Of all the things to do in Paris, there were two I was determined to do: sing One Day More as Cosette while peddling for money on a bridge over the Seine and wait for someone to join in as Jean Valjean, and immerse myself in French cuisine. It’s the later that I was able to accomplish without getting arrested for pedophilia, and in a less conventional way than one might think. Yep we took a cooking class!
The fantastic idea came from Jonathan’s mother who’d thought it would be a good belated birthday gift and early Hanukkah present for the both of us. She was totally right.
La Cuisine Paris Cooking School
La Cuisine Paris was fantastic. It’s a small cooking school on two levels right on Quai de l’Hôtel de Ville, literally across the street from the Seine with Notre Dame Cathedral off in the distance. The class was broken into two segments: picking out the menu while shopping for fresh ingredients at a local farmers market, and then coming back to the school to prep, cook, and enjoy the fruits of our labor.
The first part was my favorite. We walked around the corner to a local market and our personal chef and instructor Julie (you have to say it with an accent at the end like Jew-lee! because sounds more French that way) taught us all sorts of interesting tips to navigating the various Paris French markets. Julie was awesome. Her English was great, but not too good that you didn’t feel like she wasn’t an authentic Frenchie. She grew up on a farm about an hour outside of Paris, and worked in a 3 Michelin star rated restaurant before starting the cooking school.
First we went to the sausicon vendor. This is the short stocky man in a beret that you’ll find at every market throughout the week (I know because we saw him two more times on our trip) who’s got all sorts of meats hanging from string…and no, this is not a gay club. Duck, pork, venison, deer, and combinations of such, are hung out to dry. Some have been mixed with spices, and some have been smoked. Julie told us that the natural skins on these are edible, and she said the ones that have a white exterior tend to be younger than others. Some have been covered in things like ash, but we did a blind taste test and there really wasn’t much of a difference. They interesting factoid was comparing the sizes of the meats. The larger ones tend to be younger (they haven’t had a chance to dry out a shrink as much) and tend to be softer to eat. Either way, we bought one we liked and ended up slicing it thin and eating it with some olives before our dinner.
Then we went to the fish guy. Julie asked us to come in close and form a huddle so she could whisper a secret. “Fishing is illegal on Saturday and Sunday,” she said, “so you never want to buy fish at the market in Paris (or in a restaurant even) on Monday or Tuesdays.” She said the fish merchants put more fileted fish out on Mondays and Tuesdays, because it’s harder to tell the freshness of the fish when it’s not whole and covered in scales with it’s head.
What to be aware of when purchasing fish at a Paris farmer’s market:
- The freshest fish should not smell “fishy”. I know that seems counterintuitive, but if you eat seafood, you know what I mean.
- Fresh fish is firm and doesn’t flop over on itself, because the muscles and tendons are still tight.
- They weigh the entire fish (head, bones, innards and all) and that’s what you end up paying for.
- So you pay for what you see when you purchase the fish fileted
- Shrimp, scallops, clams, oysters, etc. are sometimes sold in 100g increments. Which might seem cheap, but when you do the math….not so much.
- Fresh scallops often have the orange livers attached still. This is a delicacy, but some people think it’s where the toxins are….either way, you’ll have to pay for them, and then cut them off at home.
- Monkfish never has the head on it so don’t worry about that meaning it’s less fresh or not….the head is just so ugly they take it off immediately so people will buy it.
- When you cook fish with the skin/scales on, you can oftentimes just pull it off in one swoop….so don’t disregard fish skin just because you’re not use to it.
- The vendors sometimes use tricky lighting to make the fish look better on Mondays and Tuesdays so be careful of that.
Then we went to the cheese monger, which I would have been more excited about, but my stomach was still uneasy after the spew incident the night before. Julie told us that there are about 400 distinct types of cheeses in France and another 300-400 unofficial cheeses that have been made for decades by the same farmers in the same towns who sell to their neighbors and maybe a select few retailers.
But the real interesting part was that in France, just as much (if not more) technique and skill goes into storing and caring for the cheese as went into making it. Since the French like to give medals and awards out for everything: the best baguette, the best crepe, the best quiche, the best crepe filled with quiche, etc.; there are awards given to the best cheese mongers. Winners wear chef’s jackets with special blue, white, and red stripes on the collar and they get paid tons of money and have loads of respect. A lot of the sellers in the markets are just as talented, but they haven’t spent the money and gone through the hassle of competing.
Things to be aware of when picking out cheeses (according to a French chef):
- Two cheeses that are exactly the same and one is a little smaller….that just means it’s older. Not a bad thing, just means it’s ready to eat sooner and might have more developed flavors.
- With soft wheel cheeses like bries, the runnier the better. If the cheese is spilling out from between the skins, that’s a good thing.
- If you look at a wedge of harder cheese and see a darker ring near the edges when compared to a wedge of the same cheese that is just one solid color. The one with the colored ring edge is older and has had more exposure to air. Again, not a bad thing, just means it’s older and more developed.
- When creating a cheese plate, you should always have at least two cheeses, three is preferred. Five is great. And don’t just pick the types of cheese you like. Get a variety and mix goat, cows, sheep, hard, soft, and blues.
- Never cut the nose of a brie! Lighting will strike you dead in your tracks. You slice along the side of the wedge and then cut that piece into smaller pieces of it’s a long wedge and you don’t want that much.
- Hard wedges with skins you cut slices across (from top skin to the bottom skin) until you get a few inches away from the skin side of the wheel. Than you start cutting wedges from top to the bottom in a fan motion so nobody gets stuck with an all rind piece of cheese.
- Cheese is served as a course….not just an appetizer. We ended up eating it after dinner and before dessert.
Most important tips:
- Don’t be influenced by the gold medals and ribbons you see….it’s not necessarily better and it’s always more expensive.
- Vendors lose their seniority at the market if they don’t show up more than two or three times in a row. So they vendor you’re looking for might not always be there, and you should plan on being flexible.
- Always buy what’s in season and fresh.
When we got back to the cooking school, they had hot coffee and tea waiting for us. The coffee was French pressed, but since we were in France, I’m thinking they just call it “pressed”….don’t worry, they figure out a way to make it sound snotty and pretentious still.
After our break, we put on our plastic disposable aprons and we started making our meal. The next post will break down the meal, but as a teaser, we ended up making multiple courses!
And now for the cooking class! See what we made with the above ingredients in our post titled Paris cooking class…part deux