France through the seasons
Follow the culinary calendar for fresh and festive fare
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)
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