"At this hour in Paris we're the only ones up," says Paule Caillat as she leads our little group of six through the narrow streets of an old neighborhood. It is nine a.m. on a sunny Saturday morning, and we are shopping for the necessary ingredients to prepare a menu of French culinary delights. (Opening photo: Madame Paule selects the lamb from her favorite butcher.)
But, she confides, "The best way to know your fish is to know your fish man. An honest man who will tell you the truth."
Paule Caillot is a diminutive woman with short chestnut hair, very cheerful and animated. Very French. Regarding a row of daurade, we ask how she can tell they originated in a fish farm. She waves her hands dismissively. "I don't have to ask - I know they're farmed because they're all the same size."
Next she scrutinizes the vegetables. "Eggplants must be as shiny as possible. Naturally shiny, of course - not artificially polished as we so often see in American markets." In this French market, we marvel that all the vegetables are so fat and clean. In addition to eggplant, we buy tomatoes, garlic, red onions and fennel. Fennel? Yes, the bulb is edible and a very healthy vegetable.
Now we buy cheese and - naturellement - bread.
"There's a lot of blah, blah, blah around the bread," Madame Paule says, "to sell it better, but that does not mean. . ." Her voice trails off with another expressive flourish of the hand as she begins a conversation with the baker.
Our final shopping stop is to buy the wine to accompany our meal. Always seeking to improve our French vocabulary, we note that wine shopkeepers are called "cavists". Monsieur le cavist advises: "To freshen a red wine, put the bottle in a bucket with fresh water and only one or two ice cubes, then let it sit for fifteen minutes."
About buying wine, our French culinary guide again emphasizes, "Know your supplier."
In France, shopping for food is about the experience of discussing the products with the merchant and cultivating a relationship, never about haggling over price. "In France you must always think local wine, cheese, whatever is there," says Madame Paule, bobbing her head and waving her hands for emphasis.
Her now very hungry flock of students is guided to her apartment, where her kitchen has been specially designed to accommodate several people working at the same time. There are two sinks, two gas stoves, many cupboards, and all the modern conveniences. This is a contemporary kitchen in an ancient Parisian building. Microwave and refrigerator are hidden behind blond Euro cabinet doors that match the rest of the cupboards. Marble tiles cover the floor, with a small oriental rug here and there. One wall has bookshelves and tall windows overlooking a courtyard. Against another wall is a comfortable couch fronted by a coffee table. Above the couch hangs framed Chinese prints of delicately-illustrated herbs.
Raised in Paris and college-educated in the United States, Paule Caillot's bilingual and bicultural background gives her unique insights into French cuisine and culture. She grew up in a family where good food and fine cooking were a priority and married into a family with a rich culinary heritage. Inspired by an aunt who had studied at the Cordon Bleu in the 1930s, Madame Paule developed her own passion for cooking and entertaining while raising two children and working as a fashion executive. When she decided to devote her considerable energy and talent to la cuisine, Les Promenades Gourmandes was born.
Our bags of purchases are deposited on a large, well-worn oval pine table that dominates the center of the kitchen. The table proves to be a preparation area as well as a dining place. But before we settle into the wicker chairs around it, Madame passes out aprons and towels and announces, "First everyone must wash their hands."
This all turns out to be not as complicated as it sounds. "I'm not interested in making elaborate recipes that you won't make at home," says Madame Paule, "with ingredients you can't find."
The lamb does not go immediately into the refrigerator. Madame Paule likes the meat to be room temperature, "at least a couple of hours out of the fridge because it's delicate."
We are surprised to learn that the French normally "seed" their tomatoes. "The seeds don't add, they take away," she announces. "They have no flavor and they have an unpleasant texture. However," she says, "this step won't be necessary because in the lamb dish the tomatoes will be baked. One of my rules: no unnecessary steps because there are enough necessary steps."
The lamb dish is deposited into the oven. By now our mouths are watering, so Madame Paule directs us to break out the cheese and bread for a little before-luncheon "snack." The first bottle of wine (white) is opened.
This is also a good time for an olive oil tasting.
"'Extra lite' is a marketing invention," says Madame Paule. "All olive oil is extra virgin. The color never determines the quality or the flavor. The color is determined by the color of the olive, that's all. The difference is going to be if it's a blend of olives or made from a single variety. If you know your olive oil geography you'll have a little idea of what to expect. It's complex, like any food product that hasn't been standardized."
Next we prepare the fish dish as it takes a shorter baking time. While lamb and fish dishes are baking, we prepare the crust and almond cream for the tart and shave chocolate for the soufflé.
As the base for the tarte, Madame Paule shares with us her Caillat family recipe for crust, "Ma Pate Sucree." The first ingredient, butter, is very important. In France butter is normally unsalted and cannot be called butter unless it has an 82% fat content."
By the time we sit down to enjoy the fruits of our labors, we are very impressed with our newly expanded cooking abilities. Not surprisingly, afterwards there are no leftovers.
Sated with incredible food and wine, feeling somewhat like how you feel after Thanksgiving dinner, I'm thinking of a nice nap, but, Oh no! - Madame Paule takes us outdoors on an expanded walking tour. (An assistant will arrive to clean up the dishes.) We visit a long established wine shop, and Dehillerin, Paris' landmark kitchen emporium, its dark, cramped interior unchanged since the last century. Because it's Saturday, it's as crowded with Parisians as it is with every imaginable cooking implement. Eyeing a pot that's easily two feet in diameter, I wonder how one could get that home on an airplane.
Promenades Gourmandes Info -
· Promenades Gourmandes classes may be scheduled for half-day, full-day or multi-day sessions. Half-day classes start at 9 a.m. with an open-air market tour, followed by a hands-on cooking class and a three-course lunch, finishing at 3 p.m. The full-day program follows the same schedule but includes a gourmet afternoon walking tour, finishing at 6 p.m. Classes and walking tours are typically held Tuesday through Friday. Special arrangements can sometimes be made for weekends. Les Promenades Gourmandes is closed on Mondays.
· Cooking classes are limited to six people, and there is no minimum size.
·Aprons, printed recipes and everything needed to prepare an authentic French meal are provided.
·Promenades Gourmandes will accommodate most dietary requirements and preferences.
· Lunch is substantial, so Madame Paule recommends that you do not plan a large dinner the same night and have only a light breakfast.
· Promenades Gourmandes can accept credit card payments (Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover) via the PayPal online transaction system (www.paypal.com). Promenades Gourmandes accepts checks in euros or US dollars.
· Because slots fill quickly, especially in summer, book your class as soon as you've confirmed your travel dates. If everything is full, ask to be put on a waiting list in the event of a last-minute cancellation.
· Promenades Gourmandes also offers custom-designed culinary excursions to the French countryside. Information on destinations and rates may be had by contacting Madame Paule through her website: www.promenadesgourmandes.com
· You may also subscribe to Promenades Gourmandes' free e-mail newsletter to receive recipes, articles and various news from Paule Caillat.
For Madame Paule's secret crust recipe, you'll just have to sign up for her class.
Photos and feature by Carolyn Proctor, Las Vegas Correspondent.