Arrival Rituals in Paris: DIY Edition
First Bites, Paris en Pandémie, Recipes for Oeufs Mayonnaise and Galettes Bretonnes
Issue #30 is being dispatched from Paris. And it is about Paris, or at least, about how you can recreate some of our Paris arrival eating rituals at home. I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of cooking, traveling, eating, covid, and the ways different cultures deal with different obstacles. More to come on that. Bon appétit.
We landed in Paris Friday morning. At any time that would be an exciting thing to write. But after almost two years of a pandemic, it’s a little overwhelming to consider. We had to cancel a big familial birthday celebration in 2020 that would have seen family and friends gather in the southwest of France. This trip, intended to visit our friend Elia, who transferred to Brussels during the pandemic, was supposed to take place in October. But we postponed it until December. And then Omicron and the uncertainty of travel put some justifiable anxiety into the planning and the travel. We monitored news about the variant, consulted with experts in the U.S. and abroad. Until the plane actually took off, we assumed we would have to cancel again.
Six hours and ten minutes after wheels up from JFK, due to a powerful tailwind that sped up our flight, we landed early in CDG (along with about a million other people who had to get through passport control at the same time).
As is Nate’s and my Paris arrival ritual, after depositing our bags at our friends Perri and Robert’s apartment in the Marais, our first stop was Le Comptoir du Relais, Yves Camdeborde’s exceedingly popular, tiny bistro on the Carrefour de l’Odeon. Lunch there on our first day immediately grounds us in this city we love, tells our souls nous sommes arrivés. We love the food and the scene. I’ve met Parisians who hate le Comptoir and Parisians who love it. Ça m’est égale. The line usually starts forming outside at 11:45 am. But the weather these days is cold, and it seems due to Covid protocols now they fill the dining room with reservations, which is new. We were turned away curtly and the disappointment was visible on Nate’s face. But I asked again and they said we could sit outside under the heat lamps. It seemed like it would still be chilly, cold and rainy as it was, but we saw the blankets folded on each chair and decided that even though no one else was sitting outside, we’d give it a go. Glad we did.
Everything was exactly how we wanted it to be, in part, I’m sure, because of our wishing it so, needing it so—the food, the carafe of crisp white wine, which comes to the table in a bag of ice, the crowd that filled all of the tables on the sidewalk before we were done. We had started a trend. An older man sat one table over from us. He asked if it was okay if he smoked. Paris! There was enough wind for us to say yes without hesitation. And then his friend arrived and their conversation veered between academic work, possibly in sociology, and a new upcoming post at a UNESCO site in Africa. Ah, Paris.
The menu at le Comptoir seemed quite a bit smaller than it used to be, but our favorites were still there. (QR code menus have not taken hold here.) I always order the pot de pâté Régalade, a large, delicious pâté de campagne that comes whole in a terrine with saffron toast and cornichons. You are invited to eat as much of it as you want before they take it away and bring it to another table. This is something Comdeborde started when he was at La Régalade, and I’m so glad it continues—if a little surprised that it does during a pandemic. Tant pis
Aside: We did get our EU Health Passes (Passes Sanitaires), which was easier to do at almost any pharmacie than expected, and which have been checked and scanned at all restaurants we’ve gone to. Only a wine bar didn’t check. But there doesn’t seem to be any notion of social distancing in indoor environments, especially restaurants of the type where they have to pull out the tables to get you in, and certainly not at the airport, despite signs everywhere there to keep your distance.
At le Comptoir, Nate always orders the oeufs mayonnaise, hard-cooked eggs blanketed in freshly made mayonnaise, which is one of those classic French dishes that is more than the sum of its parts. Chop the egg and you’d have egg salad, but that’s something else, entirely. A French friend of a friend, who once asked what some our favorite Paris restaurants and dishes were, was surprised to hear us reply oeufs mayonnaise. “But that’s something you eat at home, not at a restaurant.” True, perhaps, but we didn’t grow up in French homes. And it’s only 5€ on the Comptoir menu, which is also a bit of a thrill, honestly. So we order oeufs mayonnaise every time we are there. Sometimes twice.
