France through the sea­sons

Fol­low the culi­nary calendar for fresh and fes­tive fare

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - JANE PAECH

FRANCE runs like clock­work and the ar­rival of var­i­ous fruits, veg­eta­bles and pro­duce in shops and mar­kets marks the months and sea­sons, and in­deed the pass­ing of the year, as plainly as turn­ing the pages of your kitchen calendar.

For the food and wine lover, there is al­ways some­thing to an­tic­i­pate and cher­ish. From the fat chocolate fish that swim across cho­co­latiers’ win­dows in April to the colour­ful fes­tiv­i­ties sur­round­ing Beau­jo­lais Nou­veau Day in Novem­ber, the rich­ness of French cul­ture is re­flected through tra­di­tions, and ev­ery sea­son is cause for cel­e­bra­tion.

Come Septem­ber, sum­mer is of­fi­cially over and the pro­duce mar­kets ex­plode in fiery shades of scar­let, bronze and gold. Bas­kets brim with trea­sures found on for­est floors. Field hares grown plump and flavour­ful on the lush green grasses of sum­mer are plen­ti­ful, and brightly feath­ered birds hang from ev­ery boucherie.

As the weather turns, bistros be­gin to feel warm and homey, and black­boards an­nounce com­fort­ing delights that cap­ture the flavours of au­tumn. All over Paris, patissiers are busy bak­ing tarts from sweet ruby figs and golden Mirabelle plums. Be sure to take a de­tour to Les Pe­tits Mitrons (26, rue Lepic), an adorable lit­tle patis­serie on La Butte of Mont­martre crammed with rus­tic fruit tarts with sticky caramelised crusts.

Along with a vil­lage feel, La Butte boasts the last pocket-sized vine­yard in Paris and cel­e­brates vintage with the an­nual Fete des Ven­dange, or wine har­vest fes­ti­val, in early Oc­to­ber. Mont­martre was once sprin­kled with vine­yards and 18th-cen­tury Parisians flocked here on Sun­days to take in the coun­try air, eat galettes and drink cheap lo­cal wine, ex­empt from city taxes. The au­tumn fes­ti­val is cel­e­brated with a colour­ful pro­ces­sion com­plete with brass bands, singing and dancing, bring­ing alive the spirit of old Mont­martre. Wine tast­ings and food stalls of­fer­ing French re­gional spe­cial­i­ties dot the hill­side.

An­other an­tic­i­pated event for wine lovers is the ar­rival of the new Beau­jo­lais wine in Novem­ber. De­spite crit­i­cism that it’s over­rated and has been the fall of high-end pro­duc­ers, Beau­jo­lais Nou­veau Day has en­joyed spec- tacular suc­cess. French law dic­tates that bot­tles can­not be re­leased ear­lier than the third Thurs­day in Novem­ber, and lo­cals in Beau­jo­lais are so ea­ger for this day to ar­rive that the un­cork­ing cer­e­mony is held on the stroke of mid­night, when wine stores throw open their doors.

At one minute past mid­night, mil­lions of bot­tles start their jour­ney to Paris for im­me­di­ate dis­tri­bu­tion across the globe. Bar­rels are rolled on to foot­paths, caves are dec­o­rated with vine leaves, ven­dors don straw hats and red-and-white bal­loons bob in the breeze. Sweep­ing ban­ners an­nounce le Nou­veau Beau­jo­lais est ar­rive, and Parisians ev­ery­where head to the near­est cafe for a taste of the new sea­son’s wine.

By the time Christ­mas ap­proaches, Paris re­sem­bles a win­ter for­est. Whim­si­cal white branches show­ered with tiny lights wind their way around doors and arch­ways. Patis­series are be­decked with gar­lands of pine punc­tu­ated with cones, and their win­dows are stacked with buche de Noels.

One pop­u­lar story be­hind the cre­ation of these tra­di­tional yule logs is that Napoleon or­dered house­holds to close off their chim­neys dur­ing win­ter, based on the no­tion that draughts caused ail­ments. This pre­vented Parisians from us­ing their fire­places and from en­gag­ing in the many ac­tiv­i­ties in­volv­ing the hearth in French Christ­mas tra­di­tion.

An in­no­va­tive chef came up with the idea of a cake dec­o­rated to re­sem­ble a real yule log, in­vent­ing a sym­bolic re­place­ment. The genoise sponge roll is cov­ered with chocolate but­ter cream, dusted with ic­ing sugar to re­sem­ble snow, dec­o­rated with meringue mush­rooms and fresh rasp­ber­ries, and stabbed with a perky Joyeuses Fetes sign.

I pre­fer the clas­sic buche avail­able from most neigh­bour­hood pas­try shops, but if you fancy a de­signer cre­ation, drop into Pierre Herme on rue Bon­a­parte (pier­re­herme.com).

