(Guest post and photos by Debra Dout)
Holidays are the perfect time for a trip to Paris and Thanksgiving is the best. The food, friends, and freedom to improvise the menu are an unbeatable combination—and with no religious overtones. We love to cook, we love to pretend to be locals when we travel, and we love challenges. Hosting Thanksgiving in Paris gives us the perfect excuse to explore markets and seek out other sources.
Our first Thanksgiving in Paris was an add-on to a trip for the Salon des Vins des Vignerons Indépendants, the winter wine market with over 6,000 wines available to sample and purchase. It often overlaps with Thanksgiving weekend, except for years like this when Thanksgiving came early. Our American Thanksgiving in Paris has morphed into a tradition, with friends clamoring at the end of dinner that we MUST do it again next year.
This was our fifth Thanksgiving in Paris. Of course, it is not a holiday that’s celebrated in France and so we’ve had to be creative in how we plan our menu and source ingredients. Since Thanksgiving is all about tradition, we serve turkey, sweet potatoes, and cranberries—but with several twists. It has taken several years to perfect our method, but we’ve discovered great sources that make our dinner a resounding success. We’re happy to share them.
First, l’appart….We rent an apartment each year that we find by searching for “vacation apartments in Paris.” I study the photos and reviews to make sure the apartment will meet our requirements. While one bad review doesn’t sink an apartment, I like to understand the limitations. I steer clear of apartments with no reviews, and if the kitchen only shows a 2-burner cooktop or no ovens, I will pass. There are many wonderful apartments with very workable kitchens. Since Thanksgiving is during the off-season, you can find great apartments at “reasonable for Paris” rates.
The one limitation we’ve found in renting apartments is good knives, so we purchased a set of travel knives at E.Dehillerin, the oldest and most amazing kitchen store in Paris. It’s not upscale, it feels like you could find inventory from a hundred years ago, and there is 100-year-old dust. It is the best place for kitchen supplies—and very reasonable. We now have great travel knives that we tuck into our checked baggage.
Our American Thanksgiving with a twist involves shifting traditional ingredients between courses and adding a few untraditional elements. In lieu of a sweet potato side dish, for example, we serve potimarron instead. These squashes are abundant in the markets this time of year and are the best you will ever taste. They’re rich and meaty and even umami. We save sweet potatoes for dessert—more on that shortly.
We also shake things up by serving foie gras with the apéritif. This is so not American—or French—but with foie gras there are never any complaints. L’apéritif in France is typically a beverage accompanied by a very light nibble. Perhaps pistachio nuts, potato chips or bread sticks. But since we invite lots of different people and it’s a treat to mingle, we extend the 1 hour before a typical French dinner party to 2 hours and offer our guests foie gras which is more substantial. This year we served it with rose champagnes.
The foie gras comes from our butcher Nicolas Pruleau at Boucherie Duquesne at 30, Av. Duquesne in the 7th arrondissement, and it’s one of the secrets to our dinner. Initially we ordered a small amount, which disappeared in a flash. Now we order a complete foie gras for the appetizer and an additional amount for our surprise dish.
We serve a traditional turkey (le dinde) for the main course. Again, it’s Nicolas our butcher who makes this possible. In Paris, your relationships with food suppliers are critical. When they know you, they will do special things for you and go out of their way to help. The challenge in Paris with turkey in November is timing. Le dinde is the traditional Christmas day meal in France, so you have to make special arrangements to get turkey in November. Your butcher will do that for you with a week or two advance notice. We tell Nicolas how many guests will be at dinner and he provides the right amount of turkey. Some years this has been two birds because they are planned to be full size a month later. Our preference is for the French turkey, which is similar to our heritage turkeys. The flavor is richer, the texture is better, and there’s lots of dark meat.
There’s another reason that Nicolas is indispensable to our Thanksgiving dinner. He also cooks our birds! We tell him what time we plan on sitting down to dinner, and he prepares accordingly. He has ovens big enough to handle a full-size turkey, which he cooks perfectly and we don’t have the mess of cleaning. Most importantly, we can use our single oven for other dishes. We have not seen a kitchen in France with a double oven so this is an important consideration. And that’s not all. He even delivers our turkey! Our French friends didn’t believe it possible, but indeed it is. Nicolas gains new customers each year.
