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Holly Ebel: A Parisian adventure

October 10, 2018
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Chefs presenting cod at Le Cordon Bleu class.

Acting on impulse never has been something I do — I’m much too cautious.

Except some months ago, I did just that, based on an article I had done on Sandy Berndt, of Rochester. She had spent a week in Paris exploring culinary and cooking venues as part of a small group led by Susan Holding, owner of The Little French Bakery, a cooking school based outside of the Wisconsin Dells; and Denise Pedersen, of Fox Travel in Oshkosh.

As Berndt told me about her Paris adventure, I knew this was the kind of trip I would love and, as a widow, could do safely and comfortably. I signed up as soon as I could and also invited my daughter-in-law Meredith.

It turned out even better than I had imagined or that Berndt had told me. Three weeks later, I’m still flying high.

Among the many highlights:

• We stayed at the Hotel Madeleine Plaza, an old but comfortable hotel centrally located and walking distance from museums, shopping and the metro. Our first evening we were greeted with a champagne reception and appetizers provided by Fauchon, a famous gourmet emporium a block away. Fois gras served on a petite pastry was my favorite.

Too tired to go out in search of haute cuisine, a few of the group settled for an excellent omelette at the cafe next door. A good call.

• We viewed a cooking demonstration at the famous Le Cordon Bleu, from which Holding had graduated. This also is where Julia Child perfected her craft.

Everything about the place was impressive, from students carrying creations they had just put together to the classroom where we watched Chef Oliver Gayon prepare a light lunch. He began with a light salad of tomatoes — both yellow and green zebra — adding pomegranate seeds, raspberries and a special dressing. His preparation of cod fillets involved searing them first on a cooktop and finishing them off in a hot oven. (Something to try at home.)

Both salad and fish were excellent. I especially loved the shallot butter accompanying the cod. Throughout, we were served glasses of white wine. Never having had wine at 9 a.m. this was a first, but there it was.

• We visited the famous kitchen store E. DeHillerin. Walking in, it resembles a jumbled hardware store but it had the finest collection of cooking tools, knives and copper cookware I’ve ever seen. I’ll take the small copper saucepan, please.

• Chef Gayon had shared the name of his favorite restaurant — Le Cassenoix — so, of course, we went. We were advised to go in two groups on separate nights. As part of the second group, we quizzed the first and they had great suggestions. As an appetizer, I had swordfish on top of puff pastry — incredible! My entree was baked shrimp — which was OK — while the others ordered pork cheeks. Yes. Pork cheeks. I had a taste and this was an amazing dish, similar in taste and texture to beef bourguignon. I was sorry to have passed that by.

• We took a guided tasting tour through the Latin Quarter, where we were offered breads, cheeses, meats, pastries, macaroons and wines. This ended in a wine cellar, where we were served everything the guide had purchased along our walking route. Among the favorites was a fois gras, unlike anything I’d ever had.

• We took a dinner cruise (an amazing chocolate dessert) on the Seine, past all the famous Paris landmarks and saw the Eiffel Tower twinkle as it does every night for about 10 minutes.

• Still another highlight was the master class at the Ecole Ritz Escoffier, where the Chef led us through creating perfect profiteroles, a simple pastry but still challenging. Interesting was the addition of coarse sugars as they went into the oven. Once baked and cooled, we filled them with ice cream and whipped cream and went to a dining room where we ate them with a glass of champagne.

• Chef suggested we go to his favorite bistro, Les Artizans. After the tasting tour that afternoon and the profiteroles, it was early evening. More food? You must be kidding. Meredith was insistent on going. Berndt, ever the good sport, decided to go, and in the end, I did as well, because this is Paris. It was a spectacular place and the most interesting menu — sweetbreads and rabbit among the choices. I settled on a gazpacho with a dollop of crab in the center; Berndt had rabbit, Meredith had duck breast.

• The farewell dinner was held at Holding’s favorite bistro, L’llot. Dinner choices were scallops, duck and beef bourguignon. My appetizer, however, was what I’ll remember — escargot wrapped in puff pastry. It was, again, an amazing culinary experience.

Lest you think we did nothing but eat, not true. We did museums, spent time at Giverny (Monet’s home), explored neighborhoods such as the Marais and Monmartre, walked through the Luxembourg gardens and enjoyed coffees and crepes at little cafes.

Now, like Cinderella, I’m back at the hearth, and thanks to Berndt for having told me about this Parisian adventure.

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