As the airplane lifted off for Paris, I felt like I was finally coming up for air after almost drowning. I had whiplash from the past two weeks- finals, graduation, celebrating my parents’ retirement, and saying goodbye to our family business. All of this had made my life super busy and really emotionally charged and I am just so relieved and thankful to be escaping it all with this amazing opportunity to study the Microbiology and Culture of Wine and Cheese in France!
A lot of people talk about the “RU Screw”, the catchy name for the way that bureaucracy within the university sometimes interferes with students’ experiences or ambitions. My interactions with the Rutgers faculty prior to my departure could not have been further from the “RU Screw”! I am so thankful that Dr. Haggblom, Dr. Healey, the SEBS International Office, Dr. Schaffner, and Rutgers Global have been so accommodating and helpful. Not only was I able to make a very last minute decision to join this study abroad course, but I was able to get graduate-level credit and receive a scholarship from the SEBS International Office to subsidize the price difference between the undergraduate and graduate tuition. Although receiving graduate-level credit is not traditional for this course, Dr. Haggblom and Dr. Healey are optimistic that because I worked with faculty to figure out the logistics to make this possible, more students may be able to do this in the future.
Taking this course for graduate-level credit is a dream come true. Throughout my undergraduate career, I had wanted to participate in this study abroad course ever since it was advertised in the Food and Health course I took freshman year. For three summers, I yearned to join my friends as they went off to France for this opportunity while I remained in New Jersey to complete the research and industry internships that conflicted with the timing of this course. Finally, during this summer between graduation and the start of my “big girl job”, I have the time to take this course. However, I was worried about taking this course for the traditional undergraduate credit, as it would mess up my May graduation date necessary to begin my post-graduation job and as I would have no use for the credits. Thankfully, I was able to work with the aforementioned faculty in order to take this course as a Non-Degree graduate student. Later, pending acceptance to the Rutgers Food Science graduate program, I will use these credits toward my Masters degree- which is super helpful because I will be working full time and going to school at night. Thank you to all of the Rutgers faculty who helped me figure out these logistics!
I would also like to sincerely thank my parents, relatives, and family friends whose graduation gifts made it possible for me to seize this once in a lifetime opportunity!
Prior to officially beginning the study abroad course, my friend Nicole and I spent a few days exploring Paris. Below is a brief overview of our adventures:
Each morning in Paris started off with a “pain au chocolat”- essentially a delicious croissant stuffed with chocolate. Nicole and I would exit the Generator hostel and walk less than a block to “Festival des Pains” the artinsal boulangerie/ patisserie (aka bakery) before heading out to explore Paris. By the end of our short stay, the lady who worked at the bakery recognized us- we were regulars!
#FoodSciOrDie Fun Fact: To get to the bottom of why croissants are so crispy, airy, and flaky, you have to read in between the lines- or at least in between the layers! One of the most distinguishing characteristics of a croissant is its layered- or laminated- texture. When forming this French pastry, cold butter is placed on the risen dough, the dough is folded over the butter, and the final dough-butter sandwich is rolled out; this process occurs several times to create the multi-layered structure of a croissant. Because the lipids in the butter prevent interaction of gluten and starch particles, the butter interrupts the gluten network and creates spaces in between the pastry’s layers. When the croissant is baked in the oven, the dough begins to puff up due to the formation of air pockets between the pastry’s layers. This air comes from yeast’s release of carbon dioxide and the release of steam via evaporation of water from the dough and butter. Using cold, rather than melted, butter is essential because it ensures that the water from the butter will evaporate only after the pastry’s structure has set and larger air pockets will be formed, resulting in a more flaky texture.
Day 1: Formule Faux Pas, Notre Dame, St. Chapelle, & Charcuterie
After arriving in Paris and dropping off our luggage at the hostel, Nicole and I walked down to the Seine River. On our way, we stopped in a bakery to pick up a Formule- which is a sandwich, pastry, and drink combination typically offered in bakeries and cafes throughout France. However, ordering was a struggle due to the language barrier. Honestly, I get overwhelmed ordering food in my own language because I am often overwhelmed by all of the options. But when I had to order in a different language, the process was almost impossible and resulted in the bakery staff laughing at us dumb foreigners. Prior to coming to France, I had heard from other travelers that French people were more helpful when you at least attempted to speak their language, but I did not think the language barrier would be this prohibitive. It was a little too late to become fluent in French for this trip, but the next time Nicole and I had access to Wi-Fi, we immediately started looking up some essential French phrases. This effort ended up greatly improving our travel experiences, particularly when ordering food.
