PARIS IN THE SPRING
Spring is the traditional season for demonstrations in France (May 1 is workers' day), and indeed students, labor unions, and citizen sympathizers have been demonstrating for a couple of weeks in Paris and in other major French cities. My father is in Paris this week, and he's been sending regular email updates. He reports that much of the action in Paris has been near iconic sites such as the Eiffel Tower, the Bastille, and the Place de la Republique, which is close to where he is staying. Air, rail, and metro traffic has been impacted, and many schools and businesses have closed on strike days.
Unlike the rioting last autumn, which was focused in poor immigrant ghettos, the upheaval this time is in the urban core. It is largely a white, middle-class protest of a new labor law that extends the period of employment probation for workers under the age of twenty-six to two years (currently the probationary period is only a matter of a couple of months). During the probationary period, employers have the right to dismiss young workers for just about any reason. The new law was meant to open up job opportunities for youth (a major issue in last fall's rioting), but instead, most young people in France resist the idea of American-style at will employment. They want the new law abolished. President Chirac has stepped in, changing the language of the law a little so as to ensure that, at a minimum, employers give reasons for dismissing youth employees.
La Chef writes to me about the demonstrations in highly reflective terms. As a grandmother, she sees her grandchildren inheriting a very different world from the one in which she grew up and lived out most of her career. She sees the forces of economic globalization at work in France and says that many of the changes to French labor law, against which so many citizens are protesting, are a foregone conclusion. We agree that the socio-economic contract that has provided job security in France for more than half a century is falling apart, and that historic change such as this is painful.
In broad terms, I wonder how changes to employment patterns impact culinary traditions. In the United States, with low unemployment and a high percentage of working families, quick meals in front of the television are increasingly the norm. Eating at restaurants during the work week has become de rigueur. The number of families heading for restaurants to celebrate holiday meals is skyrocketing, and the industry is quickly adjusting. The same trends are appearing in France, where the hours-long family meal is becoming a relic of the past. French grocery stores carry more prepared and pre-packaged foods, and even Valrhona, the preeminent French chocolatier, has begun to produce and sell chocolate chips as well as standard bar chocolate for cooking. Chips are easier for the home cook, who can save time and avoid the mess that comes with chopping up the large and heavy blocks of Valrhona chocolate into manageable pieces.
I discovered a 3-kilo bag of Valrhona chips in La Chef's cupboard last fall. Although she laments the passing of "slow food" and makes her career out of preserving slow food values (local and organic production of food, seasonal eating, home cooking using only the freshest of ingredients), she loves the chips. "Easier for melting," she says. On this trip to Paris, I've sent my father to Georges Detou in the Les Halles neighborhood for a 3-kilo bag of Valrhona chips for me. I've already gone through almost an entire bag from his most recent trip to Paris in early March. The chips are perfect for an Americanized version of the French "reine de saba," a sort of molten brownie traditionally made with pulverized almonds. Below is the easy American version.
Americanized Reine de Saba
12 ounces Valrhona chocolate chips (American semisweet chocolate chips will work too)
1/3 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1) Melt 6 ounces (about one cup) of the chips and the butter in a small pan over low heat. (You can melt the chocolate and butter in the microwave or over a doubleboiler as well.) Pour the melted chocolate and butter into a medium-sized bowl.
2) Beat the sugar into the melted chocolate. Then mix in the eggs, one at a time. Stir in the vanilla.
3) Sift together the dry ingredients and stir into the chocolate mixture, blending well. Add the remaining 6 ounces of chips (not melted) to the batter.
4) Pour the batter into a buttered 8-inch pie dish or cake pan and bake for about 23 minutes* in a 350-degree oven (for glass pans; 375-degree oven for non-glass). Serve warm with ice cream.
*Note that chocolate brownies, cakes, and cookies are best if pulled from the oven a little underdone. If overcooked, chocolate desserts become too dry. Twenty-three minutes is just about right for this recipe.