Adventures in France and Hacks for a Great Vacation

Does the prospect of navigating a French vacation seem daunting? Have past trips failed to live up to expectations? Do you value culture, history, sumptuous food and authentic experiences? If so, this is the book for you! Part travel guide, part adventure narrative, it is a joyous romp through the flavors of Paris and the French countryside. Author and psychiatrist, Eric Kirchmann, offers his unique perspectives on the French and shares his recipe for a truly extraordinary trip. Learning from past mistakes, Eric created the crème de la crème of vacations with extensive pre-planning, an understanding of cultural norms, and “un peu de français” (a little bit of language). After sharing his hacks for a great vacation (with additional resources linked at the author’s website), he takes you along on an enchanting escapade…

Forty years after meeting in junior high French class, Eric and his lovely wife Courtney finally fulfill their dream of visiting Paris. From there, they crisscross France in search of off-the-beaten-path, “hidden gem” encounters. Adventures like cycling with the Sun King, meeting the 16,000-year-old woman, and sipping Armagnac directly from the barrel with French royalty only begin to scratch the surface of this enthralling trip. Challenging widely held stereotypes of the French, the book concludes that the real joy of travel, especially in France, comes not in tourist attractions but in the people you meet along the journey.

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Excerpt from Your English is Better Than My French © Copyright 2023 Eric Kirchmann

Our big splurge for Paris was the highly rated restaurant, Boutary (rated number five by one source). We knew it was going to be the most expensive meal of the trip but figured it would be an unforgettable experience. We freshened up at our place and put on our fanciest clothes, me in my sports jacket for the one and only time of the trip. We went out early to participate in the evening apéro custom. After failing to find a seat at a couple different bars, we snagged a terrace table at “Le Petit Buci.” The bar sits at one of the major corners of Rue de Buci, a happening little strip of cafés and restaurants. Greeting and ordering all in French, we were served with a smile—a Ricard for me and a white sangria for Courtney. The people watching was great with fashion running the gambit from causal to hip, and all the way to suits and evening gowns. Tourist garb stuck out like a sore thumb, and we played one of our favorite games, “Guess the Country?”

Arriving at Boutary, we were taken to the elegantly decorated upstairs dining room with an ultra-modern lighted flare pattern carried through the tables, floor, and walls. The design artist added contrasting, classical fixtures which lit the room as the sun went down outside the opened shutters. Our waiter was energetic and funny but dead serious about his profession. We hit it off right away when we asked for the French menu. He asked if we wanted to speak in English or French during the meal; we chose the latter. Later in the meal, when we would break into English to ask a question, he would playfully scold us insisting we continue in French while coaching us on our vocabulary. This was a great exercise in improving our French. The downside was that when he explained each complex and exquisite dish, he did so in rapid-fire French. When we got home from this extraordinary meal, Courtney and I sat together and tried to take notes from memory to capture all the details of the seven-course tasting menu with caviar and paired wines. The dishes were not described anywhere on the menu. The courses were chosen at the pleasure of the chef who crafted artistic masterpieces from the freshest and most unusual ingredients. Apologies to the chef, I am certain our memories left out many amazing details.

Our waiter arrived at our table with our first wine, a bright, crisp Riesling designed to open the palate. Before our first culinary experience, our waiter gave us a lesson on caviar. He explained the restaurant had strict specifications for their caviar. They only served caviar from sturgeon of a specific size, caught only at precise locations, at particular depths, and only during certain seasons. Then, he explained how choices made during processing and aging impacted taste. The chef prefers to have his caviar salted less than some and aged for eight to ten months. The longer aging with less salt leads to buttery and creamy undertones (with less of the harsh salty taste I associated with caviar from the few times I've had it before). He suggested we try eating it the traditional way, served directly on the back of your hand, tasting a few eggs at a time letting the flavors roll around on the palate. Eating it this way evolved for safety reasons. Historically, if the caviar irritated the skin, it was poisoned and should not be consumed. He then applied a large glob of caviar to the back of each of our hands and left us to enjoy. The taste first exploded into your mouth then softened to indeed give a buttery deliciousness. Savoring each little taste slowly, me with eyes closed emitting involuntary, audible happy sighs, our dinner was off to a great start.

The courses now proceeded with our waiter presenting each with great flare along with a detailed description of the high-quality, artisanal ingredients mixed together in surprising, delectable combinations. First was a small corn chip bowl filled with beans of summer, corn, and an edible purple flower. It looked too pretty to eat. Next came a plate with two offerings— short bread with tapenade, and pickled anchovy and lemon paired with a gnarled bean chip topped with an unusual mushroom and caramelized shallots. Following that combination came an absolute work of art—delicate pieces of smoked salmon with passion fruit, mangos, pureed sweet potatoes, special spicy greens, pickled red onion, sea asparagus, and a mind-blowing sauce beyond description. We moved on to our second wine, a Northern Rhone white from Saint-Joseph with powerful flavors and honey undertones.

With each course, one of us would exclaim, “This is one of the best things I have ever eaten,” only to repeat it with the next presentation. This brings me to the absolute best dish of the trip. The waiter arrived with two covered round bowls. I said, “It looks like you have a surprise.” He smiled and said something like, “Oh you just wait!” There was already an enchanting smell in the air. After setting a bowl in front of each of us, he dramatically removed the covers. We were immediately engulfed by a heavenly smoke. While the smoke cleared, he explained that the large mound of caviar on top had been cherry wood smoked. The base of the dish was a special kind of French potato pureed with chives and pressed into a cylindrical mold. The potatoes had been cooked in what is considered the best butter in France made by the renowned Monsieur Bordier from Brittany (his process takes twelve times longer than most commercial butters allowing it to mature, deepening in flavor and complexity). In between the caviar and the puréed potatoes was a crisp, feathery ultra-thin potato chip. The base of the dish contained a thick, buttery white sauce. I would hazard to say this may be the most delicious thing I have ever put in my mouth!

However, we were not even close to being done. Following the smoked caviar came one of the most unusual dishes, tender chunks of asparagus with wild garlic ice cream (think fantastic!) in a French cheese sauce with flaky pink chips of some sort and pennywort stems and leaves. Next was the fish course, a delicate monkfish which favored lobster, topped with a Japanese miso, honey mustard sauce along with mini turnips and sweet peas. Moving from white to red, our next glass was a Saint-Émillion that was outstanding. This paired nicely with the meat course— rare filet of duck with a green pea purée and morel mushrooms. It was sprinkled with dabs of rhubarb and cashew bits and bathed in a famous French sauce whose recipe dates to the Middle Ages.

Finally, we got to the desserts, plural! The palate cleanser, pre-dessert was freaking out of this world by itself—rhubarb and grapefruit compote with a dill whipped cream topped with an edible flower. Courtney chose for her main dessert fresh strawberries with fromage frais (a soft, fresh sweet cheese) in strawberry vinegar with basil ice cream. I went with a 90 percent pure hardened chocolate ball covered with crème fraiche then dusted with cocoa powder and cardamom. We were fully sated… Then came coffee with post-dessert—almond cakes with pistachio cream along with a firm, mini chocolate cake topped with fondue and sprinkled with unknown savory toppings. The dinner may have cost more than a month's rent at our first apartment in 1989 but it was worth every penny!

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