Thursday, July 31, 2014

Eating Michelin with Kids: Le Parc les Crayères

Is it wrong to take children to a Michelin-starred restaurant? And exactly when is it too early to introduce a child to the delights of really, really good cooking?

I'm expecting this post to generate a very healthy and vigorous debate, if my web search for 'children in restaurants' is anything to go by. The topic appears to polarise everyone.

There are those who think parents are the problem:

"If you say your kids are angels, that they never get up and run around, never throw French fries, never talk loud, never spill Cheerios, you're lying." (New York restaurant owner Christian Pappanicholas)

"Let me make it clear - if your kid is a jerk in public and you do nothing about it, then you're a bigger jerk and I hope your kid vomits in the car on the way home" (Guardian writer and parent Ben Pobjie, who later in his piece about children in restaurants argues that banning kids from restaurants just means they will never learn how to behave in one).

Then there are those who think they have every right to reproduce the mayhem of their home in public:

"Guess what people, I'm very aware my kids make messes! That's why I bring them out to eat with us so I can have a night where I don't have to clean that shit up at home!" (mother, ScaryMommy forum)

Michelin three-starred chef Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago sparked debate earlier this year when he tweeted about a couple dining with a crying eight month old baby:

He ended up on Good Morning America defending his point of view as parents-who-believe-their-kids-have rights-too and diners-who-believe-all-kids-should-be-banned scratched each other's eyes out in the twitterverse.

But food critic and writer Ruth Reichl thinks it depends on the child in question. "If you are a parent who goes out with your child and your kid starts fussing, you take the child out. That's all there is to it. It's that easy. But I would be deeply offended if I took my child to a restaurant and I was told no you can't come in."

I'm with Ruth, although I also appreciate the view of writer Victoria Moran:

"We do children an enormous disservice when we assume that they cannot appreciate anything beyond drive-through fare and nutritionally marginal kid-targeted convenience foods. Our children are capable of consuming something that grew in a garden or on a tree and never saw a deep fryer. They are capable of making it through dinner at a sit-down restaurant with tablecloths and no climbing equipment. Children deserve quality nourishment."

I not only want my children to learn how to behave in restaurants (from fine dining restaurants establishments to street food stalls) but I want to help educate them about why food is important and what it means, culturally and socially, for us as humans. 

So please shoot me, I took my children to a Michelin-starred restaurant, Le Parc les Crayères, in Reims. 
To be fair, my children are no longer little. The youngest stopped sitting in a high chair about nine years ago and the oldest hasn't thrown food on the floor for more than a decade. And without sounding parsimonious, my girls are well behaved. Not in the way that many parents think their children are well-behaved (but secretly everyone thinks they are brats), but understanding of what it means to be well-behaved. To be mindful of other diners. To be quiet. To use good manners. They are silently shocked when another child is allowed to crawl under the table, or have a screaming fit.

But they didn't get that way by accident - they got that way by learning over many years the behaviour expected of them when eating out. We spent a lot of time on footpaths outside cafes and family restaurants waiting for the squalling tempest to pass, and ate plenty of meals in shifts - one of us inside with a knife and fork, the other outside with a whining toddler.

And we never, ever ate at a fancy restaurant with children under seven.

(Okay, that's a lie. We did once or twice but learnt our lesson very quickly. For me, as both a restaurant patron and parent, small children and fine dining are a mutually incompatible occurrence. There, I've said it.)

Le Parc les Crayères: The Food
I thought my girls, now ten and thirteen, would enjoy the experience of true fine dining in a country that does it best: France. More than that, we would enjoy the pleasure of their company for lunch. 

Le Parc les Crayères is set in an old chateau in beautiful gardens. The dining room is all eau-de-nil and fine silver.

Here's how Philippe Mille, head chef, describes his cooking:

"My cooking? Pleasure, generosity, greed, childhood memories, respect for the products and their seasonality. Briefly, a kitchen that conveys sensations."

We commenced with an amuse-bouche - a sliver of foie gras, a quail's egg on a wafer, a tiny round of dill-crusted salmon, a smoked boudin-blanc.
A celebration of summer vegetables: salad of white asparagus cream with fennel, artichoke, and sundried baby tomatoes
Risotto with shaved white asparagus, black olives and parmesan foam.
Lily watches wine being decanted before serving. The waiters were very gracious with the girls, and treated them like grown-ups. As a result the girls put on their best behaviour, rising to the occasion. I was so proud of them both.
Rabbit loin with black olive mash, and summer vegetables dressed with plum kernel oil. Served with Fresia (Italy) 2010. Savoury, fresh, perfect.