After eating lunch overlooking the Seine River, we checked out two famous and beautiful churches: Notre Dame and St. Chapelle. St. Chapelle was particularly breathtaking because nearly the entire perimeter of the church was covered in ornate stained glass windows depicting biblical scenes. Our day ended with an assortment of charcuterie at the Moncoeur Belleville restaurant in Parc de Belleville, watching the sunset over the Eiffel Tower in the distance.
Day 2: Whirlwind Tour of Paris & Becoming Metro Queens
In the morning, we took a water taxi on the Seine River past Notre Dame, Hotel de Ville, and the Louvre, under the Pont Alexandre III bridge, and up to the base of the Eiffel Tower. From there, we walked to a nearby park to get an aerial view of Paris in a tethered hot air balloon. From there, we snacked on banana-nutella crepes near the Arc de Triomphe on our way to lunch on the Champs-Elysees, where I had both onion soup and quiche. Oddly enough, one of the most beautiful places on the Champs-Elysees shopping street was the Abercrombie and Fitch– it was located past gold trimmed iron gates and neatly trimmed shrubbery in a museum-quality building adorned with classical-style frescoes. A typical example of the fact that even the most ordinary things in Paris are extraordinary! Next we went to the Louvre, whose architecture and landscaping was equal in majesty to the art it houses. Although the Mona Lisa was slightly underwhelming and overrated, the expansiveness of the museum’s art collection and the solitude of the surrounding Tuileries Garden more than made up for it.
Just when we thought our day was at an end, we spontaneously decided to scale the Eiffel Tower! After walking up 669 steps to the second floor, we took an elevator all the wall up to the top. As we ascended, night began to fall and the City of Lights began to earn its name. At the top, we toasted with (authentic) champagne, looking out over Paris and the Seine. After a dinner of escargot and beef bourguignon, we took one last look at the illuminated Eiffel Tower before wearily heading back to our hostel after an exhausting, yet exhilarating day.
We attribute our ability to seeing so much of Paris in one day to the super efficient and accessible metro system. Back in the states, I cannot confidently use the New York metro system. However, in Paris this public transportation option was so easy! In particular, the app “Paris Metro” was an absolute lifesaver- we were able to put in our current location and desired destination and the app would generate accurate metro routes to get us there, including any line changes. And the app worked perfectly off-line! Between this amazing app and the ability to download maps of the area on Google Maps, we were able to navigate perfectly without Wi-Fi for our whole trip.
FitBit Steps: 30,095 // Fitbit Miles: 13.89
Day 3: Napping in Versailles Gardens
Because we had become masters of public transportation, we decided to venture out of Paris on a day-trip to the Palace of Versailles, home to the Sun King. As we approached the palace, gold trimmed iron gates towered over us and I already knew that this historic site would be one of the most grand places I ever visited. First we toured the interior of the palace, glimpsing into the lives of kings and queens past. Each room was more extravagant than the next, culminating in the “Hall of Mirrors”. As its name suggests, one wall of the hall was covered floor to ceiling in mirrors, a showy sign of wealth and privilege during the time it was designed. Crystal chandeliers hung from elaborately painted ceilings and the whole room seemed to sparkle. Across from the mirror-clad wall was a wall of windows looking out onto the breathtaking, meticulously kept gardens. As Nicole and I became saturated by the extravagance of the palace’s interior, we constantly kept peeking out the window at the enticing garden- which was naturally our next stop. Soon we were strolling around the gardens of Versailles sipping wine, weaving in and out of the maze-like shrubbery, discovering new fountains and sculptures at every turn.
#FoodSciOrDie Fun Fact: Because 2018 is considered the “Year of Gastronomy” in France (what a lucky coincidence!), during our audio-tour of the Palace of Versailles, we learned about some food history. Apparently, the king and queen always used to enjoy a bedtime snack before they went to sleep, consisting of cold chicken and lemonade!
