From Madison to Paris

Need your French fix? Here’s where to go to pick up the perfect meal—from start to finish.

I love Paris. There, I’ve said it. What can you expect from someone who lived and worked in the City of Light for several years and considers it almost home after Madison and New York? And, you must remember this—my parents met on a blind date in Paris. They always had ... well, you know, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.

So, it will come as no surprise that sometimes I long for a grand crème and a croissant while reading the International Herald Tribune. Pas de problème! Welcome to MadCity-sur-Seine. From farmers’ markets to specialty shops and restaurants, there are plenty of French-style products to keep la nostalgie at bay. Let me take you on a tour guidé.

Numéro Un: Au Marché Fermier

The best places to start if you’ve got a hankering for Paris are vendors at farmers’ markets across town. You can get all the best beginnings of a Parisian meal here, selon la saison. In the fall, pick up leeks, potatoes and squash—perfect ingredients for soup, a mainstay of the French diet. In spring and summer, opt for sweet melons similar to those from Cavaillon and Charentais, or pink and white French breakfast radishes, which are not as sharp as the more typical red ones. Put the radishes on French bread slathered with butter. Also look for white asparagus, which the French prefer over the green kind, and thin haricots verts (French-style string beans), mesclun and frisée lettuce. At the Dane County Farmers’ Market, Krinke’s Market sells rabbit (rabbit stew) and JenEhr’s pasture-raised chickens could rival in taste the prestigious poulet de Bresse. I’ve even found a farmer who’s willing to raise pintades (French guinea hens) in DeForest, but that’s another story.

And of course, there’s artisanal cheese. Typically, cheese is a course unto itself in France, at lunch and dinner. Choose at least three—a selection of cow’s-, ewe’s- and goat’s-milk cheese is nice—and serve on a platter. I love Butler Farm’s ewe’s-milk tomme and Fantôme Farm’s goat’s milk cheeses. Fantôme Farm’s aged varieties remind me of the Loire Valley’s crottin de Chavignol.

If you can’t make it to the market, you can find a variety of French and French-style cheeses in several places around town, such as Fromagination and Whole Foods. I picked up a mean Petit Munster from the eastern Alsace region recently. If not cheese, some pâté, tapenade spread, niçoise olives and a jar of cornichons (tiny pickles) make a great pique-nique.

Numéro Deux: Du Pain

You’ll need bread, served in France at every meal. Madison Sourdough (MSD) bakes a heavenly baguette, but don’t miss the miche, or round loaf. It’s a hefty four-pounder made from organic wheat and rye flours, sold only at the Willy Street shop on weekends. They’ll cut smaller pieces for you if you can’t handle a whole loaf. Also wonderful is Cress Spring Bakery’s Big Country wheat and rye loaf, available in either two- or four-pound versions at the Dane County Farmers’ Market (including the winter market). It’s as close to pain Poilâne as you’ll find hereabouts, unless you order that world-famous loaf flown in from Paris by Nala’s Fromagerie in Green Bay.

You were perhaps hoping for croissants for breakfast? MSD sells a delectable croissant as well as a chocolate-filled petit pain au chocolat with Callebaut chocolate (originally Belgian, not French). Or try Graze’s version. Another option is La Baguette, run by Olivier and Carine
Vigy
. (They hail from Coulommiers in the Seine-et-Marne district east of Paris.) But instead of their croissants (too American-sized for me) I like to order a baguette or the smaller demi-baguette and smooth on some butter and jam. This is a good place to carry out a scrumptious lemon tart for a late-afternoon snack, or to slurp some gratinée (onion soup) while listening to French music.

Numéro Trois: Les Restos

Madison is well served by a few bistros whose American chefs have been influenced by French culinary traditions and techniques. One of my favorites is Brasserie V, which makes a satisfying croque monsieur (grilled ham and cheese sandwich) that you can wash down with a bottle of French or Belgian beer. Or you could order moules frites, steamed mussels with thin French fries. Or head to Sardine, which features these dishes on its menu as well.

If you are feeling particularly daring, follow in the footsteps of nineteenth-century French poets and artists, and sip some absinthe at Merchant. The cocktail lounge has a tasting the first Monday of each month. (Once illegal in both France and the U.S. because it was believed to be highly addictive, absinthe is now readily available.) By the way, Merchant’s co-owner Joshua Berkson trained at New York’s French Culinary Institute and chef Brian Hauke at the Cordon Bleu program in Minneapolis. Check out the sausages on Merchant’s charcuterie plate.

Numéro Quatre: Du Vin

Save breakfast, no French meal is ever complete without wine. What you don’t find on a restaurant wine list you can pick up at liquor stores around town. At Steve’s Mineral Point store, Dominique Taquet has been the European wine buyer for ten years. Born in Normandy, Taquet bought and sold French food and wine in Paris before coming to Madison.

Numéro Cinq: Les Desserts

But I’d rather get drunk on sweets. Trader Joe’s frozen fruit- or almond-filled French tarts aren’t bad. The store also stocks frozen macarons, those precious little meringue cookies filled with buttercream that have been the rage for years. You can also find them flown in at Metcalfe’s Market and Fromagination. Or savor chocolates. For a city its size, Madison has a wealth of chocolatiers, including French-trained Gail Ambrosius. Her truffles are so terrific I’ve transported them across the Atlantic.

Ronnie Hess is the author of Eat Smart in France.

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