Mint souffle, light as air and pale, pale green, with red fruit and mint sorbet and served with poured limoncello. Not the world's most attractive dessert, but a triumph of taste - the delicately textured mint soufflé a wonderful contrast to the bright fresh flavours of the sorbet and limoncello.
The winning dessert, according to the rest of the family: layered chocolate and Tahitian vanilla mousse gateau with caramel and gold leaf. Magnificently rich.
Lastly we were served a tiny treat with coffee - a coconut mousse, a crisp chocolate lollipop, a rich chocolate ganache, and a densely flavoured summer fruits jelly in pastry. 

So what did the girls think?

They loved it. For them, it was the best experience of their holiday, after the Eiffel Tower and Euro Disney. Because after all, they're still kids.

And I loved sharing the experience with them. 

So what's your opinion about children and restaurants? 
As readers of this blog you probably lean in a  certain direction, but perhaps not.  Do you take your children out to eat? Do you think it's important for children to experience good food? Or do your think children should be banned from restaurants? Let me know your thoughts!

Le Parc les Crayères
Two Michelin stars
64 Boulevard Henry Vasnier
51100 Reims, France

Restaurant open Wednesday to Sunday for lunch and dinner

Lunch: 69 euros without wine

Monday, July 21, 2014

Nanchang Lu Abroad: The Most Macabre Place in Paris

Stop! Here is the Empire of Death!

So reads the ominous sign as you enter the Paris Catacombes, two hundred metres below ground.
The catacombs are a relic of Paris' past, some two hundred miles of underground passageways and limestone quarry tunnels that originally date back to Roman times and occupy huge areas of the Left Bank. They lay abandoned for many centuries, a honeycomb labyrinth of caves and passages.
In the 1700s the catacombs were re-opened for use when it became clear that Paris cemeteries were literally overflowing. The Cemetery of the Innocents, near present day Les Halles in Paris, had been in use for over ten centuries and the cemetery was so overburdened that older corpses were exhumed and placed in nearby charnel houses, where they were sources of disease. A decision was made to close the cemetery forever and create an underground ossuary where the skeletons of Parisians could be respectfully stored.

The catacombs were consecrated in 1786, and every night for the next two years the excavated bones were blessed by priests and taken in black-covered wagons to the catacombs and deposited there. Later, bones from other cemeteries were added. The ossuary now contains the remains of more than six million former Parisians.
The curiosity for the catacombs began in the early 1800s when they were open to the public for the first time. There was a morbid fascination with the galleries stacked neatly with bones, and the poetic inscriptions placed to remind us of the fragility of life and the certainty of death.The catacombs became wildly popular as a macabre attraction, with a black line painted on the ceiling to guide visitors through the labyrinth. 
The sculptures of Décure were popular curiosities - the quarryman spent many years carving an exact replica of a prison on the island of Minorca where he was held captive by the English. He died when a staircase he was carving collapsed.

But for many the attraction was simply a fascination with death, the last taboo. The unique beauty of the tombs and tunnels lies in the quiet darkness of the weight of the earth above and the six million souls below. It gives pause to us mortals to consider our inevitable fate.

'Thus ends everything on Earth 
Spirit, beauty, grace, talent
Short-lived like a fleeting flower 
Blown down by the slightest breeze.'

Paris Catacombes
Catacombes de Paris
1, avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy
75014 Paris

Open daily 10am - 5pm
Closed Mondays
Last entry 4pm

Métro: Denfert-Rochereau

Admission 10 euros, English audio guides 3 euros

Note: The Catacombs are a very popular attraction. Arrive very early (before 9am) or expect a wait of up to four hours to enter.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Nanchang Lu Abroad: Swooning for Macarons at Ladurée, Paris

Macarons. Pink like kisses, pale pistachio green, golden like honey, rows and rows of small meringue discs sandwiched together with ganache to make a macaron, the world's most decadent mouthful, with love from Paris.