Taking a cue from our friend’s friend, I thought I would suggest you make oeufs mayonnaise at home. I made it several times during lockdown, when we were craving Paris, and I’ve already given you the components you need in previous newsletters. I will recombine them here with links so you can share in our Parisian welcome delight, doing as the French apparently would do.
Note, a single portion of oeufs mayonnaise at le Comptoir comes with five halves of egg, which is a lot, and it’s covered in a generous amount of mayo. Don’t skimp. Also, the dish is best if the eggs are freshly cooked and served at room temperature, never chilled, or else the whites become rubbery. But be sure they have cooled. If they are too warm, the mayo will slide off. Ce serait un désastre.
TECHNIQUE: Oeufs Mayonnaise
5 hard-cooked eggs, steamed for about 10 ½ minutes, until just past jammy, at room temperature, peeled
3/4 cup homemade mayonnaise
Handful of fresh herbs, chopped (optional)
Paprika, sweet or smoked
Freshly ground black pepper
Mesclun, for garnish
Peel the, cooked, room temperature eggs and split them in half lengthwise. Arrange five halves cut side down on a serving plate to make a star pattern. Repeat. Sprinkle the eggs with salt. Stir the herbs, if using, into the mayonnaise and spoon generously over the eggs. Sprinkle with paprika and freshly ground black pepper. Serve with plenty of fresh baguette to mop up the extra mayo. Garnish with mesclun.
You should know that we are not the only ones obsessed with oeufs mayo. You can follow the Confrérie de l’Oeuf Mayo on Instagram. Most of the oeufs posted look more like deviled eggs than they do at Le Comptoir, but I still enjoy seeing what’s out there in the beyond.
Another Kind of Galette
Le Comptoir was our first lunch. But our first dinner was at Breizh Café, a popular Breton crêperie we discovered a few visits back when we rented an Airbnb across the street. (I just learned it’s pronounced “brez,” rhymes with “says.”) Our Breizh is in the Marais on the corner of rue du Vielle Temple and rue du Perche. It’s a tiny, cramped space—even during a pandemic—with a small shop next door that sells Breton specialties, including butter, yogurt, cheese, and other dairy products from the house of Bordier. We are Bordier stans, and after dinner on our first night we cleaned the shop out of their bars of demi-sel.
When we first ate at Breizh we thought it was a little one-off resto. But we’ve since realized they are a growing chain with other outposts in Paris (in fact, one is down the street from le Comptoir du Relais), around France, and in Japan. Their growth hasn’t affected the quality. The Breton buckwheat galettes and ciders are top notch. The kitchen cooks with that Bordier butter, which is something you’d usually only expect in Michelin three-star restaurants. Even the green salade was delicious, we think because of the Breton cider vinegar, two bottles of which we also purchased after dinner in the shop next door.
A few months back, in Issue #22, I wrote about galettes, by which I meant, free-form, open-faced fruit pies. These galettes are also free-form and open-faced, but totally different. A traditional Breton galette is a lacy, buttery buckwheat crêpe, that is usually folded over a savory filling, typically egg, ham, and cheese (called complet), or any other savory combination. On our first night in Paris after a deep, jet-laggy nap, it seemed appropriate to have breakfast for dinner. And so we did, at Breizh. I had a complet with spinach, a salade verte, and a pitcher of cider. My kind of heaven.
As with the oeufs mayonnaise, making galettes bretonnes was an early project of mine during lockdown, chosen to recall favorite tastes from abroad. The galettes at Breizh are thin, crisp, and buttery. My first were not that—though delicious, they were somewhere between a buckwheat pancake and a crêpe. Still, they satisfied a craving. Now that we were back at Breizh, I understood what I did wrong.
