Seafood Chowder

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There are things they don’t tell you about living in Paris.

They don’t tell you, for instance, that no matter how much you feel that it’s your home, someone who has no bearing on your life — or maybe even someone who does — will be just as convinced that it’s not. That you don’t belong here. That you never will.

They don’t tell you that the sparkle of the city wanes… and then returns when you least expect it. That you don’t get to decide how you feel about Paris; that the city decides for you whether you’re going to be in love or annoyed, whether you’re going to be excited to see the Eiffel Tower or perturbed by the hoards of tourists. Paris gets the last call when it comes to how you’re going to feel about her.

They don’t tell you that all those places you swore you’d frequent, all those cute little cafés you swore would become your local… they don’t. You don’t have time. Because when Paris is your home, it’s the backdrop of your life, and life, as much as we’d like to admit it, rarely takes place over lengthy cups of coffee and endless conversation, at least not when you have bills to pay.

I’m not a cynic; I’m a realist. I realize to idealists that this must seem like the same thing. But I also have to say that I prefer my Paris to the one I visited years and years ago.

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I was at a Thanksgiving celebration this weekend, an hour outside of Paris by car, in a tiny town with a bar that serves beer and a beautiful church that looks like something out of a postcard. The friend throwing the Thanksgiving extravaganza has the strange and amazing gift for uniting expats from throughout the city, people who, thanks to social media, I had heard of but had never met in real life. In the world of Paris bloggers, it’s kind of like meeting celebrities.

I got to talking with a few of them; we were discussing the changing Paris scene, the fact that it no longer resembles — if it ever did — the images we have burned into our minds when we come here: the cafés, the berets, the accordions. I think that many of the people who visit me here want Paris to be just that, and of course, there’s a Disney-esque Paris that you can find, a part of the city that still looks enough like that to convince people that that’s what the city still is. But I’m not buying it… not anymore.

Perhaps the reason that I’ve finally come to my senses about what the Paris scene really looks like is that I’m working. As a student, we were living in a third culture paradise, a world that felt French and American all at once, that combined elements of the college partying culture with just enough of an accent to make us feel like we were somewhere foreign. But when I look at the dives we used to hang out at, I realize that it’s hard to find a difference between them and the dives I frequented in Toronto or New York.

The Paris scene now — not that I have much time to be a part of it — is much more hipster than most would have you believe. In fact, that’s what got us on the topic in the first place: the idea that hipsters ruined Paris.

So is it true? I don’t know. I know that when I first moved here, I was angered and then relieved that I couldn’t get a decent bagel here; it was something that had remained purely New York, and I could only have a real bagel when I went home. But the longer I stayed, the more I realized that that was true of other things, mostly food-related: decent beer, decent burgers, decent vegetarian food, decent Indian food, kale. The list of things I couldn’t have here was getting longer and longer, and the longer I stayed here, the more permanent Paris became and the further New York moved from my not-too-distant future, the more I realized that, more than wanting Paris to remain an echo of its romanticized past self, I wanted Paris to be a modern city where I could live my life. I wanted to live in France, but I wanted Paris to evolve… whatever that might mean.

Paris isn’t the same city it once was, though I’m unsure as to whether it ever was what we imagine. Midnight in Paris paints a pretty picture; I’m partial to that displayed in Baisers Volés. But as much as I waxed poetic in my first years here, I never lived in that Paris and probably never will, barring time travel.

While writing my thesis, I found it infuriating that I could be so in love with Victor Hugo’s Paris and find it nowhere in the modern city. But Paris isn’t the pictures we paint in our heads or the stories we tell ourselves. As hard as it is for a proud native New Yorker to admit, Paris is a thriving international city too: ever-evolving, and definitely home to much more than baguettes and croissants.

As for how to uncover it, I’ll have to trust my new job and revolving-door circle of expats to show me the way. I’ve been living in a dream-world Paris for a very long time; I’m not entirely sure where to start. But if there’s one thing I’ll miss about my old vision of Paris — for of course there is; I’m reticent when it comes to change — it’s the timelessness of it. I’ve never been quick enough for trends, never been able to decide so rapidly and certainly that I like something new. This version of Paris, for me, is counter-intuitive and unfamiliar… hopefully I’ll learn to love it all the same.

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Seafood Chowder

 3.5 ounces bacon, diced
1 onion, minced
2 tsp. salt, plus more to taste
1 Tbsp. butter
3 Tbsp. flour
1 cup milk, warmed
3 cups clam juice or fish stock, warmed
2-3 potatoes, diced
10 ounces fresh seafood (mussels, clams, shrimp, fish) Note: 10 ounces is the yield weight; if using shellfish in the shell, you will need more. Let the vendor know the yield weight, and they’ll be happy to help you.
1 tsp. fresh thyme, chopped
1 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper
4-5 Tbsp. heavy cream

Heat about a half-inch of water over high heat in a heavy-bottomed stock pot with a lid. Add the bacon and allow it to start to render its fat. Add the onion and salt and sauté, stirring occasionally, until both the bacon and onion are browned. The bottom of the pan will be covered in brown bits.