Macarons have been around for longer than sliced bread - since 791 in fact, and the most famous macaroni house of all is Ladurée, founded in 1862 by Louis-Ernest Ladurée with a shop on the Rue Royale in Paris. It was his wife Jeanne's idea to combine the pâtisserie with a café and thus establish one of Paris' first tea salons, a place where women could meet (at the time cafés were for men only). 
At that time macaroons were just a single disc of meringue cooked with almond meal. It took Ladurée's grandson Pierre Desfontaine to think of sandwiching two macarons together with ganache in the way we eat them today, taking Paris by storm. 

Ladurée has several houses in Paris but I love Ladurée Bonaparte the best, for its tea salon. Upstairs from the pâtisserie is a jewel box lined in dark blue velvet, with tasselled silk drapes and plush upholstered mahogany chairs, with gilt-framed photographs lining the walls. It seats no more than twenty, so sometimes, agonisingly, you have to wait.
Taking a little petit-déjeuner there is very civilised, and a great start to a day in Paris.

Start with coffee, served in a warmed silver jug with hot milk on the side, from cups with Ladurée's signature pink, pistachio and blue edged in gilt.

Or have a hot chocolate, again served in your own warmed silver jug. Why aren't all hot chocolates served this way?

Than have a pastry or two - this was the most perfect almond, hazelnut and walnut croissant (croissant fourré) I have ever eaten.

Or perhaps French toast, Ladurée style - slices of light buttery brioche dipped in egg and pan-fried.

Just a tip - Ladurée is a pâtisserie, so pastry is what they do best. The omelettes are best avoided.

After breakfast, slip downstairs to buy your macarons from the twenty-odd flavours on display - salted caramel is their most popular, but I would also highly recommend rose, orange blossom, chocolate, coffee, lime basil, and pistachio. They will come nestled in a wax-paper lined box and in one of Ladurée's pistachio-coloured bags. 

And yes, they taste every bit as good as they look!

Ladurée Bonaparte
21 rue Bonaparte
75006 Paris

Open Monday to Friday 8.30am - 7.30pm
Saturday 8.30am - 8.30pm
Sundays and holidays 10am - 7.30pm

Métro - St Germain des Pres (Line 4)

This week is Paris Week at Life on Nanchang Lu!
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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Nanchang Lu Abroad: The Museum of Hunting and Nature, Paris

What I like so much about the French is that they are unapologetic about the past.

Take hunting. Three hundred years ago every French aristocrat hunted, for sport. They glorified hunting. Famous artists painted portraits of them standing over their quarry, puffed with pride and lace cravats. They collected hunting horns and muskets and the heads of their prey, mounted on walls.

That was then. But rather than bow to modern social mores and pretend it was an embarrassing aspect of their history best forgotten, they have built a shrine to hunting and its glorious past in Paris.

It's one of the best small museums in the world, and if you're in Paris, make sure you go.

It's called the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature (the Museum of Hunting and Nature) and it celebrates the at-times uneasy relationship between man and nature.

The story behind the creation of the museum is typically quirky. It was founded by carpet and rug millionaires François and Jacqueline Sommer in 1964, and housed in a mansion built in the 1650s. The Sommers acquired thousands of hunting-related artefacts and artworks which became the foundation of the museum. François was a passionate hunting advocate all his life, but Jacqueline presumably sensed a shift in the national conscience and established the French Association for Photographic Hunting. They were both passionate nature-lovers, which may seem incongruous.

The museum feels like a grand old house, its rooms filled with beautiful antiques, the walls lined with damask and heavy velvet drapes. Each room is dedicated uniquely to a single animal, for example The Falconry Room, The Salon of the Dogs, and The Cabinet of the Wolf.

Juxtaposed in the midst of all this antiquity is the work of modern artists. Lin Utzon (daughter of Sydney Opera House architect Jørn Utzon) has an installation of starkly monochromatic sculptural works on display at present. A tiny closet of a room, Le Cabinet de la Licorne (The Unicorn Room), had me transfixed for an hour with the history of unicorn hunting in the Middle Ages and the stunning video art installation Unicorn by French artist Maïder Fortune.                                

In the Stag Room we are invited to become hunters ourselves, looking through a pair of brass binoculars mounted in a wooden cabinet. Through the lenses I saw a real life forest scene, the sun slanting through the leafy canopy. I watched and waited and my heartbeat slowed, my senses suddenly alive for the moment I knew the stag would appear as it wandered from behind a stand of trees. For a second I thought the stag would surely hear me and I held my breath, before I remembered I'm watching a recording.

