Eating Well: Paris - #110

BURT WOLF: Paris. When the Western World thinks about great food, this is the town that comes to mind. On this trip, we'll visit the city's most famous baker, and find out how French bread got its shape, and why a baker's dozen is 13 instead of 12. We'll stop into a shop with 22,000 different gourmet products. And we'll see how the glass blowers of Baccarat crystallize their vision. Plus some excellent and easy recipes: chicken with a mustard sauce, a succulent steak, and a classic French apple tart. Join me, Burt Wolf, Eating Well in Paris.

BURT WOLF: Glorious Paris, the city on the Seine. It's made up of 40 fabulous miles of some of the world's most treasured architectural masterpieces, from the awe-inspiring Notre Dame Cathedral to the elegant Eiffel Tower, to the famous Arc de Triomphe, designed by Napoleon Bonaparte. This legendary city of romance is steeped in history, beauty and charm.

Throughout its 2,000-year-old history, Paris has seduced the world with its mystique, and over the centuries, has become a haven for artists, writers, and philosophers; from the respectable Right Bank with its passion for fashion boutiques to the bohemian quarters of the Left Bank, where the art of life flows freely. Paris is a vivid canvas of art, style, and culture. And with thousands and thousands of restaurants and bistros to choose from, Paris is truly a moveable feast... and one of the great gastronomic wonders of the world. 

The Ile de la Cite, “the Island of the City,” a small island in the center of the river Seine, in the center of the City of Paris. It's actually where Paris began. Two thousand years ago, it was a small fishing village inhabited by a tribe of Celts called the Parisie, and in the year 52 B.C. the Roman legions arrived and took it over. They were interested in having a regular supply of fish.

So from the very beginning, the story of Paris has been the story of food. I can understand that. Things have never changed, really. When Napoleon was making a list of the most important things he had done for the city, right at the top were two food items: The first was a special type of butcher shop that he developed and the second was a type of market that he installed. The more I look at the City of Paris and why its food is so special, the more I see a group of special suppliers, suppliers who are encouraged, supported, and criticized by the local ears who really want good food. Let me take you on a tour of them and show you what I mean.

First, the market streets. My favorite market in Paris is the one on Rue de Seine. Some shops are indoors; some shops are outdoors; and each has a specialty. Fruits and vegetables, cold cuts, cheeses, breads, pastry, meat, fish, poultry. Each vendor is an expert on the selection, preparation, and presentation of their food. That's probably the most distinctive aspect of the French market street. Each vendor wants to sell a specific food, and that's it. Their sense of pride in their product is awesome. They love their specific area of expertise and are anxious to tell you as much about it as you want to know. Sometimes even a lot more than you want to know.

When I lived in France, there was a lady who sold me chicken who was at least 75 years old. Every time she sold me a new chicken, she gave me a new chicken recipe. Over 200 chickens and 200 chicken recipes in a three-year period. And she gave all of them to me from memory. Quite amazing.

Speaking of memory, don't forget to fully cook your chickens. In the United States, we are still having a salmonella bacteria problem with our poultry. You want to make sure that all of your chicken is fully cooked. The best way to do that is to use a thermometer. You want an internal temperature of 170 degrees one white meat, 180 degrees on dark meat.

And here's a chicken recipe that even my chicken lady would be pleased to have. A little pepper goes onto a boneless, skinless chicken breast, the chicken is then sauteed on both sides in a little oil. A coating of mustard goes on top, followed by a coating of bread crumbs. And into a 350 degree Fahrenheit oven for about 12 minutes, or until the chicken reaches an internal temperature of 170 degrees. Meanwhile, a little oil goes into a saute pan, with some chopped onion, tarragon, chopped tomato, and chicken stock. All that cooks together for about 10 minutes, at which point it's blended into a puree. Three different colored pastas which have already been cooked in boiling water are sauteed for a moment in a little butter. The orange pasta was made by adding some carrots to the dough and the green pasta came from mixing in some spinach. The white pasta is just plain. The chicken breast comes out of the oven, and goes onto the serving dish. Three little bundles of pasta and the sauce in between. 

