Most people include eating well among the delights of a short stay in Paris. But few consider that, as well as fond memories of melting soufflés and crisp croissants, they could acquire the skill to make them at home. In fact, even if you have only a few hours to spare in the culinary capital of Europe, you can take a cooking class that will add ooh-la-la to your repertoire for years to come.
Alone, curious, and willing for a change to spend my holiday chopping and plucking, I tried four. The simplest and easiest to book at short notice was at the Atelier des Chefs. The Atelier concept, which has been so successful that it has spread from Paris to London and Madrid, is that professional chefs take a few hours out from restaurant cooking to teach recipes to the general public.
The manager explained: "Even in France, people have forgotten how to cook. We wanted to remind them. No fuss, no long-term commitment, just practical skills." Office workers on their lunch break can learn to prepare a dish in hands-on fashion, then sit, eat, and go, all within one hour. For those with a little more time, there are also two-course and three-course menus. The garage-size kitchen on Rue de Penthièvre is equipped to restaurant standards, with stainless steel counters and skylights; the lesson is informal, practical and sociable, with up to 16 participants.
During my one-hour visit, we made basil-wrapped prawns in pastry on a bed of celeriac, carrot, and zucchini that had been lightly braised in wine. It was a straightforward recipe and I have made it again since. At 15 euros for a lesson and lunch, the Atelier represents better value than some Parisian bistros, and I'd readily go again, although there was no English translator, so those without basic French depend on simply copying the chef (no big deal, since that's essentially what happens anyway).
An adjacent gastro-shop offers a variety of mouthwatering delicacies, gadgets, and books. I was especially tempted by La Magie du Whip--not, sadly, the Marquis de Sade's lost recipe book, but a guide to making mousses.
If dinner-party cooking fit for the haute bourgeoisie is the style to which you aspire, then you can try Paule Caillat's Promenades Gourmandes. A bilingual doyenne of the Marais district, Paule will first take you shopping and then invite you up to her sleek and sizable apartment to cook a three-course lunch. By prior negotiation, we made a three-cheese soufflé, green salad, trout with a lemon, orange, and grapefruit sauce, and tarte au chocolat. There was also a welcome pause during the lesson for a glass of wine and a tasting of various French regional cheeses from the local market.
A French outdoor market is to a supermarket as sex is to chastity. In a supermarket, you can't feel the food. Everything is a bit chilly and nobody makes eye contact. Parisian food markets, au contraire, are an erotic rush of color and fleshly fragrances. There are lettuces so fabulously frilly you want to wear them. Squeeze the eggplants and they squeak. Cheese stalls are like jewelry boxes, with tiny chevres wrapped in vine leaves, toffee-rinded mimolette, marbled roqueforts and pungent
gruyères just waiting for you to taste a fragment and roll your eyes with pleasure.
The taut and creamy bulbs of garlic, veined pink and purple, are as lovely as the buttocks of a Botticelli nymph. One good reason to choose Promenades Gourmandes is that Paule will lead you through the hidden market behind Rue de Bretagne, introducing you to the vendors of Moroccan delicacies, the best greengrocers and cheesemongers and the hottest spice merchant on the block. The results of our morning's work were delicious, but I had to swallow hard to stomach the 250 euro price. Still, if you are a home cook looking to raise your game, this is a very enjoyable and comfortable class with which to occupy the hours between nine and three.
If you hanker to attain the dizzier heights of professional haute cuisine, then you can sign up for a class at the Ecole de Cuisine d'Alain Ducasse.
Getting to this cookery school is a bit like arranging a meeting with a Mafia boss. You have to stand outside a certain boulangerie on a certain street to the north of the 2nd District. At
8 A.M., a people-carrier with tinted windows driven by a nervous young man in a suit will collect you and whisk you through Paris's industrial suburbs to an anonymous building in Argenteuil. You descend some stairs--sign away 200 euros--and then meet a serious man with a very sharp knife. Happily, this gastronomic Godfather only wants to make you an entrée you can't refuse.
We made salted cod cooked in milk, with black truffles and herb salad, followed by Veal Orloff. The cod dish was one of the best things I've ever eaten. In the process of preparing it, I also learned how to chop. All my life, apparently, I'd been guillotining my food; what I needed to do, instead, was hold the knife securely between thumb and forefinger and let the weight of it do the work, sliding the blade backwards like an ice-skate.
For the first time, I had a whole black truffle in my hand. The size of a walnut, wrinkled and leathery like something excavated from a peat bog. I shaved off thin petals of it with a Japanese mandoline and arranged them between the flakes of cod. Beside some lightly boiled potatoes, we arranged herbs that had been kept in iced water, carefully selecting only the smallest, most tender leaves: flat-leaf parsley, chervil, tarragon, chives. I drizzled a dressing of olive oil, anchovy, and caper, infused with a little truffle juice over the dish and sat down to eat.
The most fun I had cooking in Paris, however, was with a Franco-American called Theresa Murphy. She runs La Cucina di Terresa, which specializes in vegetarian, organic cuisine and where lessons cost 150 euros each. If Meryl Streep had gone in for cooking, this is what her classes would have been like: witty, offbeat, with a variety of accents.
We met in the organic market in St. Germain and then rode the free bicycles which the mayor of Paris has handily parked at stands throughout the city center, to Theresa's tiny apartment near Bastille. There we made eggplant and fig risotto, pepperonata, poppy seed crackers with fresh goat's cheese and blackberry preserve, and a chestnut flour cake with lemon pepper marmalade.
I can still see the deep rose color of the figs, roasted in wine, when they emerged from the oven. Cicero,
Theresa's cat, tried to assist in making the crackers; we drank wine and swapped stories of travel, family, and food. We laughed a lot.
When you teach someone to cook, you communicate your philosophy of life. I left Paris with a variety of tidbits that will stock my mental cupboards for years. I learned about the tao of dough and why kneading is meditative. I learned, in the course of attempting a Béchamel sauce, what makes the perfect mariage. (The answer is butter--unsalted, unstinting, the very best you can afford.)
Perhaps most vitally, I came away with an enduring appreciation for the French attitude to eating. In the Anglo-Saxon world, dining is too often a disagreeable necessity rendered bearable by speed, pragmatism, and ketchup. In France, dining is what you do in order to get to heaven.
All these cookery classes in Paris last less than a day and can be booked online before you arrive. One would make a good present for a food-loving family member--or, indeed, for yourself. If you are still searching for a culinary soulmate, there is even a class designed to help you find a dish who will make your day. The Atelier de Fred specialises in cooking classes for lonesome singles. You can wiggle your whisk and invite fellow chefs to lick your spoon, while innocently mastering new recipes.
I haven't yet tried Fred's class myself. But if my tarte au chocolat fails to lower defenses among the bachelors of my acquaintance, I shall be back.
Sara Lodge, lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews, is the author of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth-Century Poetry and Jane Eyre: A Reader's Guide to Essential Criticism.