I felt slightly flushed and uncomfortable. I had just vicariously experienced the thrill of the hunter, and I'm quite opposed to hunting. At least, I thought I was.

In the next room I was hunting, visually, for canis lupus, the wolf. He appeared in the middle distance, walking into a forest clearing. I felt less conflicted this time. 

Then in a room devoted to paintings of game birds I was confronted by a polar bear, stretched to more than two metres tall on his hind legs. I felt very insignificant, and not a little threatened. The hunter become the hunted in an instant.

The Salon of the Dogs

The gold inlaid detail of a seventeenth century musket in The Gun Room
A perfect bronze stag, no bigger than my hand.

The Wild Boar in charge of The Wild Boar Room

It's a rare museum that stimulates the visitor both visually, emotionally and intellectually. Some will see the museum only as a reminder of a more barbaric time best forgotten, others will contemplate man's insatiable desire to conquer nature and wonder why. Some, like me, will have a profoundly enriching and thoughtful experience. How will you react I wonder?

(And if you visit, hunt for the tiny cheeky mouse painted in the corner of one of the rooms)

Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature
The Museum of Hunting and Nature

62 Rue des Archives, 
75003, Paris

Closest Métro Rambuteau (Line 11)

Open Tuesday - Sunday 11am - 6pm, Wednesday evenings until 9.30pm
Closed Mondays and holidays

Entry 8 euros for adults, 6 euros for concessions and holders of a hunting licence
Free entry for children under 18 years and professional artists

Tomorrow: Breakfasting at Ladurée, Home of Macarons

Monday, July 14, 2014

Nanchang Lu Abroad in Paris

Paris. A city that lives as much in the world's collective imagination as it does in reality. 

For me, it was even better than I remembered. Long sunny days, glorious twilights, glittering nights, wonderful food. For a week we lived in an apartment, slept late, ate croissants like they were, in fact, good for us, and drank glasses of chilled rosé sitting on the terraces of tiny restaurants. It was glorious.

The occasion? Twenty-five years ago I met my wonderful husband Matt, and it felt like a great reason to celebrate given that we are still together, despite putting ourselves through a major relationship test of six months driving around China together in a camper van.  

As with all important decisions in our family, the destination of the celebrations (coinciding with school holidays) was put to a vote.

"Where shall we go for our anniversary holidays?" I asked. 

"Anywhere but China," said Lily, devastatingly. But she had a point. I went to China eight times last year, and she came along for four of those trips.

"Paris!" said Bella, who is studying French. 

Paris? I thought. Paris hadn't even been on my radar. And we'd been there three or four times already.

"Yes!" said Matt, beaming. "Paris!"

"Ooh! Yes! Paris would be awesome!" said Lily.

"How about Sweden?" I said, angling for somewhere new. Northern Europe was completely unknown to me and I had been secretly plotting a trip to Sweden in my head.

"No, Paris," said Bella.

"What about Norway or Finland? The sun will never set!" I said.

"Paris," said Matt and Bella together. I was beginning to worry my family had lost all sense of adventure.

"Latvia?" I asked, thinking OK, it was in Europe, but it wasn't the usual Europe'. 

"Paris!" came the united reply. 

And so we went to Paris, three votes to one.

As I said, it was even better than I remembered. Having done all the big ticket items on our last few visits (the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, the Musée d'Orsay and riding on a bateau mouche along the Seine), this time we had a very different Paris experience. We took it slow, we walked all day, shopped in the markets, and saw new parts of Paris and new things we had never seen before.

This week will be Paris Week at Life on Nanchang Lu, with a new post every day - so you can have a little taste of life in the City of Lights. 
Twenty five years. Quite unbelievable. At the Musee Louvre, on the only day of the week it's closed (Tuesday). 
Pont des Arts, covered with love locks

The fabulous Niki de Saint-Phalle sculpture in the Stravinsky Fountain, George Pompidou Centre
Sacré Cœur, Montmartre
Jardin du Luxembourg
Needs no introduction really. Always magnificent. 

 And yes, we got to do some of those shots of the Eiffel Tower.

Coming up tomorrow: Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature (The Museum of Hunting and Nature)