The Place Vendome is a magnificent circle of palaces built in Paris in the 1600s. At the center of the ring is a column commemorating one of Napoleon's military victories, and of course, a statue of the emperor Napoleon stands on top. Directly across the street from this landmark is the Ritz Hotel, which is itself a monument to two men who were also great strategists: Auguste Escoffier, who was a leading chef of the late 1800s, and Cesar Ritz, who was a great hotel manager. Together these two guys brought a level of luxury to the business that was absolutely outrageous. As a matter of fact, Cesar Ritz's name became part of the international vocabulary for elegance. When we say something is ritzy, we're talking about the way Cesar Ritz would have done it.

Cesar Ritz was born in Switzerland in 1850. The thirteenth child in a peasant family with very little schooling, he eventually became the world's most famous hotel director. When Ritz teamed up with a chef named Auguste Escoffier, you had an unbeatable team. These guys were the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers of the kitchen, the Gilbert and Sullivan of the sauce pot. They made it stylish to go out to eat. And Ritz worked very hard at making it acceptable for ladies to dine out in public.

Sarah Bernhardt, the famous actress of the 1800s would stop in for supper, and so would Lily Langtree. Nelly Melba, the singer, would grace the tables of Ritz and Escoffier. 

Ritz and Escoffier worked together to develop recipes that honored the famous ladies of their time. There was a soup for Sarah Bernhardt and a dish for Princess Alice, who was the granddaughter of Queen Victoria of England. Escoffier also developed Melba toast in the hope that it would help Lily Melba with her weight loss program. When the famous women of the time came out to consume their namesake dishes, it made it admissible for all women of the period to eat out in public. So ladies, next time you're slipping into a seat at you favorite restaurant, or even lining up for a fast-food burger, remember that we all owe some small debt to Cesar Ritz and Auguste Escoffier.

The French Revolution, 1790: a time of great change. You might think that all the major occurrences were political, but that was not the case. The French Revolution had an enormous impact on the history of food. Take restaurants, for example. There were a couple of restaurants in Paris before the Revolution, but they were no big deal. Then along came the Reign of Terror and tens of thousands of French noblemen were rounded up in the building behind me, marched off to the guillotine and executed. And that left thousands of excellent French chefs without their employers. 

What did the French chefs do? They opened up restaurants. A lot of them stayed here in Paris and cooked for the new citizens of the Republic, but lots of them moved abroad. Hundreds of them went to the town of New Orleans. They had heard that there was a French-speaking community in the New World that loved food. So they packed up their recipes and headed for the Big Easy. 

They adapted their recipes to the local ingredients. The classic French fish stew, bouillabaisse, became gumbo. Remoulade sauce, Praline candies, recipes from the Revolution.

One of the essential figures of the Revolution was the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette. Like so many people surrounding heads of state, she was completely out of touch with what people needed. As a result, when the bakers of Paris ran out of bread, she suggested that everyone eat cake instead. And for that attitude, she lost her head. 

The real point of this story is that bread is very important to the people of Paris. Perhaps the city's most famous baker is Mr. Poilane. His shop is rustic and quite beautiful. He sits behind his desk, surrounded by paintings of bread, reading books about bread, and overseeing the baking of bread. In a time-honored traditional method, the ovens are fired by wood chips, and all the processes are performed by hand. French bread is made without fat, so it goes stale quite quickly, but a low-fat diet is better for your health anyway, so it's a fine trade-off. 

Classic French bread is long, thin, crisp and called a baguette. The word baguette means wand, and when it's properly cooked it's like magic. The baguette became popular in Paris around the turn of the century. 

At the time, they were making something called the long bread, 30 inches long but about eight inches wide. It was quite crisp on the outside, quite soft on the inside. People liked the crisp outside rather than the soft inside. And so the bakers began to bake them thinner and thinner and thinner, until they became almost completely crisp crust. It's important to give people what they want.

Something the people of Paris have wanted for over 500 years is to do the eating while someone else does the cooking. Enter the charcuterie. The word Charcuterie means the place where you can buy cooked food. And when the first one opened in Paris in the year 1475, that's exactly what it was. The most common meat at the time was pork. It was also a time when most of the people living in Paris did not have kitchens in which they could really cook. And so the Charcuterie became a community kitchen, where you could stop in, buy something that was already cooked, and take it home to eat.

