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Vive la Belle Vie: Party Like It’s Yuletide in Paris!

by Winnie McCroy
EDGE Editor
Friday Dec 23, 2011
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This year, instead of the usual baked ham and stuffed turkey, why not be adventurous and try a Parisian-themed holiday party?

Travel with EDGE to a tony Parisian Christmas. Go shopping at Paris’ famed Galeries Lafayette and assorted boulangeries, patisseries, and charcuteries for supplies. Mix some festive holiday cocktails and serve up duck confit, pates, and rilettes, tasty sea scallops, a refined cheese plate, and the classic bûche de Noël for dessert.

Even though you may not be celebrating in the City of Lights, you can still surprise your guests with some great ideas from our friends across the pond. Join EDGE as we pop the cork on the one of most memorable Yuletide celebrations you’ll ever have!

Galeries Lafayette:
No trip to Paris would be complete without a visit to Galeries Lafayette, the famed market founded in 1893 at the corner of Rue Lafayette and Boulevard Haussmann. Housed in a stunning Art Nouveau building, the department store is an essential stop for fashion enthusiasts, and also houses Lafayette Gourmet, a top-tier food market modeled after a Middle Eastern bazaar. This is a one-stop foodie destination, featuring local specialties like Jean-Paul Hevin and La Maison de Truffe chocolates; Sadaharu Aoki pastries; and Mariage Freres teas, as well as standard provisions such as produce, milk, and eggs.

Galeries Lafayette stocks more than 10,000 products, most of them French. They also carry some 12,000 bottles of Bordeaux in their Bordeauxthèque. This wine shop, opened in May 2010 sits across from the store’s wine library, which stocks wine from France and across the world.

All that shopping making you hungry? Stop in at the Galeries’ food counter for a quick sandwich of Iberian ham on bread baked on-site by Maison Kayser, lunch at Lafayette Organic, or enjoy high-end dining at Bar Rouge. Every winter, some of Paris’ most enchanting holiday lights and window displays are found at the Galleries.


Boulangeries, Fromageries, and Charcuterie:
Every good meal starts with the freshest, best ingredients you can find. Luckily, Paris is a city with no dearth of delicious breads, cheeses, and meats. Start with a trip to a local boulangerie-patisserie like this year’s winner for best baguette, Pascal Barillon, or runners-up Gaétan Romp, Pascal Jamin, Gontran Cherrier, or Le Foiunil du Village. For four of the past five years, the winner has come from a Montmartre bakery.

Look for those artisan boulangeries who still use traditional, time-honored methods. Select several of their top-class baguettes de tradition, distinguishable by their aroma, a dense yet aerated cream-colored crumb, and delicious taste. While you’re there, pick up some pain au raisins or figues, chocolate tarts, or croissants for breakfast.

A good way to pique the appetite is with some classic French appetizers. Visit a quality charcuterie ("butcher," in English) and pick up a nice saucisson sec de Montagne, a hard, dry, pork salami coated with a fine white flour rind. Slice it up, and spread it out on a nice platter. Pair it with a thick slice of les rillettes, a fatty, delicious spread of minced pork and pork fat - or go for a more delicate terrine or pâtés en croûte. Pick up a pot of creamy pâté, and serve the whole thing up with some spicy mustard, tiny cornichons, and that crusty baguette, sliced on the bias.

For your prepared appetizers, ask for some jambon cru or prosciutto di Parma, sliced thin to unleash the flavor of the rich, pink meat with soft, white fat around the edges. Most charcuteries will also have duck confit, the shredded meat of roast duck legs. Get enough of both to make duck confit hoison crépes, and prosciutto with radishes on baguette.

The traditional way to end any French meal is with a nice selection of French cheeses. There are nearly 400 types of cheese in France, and most are raw and unpasteurized. Head to a quality, artisan fromagerie (cheese shop) and pick up some vache, chévre, or brebis cheeses.

Start with several small wheels of tangy chévre, or goat cheese. Try Banon, Crottin de Chavigol, or Valencay. Then pick a ripe, soft wheel of Camembert, or a creamy Brie. Press down softly in the center to check ripeness; it should give a little, and be firm on the outside but soft on the inside. Make sure it’s not too runny, and reject any cheeses with a hint of ammonia; they are past their prime. Pair it up with a brebis (ewe’s milk cheese) like Brocciu or Ossau-Iraty. Round out the selection with a hard Swiss such as Vieux Comté, and a stinky bleu cheese like Roquefort or Bleu d’Auvergne.

Some tips: Don’t be afraid to ask for a sample before you buy. Pick at least four cheeses: one or two goat cheeses; a creamy Brie or Camembert; a hard Swiss, Cheddar, or Cheshire; and a pungent bleu cheese with a cendre coating. Do as the natives: eat in ascending order of strength, and eat the rind. If you are a guest, remember it is rude to have more than three cheeses, as it tells the hostess you didn’t enjoy her entrees.


Seafood:
Knowing how to choose fresh fish and seafood is a vital skill for any cook. With a few tips, you can make sure you’re bringing the catch of the day right to your table.

In Paris, the best seafood shops include Le Dôme Café and Goumard. But any quality fishmonger will be easy to spot, or rather, to smell. Reject any seafood shops that smell like low tide, and follow the crowds to the shop offering firm, briny fish with shiny skin and clear eyes.

