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Friday, August 31, 2012

French Train Travel: Croissants and Jasmine Perfume, Part One.

Part One.

It was mid-October in 1999. My friends Luli and Nick and I were headed for a barge trip along the Canal Midi from Castelnaudery to Beziers. Would we be able to understand enough French, to drive, tie the barge, and maneuver through the various locks? We had a start - and I hoped it was a good one.  

On the way to Paris’s Gare Montparnasse from our hotel on Rue Raspail we passed little green men, who were not aliens, except to me. They were sanitation workers, ever so well-dressed in uniforms, methodical and as friendly as you please. In proud and complete control of the trash, they might even join us for a cup of coffee, I thought as we walked by. Why was life so different in Paris? Unlike the street scene during the Association of Food Journalists conference in NYC in 1995 during a garbage workers strike, here in Paris there couldn't possibly be a street left with piles of trash reaching to the second floor of anyone's hotel. Quel horror! 



 Men in Blue, Close Enough to Green, Right?

Further along, a few café's were opening or closing from the night before. I don't know which. There was a feeling of warmth, of people, and their French lives. Everything we walked past seemed well taken care of. I felt well taken care of. 


Morning in Paris

I turned around. Luli's and my suitcases and Nick's metal cases, which reminded me of the movie Airport where a bomb was hidden inside the gun-metal silvery-reflecting-everything-around-us-case, were loaded in what seemed to be reverse order from yesterday. A little wobbly, perhaps, but we had a train to catch. We walked in a reversed fashion as well, instead of Nick's surefootedness, Luli led the foray while singing, with me in the middle, and behind me Nick was pulling and alternately pushing an almost as tall as he was, tower of our bags. So much so was this fury of pushing and pulling that he seemed to be dancing in circles with the bags as we hurried. Hurried along. Everyone was going to the station, Gare Montparnasse. 

            Once inside the station we searched out which track or as I learned a new word, voie, we would need to find and be on in an hour. Luli’s nephew, Ben, had not shown up yet. A bit breathless we plunked down at the little café, which at home certainly would not have looked very promising. It would have offered watered down coffee, stale muffins, tough bagels, and canned fruit cup. Well? Am I lying? Just take a look at the train station next time you go. What? You mean there is no FOOD? What did I tell you. Disappointment. Okay take the airport. Anything worthwhile to eat there? No? Okay, it must be because there is different soil in France. Different air + Different water + Different culture = Different food.

We ordered. Most of what I wanted was the coffee. Thick and rich and warm milk to boot. AMAZING. Something so simple. But I surmise that even the Sienna Hotel in Chapel Hill doesn't serve coffee this way, whether it’s called Cappuccino or Café au Lait. But I might just have to ask for it. Next time I go and visit the just imported, and oh so self-important, Italian chef there.

What fun to have coffee talk with coffee in Gare Montparnasse. Luli was here. Nick was too. We were all still here. Each of us proclaimed a night of well-sleeping.  And then our breakfast arrived. Three large trays, one for each of us. Well-sleeping followed by well-eating? Maybe I could do this. Again and again. With practice. 

Choices, oh the Choices. 

Le Garcon never even made a motion to move our pile of luggage blocking the aisle on the side of our table. He was so nice. And so professional. He didn't look like he had just scraped through the night and now as here back at work because he had to be here. The tray had a ficelle, a crispy small baguette. Narrower, thinner than a full size baguette.  A croissant. Lots of butter. And Jam. And a full pot each, though small ones, of coffee and warm milk.  The ficelle was a miracle of crispness. Perfect with the butter which I can still feel cold and hard against the tender inside of the bread. Butter could be the main event. Umm. butter was the main event. Umm, and now I was butter. Every pore of mine was butter. It really was hard to eat all of it. I barely resisted the urge to take it with me. Fighting down the last bite of croissant as if there would be no more where I was going. But, standing up the last bits of flakes fell away from my lap and I was comforted with the reality close at hand. There were other people with luggage, and they were, yes, they too were still here, and speaking French. Women looked well-heeled with scarves floating out fragrant notes of yellow May roses, July lavender fields, wedding day gardenia and Arizona star jasmine that wafted out as a dimly discernible spirit. Oh, that’s right. Perfume. Yes, this was France. It was true. I was in France where crisp bread and cold clean sweet butter are possible. With a jolt of jasmine I was reminded of my mother, Aileen, who wasn't French, but who had named me, Dorette. She had passed away in a different land entirely in February of 1998. I didn't want to think about her. She had gone to Paris, too, and only now I wonder if she didn't walk down the same street. 

Fallen Rose Blooms

Perfume also made me remember a croissant I will never forget. A  powdered sugar dusted almond one from the bakery along the Canal Lateral in Serignac or Brax. I was sure until a moment ago that it was Serignac but it could have been Brax. I hadn't gone out for it. It was Kate Hill's then husband, Patrick, who went. But I remember the cool summer morning on the Canal Lateral, the coffee I had made, and the welcome feeling of being in her stone house with my sons Erick and Jaryd, and my husband, Rich.

Come back for Part Two!

Pure Butter Croissants

It is a sure luxury to make these yourself. But what sheer luxury. Ok, stop reading this and begin.  

croissant dough: 
1 kg flour (about 2.2 pounds)  
25 g salt 
100g sugar 
30g fresh compressed yeast 
600 ml milk and or water


for the turns: 600g dry butter


egg wash for the finish bake at 170c (not farenheit)


mix the yeast and sugar. put flour in a large mixing bowl and add the sugar and yeast mixture. add water and mix with spatula. don't overmix! add the salt. mix again.


set dough in plastic wrap and place in fridge for 6 hours. take dough out and put on floured counter (granite or marble preferably) make three simple turns refrigerating in between the second and third turn for 20 minutes.


after 3rd simple turn, place in the fridge again for 20 min. take dough out of fridge and roll out into a long rectangle about the width of parchment paper sheets.


cut dough into triangles and weigh each one to make sure they're around 70-80g (you can add on scraps to the short side of the triangle is you need to )

brush egg wash over croissants (2 eggs, and 1 egg yolk mixed)


roll from big edge to tip of triangle and pinch the edges. 

for butter croissants the ends should not be folded in but left straight. 

this, by the way, is how to tell the difference between pure butter and half butter half margarine croissants.
put immediately in a warm place to rise for 1 1/2 hours.


heat oven to 375 lightly egg wash again after croissants have doubled in size. 

bake until golden brown.


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