During the past 500 years, the Paris charcuterie has evolved into the world's ultimate take-out food shop. And one of the most famous examples is called Fauchon. They offer over 22,000 different products. There are fruits and vegetables, but usually of the most exotic varieties available. If it swims, it has probably found its way into Fauchon. The prepared dishes that sit in the window are responsible for causing thousands of hunger attacks in passersby each day. 

They make fresh pasta and of course a wide assortment of sauces to go on top. The selection of preserved meats from pates to sausages is beyond description. You can probably buy your food here each day, for your entire life and never repeat a dish. The Paris charcuterie encourages people to shop for fresh food every day, and that's good. The longer food sits around, the more nutrients are lost. The fresher, the better.

And speaking of cooked meats, here's a new version of a Parisian classic: steak with three peppers. A filet of beef is rubbed with a little oil and given a light coating of cracked black pepper- corns. Oil goes into a pan and then the beef. The beef is cooked on all sides until it reaches the point of doneness that you like, and it's held aside. Next a little beef stock is used to de-glaze the pan. De-glazing is a simple process where the drippings from the meat are cooked into the liquid. Next green and red peppercorns are added in. These are soft peppers that have not been dried out. They're preserved in vinegar. The peppers and the stock are cooked down for a few minutes until everything thickens up. Meanwhile a selection of vegetables are quickly sauteed with a pinch of sugar to bring up their sweetness. Amir is so careful about not over-cooking his vegetables that when the green beans are done, they're plunged into ice water to stop the cooking and keep them crisp. The vegetables go onto the plate, and the steak goes on, and finally the sauce is poured on top.

The Faubourg Ste. Honore is the most elegant street of shops in Paris. Many of the great fashion houses line this corridor. It's the street where the rich and famous get a little less rich. It's also the address for one of the classiest hotels in the world: Le Bristol. 

During the 1700s, the ultimate tourist was Britain's fourth Earl of Bristol. He spent his entire life and a considerable part of his vast fortune traveling around Europe looking for the best of everything. He actually had his chef travel a half day ahead of him, so when he got someplace to eat, the food would be perfect. The Bristol Hotel in Paris is named after His Lordship as a constant reminder to everybody who works here to keep things up to the standard that the Earl demanded. I think if His Lordship were alive today, he would be very pleased with what he would find here. 

Much of their furniture was purchased from France's most famous museum, the Louvre. The central tapestry was once given by the Emperor Napoleon to his mother. The new bathrooms are made of Portuguese marble and cost over $40,000 each. The heated pool on the roof was designed by the man who devised the yachts for Stavros Niarchos, and Aristotle Onassis. So he made the area look like a turn of the century schooner with the pool sitting on the deck. The shore in the distance is painted to look like the Mediterranean coast near Antibes, with Le Bristol's sister hotel, Hotel du Cap on the horizon. 

There are two dining rooms, one for summer looking out on the garden, and one for winter, enclosed in the warmest woods. And the foods that are served in these rooms would undoubtedly have pleased the Earl. Three grilled fish is a good example. Elegant, interesting, light, low fat. The chef starts by cutting some carrots and turnips into long thin strips. They end up looking like pasta. He's using a Japanese vegetable cutter, but if you just chop your vegetables into small pieces, the dish will still turn out fine. Small filets from three different types of fish get a light coating of vegetable oil and go onto a grill for a minute on each side. Then into a three hundred and fifty degree fahrenheit oven for five minutes to finish cooking. The fish are chosen on the basis of color and flavor. You want each to look and taste quite differently. The vegetable shaped pasta goes into a little boiling water for about five minutes until they're tender. The fish is arranged on the plate, vegetable pasta goes on and a green garnish. It comes with a vegetable salad and a low fat vinegrette dressing. More taste for fewer calories than I've seen in years. A work of art.