I’ve learned that there are two schools of thought that about Breton galette making: one, the traditionalists, insist the batter is made with 100% buckwheat flour, contains no eggs or milk, and is mixed by hand. The other pretend galettes are just like ordinary crêpes—made with wheat flour, egg, and milk—that have some buckwheat thrown in for flavor. The first I made from a recipe by Anne Willan fell into the latter school. With an all-buckwheat batter we get closer to those served at Breizh, thinner and lacier. Buckwheat is high in protein, but has no gluten. This produces the right texture. Another variable, apparently, is the fineness of the flour, the coarser the texture, the longer the batter should sit. I have been grinding my own buckwheat flour lately and I know it is not as fine as that which I can buy, so I now let my batter sit a full 24 hours. Adjust your sitting times accordingly. Bon courage!
RECIPE: Galettes Bretonnes
For the galettes
250 g (about 2 cups) buckwheat flour
Salt, preferably sel de guérende
500 g (about 2 cups) water, at room temperature
For the galettes complets
¾ cup lightly salted butter, melted
4 or 5 eggs
Freshly ground black pepper
7 or 8 thin slices of ham
2 cups grated gruyère, or similar cheese
Danish dough whisk, if you have one
10” nonstick frying pan
Fork or butter knife
Pancake or fish spatula
Place the flour in a large bowl. Add a generous pinch of salt and half the water. Using your hands, or I prefer my Danish dough whisk, mix to form a soft, sticky mess that incorporates all of the flour. Then add the remaining water and mix again to make a thin, smooth batter. No need to worry about overmixing, as buckwheat flour doesn’t develop gluten. Let the batter sit at least 4 hours, and up to 24 hours, at room temperature before making the galettes.
Heat a 10-inch nonstick frying pan over medium-high heat. Brush the pan with melted butter to coat. With a small ladle, pour about 1/2 cup of the batter into the pan. Lift the pan by its handle and rotate to coat the entire bottom. Pour off any excess batter back into the bowl and using a spatula, remove the tail of batter the pouring off created. Set the pan back over the heat and cook until the edges brown and curl up a bit, 3 or 4 minutes. Using a long spatula, lift the crêpe and flip. Lower the heat to medium.
Now you must work quickly. Brush the galette with more melted butter. Crack an egg into the center of the galette as though you were making a sunnyside-up egg. Using the tines of a fork or blade of butter knife, spread the white of the egg over the crêpe, making sure to keep the yolk in the center intact. The white should cook and become opaque. Season lightly with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Lay pieces or strips of the ham alongside the egg yolk. Top with a handful of grated cheese, again keeping the yolk from being hidden. Now, using the spatula, fold up four edges of the galette toward the center, leaving a window open so the egg yolk shows through, to make a square. Using the pancake spatula, remove the galette to a serving plate. Repeat. The galettes bretonnes are best eaten immediately, but if you want to wait until they are all done, brush the folded edges with more butter and keep them warm in a 200°F. oven until ready to serve.
One word of advice. If you find that your galette is so lacy that it doesn’t hold together enough to flip, add a beaten egg to the batter before you continue. I don’t know why, but I think buckwheat flours react differently. Some may call this egg cheating. I call it resourcefulness.
Another Paris Ritual
Another of our first-day-in-Paris rituals is walking from le Comptoir to Pierre Hermé on rue Bonaparte—don’t be tempted to stop into Maison Mulot, a more traditional pastry shop, which is also very good, but which is not worth taking up stomach real estate on day one. At Hermé we buy a selection of pastries and macarons for dessert and we eat them on the benches outside Saint-Sulpice. Of course, we went to Hermé this trip, as well, but it was too cold and rainy to eat outside, so we brought our pastries back with us to the apartment in the Marais. No recipes provided for this ritual, however. Hermé’s pastries are so complex and precise and delicious that I wouldn’t advise anyone to try them at home. Infinement compliqué. They are best left to the professionals. You’ll just have to imagine how they taste for now, until you find yourself again in Paris.