I just returned last week from a short but beautiful trip to France. I went partly for pleasure, and partly for business. Mostly I went for inspiration, as sometimes we cooks become so focused on what we do that we need to be reminded that there's a whole other world out there doing things differently, maybe better, and it's not always necessary to reinvent the wheel. I landed in Paris in blizzard, which affected even the speed of my TGV (220km/hr instead of 300) to Auvergne, and I missed my connection. I must confess, I was cold in France. What kind of a Canadian are you, you might ask. Well, it was the kind of bone-chilling cold you get in the UK, so humid you just can't ever seem to get warm. And ok, for a Canadian, I AM a wuss! Anyway, during my stay, I experienced the full spectrum of the French gastronomic landscape. I started out in St-Etienne, meeting with some friends who are opening a patisserie and had an appointment with the executives of Weiss Chocolat. Weiss is an old chocolate company, which has existed since the 19th century. It has only recently started exporting, so it is little known outside of France. Entry in North America is imminent, and they plan to compete on price so watch out Valrhona. This is excellent chocolate. We had a tour of the factory; they showed us everything from the roasting of the beans, to the making of the pralin to the polishing of the chocolate to the wrapping. Modern technology has still a ways to go in this factory, as their nougatamandine and chocolate eggs are still made - to a large degree - by hand. Molded, filled chocolates are made not in silicone molds but in recyclable molds imprinted in pressed rice starch. The molds are pressed, the chocolate is poured in, it sets, and then the mold is destroyed as the chocolates come out. They are then individually brushed to remove any remaining rice powder. Weiss is abandoning its original factory in favour of a larger and more modern facility. Machines will replace much of the manual work and they will finally enter the 21st century, better equipped to face the demands of international commerce. I wish them well. The same afternoon in the countryside - just for contrast - I visited an old peasant who kills and butchers pigs in his garage. This was hardcore folks. The bloody hooks, the bloody apron, the casquette cocked on his eyebrow, the pail of bloody scum from the boudin, the cellar where old and new cuts are hanging together, the puddles of blood below, the salt covered table where the feet are curing and small sewn packages of sausage wrapped in skin that has been irregularly burnt in hay. The smell - not bad per se, but not pleasant either, mingling with the smell of the barn 50 meters down that contained 30 sheep and 40 chickens. Watch where you're stepping! His wife, cigarette hanging from the edge of her lip shows me the plate of freshly made boudin, and explains to me that it is traditionally the women who make boudin while the men take apart the pig. First they kill it, then hang it to drain the blood while the men drink and play cards, then the women make boudin and wash the intestines in the brook while the men take the animal apart wasting nothing but the digested matter. The blood has to be treated right away while it's still warm, with the addition of milk. This curdles the protein - I guess, and the curdle is removed and fed to the dogs. It looked like scarlet red cottage cheese, and it's the only time my stomach churned a little. Private killings are no longer tolerated in France, and artisanal butchering is now a dying art. It was a real privilege for me to see this and I'm very grateful for the experience. And I must add that I ate the very best saucisson sec I'd ever had in this household. It was chemical free and almost sweet. Some of the more 'exotic' charcuterie pieces I could probably live without. Finding the occasional hair in my plate, well, it's not really my thing... The next day, I went to Le Puy (as in Du Puy lentils) with my friend to François Gagnaire's (no relation to Pierre) restaurant. This is a young restaurant, only 2 years old and I fully expect him to earn his first Michelin star in the next 2-4 years. I'll post a full review in the Restaurant board. After leaving my friends in Auvergne, I made my way to Lyon, the gastro capital of France. What a beautiful city! There's a bakery, a chocolatier and a patissier every 20 meters, and the mandatory Bouchon Lyonnais of course, the old style working man's eatery. Bouchons traditionally offer very hardy meals such as tripe and andouillette, bird liver gateau, pike quennelles etc. This meal is always accompanied with a Côte du Rhone, served in a very heavy bottomed glass carafe. Of course, Lyon also has all the big names too; Leon de Lyon is there as well as the four Bocuse Brasseries and his world-renowned restaurant. It was good to see the latest food trends, and get a sense for how French people really eat. Surprisingly, I met a significant number of people who do not like cheese ([email protected]#%$??!!) or charcuterie. Every household I went to offered me a galette des Rois, even though it was well past the epiphany, and it was clear that the French are generous and regular customers of both patisseries and chocolatiers. Chocolate is not cheaper in France than it is in North America, yet most households seem to have a nice box of chocolates on hand for when people come over. Another trend I have noticed is the regular use of ready meals. They are sold in abundance and are of excellent quality. The French, like North Americans, have limited time to cook and the same health concerns we do. They love their produce markets, and have an incredible array of fresh fruits and veg available to them. Every night I enjoyed a big bowl of mache salad. Yes, mache! In Canada, mache is so expensive, we use it as garnish! I made my way back to Paris, and experienced catharsis at Ladurée. Anyone who has ever had a Ladurée macaron will know what I'm referring to. Strolled down rue Montorgueil, a strip reputed for its food shops. Went to the "palace" of tea, Mariage Frères, where they have an unbelievable array of different blends from all over the world, presented in pretty cans and boxes on apothecary style shelving. My one night in Paris, I took myself out to l'Atelier de Joel Robuchon. I'll post a review in the Restaurant forum shortly. I ended my trip is the most perfect and delightful way, having croissant and coffee in a small mom&pop bakery in a back alley close to my hotel. It seems to me that France has become a whole lot cleaner and safer since the last time I was there, and Parisians are suddenly ridiculously friendly. Everyone was so polite and helpful with me, one offered me to pay for my RER ticket to the airport because the machine wouldn't take my Canadian credit card, and another carried my suitcase to the right rail track. I was really amazed. As for safety and cleanliness, the rules of the road have become very strictly enforced. I spoke to a few chefs who tell me they have trouble selling wine now because people don't want to get caught exceeding their blood alcohol levels. So they had to increase the price of bottled water! A passenger without a seatbelt gets an instant fine, and the highways are full of obvious government sponsored reminders of where people have died in car accidents. So. In a nutshell, I was seeking inspiration, and I think I got it. Nevertheless, it's good to be home.