I’ve been wanting to go to France for quite some time because not only am I a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu Miami Culinary College but also my maternal-grandparents lived in France prior to WWII. With a collection of family photos taken in France between 1934 and 1939, I decided to pack my bags for a non-stop adventure.
My trip got off to an interesting start for the alarm didn’t work the morning of my departure. I was scheduled to catch a 7 am flight out of Malpensa which is in Milan, meaning I would have to take a two-hour shuttle leaving Turin at 3 am to get me to the airport in time. Instead, I woke up by chance at 4:30 am and having already missed the 3 am shuttle to the airport my only choice was to take a cab; knowing very well that the price of the taxi would cost me almost the exact same price as my ticket to Paris! But, it was my only option. To top it all off, the taxi driver brought me to the wrong terminal. He kept telling me he didn’t know the airport very well. From there I had to take another taxi in order to get to the right terminal. Finally, I arrived at the airport just in the nick of time…30 minutes prior to departure. The one thing that saved me was packing lightly so there wasn’t any luggage to check-in. As I boarded the plane all I could think about was that it was a miracle I even made the flight.
Upon arriving at Charles de Gaulle Airport I took the train to Paris and from there, the metro to my hotel. It is extremely easy to get around Paris by metro. My hotel was located near Avenue de l’Opéra, only a few steps away from the Louvre. However, I would have no time to visit any of the museums…I was more interested in searching my family history and the obvious culinary discoveries that were awaiting me. In fact, I contacted my former pastry chef, Chef Guilbert and informed him weeks prior about my trip. He kindly put together a “Top 10 List” of places for me to visit!
That afternoon, I enjoyed a croque madame, (a grilled ham and cheese sandwich with melted gruyère cheese and a fried egg cooked to perfection) with a glass of Sancerre Blanc. Afterwards, I headed to La patisserie des reves on Rue de Longchamps. The salon portion was closed on Sunday but that didn’t curtail me from finding some wonderful pastries to bring back with me to the hotel: Gâteau St-Honoré and Mont Blanc. I remember very well the day I learned to make Gâteau St-Honoré in my pastry class at Le Cordon Bleu. This type of pastry tests ones skills at making puff pastry, pâte à choux, (a type of pastry dough that is used to make éclairs and is usually filled with cream) caramel, and millefeuille which means “thousands leaves.” The version from La patisserie des reves was devine!!
Then I stumbled upon Boulangerie Béchu on 118 Avenue Victor Hugo where I stopped in for a cappuccino and a chocolate macaroon. This place was teeming with locals.
The very next day, I took the train to Caen in Normandy. My grandfather graduated from the University of Caen with a degree in Chemistry in 1936 and Chemical Engineering in 1938. He lived most of the time in Caen and also for a short time in Reims, the champagne capital of the world.
Upon arriving in Caen I had photos in hand and addresses of the places I wanted to visit. The best solution I thought was to find a taxi, that way I could cover all the bases. And that’s exactly what I did! I met a group of taxi drivers outside of the station and told them my grandfather used to live here and showed them my photos. They took interest and when they found out that I was American they began cheering for President Obama. And so, Joel agreed to assist me in my efforts. I am forever grateful to him!
First of all, I need to thank my friends in Italy and in the USA who assisted me and helped translate the marriage certificate of my grandparents: Jun-Hi, Michelle and Jennifer I could not have done this without your initial efforts! My grandparents were married in Caen, 1938 and their certificate was written entirely by hand in some sort of fancy calligraphy.
The first stop of my journey would bring me to the place where my grandpa used to rent an apartment. I found his address on a postcard that was sent to my Grandpa Jack from my Grandma Paula and the address was confirmed on their marriage certificate. Luckily, the street and the building still existed for more than 80% of Caen was destroyed in 1944 during WWII. And because of this, the address for the apartment where my grandmother lived no longer existed.
I had a photo of my grandfather working for a laboratory in Caen and so I went to the CCI or Chambre di Commerce Industrie (or chamber of commerce) and they explained to me the best thing would be to visit the University of Caen as well as Archives départementales du Calvados, or the Archives Department of Calvados. Joel took me to the University of Caen and we spoke with a woman in the records department where it was explained to me that the university was completely destroyed during the war and therefore the photos I had were precious. She insisted that I go to the Archives in Calvados and so that is exactly what we did next.
Upon arriving at the Archives, Joel assisted in explaining my situation and they were able to find someone to communicate with me in English. Again, I went through the ritual of showing the photos of my family. In the end, I spent about an hour in the archives working with Mr. Lauvergne who informed me that I could continue my research by simply contacting them with any questions by mail. My grandfather also played professional football (soccer) while he was in college. He told me that was how he made a living during those years, but I have no idea which team he played for. They were also very curious about the photos and asked if I would scan them so they could be incorporated into the archives. Throughout my four-hour stay in Caen I was running around non-stop and unfortunately I wasn’t able to eat anything. But I accomplished just about everything else I set out to do!
The next day would be the only full day I would spend in Paris. My first stop in the morning was to visit Poilane, a bakery off of Rue de Cherche Midi. Finally I was about to taste my first pain au chocolat in Paris! I also bought some punitions, which are light butter cookies that come in the shape of round disks, spoons and forks. They come in three baking styles: barely cooked, golden or well cooked. I bought a batch that was spiced with curry and they were so good!
Later that day, after having worked up quite an appetite walking to the Eiffel tower, I decided to walk to Avenue Victor Hugo where I spotted a nice restaurant a couple of days prior called, Le Stella at 133 Avenue Victor Hugo. I just knew that this place would be full of locals and it turns out my intuition was right. I ordered the plat du jour or the plate of the day: Petit sale aux lentilles or cured pork shoulder with lentils. It was the perfect comfort food for a cold day in Paris. I later discovered that this dish originates from central France in the Auvergne region. It was served with a fresh baguette and a lovely yet spicy mustard and was presented in a cast-iron pot. Needless to say I left nothing to spare. To accompany my meal I opted for a light and crisp Sancerre Blanc. For dessert, I ordered Tarte Tatin serve tiéde, glace vanille (apple tart served warm with vanilla ice cream) followed by a cafe crème. I love the flavor of caramelized apples cooked slowly. It was the perfect ending to my meal. Turns out, I’ve been making my own version of cafe crème here in Turin for quite sometime…an espresso served with a generous amount of warm milk.
The day after, I took the train to Reims from Gare de l’Est train station. Reims is about an hour train ride northeast of Paris. My grandpa lived in Reims during his first year of university in 1934. He took a picture with some of his friends at the statue of Jean-Baptiste Drouet, Comte d’Erlon at the roundabout of Boulevard de la paix. Comte d’Erlon was born in Reims. He was a Marshall and soldier in Napoleon’s Army.
I would be in Reims for about 4 hours but I managed to make a stop at Champagne Pommery and the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. From there it was off to the center of town or Place Drouet d’Erlon for lunch at Le Gaulois where I dined on Salade au lard (a hearty dish of escarole and potatoes cooked in champagne vinegar and served with pork) and made a heart-felt toast to my Grandpa Jack with a glass of dry-champagne in his honor. I miss you grandpa, but I know you and grandma are both watching out for me and the rest of the family. “Play ball!”
Posing in front of the Comte D’Erlon Statue, Reims, France 2011