It’s about two pm as I write this. Which means it’s nearly eight in France. I still haven’t quite acclimated to being back home. Around this time in Paris my mother and I would start our nightly ritual. We’d head out for dinner. We’d be tired. This would be an early night, we’d say. And then we’d find ourselves trudging home around midnight. Sometimes later.
Travel changes you. Challenges you. Exhausts you. But also replenishes you. Nudges you to see the world a little bit differently. Stay up a bit longer. And perhaps drink a bit more wine. The ten days I spent in France were certainly no exception.
My trip was filled with little treasures that I carried back across the Atlantic. I returned to my Boston apartment and put away narrow, petite cake pans from E. Dehillerin; cinnamon gros sel and fleur de sel from the Boulevard Raspail market; green olive tapenade from a winery we visited, Château de St. Martin; Bourgueil and Sauternes from Spring’s wine boutique; and unpacked my new memories.
There is the memory of my mother and I eating lunch at our first Parisian café, near the École Militaire, which served a delicate couscous with a crisp dice of zucchini and cucumber. And an even better bun curry, a light orange brioche roll with the flavor of curry baked in. I wish I could remember the name of the café. We ate at a long, wooden table. Our waitress wore bright red lipstick and a bare face. She brought us a basket of chewy sourdough bread. She was kind and tolerated my very rudimentary French.So I suppose the name of the café matters only in that I cannot sing its praise more specifically. No-name cafés and forgotten carafes of wine remain lodged in the crevice of my vacation mind.
Another one of my favorite lunches was at a little café in the 1st arrondissement. We sat outside under an awning and ate rich olive oil-laden ratatouille as it poured outside. I drank a delicate glass of Chinon that cost as much as my mother’s Earl Grey tea. Later that evening, we dined at Verjus. I had seven wonderful courses, each paired with wine, and eaten in a dining room lit by candle in a way that only the city of lights could pull off.
Duck breast with red onion ravioli and a 2009 Nicolas Réau Chinon, “Garance.” Grilled lamb with braised artichoke and gnocchi and a 2010 Domaine Bordes Saint-Chinian, “Les Narys.” Strawberry tarragon sorbet and salted peanut butter mousse paired with a 2010 Château la Tour Grise Ze Bulles Zéo Pointé Rosé. I could go on.
Later in the week we drove down the freeway from Paris to the French Riviera, listening to techno versions of Carly Rae Jepsen and Lady Gaga songs that played hourly, while snacking on Poilâne’s pain d’épices: a spice cake that wasn't overly sweet and was good even when dried out and eaten out of hungry desperation days later. We drove through Burgundy and the Rhône, speeding by old French villages and all-white cows.
We sipped rosé the color of ballet slippers in Provence. We sat on a dock on the Côte d’Azur, drank in its teal water and walked on sand that I could swear contained actual specks of gold. We ate roast chicken with olives and lemon prepared by a chef from our resort in Mougins who dripped French charm and took a particular liking to my mother. Though—let me be frank—our trip was not filled with carefree with glasses of vin, charismatic men, and sandy beaches.
Our Volkswagen broke down in a tollbooth lane somewhere along A6. The police we talked to spoke very little English and sent us off down the highway in search of an SOS phone. And driving back into Paris was sheer terror, quickly having to adapt a key French axiom: where I am, you cannot be. Paris was, at times, quite unkind. The inside of my flats came to look like a murder scene from my blistered and bloodied feet. We had our fair share of missed streets and crumpled maps. And I had a near critical incident after consuming a midday cheese plate carelessly followed up by a croque-madame and soupe à l'oignon. (See: lactose intolerance.)
But the good far outweighed the unpleasant. Perhaps my favorite memory of the trip was opening (and then later closing) the dinner service at Au Passage. The first to arrive around eight, we drank a bottle of Le Cousin Rouge and had little plates of food. A fresh, drippy burrata. Smoked potatoes with dill and sea snail. Grilled spring onions with pesto and parmesan. Along the way we befriended two cute, quirky French men who asked if we cared to split a leg of lamb. A slow braised lamb arrived that required carving, served with a large plate of mustardy lentils. After consuming another carafe or two of wine, we were the last to leave, apart from our new French friends and the staff.
And so I have arrived back to Boston both inspired and admittedly a bit overwhelmed with all my new memories. I have a long list of food to cook and a new collection of French tools to use. But one of the first meals I made when I came back was this one, which is best explained as a dissected version of our trip.
Many of the restaurants in Paris had fresh ricotta on their menus. Green plants like zucchini, fava beans, and mint also made frequent appearances. As for the bread, it’s Jim Lahey’s no-knead version with poppy seeds, lemon zest, and coarse ginger gros sel added.
It's simple, elegant, and a bit of a pain in the ass to make when you are jet-lagged. But as the coup de grâce for my French vacation, I wouldn't have it any other way.
Ricotta with Minted Fava Beans and Peas on Poppy Seed Bread
A handful of shelled fresh peas (or frozen if fresh is not available)
A handful of shelled fava beans (still in their white outer coverings)
~1 tbsp bacon fat (bacon reserved for another use)
Fleur de sel
6-8 sprigs of fresh mint
1-2 tbsp olive oil
A few drops of lemon juice
Ricotta cheese (see note)
Poppy seed bread (or other variety, see note)
Cook peas briefly (if using fresh) in salted boiling water, for about 1 minute, and then remove them using a slotted spoon; set peas aside. Add the shelled fava beans to the boiling water and cook until their inner flesh is tender when pierced with a knife (typically this takes less than five minutes). Once cool enough, peel the white shell of the fava beans. Add bacon fat to a hot pan and add the fully shelled fava beans; season with salt and pepper and sauté until the beans are crisp and slightly browned; set aside.
Meanwhile, finely chop the mint leaves; mix in the olive oil, lemon juice, and season with salt to taste; toss the fava beans and peas in the mint dressing. Spread ricotta cheese on a slice of poppy seed bread. Top with minted peas and fava beans.
-A recipe for homemade ricotta can be found here. I halved the recipe and it made about a cup. (You probably won't want to let it drain for an hour or it may get too dry.) If you are looking for a little more richness you may want to try this.
-The inspiration for the poppy seed bread came from a jambon et fromage sandwich (on white poppy seed bread) from a French rest stop on the drive down to Provence. You can find the recipe for making Jim Lahey's bread here. (Though the original recipe I have calls for 1/2 tsp yeast and 1 1/2 tsp of salt.) I added the poppy seeds, zest of one lemon, and salt before the second rising of the bread.
-This is a very loose recipe. (Please excuse any errors that may have been made due to jet lag and/or excessive wine consumption.)