The fine artists of France have a history that goes back for thousands of years. Painters, sculptors, architects, craftsmen working in hundreds of different materials. And the city of Paris is the center for the collection of these works. You could spend years in the museums and galleries of Paris, and not see it all. There is however, one museum that is of special interest to me. It houses the works of the glass blowers of a small french town called Baccarat. For over two hundred years, the people of that village have been making glass, and for most of that time it's been fine crystal. Their skill is fascinating to see. Much of the collection is table service for the great heads of state. This pattern was made for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and these for the king and queen of Thailand. This long-stemmed set was designed for Tsar Nicholas the Second of Russia, the last of the tsars before the revolution of 1917. He could get a good grip on his wine glass, but unfortunately, not on his throne. 

The original technique for producing glass was discovered about 4,500 years ago. But the ultimate form of glass production came rather recently. Crystal was introduced in the year 1670, and the technique is absolutely amazing. A mixture made of mostly of very fine sand is heated for thirty-six hours until it reaches a melting point of three thousand degrees fahrenheit. The molten mixture is gathered at the end of a hollow steel blow-pipe. How much you gather depends on what you're going to make. The shape is blown. More crystal is gathered for the stem. It's attached and stretched. Then the foot is added and shaped. The crystal makers work as a team, each member having trained for many years. Fifty pairs of hands are involved in this creation, and each must be highly skilled. The lip is checked for smoothness with a technique that is absolutely chilling. The glass is marked and the cutter traces and hollows out the pattern, adding facets that split the light into radiant beams. When it comes to quality, this is a tough town. But the result is always crystal clear.

Messrs Cantinoix and Aus Blondres are perfect examples of what I mean. They draw with the hand of a Da Vinci, but the pencil is a power tool, and the canvas is crystal. For weeks at a time they work on a specific piece, a portrait, a land-scape, a still life; sometimes it's just a complex pattern that interests them. Some work they design themselves, others are chosen from drawings that were originally created hundreds of years ago by earlier artists of this village. And each piece must be perfect. There is nothing of second quality from this village. The citizens of Baccarat are so serious about their work that if it's not perfect, it's broken and goes back into the melting furnace, even if weeks of work have gone into the piece, before the problem develops. 

This is called a tantalus, they were very popular during the eighteen-hundreds. Fine brandy was kept inside, but you could only get to it if you had the key. If they were going to build on of these for me, now, it would be filled with fine chocolate, and the lock would be connected to a scale. It would only open when I was under my ideal weight. 

Fabulous glassware, and lots of it. But what do we do with it? Our lives are filled with little customs, minor acts that we seem to perform instinctively, and almost without thought. Shaking hands, responding to someone's sneeze with a wish for God's blessing, throwing salt over your shoulder, saluting, or touching glasses, before drinking. Though most people are unaware of the historical beginnings, there are very precise reasons for all of these activities. Take saluting for example. In days of old, when knights were bold, these heavily-armed gentlemen would run into each other in the forest. For a knight to show he was friendly, he would remove his hand from his sword, raise it up to his visor and then raise the visor, so the other knight could get a good look at him. Well, the visors are gone, the swords are gone, but the salute remains as a mark of friendship and safety. 

Very much is true with touching glasses before you drink wine. In medieval times, to go out to somebody's house for dinner could be deadly. The wine was often poisoned. The first defense was to have all the wine poured from the same pitcher. And that worked well, until someone developed a colorless, odorless poison that could be rubbed into the glass of the victim. The response to that was to have everyone pour a little wine from their glass into everybody else's glass. In that way, poison for one became poison for all. We no longer pour the wine, but we still touch glasses. 

In 1686, a Sicilian living in Paris was given a government permit to open up a little shop where he could make and sell coffee, tea, hot chocolate and a few spirits. It was to be consumed on the premises and was quite like giving a baker the right to sell cake and coffee in front of his bakery. That was the first cafe in Paris. These days, the most famous cafe in Paris is called Deux Magots. It's located in the area associated with artists and writers. It's a classic. By the way, the most recent scientific research on coffee, conducted with people who were described as moderate or normal drinkers, that's to say, five cups of coffee a day or less, clearly indicated that there were no health problems. I'll drink to that.

