Saturday, 7 February 2009

Paris and macaroon madness

Pierre Herme is a genius in the art of pastry making my French friends tell me. They line up around the block outside his St Germain shop for exquisite pastries. I've tried the Isfahan and the Plenitude (rose scented and salted/caramel respectively). They are worth the wait. So when I saw a new shop just off the Rue de Rivoli around the corner from the Ritz I headed in. But they only sell macaroons. Not a cake in sight - just macaroons and some very expensive chocolates. This seemed just too precious for words - not to mention pretentious. I went in and started to say as much to the delightful woman behind the counter. She didn't argue. "It's a silly fad," I declared. "Paris has got macaroon-madness." She smiled her agreement. "People are fascinated by all the flavours we come up with".
Among those flavours are "white truffle and hazelnut," "salted caramel", "wasabi and grapefruit," "chocolate and foie gras." 

I tried the white truffle and a salted caramel. They looked like precious jewels in their display case and at $1.50 for something hardly bigger than a 2 Euro piece they are about as expensive. But that is the man's marketing genius. Sell them for 50 centimes and they would still be relatively expensive but not nearly so desirable. They are, by the way, sublime. The white truffle has a true taste of truffle. As for the salted caramel, I read somewhere that salted caramels are one of Obama's few weaknesses. If Sarkozy has any sense he'll be sure to place a couple of these macaroons on the pillows in the Elysee Palace when the Presidential couple first drop by. In the meantime, I'm heading back over to Herme's to sample the chocolate and foie gras.

Paris - City of Light or Grey old Lady?

The French call it 'la grisaille parisienne" that awful greyness that hangs over the city in the winter and is picked up by the greyish stone of the Hausmann boulevards. Given this tendency, whatever possessed the Mitterand government, or more specifically the old egomaniac himself to impose more grey on the capital? Two examples: the Bastille Opera and those absurd columns in the Palais Royal courtyard. The latter were pretentious and pointless when they were commissioned by that pretentious and pointless Mitterand clique back in the 80s. Now both they and the Bastille Opera are delapidated and tatty and quite literally falling apart. Those nasty great grey slabs of tile on the lugubrious opera house have started dropping off and, because they could kill someone, nets have been draped around a relatively new structure. Buren's soppy columns need 'restoring' and the old boy has done us the honour of 'creating' more black and white stripes on a bit of screen that conceals the restoration work being done on his black and white-striped columns. He must be exhausted - coming up with the idea of black and white stripes twice in 25 years! How does he do it???

Today, it snowed in Paris. It didn't stick just whirled in the air and made the city greyer and colder than ever. I was in the Louvre and in need of a cup of tea. I saw that there was a cafe Richelieu on the floor that I was visiting so headed into it, ready to cough up the standard 5 Euros - £4.50 for a cuppa - I was that desperate. The Cafe Richelieu has a terrace in summer overlooking the great Pyramid Courtyard. That might redeem it but in winter, there is only the room itself and the room is, surprise, surprise - granite grey bordering on black. Nice that - sitting in a black room looking out on the grey day. 

Anyone visiting the Louvre should ignore all their restaurant offerings and settle instead for the Cafe Marly on Richelieu side, tucked inside the colonnades overlooking the Pyramid. It's cosy with red velvet banquettes and can safely claim to be the only restaurant in the world that looks right into a sculpture hall of the Louvre. On a even mildly warm evening, it's possible to sit on their terrace, gaze out at the Pyramid and ask yourself, as I often do, whether this was the one thing Mitterand got right on his commissioning rampage through Paris. Or is it just possible that the courtyard would have looked fine without it? I think I'll head over there, buy myself a glass of wine and ponder the question again.

Bicycling to see Ben Heppner at the Opera de Paris

I've rediscovered the Velib Paris bicycle system and the pleasure is as great as it was first time round. This time I was heading out to see Ben Heppner in recital at the Palais Garnier and realized that by the time I'd got on the metro I would never make it. So I grabbed a bike at one of the three bike stations at Bastille and whizzed off along the Rue de Rivoli - then right onto the Avenue de l'Opera, left the bike at the station just behind the Palais Garnier and ran  into the theatre.

I like Ben Heppner better in concert. He's a great Wagnerian and his voice rides happily over a vast opulent orchestra. But if I have to have  Ben Heppner in recital I'd rather it were  somewhere like Seattle where last year, after some serious songs, he took off his tie and glasses and gave us some standards and talked to his audience and made us laugh and cry. The man has a personality and humour as big as his voice but it wasn't on display in Paris where he seemed more intent on  showing his versatility in an over-stuffed programme. We got Schubert Lieder, Strauss songs, a big chunk of Britten, Duparc, Bellini, Verdi and Puccini. And yes, Ben Heppner can still sing lied, bel canto, Verdi, elegant French songs and Verismo but Ben Heppner can also knock us out of our seats with Tristan's death or Siegmund's Winterstorm. For anyone familiar with either of those, this evening felt subdued and a little flat.

I Hate Fauchon!

This is a sad state of affairs for once I loved Paris's fabled food store at the Madeleine. I could never afford it but still it was fun to go in and look at 'smoked salmon millefeuille' or a turquoise blue eclair ("vanille et menthe glaciale")  that only a French pastry chef could get away with. 
Then they remodelled. They picked pink - shocking pink. This has been a trend lately - Hediard across the way has been red for years - more recently and quite disastrously, dear old Fortnum and Mason's in London decided to go turquoise. In all three cases this means that rows and rows of identical boxes are placed on shelves. Hundreds of pink (or red or turquoise) tea caddies line up on shelves just across from hundreds of pink (or red or turquoise) chocolate boxes. I can think of nothing less tempting to the consumer.  Big blocks of one colour. That's it. That's all.  So, the pleasure of Fauchon has long gone but yesterday, tired and footsore, I thought that their relatively new teashop upstairs might merit a visit. I steeled myself to pay 5 euros for a cup of tea - it's a scandalous 4 euros elsewhere so I factored in the Fauchon extra and headed upstairs. The place is dull and cold - wispy and grey was the impression I had. And the tea costs 10 EUROS!!!!!!

What is it with Paris and tea? What do they think that we think that they are doing back there in the kitchen? Anybody who has drunk tea in Paris knows that they are turning on the hot water tap and running it over a sad sachet of tea factory floor sweepings. Now, I grant that Fauchon may have actually gone out and bought real tea, may even be serving it in loose leaf form but 10 Euros??? Ten euros is about £6. 50. 

I headed off to Angelina on the Rue de Rivoli - expensive too but still elegant and with a uniquely rich, dark hot chocolate at 6 Euros 50, I felt that I'd made 3.50 euros.