Whole fish:
• Look at the fish: If it shines metallic and appears clean, it’s fresh
• Eyeball the eyes: if they’re bright and clear, the fish is fresh. If they’re grey and dull, it’s past its prime
• Give it a sniff: Fresh fish should smell like the ocean, more like brine and cucumbers than "fishy"
• Check the gills: A fresh fish has rich red gills. An old fish has gills colored like a brick

Housed in a stunning Art Nouveau building, the department store is an essential stop for fashion enthusiasts, and also houses Lafayette Gourmet, a top-tier food market modeled after a Midldle Eastern bazaar.

Fillets:
• Look for a vibrant, meaty flesh with metallic, shiny skin
• Avoid any fillets that have a pungent aroma
• If the liquid on the fish is milky, the fish is beginning to rot

Shellfish:
• Make sure the shells of oysters, mussels, and clams are closed tight: too many open shells indicates that the shellfish are old and dying. If they stay closed after you cook them, they are dead, and not suitable to eat. Throw them away.
• When buying scallops, make sure they are not wallowing in a milky liquid. Opt instead for frozen, vacuum-sealed bags; the shells can be bought separately.
• Unless you live right next to the ocean, buy shrimp whole and frozen. And don’t overcook them; they dry out quickly.


Absinthe:
Absinthe is a distilled, highly alcoholic, anise-flavored spirit made of wormwood, green anise, and sweet fennel. Although sometimes colorless, it has a naturally green color, and has been commonly referred to as "la fée verte", aka the green fairy.

Perhaps due to its popularity among bohemians (and the small presence of thujone, a mildly psychoactive drug), absinthe has been banned in the U.S. since 1915. Recently, however, the spirit has experienced a revival. Now, nearly 200 brands of absinthe are produced in a dozen countries, and legally exported to the U.S.

Traditionally, absinthe is served by placing a sugar cube on top of a specially designed slotted spoon suspended over a portion of absinthe. Three times that amount of ice-cold water is slowly poured over the sugar cube, releasing the anise, fennel, and star anise to a cloudy, mild opalescence called the louche. In the "Bohemian method," the sugar cube is pre-soaked in absinthe and set ablaze, then dropped into the absinthe, followed by a shot glass of water. These days, absinthe pops up in a number of cocktails, mixed with Benedictine, Cointreau, vermouth, Curacao, and even gin.


Sidecar:
From the old-fashioned to the sidecar, classic cocktails are all the rage these days. We mixed up a batch of sidecars featuring Belle de Brillet, a pear liquor produced by infusing Brillet cognac with the essence of 20 lbs. of Poire Williams pears per 750ml bottle.

France is the birthplace of this pear-infused cognac, which is a touch on the sweet side, perfect for the sidecar, traditionally made with cognac, orange liqueur, and lemon juice. Serve in a martini glass with the rim rubbed in lemon juice and dipped in sugar. A slice of pear makes a nice garnish!


Bûche de Noël/Macarons:
No traditional Parisian Christmas would be complete without a Bûche de Noël, the tasty "Yule log" dessert prepared to look like a log used in the winter solstice fire festival.

A Génoise or sponge cake is used as the base, and baked in a large, shallow Swiss roll pan. The (usually yellow) cake is then frosted in chocolate ganache or buttercream frosting, rolled to form a cylinder, and cooled. When the cake sets into its log form, it is frosted on the exterior, and the ends are cut at a bias and attached to create the look of a chopped-off branch.

A fork dragged through the icing creates the appearance of bark, as does the sprinkling of shaved chocolate. The bûche is often decorated with powdered sugar to approximate snow, and garnished with tree branches, fresh berries, and mushrooms made of meringue. Slice in rounds and serve with cappuccino.


Les Macarons:
Only the most skilled bakers will even attempt the lighter-than-air French macaron. The rest of us will head to Ladurée, Paris’ penultimate macaron purveyor. Located on Champs-Elysées, Ladurée’s flagship store, founded in 1862, is widely considered to have the best macarons, bar none.

These small, round cookies are crisp on the outside, and smooth and soft on the inside, thanks to a careful manipulation of meringue joined with a delicious ganache filling. They are even aged two days to achieve that perfect mouth feel.

The beautiful, almond-scented, vibrantly multi-colored treats are available in boxes of eight in the Hounds tooth collection. Each year, Ladurée makes one new flavor. Ladurée macarons are prohibitively expensive, retailing for about US$5 each. But one bite will make you a believer. In the U.S., macarons are available at Ladurée’s New York store, at 864 Madison Avenue.


Le Fin:
Winter in Paris would not be complete without a visit to the Avenue des Champs-Elysées Christmas Market, which runs from November 19 to January 2. This open-air market - the largest of its kind within Paris - features hundreds of wooden stalls offering mulled wine, gingerbread, sausages, and specialties from various regions of France, including a pop-up boutique offering traditional Alsatian Christmas treats.

The market stretches to the Place de la Concorde, where a big draw for kids and adults alike is the huge Ferris wheel that looms over the market, providing a festive air to an already delightful venue. It also affords riders a breathtaking view of the surrounding Christmas illuminations. Other attractions include a small roller coaster and a picturesque French carousel.

Christmas in Paris is a far more understated affair than the over-the-top treatment given it in the United States, but not even a French sophisticate can resist the magic and beauty of the Avenue des Champs-Elysées Christmas Market.

So collect your tasty treats, gather vos amis, and prepare for a truly Joyeux Noël!

Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women’s news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she writes about local restaurants in her food blog, http://brooklyniscookin.blogspot.com/

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