Authors: David Lebovitz
Tags: #Travel, #Essays & Travelogues
The tang of fromage blanc is a great pairing with summer berries. Toss some sliced strawberries, raspberries, or any stone fruits with a bit of sugar until juicy, then divide them among shallow bowls. Once the soufflé emerges from the oven, use a large spoon to rest a warm, fluffy mound of soufflé on top, making sure to give everyone a nice bit of the sugary crust.
Or serve the soufflé by itself. With a tipple of Armagnac or Chartreuse on each warm serving, it makes a pretty effortless dessert.
If fromage blanc isn’t available, you can make a perfect substitute by whizzing together l ½ cups (360 g) whole-milk cottage cheese (try to find one labeled “cultured”) with ½ cup (120 g) whole-milk plain yogurt in a blender or food processor until it’s as smooth as possible.
What’s passed off as crème fraîche elsewhere bears little resemblance to the unctuous, hyperthick cream you get in France. While the kind you can make at home isn’t bad, I urge—no,
—that if you come to Paris, you make it a point to treat yourself to a small tub of the real deal. If you don’t like it, there’s something wrong with you. (And call me: I’ll take the rest off your hands.)
Similarly, I can’t imagine anyone not liking this cake, especially serious chocolate lovers. What you might not like is trying to get perfect, clean slices out of the pan. But don’t worry if you don’t get pristine portions: one thing I learned eating in French households is that food is meant to be enjoyed, not examined.
I sometimes serve this cake frozen, which makes it easy to slice, and a sliver is wonderful in the heat of summer with a scoop of brightly flavored Orange Sorbet (page 191), or another favorite ice cream or sorbet, melting alongside.
12 ounces (340 g) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
⅔ cup (160 ml) brewed espresso (or very strong coffee)
¼ cup (60 g) Crème Fraîche (page 193)
5 large eggs, at room temperature
Pinch of coarse salt
½ cup (100 g) sugar
Lightly butter a 9-inch (23-cm) Springform pan and wrap the outside of the pan with aluminum foil, to seal it watertight. Set the cake pan inside a larger pan, such as a roasting pan, large enough to make a water bath, or
Preheat the oven to 325°F (160°C).
Put the chocolate and the espresso in a large heatproof bowl. Set the bowl over a saucepan of simmering water, stirring gently until melted and smooth. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature. Stir in the crème fraîche.
In a standing electric mixer, whip the eggs, salt, and sugar on high speed until they hold their shape, about 5 minutes.
Fold half of the whipped eggs into the chocolate mixture, then fold in the remaining eggs.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Add warm water to the roasting pan until it reaches halfway up the outside of the Springform pan, creating a water bath.
Bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour, until the cake is slightly firm, but still feels soft in the center.
Lift the cake pan from the water bath, remove the foil, and set on a cooling rack until room temperature.
Slide a knife along the outside edge of the cake to release it from the pan. Release the outside ring of the Springform pan.
Because the cake is delicate, I slice it with a thin, sharp knife dipped in very hot water and wiped clean before each slice. You can also cut wedges using a length of dental floss (unflavored, please), pulled taut and drawn across the diameter of the cake. This cake can be served at room temperature, chilled, or frozen with a scoop of ice cream or frozen yogurt—a great warm-weather dessert for summer—or with whipped cream and a spoonful of chocolate sauce.
You can substitute water for the espresso in the recipe.
The cake will keep for up to five days at room temperature or refrigerated. If well wrapped, it will keep in the freezer for up to one month.
A simple sorbet is always welcome after dinner, either alongside a rich chocolate cake or with crisp cookies. For the best-tasting sorbet, use good juicing oranges or, if available, colorful blood oranges. In season, tangerine juice can be used instead.
2 cups (500 ml) freshly squeezed orange juice
½ cup (100 g) sugar
2 tablespoons Champagne or dry white wine, optional
Warm ½ cup (125 ml) of the orange juice with the sugar in a non-reactive saucepan, stirring until the sugar has completely dissolved.
Stir the sugar mixture into the remaining orange juice and add the Champagne, if using.
Chill thoroughly, then freeze in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
If left in the freezer, Orange Sorbet tends to chill rather firmly. Adding the wine helps prevent it from getting rock-hard, but you should remove it from the freezer five to ten minutes before serving; it’ll be easier to scoop.
If you don’t have an ice cream maker, you can make Orange Granita. Use just ¼ cup (50 g) of sugar, or to taste, then pour the mixture into a shallow plastic container and put it in the freezer. Scrape it with a fork several times as it’s freezing, raking it into icy crystals.
