I caught three sessions at Writers at the Convent last weekend – run by Reader’s Feast Bookstore, held at the gorgeous Abbotsford Convent. The session ‘We’ll always have Paris’ featured chef Shannon Bennett (Shannon Bennett’s Paris) and Elizabeth Bard (Lunch in Paris) who is a New Yorker living in that magical city. Bennett is a Melbourne-based chef/restaurateur who spends a lot of time in Paris. He says many of the restaurants there are so great because of the produce they use – because Parisian restaurants are ‘built up from the ground’ from the suppliers of the best local ingredients. The ingredients are what matters and both authors talked a lot about farmers’ markets and their despair of supermarkets that carry plastic carrots and asparagus that’s imported when it’s in season and growing right here in Victoria. Both had been on a search that morning for an elusive white carrot – the ‘original’ carrot, which you can only get from one man in Melbourne (who never returns your calls). It was fascinating to hear about their world and remind myself to buy and eat more food that is organic or locally grown (she says, munching on heavily salted, flavoured rice cakes).
The audience received tips on visiting and eating in Paris. Bard says finding an apartment on Craigslist or Google will get you something better than a hotel, much of the time. It can be cheaper and you’re also amongst the locals (and the local bakeries and cafés). Plus – you’ll have a kitchen, if you do want to source local food and make something delicious yourself. Mentioned were things like visiting small museums and eating off the blackboard in the university area. The French eat very leisurely, taking time over a meal – and Bennett said, if you want to try one of the top, high-rated restaurants (from the Michelin guide) treat it like a visit to the theatre – as an experience. You will be paying for it. I liked the fact both concurred they used their mobile phones less in Paris than in New York and Melbourne. You walk a lot (and all you’re worrying about it ‘where’s lunch?’ said Bennett).
Other recommendations included between the 14th and 16th arrondissements, L’Astrance (with its Aus-trained chef), and an Algerian bakery on the 11th called La Bague de Kenza. Bard also said to go for afternoon tea or other meals other than the mains. She says there are plenty of places to get a good hot chocolate in Paris.
I’ll never forget the best hot chocolate I had – in Berlin at Café Adler, it was real chocolate and it had a shot of rum in it. It was a freezing cold, rainy European winter day, and I’d just walked along the Topography of Terror and been confronted with images of Nazi destruction. So many faces.
Do you remember your favourite hot chocolate? When I’m in Paris again – which may be as soon as next year (!) – I am going to have some hot chocolates there. One food experience about Paris I can recall was a delicious salmon fillet, bread and red wine, eating alone near the Louvre, and Sean Connery walked past the cafe. I shouted ‘Sean Connery!’ and just about gave the waiter a heart attack.
But back the the Convent.
I went along next to Alex Miller’s Q&A – partly as research for our Q&A in Perth, and partly because I just like to hear him talk about his work. The audience loved him, and he’s very funny and provided plenty of interesting stories and insights. I don’t think I’m one bit worried about our session in Perth. He’s very open and easy to talk to.
I met up with my occasional guest blogger Elena (her blog is With Extra Pulp) for an hour between sessions, which was really lovely. We sat under a tree and the sky was dark and we talked about writing, mostly, and asked each other a lot of questions.
The last session I went to consisted purely of readings by debut authors: Claire Halliday, Brendan Gullifer, Vivienne Kelly, Kirsten Tranter, Tom Rachman and Kathy Charles. I didn’t want to miss Rachman while he was out here – I have his book The Imperfectionists and getting to hear him read confirmed my desire to read it. The little things in it – like the character looking at the window and its shape, and crunching a thin wallet in his pocket. The book shall bob on the top of the ‘tower of hope’ – my massive book pile. Other than Rachman – I found Vivienne Kelly’s reading to be very warm. I got right into the mother/grown son exchange she read out – humorous and warm but also sad and touching. A lot of you might like her book Cooee.
I’m happy Reader’s Feast puts on this little festival each year – the sessions were packed out and I’m sure the bookshop did well. I’m looking forward to going again next year (if I haven’t run away to Europe). Au revoir.