Remove the pan from the flame and add the butter and flour. Stir vigorously to combine and lift some of the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Place the pan back over the flame and reduce to medium-low. When the flour has cooked for about a minute or two, slowly begin to add the milk, stirring all the while. It should thicken up nearly immediately, but if it doesn’t continue stirring until it does. Add the clam juice and potatoes, and stir to combine. Cover the pot and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are cooked but still firm.

You have two choices with regards to how to prepare the seafood. Firstly, you can cook it directly in the soup, leaving it in the shells, which turns the soup into more of a seafood stew. You can also cook the seafood separately and shell it, adding the individual pieces of seafood to the stew once they’ve already been cooked. Either way, pick over the shelled seafood like mussels and clams, discarding any that are already opened or have broken shells. Rinse them well and debeard the mussels and devein the shrimp if necessary. Clams and white fish take the longest to cook through at about 10 minutes, while mussels take about 5, and shrimp and squid no more than 2. Add the seafood accordingly, so that the stew will have cooked in total 30 minutes from the time you added the potatoes, or cook the seafood separately and add to the stew, removing it from the heat immediately.

Once the seafood has been cooked and added to the stew, remove the pot from the heat and add the thyme, pepper and cream, as well as more salt to taste. Serve with Boston brown bread or this yeasted beer bread.

3 Responses

  1. Kristen

    Lovely! And it’s so true. People forget that when you live in a city like Paris, NYC, London, etc, that you LIVE there. You’re not a tourist there all the time. And yes it’s a backdrop. As for the “h” word and those conversations, well I just always want to remind people that kale is European vegetable and has been around way longer than the hipsters :) Hope you are well and happy december! xxxx

  2. Parisbreakfast

    Thankfully the Whoopie pie trend has come and gone quickly, but I’d love to see more or any New England seafood chowder on the menu.
    Must figure out the proportions. Adding oysters and scallops would make this a dreamy soup.

  3. coufeyrac

    Hipsters haven’t ruined Paris – the Costes brothers have.

    Having grown up in Paris, then New York and then back to Paris again (and again and again), I do miss the strolls down rue Cler when you didn’t hear English everywhere, when Catherine Deneuve still did her weekend shopping at the market and an old woman sold fresh goat cheese on the corner of rue du Champs de Mars and the rue Cler. The Café du Marché was always there, but not in its current incarnation.

    It was a slower time – with hours spent over bottles of wine, hot chocolate with dark rum or Chartreuse and discussions that ranged from Victor Hugo to Dolly the sheep to why, though we missed bagels, we were happy to trade them for such better croissants, baguette, and, from my mother’s neck of the woods, merguez and makrout, but more importantly than being a slower time, it was a much more real time. Walking down rue Cler today, gone are the multiple cafés and smaller, family-owned shops. Gone is the the old Greek guy at the Café du Marché who sold crêpes in front for 10 – 15 francs. Gone is the buzz that was old Paris, even though it wasn’t even 20 years ago.

    It’s not the hipster that bought, shut and recreated the old establishments in Paris. Hipsters do not populate the terrace of Cafe Central or the main dining room of Thoumieux. It’s not hipsters who bought and changed La Gare or the Marly. It is the influence of the Costes brothers/group that has changed Paris from being the moveable feast that it was to standardized hamburgers and steaks, snobby servers who strive to attain the level of mediochrity, all for unfathomable prices that far exceed the value of your average hipster’s fixie.

    No, we are unfortunately victims to the idea that poor service plus poor quality plus exorbitant prices equals where you want to be – as long as you are dressed according to certain standards and beautiful by those same standards.

    Paris has long been the Mecca for irate and grumpy waiters and waitresses, but despite their gruff exteriors, they did their job well, they were knowledgable about the location and what they were selling, and would almost always crack a smile back at you as soon as you stood up to them a bit. This is in stark contrast to the Costes waiter who threw my napkin and drink into my salad complaining that I “didn’t even eat it,” the Costes barmaid who took 20 minutes to serve a straight whisky and then insisted it wasn’t happy hour, being sure to point out that happy hour ended at 9pm, and yet it was 8:45 when she gave me my drink, and the waiter who told my friends who are trained chefs in Spain that “this isn’t some shitty tex-mex. You clearly don’t know what real Spanish cuisine is.”

    Frères Costes and everyone following their business model, I wish you all the best in your business and your future, but leave some of Paris alone for the real people who don’t want stark, soul-less restaurants and don’t care to be told by your waiters about the latest fabulous Spanish Chianti(???), Egyptian Couscous ???) and, when asked what cheeses they have, are told “French cheeses.” A dying breed does still enjoy real flavors, real choices and a waiter who knows the difference between Bordeaux and Bourgogne.

    I am all for Paris’ evolution, but not at the cost that she loses her soul.

    For transparency and to avoid any claims of plagiarism, I will immediately admit that I did not originally say that the Costes brothers are destroying Paris culture. This was a friend, movie star and long-time Paris resident who said this to me after a very disappointing evening at Thoumieux.

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