Obscenely thick crème fraîche is available in every
in Paris, where it’s often scooped from big earthenware bowls. This recipe makes a good approximation. Check the Resources (page 271) for producers of traditional crème fraîche in America.
1 cup (250 ml) heavy cream
1½ tablespoons buttermilk
In a clean bowl, mix the cream and buttermilk.
Cover with a tea towel or plastic wrap and store in a warm spot for 12 hours, or until thickened and slightly tangy. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Crème fraîche will keep in the refrigerator for up to one week.
Imagine if you were the parents of a bunch of very unruly children. And every time they misbehaved or threw a temper tantrum, you caved in and gave them whatever they wanted. Now imagine them maturing as adults. What do you think they would do whenever they wanted something? Welcome to my world.
Strikes are so well known in Paris, so part of the cultural fabric, they even have a season. In early fall, then returning later in May, the strikes and
les mouvements sociaux
begin to erupt on a regular basis. The general timeline is this: signs are posted warning of an intended strike or demonstration,
then the protest takes place for a few hours in the afternoon (rain or shine). Shortly afterward the disaffected group meets with government officials who—as usual—cave in to the protesters’ demands, and everyone goes back to work after getting what they wanted.
The first major all-out, opened-ended
after I moved to Paris was in November of 2007, and it lasted much longer than an afternoon. Like
, it was a game of playing chicken, this time with newly elected President Nicolas Sarkozy, and it was his first major challenge. He proposed changing the contracts for employees of the transit and electric and gas unions—agreements that allowed them to retire at the ripe old age of fifty, a throwback to the times when working the rails meant shoveling coal and other laborious duties. Nowadays, that argument was pretty moot—and costing France a ton of money. (While I’m sure sitting in a station selling tickets isn’t the most stimulating job, I can think of worse.)
To add to the chaos, the students struck at the same time. And so did the teachers and customs officials. And postal workers and hospital workers and civil servants and tax inspectors. And newspaper and television employees. Many banks shut their doors, too, since getting to work was
Most of Paris just shut down.
The demonstrators, instead of sitting at home and staring at a blank television screen or rereading last week’s newspapers, took part in festivities that the Associate Press reported had “a picnic atmosphere, with music, roasted sausages and balloons.” Strikes in Paris are often rather convivial, aided by good food and free-flowing, cheap wine. In fact, I’m thinking I should go on strike once in a while, too.
Contrary to what a lot of people imagine, many French workers aren’t part of any
at all. In 2005, just under 10 percent of the workers here were members of a union, one of the lowest rates in Europe. The same year, 12 percent of Americans belonged to a union. Yet the unions hold a lock-hard grip in France, much stronger than elsewhere, and they certainly enjoy more widespread public support than they do in America.
I remember a few transit strikes that occurred when I lived in the Bay Area. At first, they were just a nuisance. By “at first,” I mean for the first
five minutes. As the day wore on, people were not just upset, they went ballistic. Streets were clogged, sidewalks mobbed, folks couldn’t get to work, and by noon, people’s patience with the strikers had reached a boiling point. Negotiations for a resolution soon ensued.
By contrast, the French shrug off the strikers with pursed lips and a look of resignation, as if to say, “We are French. That’s what we do.”
When the smoking ban was implemented at the end of 2007, I thought, “What are the smokers going to do? Take to the streets
something that’s killing sixty thousand of their fellow citizens a year?”
Well, yes, they did. The biggest
was four weeks before doomsday for
, when ten thousand of them invaded the streets of Paris to assert their right to smoke-out everyone around them with the stinky, unhealthy fumes from their cigarettes. I’m not quite sure what they hoped to accomplish: even in France, it’s hard for smokers to arouse a lot of sympathy from the general public. And since the health minister was wise and declared the ban to be not a law, but a “decree,” it was impossible to reverse. But I’m glad they got what they needed to off their chests, so the rest of our chests could breathe a little easier when eating out.
Another hopeful group of strikers was the pesky motor scooter riders, protesting a crackdown on parking and driving on the sidewalk. Personally, I don’t mind if scooters park on sidewalks. You can walk around them. But I do mind when riders rev them up to high speed before flying across the walkways, sending everyone scattering in multiple directions while they barrel through. One day at a crosswalk, waiting for the light to change, I felt someone jostling me from behind, even more aggressively than usual. I turned to discover it wasn’t exactly a person doing the shoving, but the front wheel of a scooter that was nudging me forward. I don’t know if there’s ever been a demonstration for the rights of pedestrians, but I’d be happy to organize one to take back the sidewalks.
