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Cooking, Eating, and Walking in Montmartre, Paris

I just love desserts. Frankly, I’d pass up alcohol and appetizers in preference of a really good pudding. In restaurants, I always like to have the dessert menu to hand when deciding on the preceding courses. Well, how am I supposed to know what I’ll have first if I don’t know what I’ll be having last?

But in these credit-crunch times, its home cooking that’s all the rage. So what’s a girl to do? Go to Paris in the springtime, of course, and learn the ancient art of making desserts. Food in the City of Love. Now what could possibly be better than that?

Paris Pastry Class: HOW much cream?

My five companions and I (representing, as it were, the UK, the US and Australia) are wearing smart blue aprons and standing around a table in a Montmartre kitchen. The focus of our attention is Pino Ficara, our chef and teacher for the afternoon. Forget what they say about men not being able to multi-task—Pino is whisking eggs, talking eloquently about what he’s doing and dispensing helpful tips, all at the same time.

We kick off with a vanilla-flavored crème brûlée. The flavor here comes from vanilla pods soaked in rum. Cut the pod in half; squeeze the paste into the cream and voilà, no need to scrape seeds. (Put the left-over skins into another jar of rum and use this rum for flavoring.)

Once the cream has boiled, we whisk the eggs and sugar (this is a take-part course so expect to do some work yourself), spoon the mixture into the dishes, place these on a tray in the oven (low heat), and then pour water into the tray so that the crème cooks “bain-marie” style.

Crème brûlée has always frightened me a bit. My kitchen status is best described as “enthusiastic but not-very-brave amateur” and this is a dish that needs a very low temperature. My home oven, however, is horribly inaccurate. Pino has the answer:

Pino’s Tip #1: Buy an oven thermometer to ensure that you’re cooking at the right temperature.

Paris Pastry Class: Mousse and Madeleine
Onto our next dish: a frozen Grand Marnier mousse. Oh, the citrus flavors and a texture so light you could almost kid yourself that it’s healthy. So that’s 1 1/2 pints of heavy cream that we need to whisk then? Did you say eight egg yolks? Oh, and the zest of 1 orange to offset all of that. We spoon the mousse into individual glasses and then place them in the freezer.

Pino’s Tip #2: Crack eggs on a flat surface (rather than the rim of a bowl) to prevent egg-shell entering the egg.

Could there be anything more French than a Madeleine? Marcel Proust used them to great literary effect in À La Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time) to bring back memories. I’m pleasantly surprised to see that this is an easy recipe (“very forgiving,” as Pino puts it). I especially like the thought of piping the mixture into the little trays.

Naturally I’m delighted to see a 5 kg box of chocolate pieces (70 percent cocoa solids) appear on the table. Chocolate soufflé is a particular favorite of mine and we’re making a flourless version here. Pino gives us a demonstration of how to fold the chocolate into the egg white and still keep it all light and fluffy. We bake these in a hot oven for fifteen minutes and then, as Pino says: “Eat immediately.”

Pino’s Tip #3: To prepare the ramekin dishes, butter them inside and over the rim and then sugar them as well

Paris Pastry Class: Now we eat
So now that we’ve finished cooking, it’s the fun part: The Tasting. We have fun with a blowtorch – topping the crème brûlée with sugar and then caramelizing it.

So what’s the verdict? The frozen Grand Marnier mousse is a tangy, light and fluffy ice-cream. The crème brûlée manages to be silky and creamy without being heavy. The chocolate soufflé is total indulgence (although if I was serving it as dessert, the previous courses would have to be very light).

So what about the Madeleines? Ah well, these are perfection. Delicately crisp on the outside, soft on the inside and with a tiny taste of honey. I look forward to baking a batch and creating my own memories.

Of course it all tastes absolutely delicious. I do think that substituting low-fat ingredients would be totally wrong. I once heard a TV cook say something along the lines of: “The only substitute for butter is butter. The only substitute for cream is cream.”

After this afternoon, I heartily concur. What next? Well, I’m off to buy an oven thermometer and a Madeleine tray. Although, on reflection, maybe a short walk first wouldn’t be such a bad idea.

Paris Pastry Class: Walking it all off
The only way is up in Montmartre, right to the top at the Sacré-Coeur. With the exception of a small funicular railway (Metro tickets accepted), it’s walking all the way. Montmartre is, in fact, custom-made for walking off guilty pleasures.

If you’ve seen Moulin Rouge, you’ll know that Montmartre was an artist’s village: the Impressionists hung out here, Dali has a museum here and even the streets are named after artists.

The real-life Moulin Rouge is a good place to start your tour of Montmartre. It even boasts a souvenir shop for those oh-so-useful Moulin Rouge baseball caps, umbrellas and key rings. The Moulin Rouge shows are pretty good, too.

You can follow a route in Montmartre if you like, but it’s fun to just wander randomly. The lower streets of the Butte (hill) have a village-like feel. The green-grocers lay out their fruit and vegetable in eye-catching displays, the cheese-shops will allow you to taste before you buy, and vegetarians should definitely avoid the butchers. If the sun is out, the cafes and customers spill out onto the pavements in a friendly, relaxed fashion. (It is mandatory to give into the urge for coffee at least once!)

Once you reach the upper levels of Montmartre, the atmosphere becomes more tourist-oriented. Dali’s museum (Espace Dali) is at 1 Rue Poulbot. Francisque Poulbot was himself an artist. He painted the colorful, cartoon-like pictures of urchins that you see in every shop here, and dedicated much of his life to caring for the impoverished children of Montmartre.

Just around the corner from here are Le Consulat and La Bonne Franquette bistros, where the likes of Monet, Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec hung out. (There was strong competition for the custom of starving, broke artists.)

The south-facing side of Montmartre gives great views of Paris (including the Eiffel tower). The Sacré-Coeur basilica can be very busy, but is worth a visit. The Place du Tertre is a centre of activity, with cafés, art galleries and way too many artists with clipboards. (The artists will all beg to draw your picture. Whether it will be à la Toulouse-Lautrec or ‘after’ Dali, I really couldn’t say.)

Montmartre isn’t all about art though. On December 24, 1898, Monsieur Louis Renault took his new petrol-fired car for a quick outing around the square. And so began the French motor industry.

Somebody always has to go and spoil things!

By Louise Heal for Viator