French Food Follies: When Should We Go?

by: John Talbott One of the questions I’m asked most frequently is “When should we go to France? From my point of view, the choice depends on seasonal food and since we’re now in the midst of what I consider one of the best times to visit, the fall, this may be a good time to revisit the answer. Most of us take our vacations when we can, and there is really no bad time to come to France or Paris (I’ll come to August later). But each month or season has its own merits. I’ll start with October, because according to the travel experts I know, that’s when the hotels are most heavily booked by Americans. Nights are cool, days are warm and walking around is at its most pleasant. As for the food, the oysters and scallops are back, the trumpets of death and other mushrooms are in the markets and best of all – game is coming in, with Scottish grouse arriving early in the month – but soon it will all be available. The three places I love in game season are Chez Michel, Le Repaire de Cartouche + La Regalade, but I can easily be talked into ordering game when going to Au Bon Acceuil, Chez les Anges, La Cerisaie + Le Quincy as well. As for cheese, look for Vacherin, Bries (from Meaux, Melun and Montereau) and mountain cheeses as well as desserts with chestnuts, pears, apples, quince and figs, which are at their top. November is pretty nice weather-wise too and the game continues (no pun intended) – from rabbit and pheasant to boar to all kinds of deer (biche, chevreuil, cerf, daim). But now the extra kicker is the appearance of the light, first releases of wine, most famously and over-hyped and abused, Beaujolais Nouveau, but also various premieurs and nouveaus. I think their appearance, along with that of clementines and the tarte tatins that are the accompaniment of the apple harvest, makes for a great time to visit. One should also not forget that leeks, brussel sprouts and endives as well as Epoisses cheese are also at their height now. Things are calm until the Christmas-New Year’s holidays when a series of events makes visiting fun. The ski resorts open, many folks leave town to do “winter sports,” the oysters flow into the street from the classic brasseries (my favorites are Marty, Brasserie Lorraine + Terminus Nord). Most fun, however, are places like Petrossian + the Galeries Lafayette’s Petrossian stand, that have melt-in-your mouth foie gras in all shapes and forms. We used to wait until Christmas and New Year’s Eve’s to gorge on oysters, Bellota-Bellota and foie gras, but why wait? Meanwhile the French are tucking into lobster, crayfish and truffles. I find the holiday time to be a combination of more crowded streets around the big stores coupled with less crowded streets in the more residential areas. Restaurants, if open, usually adhere to their fixed closing days, rather than the holiday calendar. There are two factors to keep in mind that may influence your choice of restaurants now: first, small places run by young couples with young children, take the school holidays off to visit parents; and second, watch out for Christmas and New Year’s eves and days themselves, because special dinners can be ruinously expensive. As a result of both, the holiday season is when the brasseries, ethnic places like the Etoile Marocain and the places open everyday of the year, like the Bistrot du Dome, come in handy. January and February can be grey, damp and dismal and perfect times to try new restaurants, visit with old friends and get that writing done you owe someone, including yourself. Oh the oysters, dorade and ray are still plentiful, the summer-fed cheeses are still in flower and you can always get fresh fruits and veggies from the southern hemispheres, but I think that the time and weather prompt one to order comfort food such as choucroute, cassoulet, cote de boeuf and coq au vin. I happen to think I can cook the first two better myself than most restos; on the other hand, for beef in all its forms, there’s no place like Meating and for coq au vin – Chez René. A final seasonal note, in February we see the first signs of Spring in the appearance of early Pyrenees’ milk-fed lamb, spinach and salads of Provence. March and April are deceptive. While the grass never dies in Paris, it does seem to perk up in March and there can be days if not a week of almost summer weather. But it can also snap cold, turn horrible, rain nastily and make the days seem longer than necessary. However, by now most of the restaurants that will open this year (i.e. before summer) are up and running and their kinks worked out. One can once again explore new neighborhoods and enjoy long leisurely walks, such as the Daumesnil “viaduct” and its extension on the abandoned train tracks in the 12th, a la Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in the film “Before Sunrise.” And of course, one looks forward to savoring the first asparagus, rhubarb, strawberries and fine herbs as well as enjoy St-Pierre, cod, turbot and morue. May and June bring back the ideal weather, cool nights, warm days, and later and later sunsets – so much later than in the US. Outdoor dining is not just…
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