour or two to write about my experiences and feelings while there. In some way, you could say that going to Europe helped me find a part of myself again. Traveling through such beauty gave me an overwhelming sense of gratefulness and happiness in a way that I’d never experienced before.

Paris is one of those places that people visit and have extremely high expectations for. We hope it will live up to all of the hype that television shows and movies have built around it. We expect every building to be stunning and colossal, every work of art to be breathtaking, and every croissant to be buttery, flaky, and melt in your mouth.

Well, not every building was stunning, not every sculpture and painting I saw was breathtaking, and (extremely unfortunately) not every croissant I had was flaky, but I will say that Paris lived up to all of my expectations, particularly when it comes to all things epicurean.

One of the first things I always think about when I remember Paris is Ladurée, the most luxurious and refined pastry and cookie shop in Paris. Ladurée has several locations in Paris and around the world in major metropolitan cities, and just recently (to my absolute giddy delight) opened a shop right here in New York on the Upper East Side. Everything about Ladurée is chic and exquisite, from the jewel-like decor of each shop to the elegant, posh gift boxes (which you have to pay extra for, but if you are a die-hard fan, you should probably just cave in and get one…or two). Ladurée is famous for all of their chocolates, cakes, and sweets, but they are most renowned for their macarons – a cookie made of two little almond meringues sandwiched with a filing between them. Please don’t confuse these with those American coconut cookies. What makes these little sandwich cookies so amazing? Take a look:

The perfect macaron, when you bite into it, should have a small crunch, and then as your teeth dig deeper into it, should be lighter than air. The ideal macaron is light and delicate; it is a meringue, after all, that was piped from a pastry bag, left to sit for a few hours to develop the “shell” on its top to create that tiny crunch in the initial bite. The fillings vary depending on which flavor you get. I can’t decide if I prefer the richer fillings like pistachio or hazelnut cream or the lighter ones like raspberry or orange.

In addition to getting macarons from Ladurée, we also tried them at Eric Kayser and Pierre Herme. The most unique macaron flavor we had was from Pierre Herme – olive oil and vanilla bean. The strong perfume of vanilla was unmistakable, but with the hints of fruity olive oil, the flavor was pretty sensational. You can even see the specs of vanilla bean in the cream filling here.

The Eric Kayser macarons were satisfactory, but honestly, they paled in comparison to the ones we had at Ladurée and Pierre Herme. However, their mini pistachio flavored financiers were incredibly cute and dainty with just the right amount of sweet almond nuttiness.

Oftentimes when friends have come back from France, they say that the cookies and croissants always taste better there than they do here in the States, even when they are thinking about their favorite pastry shops here. I used to think that this was just because they had such great memories of their travels and wanted to immortalize those epicurean experiences in their minds, but then I read an article a few years back that noted that laws in different countries surrounding butterfat (yes, butterfat laws; there really are regulations around this stuff) actually did make buttery baked goods different depending on where you are eating them. By law in the United States, American butter must contain at least 80 percent butterfat, while the minimum for French butter is 82 percent. Many companies in France that make butter even use 83-86 percent butterfat! A few percentage points might not sound like a big deal, but butterfat is the main determinant of butter’s flavor and texture, so every small bit counts.

The best croissant, baguette, and madeleines I had were from a bakery within walking distance of the Sacre Coeur cathedral called Le Grenier à Pain. Apparently in 2010, they won first place for the best baguette in the 17th annual best baguette contest in Paris at la Chambre de Commerce des Boulangers. The croissant was one of the flakiest croissants I’ve ever eaten, with a texture so light that I probably could have stood there and eaten 10 of them without even realizing it. The crunchy exterior was almost addictive.

Many milk and butter companies in the States, such as Vermont Butter & Cheese Company, are trying to use methods to make butter to mimic the tastes and textures of European butter. They actually make butter with 86 percent butterfat. I still haven’t tried it yet, but I intend on doing it sometime soon. Maybe if I do try it out with the next baked good I make, I will succeed at producing a madeleine that was as tasty as this one at Le Grenier à Pain:

France is a carb lover’s dream – everywhere you go, you are surrounded by the most amazing and decadent cookies, cakes, pastries, and breads. Most of the notable bread places we found were along the way to the Sacre Coeur. For our picnic that day, we bought a gorgeous loaf of olive bread from Boulangerie à L’Ancienne.

