Paris is a city of smells, runs the spiel of my tour-guide friend. Good smells, bad smells.*
He’s right. To descend into the metro is to risk being assailed by a whiff of urine, the remnants of lat night’s drinking binge. A smashed bottle of wine.
Equally, just around each corner comes the scent of the local boulangerie, the baugettes made fresh on the hour. It’s hard to wander around without noticing one smell or another. Plenty of flower shops too, their light, bright perfume reminding me of my childhood ambition to be a florist. Then there are the crepe stands, the roast chestnuts when the cold evenings draw in.
I am lucky enough that most of my day is punctated by one fragrant smell after another. I can tell when someone has opened the box of vanilla sugar at the end of the tiny kitchen. I love the moment that the cocoa biscuit sans farine comes out of the oven, a toasty, chocolate fug fills the small space. I don’t even hate squeezing 50 lemons at once (because of course, everything is fresh, down to the stinging cuts on our hands) because of the lemon oil that is released into the air.
And I get paid for this? Touch wood, lady.
The other day, while waiting for the charming flatmate in the Japanese quarter on rue St Anne I drifted into a spice shop. A spice boutique. A spice emporium?** It was Fancy, capital F. A black interior, lined with jars and jars of spices, whole and ground.
There was a display cabinet for various whole chilis displayed like driftwood, polished by the sea and washed up as seaglass. There was a whole table of bottles of vanilla to sniff. (I liked the one from Ile de Réunion as well as the Madagascar.) I tested the different cinnamon sticks, admired the house blends of spices and rubs. Basically, I got lost to one of my senses for a few short minutes and came out happy and calm.
An appropriate recipe then, the ‘pain d’épices’ sometimes mistranslated as gingerbread, for it does not contain the quantities of ginger as the English adore but a mixed variation of cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, aniseed. It has a little rye flour and what seems to be an alarming amount of honey which creates a sweet but complex quick-bread that will stay moist for a long while. Just out of the oven it is a beautiful autumn brown with a coarse crumb: it begs for a slab of butter and a cup of tea. Later when slightly stale it will be easier to slice whisper-thin and toast to spread ripe goat’s cheese and chutney or even, luxury, foie gras.
*Apologies for shameless plagiarising, mate.
**J et O Roellinger – 53 rue st Anne, Paris 75002 – metro Pyramides
makes 1 loaf – as for the spices, feel free to play around if you haven’t exactly the same ones, only the French need to stick to the rules – a teaspoon of ground cardamon and /or aniseed would be nice, as would a tablespoon of molasses for an extra dark version
360 g dark, strong honey (preferably Corsican)
50 g brown sugar
75 g crème fraîche
80 ml milk
1 large egg
195g rye flour
65g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground cloves
Preheat oven to 170C. Grease a large loaf tin (line with paper as well if it’s not non- stick).
Melt the honey and brown sugar in a small saucepan, not too hot. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Beat the egg, creme fraiche and milk together then add the honey a little at a time.
Sift the flours, salt, baking powder and spices. Mix everything together, tip into the tin. Bake for about an hour – turn the oven down to 150-160C after half an hour. If it goes brown too quickly, cover with tin foil. When it is done, it should have come away from the sides of the tin and a skewer stabbed in the middle will come out dry. Cool for 10-15 minutes then remove from tin so it does not stick.
Enjoy with butter, cheese and chutney or even pâté. Keep in an airtight tin or freeze wrapped in clingfilm.