And oddly, there was also a firemen’s strike where
les pompiers de Paris
lit dramatic fires as part of their protest, in the place de la Bastille, prompting the police to come and calm things down. Now that was something I never thought I’d see: police in riot gear battling firemen.
The Bastille, where I live, is best known as the site where the infamous prison was seized and ransacked by the masses, igniting the French Revolution. Two hundred and twenty years later my doorstep is still the starting point for almost all the marches and strikes that happen in Paris. Fortunately it doesn’t happen all that much. Just once a day or so.
I don’t need to read the paper or watch the news to find out when the strikes will be taking place; I just have to listen out my window. I know something’s up when the normal cacophony of traffic slows to a halt followed by a few minutes of silence, while the police clear the streets. My whole apartment will start to quiver from the dull thud of thousands of feet heading my way. (Being from San Francisco, the first time this happened, I almost dove under a table, thinking it was an earthquake.) As the mob closes in, there’s unrelenting shouting, cheering, and screeching into bullhorns, all accompanied by the smell of roasting
and blaring music, while throngs of people march down the boulevard carrying banners, clogging the streets, and causing general havoc for the next few hours.
To make matters worse, the drivers of the cars blockaded on the side streets somehow imagine that leaning on their horns nonstop will persuade twelve thousand protesters to stop what they’re doing and kindly move aside for them to pass. The upside is that I’m saving a fortune on newspapers; a glance outside is all that’s necessary to keep me up-to-date on current affairs.
I was very excited the first time I saw a
(The French just say
since they’re so frequent, there simply wouldn’t be enough time in the day if they had to pronounce the whole word every time one happened.) I was absolutely entranced. “Oh look! The people are taking to the streets, shouting in French. How charming! It’s going to be so much fun living here. I can’t wait to see the next one!”
But when it happens the second day… then the third … then the fourth (sometimes twice a day),
quickly lose their appeal—especially
when members of the striking
plaster your neighborhood with solidarity and brotherhood stickers, and set up a wall of speakers, each the size of a Renault, right underneath your window, blaring music while steamed-up drivers in backed-up cars lean on their horns. My whole apartment vibrates until everyone’s had their say and they pack up the grills and head home. There must be a different
of people responsible for scraping all the stickers from the lampposts, walls, and Métro stations—workers whom the previous group don’t feel the need for any
The aforementioned strike in November of 2007 marked a big turning point for modern France. Nicolas Sarkozy had been elected by promising deep and tough reforms, vowing to tighten up France’s notoriously generous benefits. His Napoleonic ego was infamous and he was about as stubborn and feisty as they come. Sarko (as he was quickly dubbed by the abbreviation-happy French) had stood up in a huff and bid
to Lesley Stahl during a television interview for
when she asked about his wife, who had left him several times for her boyfriend in New York, before finally splitting for good. (Previously, when Sarkozy’s ex-wife was asked by an interviewer where she expected to see herself in ten years’ time, she replied, “Jogging in Central Park.”) Just after his contentious election, the French were positively scandalized when he had the nerve to take a short vacation on—gasp—a friend’s yacht. Other transgressions included his distaste for wine, mingling with American celebrities, and engaging in the unseemly practice of
Jacques Chirac, the previous president, had a history of giving in. But right from the start, Sarko said he wouldn’t be having any of that, and everyone knew he meant it. The strikers could bring the country to a screeching halt for all he cared, but he was even more stubborn than they.
So the strikes of ‘07 began. All transit came to a halt and no one could go anywhere. If you absolutely insisted on coming into Paris from the suburbs,
traffic jams lasting three hours were the norm. Although everyone said this was going to be the great test of the new Vélib’ free-bike program, I gave it an F, since every time I showed up at the rack, all the bikes were gone. Or claimed by crafty Parisians who had chained the communal bikes to the station with their own personal locks.
After ten days of strikes, public disapproval of the strikers was at a whopping 70 percent and Métro and bus drivers in Paris started going back to work regardless of the strike, since they weren’t getting paid to stay home and do nothing. In an almost unknown show of conciliation, the union actually agreed to head to the bargaining table with the government.
While the strikers did demonstrate that they could hold the country hostage for days on end, they also proved how fed up modern French people were with the tantrums of a small minority of very well compensated workers. And a subtle yet very powerful shift in power was felt across the country: people were no longer behind the workers, regardless of whether they were right or wrong.