Admittedly, this didn’t always go so smoothly. The first year that Nicolas cooked our bird, we requested it in time for an early dinner. When the hour arrived, there was no Nicolas. Almost an hour later, still no Nicolas and no Nicolas by phone either. There were 20 sets of sad, hungry eyes looking out the window. Just as we were ready to sit down to a vegetarian Thanksgiving dinner, a van pulled into the driveway. It was Nicolas with our dinde. He hadn’t been able to get away from his shop earlier. Now we plan our dinner for 9 PM, the traditional French dinner time, and Nicolas is always punctual!
Our dinner starts with squash soup provided by our Paris friends Claude & Jacqueline. They grow pumpkins at their country house and are always looking to share their bounty. The first year, Claude insisted that we keep any leftover soup. But we learned to hide a few cubes of foie gras at the bottom of the bowl just before serving. When Claude discovered our secret, he claimed the leftover soup! If you have anyone who doesn’t love squash soup, add a few cubes of foie gras and you’ll win a convert.
For sides, we serve potimarron with fennel and pistachios and orange sauce, and hashed Brussel sprouts. We shop for these ingredients at Top Halles on Rue Cler. We love les marchés in Paris, but we appreciate the convenience of one-stop shopping when time is of the essence. We are always charmed by Rue Cler and the shops. It is beyond our immediate neighborhood, but we take a backpack, large bags or a “chariot” to carry purchases home.
The other traditional side is cranberry sauce and it’s our biggest challenge. We make cranberry sauce from scratch, and that means finding fresh cranberries (les canneberges). Some years this has been the holy grail. After scouring Paris, we remembered that you can find just about everything at La Grande Épicerie. Sure enough, they have fresh canneberges. La Grande Épicerie is part of Le Bon Marché department store and a reliable source, but we can never predict when les canneberges will be available. We’ve learned to ask when the shipment will arrive and be first in line. Last year they arrived on Thanksgiving morning. This year, we stopped by the Saturday before the holiday to inquire and discovered they had just arrived. We bought 2 of the 7 boxes they put out.
Since we use potimarron as a side, we move sweet potatoes to dessert. Sweet potatoes make a more flavorful pie than pumpkin, and we get to preserve the tradition of sweet potatoes without the divisive marshmallow issue. For our first dinner, we could only find sweet potatoes at a store that catered to non-Parisians. Now we see sweet potatoes (les pommes douces) available at many places. We make sure that we are getting orange potatoes (what we call yams), not white ones, by slightly scratching into the flesh.
Another essential ingredient for a successful dinner party is the wine. Buying wine can be a little overwhelming if the caviste doesn’t understand Thanksgiving. We get our wine from Paris Wine Company, an exporter of French wine. Josh Adler, the founder, was the sommelier at Spring so he knows his wines, and he’s American so he understands Thanksgiving flavors. Josh always recommends great wine that’s reasonably priced. This year we served 2014 Vosne Romanee from Axelle Machard de Gramont and a Chardonnay sparkling wine from the Jura. Paris Wine Company arranges online wine orders and shipments to the US as well. One of the things we’ve learned about buying and ordering wine is to find an importer whose palate you like because you can be reasonably sure of enjoying anything under their label even when you don’t know the specific wines.
The last preparation is setting the table and creating decorations. We serve family style so our table doesn’t lend itself to elaborate centerpieces. One year we used a special loaf of Poilâne bread! This year we personalized each place setting with DIY twine napkin ring holding a flower. Sounds simple, right? Au contraire. We went to 4 drogueries (hardware stores), without finding twine and finally realized we should go to BHV, the best hardware store in Paris.
Hardware goods are in the basement, and you can find everything. When you see Parisians walking down Rue de Rivoli near Hôtel de Ville with lengths of construction materials over their shoulder, you are near BHV. It seems no trip to Paris is complete without a visit to the BHV hardware store. For our flowers, we shop at Cler Fleurs, our favorite florist on Rue Cler.
And with that you have our Thanksgiving dinner–and more importantly our Thanksgiving sources. Except for the most essential ingredient for a successful dinner party… the guests! We have lots of friends from the US who are only too happy to travel to Paris for an American Thanksgiving in Paris. And over the years, we’ve made French friends in Paris who are also only too happy to join us. We come together in giving thanks for life’s bounty and blessings.
Debra Dout is an adventurous world traveler with a passion for Paris. Every trip and every market is an opportunity to find a perfect gift and bring home new foods and recipes to the delight of her friends and family.