After a relaxing evening nap in the garden’s fading sunlight, we set out to find one last fountain: The Fountain of Poseidon. As we walked to the out-most boundaries of the garden, we came across a beautiful fountain with a dragon in the center- a fountain so gorgeous that we were sure this was the famous fountain we were searching for. However, we were confused as to why it was called the Fountain of Poseidon, since it had nothing to do with the Greek god. Then, Nicole walked about 10 feet further, gasped, and beckoned for me to follow. The walkway dropped down suddenly into a magnificent fountain about four times larger than the one we had previously been admiring. And in the center, was an intricate statue of the mighty Poseidon. Yet again, another classic example of the ordinary being beautiful and the notable being beyond our wildest imagination in France.
Since we returned back to Paris so late, we didn’t have many options of places to go eat. We settled on a small pub next to our hostel where I tried (and hated) frog legs. Luckily our waiter, Mario, was super friendly and hilarious, so I had no trouble passing my almost untouched frogs legs off to him to snack on.
FitBit Steps: 27,765 // FitBit Miles: 12.82
Day 4: Twinkle Twinkle Michelin Star
Since today was Nicole’s birthday and because we are both absolute Food Nerds, we decided to something particularly special: dine at a Michelin Star Parisian Restaurant.
#FoodSciOrDie Fun Fact: Weirdly enough, the prestigious culinary honor of a Michelin Star is awarded by the French tire company, Michelin! In 1900, the tire company published its first guidebook in order to promote road trips around France. Since then, they send anonymous reviewers to assess restaurants and determine if the establishments are worthy of this globally-regarded honor.
After scanning lists of the most affordable Michelin Star restaurants in Paris, we chose to go to Benoit– a classic Parisian bistro serving traditional French cuisine. After some shopping in the morning, we entered the quaint restaurant, whose atmosphere was a perfect balance of upscale and cozy. The waitstaff made us feel comfortable, yet poised as we enjoyed our traditional French cuisine. Nicole and I chose selections off of the “Menu de Dejeuner”, or pre-fixed lunch menu. We started off with complementary gougere (savory cheese puffs), then I ordered hand-cut beef tartare for an appetizer- which may have been the best thing I’ve eaten in France so far! For my main course, I ordered oven-baked pork belly, which was extremely rich and fatty and delicious. The fat melted in my mouth while the caramelized exterior had a satisfying crunch. Although we were almost uncomfortably full by the end of the main course, we still had dessert left! In addition to the strawberry-rhubarb tarte that I ordered, the waitstaff offered us complementary Madeline cookies and a small selection of petit fours- guimaves (refreshing raspberry flavored marshmallows) and an almond-paste filled chocolate. Eating at a Michelin Star restaurant in Paris was a dream come true and this high quality meal in such a comfortable, yet up-scale atmosphere was an unbelievable experience. And this experience didn’t break the bank either- only 39 euros for essentially 5 courses of world-renowned cuisine!
#FoodSciOrDie Fun Fact: UNESCO- or the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation- declared the French Gastronomic Meal a member of the “World Intangible Heritage” list. Such a classification means that all aspects of the multi-course culinary tradition, from the selection of ingredients to its presentation, is honored and protected because it makes a significant contribution to culture diversity. The traditional French Gastronomic Meal consists of an aperitif, an entree (appetizer), a fish course, a meat course, a cheese selection, and dessert, all accompanied by bread and wine.
Now, as Nicole and I wait at the Gare de Lyon train station to meet up with our classmates and instructor, I’m reflecting a bit on my expectations for this course. Because I have been so busy with graduation, I feel somewhat unprepared in the fact that I have barely looked at the syllabus. However, I kind of like this feeling of uncertainty; after actively planning logistics each night for the next day in Paris, I am now just along for the ride!
The main reason why I have always desperately wanted to participate in this course is that it is a completely unique opportunity targeted to my interests and inaccessible elsewhere. Sure, in the future I could probably take a culinary or even a wine and cheese tour of France- but no other opportunity will combine my obsession of technical Food Science with travel the way that this course will. The following are some of my expectations for this course:
- To delve into the science, history, and culture of cheese and wine production.
- To visit cheese and wine production facilities to experience the process firsthand.
- To taste regional cheeses and wines in order to explore international taste preferences that will benefit me as I begin my job at a global food industry company.
- To visit places I would have never visited if I was traveling in France independently.
- To be completely immersed in the subject, studying mainly through experiential learning.
Let’s see if my expectations match what I’ll experience in the next two weeks! Bon Voyage!