Essays

On Hotel Breakfasts, and How Not to Have Them

Mango Breakfast Parfait

Much has been written about plane food and its associated plights, but I don’t think enough ink has been devoted to the matter of hotel breakfasts. And as I get ready to embark on my book tour, the subject is very much on my mind.

Breakfast is, to me, the most intimate meal of the day, the one that you eat barefoot and in your pajamas, the one that eases the transition from your helpless, sleeping self to the person you are in the daytime and to the outside world. What you eat then says a lot about you: I have it on authority that Brillat-Savarin meant to write “You are what you eat for breakfast” (“Dis-moi ce que tu manges au petit déjeuner, je te dirai ce que tu es”) but the maxim had to be edited for space.

The challenges of hotel breakfasts

If you feel the same way, I’m sure you’ll agree that breakfast poses a serious challenge when you travel for work. Hotel breakfasts, even in nice hotels, make me want to cry — remember, we’re all children at breakfast — as I stand by the buffet, trying to identify the least unappealing items and more importantly, the most nutritious, so I won’t feel faint an hour later.

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Seven Breakfasts

Click here to read today’s entry.

War Ration Stamps

Tickets de Rationnement

[War Ration Stamps]

As if those two books my grandmother gave me weren’t fascinating enough, leafing through them unearthed other treasures, slipped between the pages over the years.

A yellowed advertisement for a bottled remedy called Le Contre-Coups de l’Abbé Perdrigeon (Abbot Perdrigeon’s back-kick), which will help you recover from heavy falls and blows, brain congestion, apoplexy, and will ease the pain from arthritis, rhumatisms, hypertension, and miscellaneous maladies de la cinquantaine, those ailments that hit you in your fifties.

An ugly promotional bookmark for the Larousse dictionary (“Le Larousse est toujours à la page”, the Larousse is always up-to-date). A torn little card from a rest home near Paris, Le Château de Grignon. A thin book with instructions on how to use a mysterious powdered binding agent called Zite, which purportedly replaced eggs, butter and oil in recipes. A scrap of paper on which my grandmother copied one of her (and my) favorite poems, Le Dormeur du Val.

And in an old envelope, faded strips of ration stamps from March and April 1946, allowing you to buy meat (90 grams per stamp) and fat (50 grams per stamp); the food rationing in France went on for four years after the end of World War II, until 1949.

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Childhood Food Memories

Nounours à la Guimauve

Yup, yet another food-related meme, for which I was tagged by both Pascale and Jacqueline. This one has you indulge in the reminiscence of five childhood food memories. Here are mine!

Les Nounours à la Guimauve
When we had a little pocket money my sister and I would drop by the boulangerie around the corner from school to buy candy. The display case was visible through the window so we would stand there for a little while trying to decide what to get, for once inside, the boulangère, paper bag in hand and an eye on the growing line of more worthy customers, had little patience for hesitant children. Malabars bi-goût (huge pink chewing-gums that made the coolest bubbles, the bi-goût variety having two flavors), chewy ribbons coated with acidulated sugar (red was my color of choice), edible necklaces, and my all-time favorite: the chocolate-covered marshmallow teddy bear, from which I would bite the head off first — quick painless death for the teddy bear. Maxence and I still buy them occasionally, whipping them out in the late hours of a party and watching everyone’s eyes open wide with childish gourmandise.

Le Poulet Rôti du Dimanche
For lunch on Sundays, my mother would often make her perfect roasted chicken, with sauteed potatoes and green beans. The chicken made plenty of juice, and the much-anticipated treat at the end of the meal was to soak it all up with pieces of fresh baguette. At some point though, my parents decided this wasn’t the healthiest thing you could feed your kids or yourself and we stopped doing it, but I still remember how we all gathered around the baking dish in the sun-drenched dining-room (it’s always sunny in my memory), expertly maneuvering our forks to get the wonderful caramelized bits and salty juices on the thin crunchy baguette.

Les Sandwiches au Nutella
My favorite breakfast for years on end was a Nutella sandwich. Two square slices of white bread would be toasted, one would be spread with the world’s most popular chocolate-hazelnut paste, the crusts would be sliced off and the whole thing cut in two rectangular halves. I loved it and can still feel the thick sensation of velvety chocolate sticking to the roof of your mouth while you chewed on the warm crunchy bread. It wasn’t very big really, but I had a small appetite and often couldn’t finish it. And instead of throwing it out, I had a habit of taking it back to my (very messy) room “for later”. The leftovers were promptly forgotten in the back of a shelf or inside my little desk, quietly getting stale until my mother discovered them days later.

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Fleur de Courgette and Other Food Gifts

Fleur de Courgette

Oh gifts, gifts, gifts! Is there anything sweeter in life than having your friends go out and find something just for you, something that they think you will like and enjoy, something that will surprise and delight you? And when you do and it does, when the idea is fabulous and the gift exactly to your taste, when it is something that you really wanted or something you would have wanted had you known it existed, when it is custom-made for you and even better than what you would have chosen for yourself, you are entitled to feeling lucky and grateful and loved and happy — yes, simultaneously.

For my 26th birthday I was literally showered with joy-inducing perfect gifts, and I thought I would share with you the ones that are food and cooking related:

– My friend and cooking heroine Louisa went to Le Potager du Roi in Versailles, where Louis XIV’s vegetable gardens are kept intact and operational. From the boutique she got me the picture-perfect zucchini flower that you see above, as well as eight little white peaches, delicious and juicy: in Chinese culture, as she explained to me, peaches symbolize a long life and the number eight good fortune…

– My parents bought me a superb enameled cast-iron cocotte by Staub. We picked it out together last week in Alsace, as we were driving by Turckheim where the Staub headquarters are, complete with a huge factory outlet in which my mother and I spent an unreasonable amount of time. I chose a beautiful grey oval 6-quart cocotte, which unfortunately still lives in my parents’ house in the Vosges as we speak, for it was much too heavy to be lugged on the train home with me. Just a couple more weeks and they’ll bring it back and we will never be apart again I promise.

– My friend and ex-coworker Sophie got me three kinds of Fleurs de sucre — lavender, rose and blueberry. Fleurs de sucre are crystallized flower petals or berries, beautifully packaged up in tall glass tubes. They can be used to bejewel a dessert, or you can sprinkle some to decorate a table, serve them with tea or coffee, or drop them in a glass of champagne. Can’t wait to try them!

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