This place churns out baguette, madeleines, and other pastries and breads all day long. We even saw a man in the front of the shop shaping baguettes. If I had timed him, it probably took him about 15 seconds per loaf to shape and throw each baguette onto the industrial-sized baking sheets. We used our olive bread to make sandwiches that day, and it was probably one of the best olive breads I’ve had. The olives had just the right amount of saltiness, and the bread was soft yet springy. With our pâté and cheeses, these sandwiches made the perfect lunch.

In the midst of all of the croissants, baguettes, and macarons, we still needed to have some real meals while in Paris. To be honest, while we did eat at a few good places with great steak frites, creme brulee, and charcuterie, none of them were particularly memorable or worth writing home about. The one exception to this was our visit to the much loved Mariage Frères Maison de Thé.

For our last lunch in Paris before jetting off to Rome, I knew we had to visit one of the best tea houses in the world. Mariage Frères has several locations in Paris, as well as in Germany and Japan. Mariage Frères is known by tea connoisseurs for its large selection of teas imported from around the world. Each store is laid out in an apothecary style that makes you feel like you are about to make a purchase that might heal an ailment of some sort that you have. We visited the location in Rive Gauche, which is quietly tucked away on a side street in the area.

If you visit one of the tea salons like we did, you can have the privilege of enjoying your own pot of their spectacular tea in a relaxing, beautiful setting. In addition, you can also have breakfast, brunch, or pastries and cake here. Of the prix fixe brunch selections (all in French, so practice your reading and speaking skills!) listed, we choose the Green Line and the Lucky Melodies.

The Green Line came with a beef filet tartare, a gazpacho, and a salad of long, elegant romaine leaves and roasted, marinated tomatoes, a glass of Mariages Frere’s very own namesake champagne. Lucky Melodies came with a chicken salad that redefined chicken salad for me – a mix of beautifully cut romaine leaves, radicchio, large slices of chicken breast, red beets, with an intensely fruity olive oil and nut dressing. This salad was like a work of art. Both sets came with freshly squeezed grapefruit and orange juice, a buttery berry scone, and a fruit muffin with Mariage Frères tea-infused fruit jellies and butter.

For tea, he had a Sweet Shanghai – a subtle green tea with lychee notes – iced, and I had the Rose d’Himalaya, a first flush Darjeeling tea perfumed with rose petals. The deep red color of the Rose d’Himalaya was so gorgeous in my little tea cup. For dessert, we shared a slice of the matcha green tea tart, which was intensely green tea flavored and silky, and a yuzu tart, which was extremely tart. I don’t think there was a single thing that we did not enjoy the taste or presentation of in this meal. Even the service was impeccable.

The highlights for the meal were the fruit and tea-infused jams, the chicken salad, the beef tartare, the flute of champagne, which had more depth and complexity than any other glass of champagne or prosecco I’ve ever tasted, and the green tea tart.

The jams we had with our scones and muffins were amazing. Both had citrusy, floral notes and were infused with tea, and the texture resembled more of a thick jelly than a jam. Every aspect of this meal at the tea salon was memorable, and when I look back on Paris, this was definitely one of the most unforgettable parts of the trip.

Writing about Paris makes me miss it even more and want to impulsively book a flight to go back there just to sit and linger in the tea salon, enjoying a cup of tea and a scone with one of those succulent fruit gelées. In some ways, my outlook on life has been changed by the time I spent in Europe. There are a lot of little joys in life that we take for granted, and sometimes when things get very chaotic and busy, we tend to forget those little things that make life so amazing. Maybe we would all be a little bit happier and more satisfied if we could just take a short break from this everyday life we live, jet off to Paris, and experience an afternoon of respite in a tea salon as tranquil and beautiful as Mariage Frères’.

Whatever you do when you go to Paris, make sure that you indulge in as many croissants, macarons, baguettes, and tea (if that is your fancy) as possible. Eating in Paris is an experience in itself that everyone should embrace. I certainly did.