(The day I remembered I loved Paris, for future reference when the city seems cold and shrill once again.)
Woken by the sun and the commotion of traffic, earlier than a holiday, already three hours later than my workday, I pulled on a blue dress to walk to the corner bakery for breakfast. On the way back I snapped off the point of the baguette to test; at home I knocked over the clothes rack and woke you. We had our croissants dipped in coffee and apricots plump with juice.
Late as ever we caught the metro to the Opera Garnier, to be tourists for the morning. The guide asked the children in our tour group who might have designed the palatial structure: not a trick question. Charles Garnier was not long left the Beaux Arts, winner of the prestigious Prix de Rome when he was asked to design a new opera house for Napoleon III. A rainbow of marble, intricate Italian mosaics and real gold leaf plastered everywhere lead into the main auditorium where we tipped our heads back to admire the scandalously modern Chagall ceiling, seven tonne chandelier and ring of soft globe lights, Garnier’s “pearl necklace.” We laughed to hear that the best seats had been designed to be seen, not to see the stage. On the roof there are beehives (honey sold at Fauchon down the street), while underneath in the reservoir that served for fire safety as well as acoustics, firemen fish for carp. We looked out over the main avenue, marvelled at the sheer scale and detail of the building. I learned things, for even after three years living here my list of sights is still unfinished. We worked up an appetite for our next eating, a short walk away.
On the menu were soufflés, savoury and sweet. An unassuming restaurant behind the fancy hotels that flank the Tuileries that offers a lunchtime menu of soufflé and green salad followed by soufflé and coffee. Brought with due pomp and circumstance, they did not risk falling; they were very stable but still light and airy inside. Rich with cheese and egg, really just an omelette dolled up for the opera in a hoop skirt, they are extremely satisfying to eat. Their colours decorated the plain dining room: craggy mountain green for spinach and goat’s cheese, tutu pink for raspberry. Chocolate has its own sauceboat. The Grand Marnier comes with a whole bottle to souse as liberally as you wish. Though some of the flavours veered on artificial (peach and apricot was too much like perfumed soap for me) overall the airy creatures were delicious, they were fun.
Blinking at the glare from the sun, we crossed the Tuileries for some lèche-vitrine in St-Germain. Literally “window-licking”, but we were too full even for Pierre Herme macarons. You suggested we see the Chagall expo in the Luxembourg gardens, inspired by the ceiling, a pathway through exile, love and grief all in primary colours. We had time for a swim, the cool water open to the air. You spotted the twins, a pair of identical seventy-year-old sisters in matching cap and costume (later, the same trousers and cardigans) that we had seen at a different Parisian pool years before.
Enough time to traipse home, less sticky and hot, to change for the opera. We were happily over-dressed for an under-done building – it wasn’t the morning’s gilt edifice but the rather more intimate Bouffes du Nord, discovered by Peter Brook in the 70s and left in its charmingly dilapidated state. The paint peels off the rusty-red walls, the front row is directly on the stage. Props comprised only some upright bamboo poles, to serve as palace and jungle and sword. The whole surroundings left space for the ethereal music, The Magic Flute, sung in German, enough to give you chills; and the quick banter, mostly in French. It was short, an hour and a half of suspended time, breath held. Afterwards it took us a while to shake off the wonder, despite the prosaic metro ride home. You bought some mint from the Indian shop down the road; we sat on the balcony just big enough for two and ate salad. At 11pm, the traffic was still buzzing, the neon-clashing lights of the internet shop below still lit. We gazed at the tree above, talked about nothing and finally went to bed.
Tours at the Opera Garnier (in English at 11.30am and 2.30pm, Wed/Sat/Sun or every day in holidays and July/August)
Lunch at Le Soufflé, (€26 menu, best to book, tel: +33 142602719)
Swim at Piscine Georges Hermant (outdoor pool only in summer)
Opera, theatre, concerts at Les Bouffes du Nord…
…and if we hadn’t been so tired, it would have been supper at the best (vegetarian) Indian in Paris, Krishna Bhavan.
Since then, I thought soufflés a little intimidating to make at home, especially in my small oven. Rowley Leigh rescued me with his detailed and clear instructions that took up more of his column than usual. His soufflé Vendôme – a cheese one with a poached egg in the middle that miraculously stays runny – with tomato sauce is just right, rich and fluffy with the contrasting tang of tomato. Again for emphasis: it has a poached egg suspended in a cloud of cheese. Wondrous. So good in fact that I will do it no justice by paraphrasing, so here is the link: Rowley Leigh’s Soufflé Vendôme. He makes six starters, but for a main course you can make the same amount of mixture, only three poached eggs and bake in larger dishes (10cm).
Here is a dessert instead, one that worked first time and would be infinitely adaptable. It has a fruit base, with little pockets of melted chocolate and coconut for texture, and it rose like a dream. The blueberries did turn the egg whites an alarming shade of grey-blue but were delicious nonetheless. You can use frozen fruit since it is then cooked down into a jammy mixture, to recreate the summer, until it is time for dresses and pools again.
Blueberry,chocolate and coconut soufflés
From Australian Gourmet Traveller, December 2013
Makes 6 – Works with cherries, raspberries or other soft fruit. Try to find shredded coconut rather than desiccated, it is chunkier and juicier.
Cocoa + soft butter for moulds
200g (frozen) blueberries
110g caster sugar, divided in half
150g egg whites (5 eggs)
60g dark chocolate (70%)
40g shredded coconut + extra for sprinkling
Grease six small ramekins (or oven-proof coffee cups with straight sides) with the soft butter. Then tip in a teaspoon of cocoa and roll ramekin around until the sides are totally coated. Tip excess into next ramekin, repeat. Refrigerate.
Defrost blueberries and blend them roughly, leaving a few chunky bits. In a small saucepan, heat puree with half the caster sugar (55g) until it dissolves. Pour a little into a small bowl with the cornflour and mix well to remove lumps. Tip it back into the saucepan with the rest and simmer, stirring every now and then, for 10 minutes or so until thick like jam. Let cool.
Measure out the egg whites and remaining 55g caster in separate bowls. Chop the chocolate finely, weigh the coconut. Stop at this point, if you are not ready to eat dessert. Egg whites whip better at room temperature anyway. (Alternatively, make up the soufflés and refrigerate for 1 hour before baking.)
While serving the main course, heat the oven to 190C. When main course is over, boil the kettle. Then beat the egg whites to stiff peaks, adding the sugar gradually as it becomes opaque. Stir a spoonful of whites into the blueberries. Carefully fold everything together without losing the volume. Spoon into the six ramekins and smooth the tops. Run a knife around the edge to help it rise. Sprinkle a little coconut on each. Place in a deep baking tray or roasting tin and fill it with the boiling water, halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake for 11-12 minutes. The soufflés should have browned and risen a couple of centimetres and feel firm to touch. Insert a skewer to check: it should have a bit of melted chocolate on it but not drippy mixture. Place each ramekin on a small plate and serve immediately.