How to be Parisienne: Classic (and foolproof) French recipes

Anna Hollingsworth 24 May 2016

Do not make the mistake of thinking that being Parisienne is only about the attitude and look. The Parisienne is a skilled specimen, with a mind as sharp as her stilettos. My handbook tells me that although the Parisienne might not always be a great chef, she has mastered a few classics she can call upon when needed. After all, she is a master of illusion.

Evidently, to be truly Parisienne I must learn the art of culinary masquerade.

The chapter’s title assures me that these recipes are foolproof. I once bought loose tea at Sainsbury’s closing time in the midst of an essay crisis. I had to share a room with that little box of torture all night. Don’t use ‘foolproof’ lightly.

The first recipe I am to master is very possibly the classic of all ‘classics’:

Crêpes.

First, I have to set the scene. I put on a French Café Lounge playlist. My little crêperie is open for business.

‘First sieve the flour through a fine sieve.’

I have a large strainer. Ten minutes of shoving the flour through the holes with a fork does the trick. I should be adding 100g of flour but I don’t have scales. I recall how a Portuguese lady measured me for a hair braid when I was seven. I count 10 thumbs to the top of the 1kg bag and pour enough so that 9 thumbs remain. Simple.

My wooden spoon serves to mix in all the other ingredients. ‘Add half a cup of beer.’ Half a cup you say? Of this whole can? Excellent.

Batter prepared, it’s showtime. My manual tells me of an old wives’ tale which states that if you hold an old coin in your hand whilst cooking, it will bring prosperity to your home. I find a cent at the bottom of my handbag. I mean, who knows how long that’s been there.

Coin in hand I ladle the eggy concoction into the pan. And wait. I’m prepared. It’s going to go up in flames or evaporate or explode. To my amazement, it solidifies. The underbelly turns golden brown! Parisienne gold stars all round. Yet the final challenge remains. I raise the heavy pan with both hands, clutching awkwardly as one palm tightly squeezes my little cent. I begin to shake, willing the floppy creature to the side. Up and up and up, almost to the edge. And then, with less of a flick of the wrist than the full force of both my elbows, I fling it. It jumps, somersaults, and lands home. A one-woman standing ovation.

Sprinkled with lemon juice and sugar I eat my greatest achievement. Sure, crêpe connoisseurs would probably disparage it as a large pancake for being taller than a pinhead. Sure, it may not be the most delicious crêpe I’ve ever eaten. But is it the best? Undoubtedly.

Dessert mastered I feel I must also have a savoury addition to my repertoire of French cuisine. A Parisienne must be flexible within her strictly defined limits.

Mayonnaise.

Ingredients laid out and giddy from the dream of life in my crêperie on the Côte D’Azur, I feel like nothing can stop me. I am a strong, empowered, talented French woman. Édith Piaf is this evening’s soundtrack. I read the first instruction: ‘There’s a saying in France that a woman on her period will never pull off a successful mayonnaise.’ My timing has always been impeccable.

After an American lady on the internet talks me through separating an egg and deciding that fishing the fallen yolk out of the egg white is probably acceptable I mix everything together.

‘Add the oil…while whisking constantly with an electric beater.’

So I proceed to compete with electricity. I attack it half-crazed, betrayed as a third flies into the sink for freedom. Dizzy from the fumes of the perfume I decided to put behind my ears for added Parisienne effect infused with those of the sickening quantity of oil, I stop. My whole arm is tense; surely electricity must have been matched by now?

It’s as bright and appetising as yellow paint. All I have in my fridge is raw asparagus. Google insists that, despite popular belief, this is not toxic. I dip it in.

As I swallow the very distinct taste of raw egg, olive oil, and mustard, I contemplate what may have gone wrong. Perhaps you really can’t have any traces of egg white. Perhaps you cannot match the mixing power of electricity. Or perhaps I should try again next week.