Win­ter brings an­other tra­di­tion that’s cel­e­brated with dessert. While the re­li­gious sig­nif­i­cance of La Fete des Rois, or Epiphany, is dwin­dling in France, cel­e­brat­ing Jan­uary 6 by shar­ing a galette des Rois with your fam­ily is still a trea­sured event. A peep into any boulan­gerie dur­ing the month will re­veal shelves swamped with the rich and but­tery pas­try pies.

Filled with frangi­pane, a soft, smooth mix­ture of al­mond cream and creme patissiere, these flaky pies also come flavoured with chocolate, pear or pis­ta­chio and are sold with a golden pa­per crown. Hid­den in­side each galette is une feve. His­tor­i­cally a broad bean was cooked in­side, hence the name, but to­day it is com­mon­place to find a tiny porce­lain fig­urine: baby Je­sus, even Tintin or a baker hold­ing a baguette.

Who­ever stum­bles on the feve is crowned king or queen, chooses a con­sort and reigns for the day.

To sam­ple a su­perla­tive pie, head to Au Lev­ain du Marais (28, boule­vard Beau­mar­chais), this year’s win­ner of the best in the city.

Af­ter an ar­du­ous win­ter, the first glimpse of spring in the mar­kets is al­ways a treat. March her­alds the ar­rival of straw­ber­ries from Spain, piled high in per­fumed peaks, spring lamb and the first baby peas, still sleep­ing snugly in their shells. On April 1, golden fish made from flaky pas­try, with beady cur­rant eyes, glide across patis­serie win­dows. Cho­co­latiers turn into fish shops.

The con­nec­tion be­tween fish and un poisson d’avril, the French term for April fool, is a lit­tle slip­pery. One school of thought is that the sun leaves the zo­di­a­cal sign of Pisces around this time, while oth­ers be­lieve it’s be­cause fish­ing was pro­hib­ited from the end of March. Send­ing a child to the fish mar­ket on April 1 be­came a pop­u­lar joke, but to en­sure ev­ery­one knew it was a prank, a pa­per fish was pinned to their back.

Plump chocolate fish with del­i­cate scales and midriff bows swim along­side schools of brightly wrapped tid­dlers in ev­ery choco­latier’s dis­play, but for edible mas­ter­pieces visit one of Jean-Paul Hevin’s bou­tiques (jphevin.com).

By May, the horse-chest­nut trees along the Seine are alight with pink and white can­dles, the parks are a riot of colour and stat­ues glis­ten in the sun. It’s the per­fect time for a pic­nic. A cher­ished fam­ily spot is con­ve­niently sit­u­ated around the cor­ner from the chic Left Bank depart­ment store Le Bon Marche, with its fab­u­lous food hall La Grande Epicerie (la­grandeep­icerie.fr).

Jardin Cather­ine Laboure (29, rue de Baby­lone) was orig­i­nally the potager of a con­vent and still boasts a veg­etable patch. Sur­rounded by tall stone walls and en­tered through a dis­creet gate, this de­light­ful se­cret gar­den has a quiet, pro­vin­cial charm.

With the ar­rival of sum­mer, Paris launches into ac­tion. La Course des Garons de Cafe, the Paris Wait­ers’ Race, is a pop­u­lar an­nual event that at­tracts thou­sands of par­tic­i­pants. Usu­ally held on the last Sun­day in June, the event starts and ends at L’Ho­tel de Ville and runs for about 8km. Spec­ta­tors line the streets to watch en­trants race in long, starched aprons and snappy bow ties, car­ry­ing a tray with a full bot­tle and a glass.

July ush­ers in the long sum­mer hol­i­day sea­son in France, which runs through Au­gust. Doc­tors and artists alike shut their doors and mi­grate south to the sun. Apart­ments be­come un­bear­ably hot; most are sans air-con­di­tion­ing and Paris is closed un­til ‘ ‘ the re­turn’’ in Septem­ber.

Spe­cialty stores, bou­tiques and restau­rants batten down their hatches. Even the orig­i­nal store of Berthillon, the fa­mous glacier (31, rue Saint-Louis-en-l’Ile), shuts up shop. De­spite be­ing able to stretch out on sunny cafe ter­races, trav­ellers beware: a visit to Paris de­void of Parisians can be as flavour­less as a wa­tery onion soup. Jane Paech is the au­thor of A Fam­ily In Paris: Sto­ries of Food, Life and Ad­ven­ture (Lan­tern, $49.95)

MAIN PIC­TURE: ALAIN POTIGNON; OTHER IM­AGES FROM

The ar­rival of var­i­ous fruits and veg­eta­bles in French mar­kets marks the pass­ing of the year

For food and wine lovers, there is al­ways some­thing to an­tic­i­pate

Chocolate fish go on dis­play in shop win­dows in April

Pas­tries from Le Bon Marche

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