And now, how about a little dessert? Perhaps some french pastry? The pastry shop Dalloyau began offering pastries to the people of Paris in the year 1802. Napoleon was the ruler of France at the time and I wouldn't be a bit surprised to find out that every once in a while he popped in here for a cake. He was famous for his love of pastries, and a matter of fact, there's one named after him, the napoleon. I can only think of that one person who has a desert named after him. Caesar got a salad, but only Napoleon got desert.

Some historians believe that Napoleon lost the Battle of Waterloo because he had spent the night before dealing with an upset stomach caused by eating too many desserts. But there could never be too much from Dalloyau. Small, individual fruit tarts, every style of classic French pastry, towering mounds of cookies, chocolate delights, cakes, tarts, babas, meringues, and who could resist a bakers’ dozen of those? 

The idea of a bakers’ dozen is interesting. A bakers’ dozen in thirteen, rather than twelve. It comes from the time when butlers ordered all of the food for a household. When they chose a particular supplier for baked goods, breads, cakes, things like that, they had a special deal. For every twelve they ordered for the family, they got a thirteenth, free, for themselves. Not bad. 

I think I'll take my bakers’ dozen in classic French apple tarts. Here's how they're made. An egg, flour, salt, sugar, and butter get mixed together into a pastry dough. A little milk goes in to smooth things out. I'm not going to give you the precise amounts, because they wouldn't work in the United States. Making pastry dough is a lot like chemistry; you need the exact same elements to produce the same results, and the butter, flour and milk in France are different than the butter, flour and milk in the United States. So just make your favorite pastry dough, or buy it and chill it for an hour. Then it's rolled out to a six-inch disk, and an eighth of an inch thick. Peel, core, and slice an apple into half-disks and arrange them in a circle on top of the dough. A little sugar, a little cinnamon, dots of butter, and into a three hundred and fifty degree fahrenheit oven for fifteen minutes, until the apples are cooked through and browned on the edges. It's presented hot out of the oven as an individual serving. Hey, what a lucky individual, too. 

Tea time is usually associated with England. It's a custom that grew up in the eighteen-hundreds. A group of ladies getting together in the afternoon, enjoying a cup of freshly-brewed tea, perhaps a cucumber sandwich and a freshly baked biscuit. The reason for its development were two-fold. First of all, at the time dinner was kind of late and the ladies of London were getting hungry. Second, and much more important, the ladies were looking for a socially acceptable place where they could get together, without any men and have a real conversation. The tea salons of Paris however, have a completely different reason. They're here because people are looking for something sweet to eat. 

In Paris, the Salon De The is very fashionable, very popular and very sweet, and they do make a good cup of tea. Tea experts agree that there are a number of things you should do to make a good cup of tea. First of all, you want fresh water. Water that has been standing around for a long time or that comes out of the hot water tap, doesn't have very much oxygen. And it's oxygen that gives tea its excellent flavor. Second of all, when you put the water and the tea together, you don't want it to stay together for more than about two minutes. Longer than that, and the water will draw out bitter tannins and acids that don't taste good and are unhealthy. Finally, if you use a tea infuser, like this, or a tea bag, don't bounce it up and down. That will also make the tea bitter. And if you're going to use a tea bag or fresh tea, please don’t use it more than once. 

So when it comes to the relationship of good food to good health, what does Paris have to pass on? Well, first of all, shop often. The longer fresh foods stay around, the more nutrients are lost. The Parisian idea of shopping almost every day makes good sense. French bread is made without fat, a reminder that a low fat diet is very important to good health. Make sure your chicken is fully cooked, in order to avoid problems with bacteria. White meat to a hundred and seventy degrees fahrenheit, dark meat to a hundred and eighty degrees fahrenheit. Tea and hot water should only sit together for two minutes or so. Otherwise, too many impurities may be drawn out. Normal coffee consumption, four or five cups a day, appears to be no problem in terms of health. And finally, Napoleon may have lost his power over pastry. Moderation and variety in all things gastronomic, very important. 

Variety has the certainly not been a problem here in Paris. But moderation has been a real test of my will power. That's Eating Well In Paris. Please join us next time, as we travel around the world looking for things that taste good and make it easier to eat well. I'm Burt Wolf.