One of my favorite things to do when I visit a foreign country is to roam the grocery store aisles for specialty condiments and canned goods that I can't find in the U.S. When I came back from Argentina, I brought home pre-made packets of chimichurri herbs, paprika and canned hearts of palm. When I came back from Spain, I brought Spanish mayonesa (mayonnaise), aioli and sauce to make patatas bravas (spicy potatoes). And when I came back from France, I brought French truffle oil, French chocolate, hand-made macarons, butter cookies and more.
I mention these three countries because they have each been featured during Central Market's annual two-week "Passport" food and culture celebration. Two years ago, items like Argentinian salt and alfajores (cookies filled with dulce de leche) were available during Passport Argentina. Last year, celebrity chefs from Spain were flown in to preside over classes in the Central Market cooking school for Passport Spain.
This year, Francophiles and French food lovers can rejoice because from now through May 22, Central Market will be hosting Passport France.
In the cooking school, DIY-ers can take classes on making macarons, choux, soufflé, sauces and more. They can also learn how to select cheese, meet French champagne and winemakers, and hobnob with celebrity French chefs, like French Master Chef Patrice Olivon (Iron Chef winner, PBS Dinner Is Served series), who will be presiding over tonight's tented kickoff event with a menu entitled "Taste of Provence." Chef Anne Willan of La Varenne will also be in town for a rare public appearance in one of the cooking school classes on May 19.
Throughout the store, new French products, available for a limited time only, will be on display. Think hard-to-find condiments, drinks, cookies, coffee, spices and more. In the cheese department, more than 40 new cheeses will be available for purchase, with free cheese classes in that department on certain dates.
More than 300 French wines will be featured for the event, with 61 wines from Burgundy, more than 50 wines each from Rhone and Bordeaux, 18 from the Loire Valley, 22 from Languedoc, nine from Beaujolais and more than 50 Champagnes. Of the wines and Champagnes featured, more than 100 are exclusive to Central Market.
Central Market's artisan bakers were even sent to France and California for specialty training so that they could offer more than 40 new breads, including ZigZag Vivarais, Pain Marguerite, Fougasse, Miche, baguette Viennoise, brioche Vendéenne and Pan Brie.
If past years are any indication, you'll also be welcomed by the sound of French music wafting over the store's audio system. There will free cultural lessons and tasting opportunities at various times each day as well. Check the detailed listing at the end of this post for a full schedule of free events.
It's a truly wonderful, grandiose two-week foodie-fest that only happens for two weeks each year, and when it's gone it's gone. In my experience, the popular items will fly off the shelves, so if you see something you like, pick it up while it's available. When the two-week celebration is over, your passport to France is, too.
The following is a full list of free activities available through the store during Passport France:
GRAND OPENING CEREMONY, Wednesday, May 9, at 5 p.m. Department/Where in store: Main Entrance Ceremonial Ribbon Cutting and Champagne Sabrage and tasting (in the style of Napoleon!)
UN CASSE CROÛTE, Daily, May 10-22 at 11 a.m. Department: Bakery Un Casse Croûte is the traditional "break the crust" mid-morning snack enjoyed throughout France. Each day throughout our Passport France celebration, we will break the crust of a new bread, discuss its history and pair it with a butter or jam.
LES CINQ -- REGIONAL CHEESES OF FRANCE , May 12, 13, 19, 20 at 2 p.m. Department: Cheese There are hundreds of varieties of French cheese, and it is easy to become confused among so many types, shapes, flavors and origins. Drop by the Cheese Department and learn about five great cheeses, along with their taste, texture, history and more. Fun for: Kids of all ages.
CHAMPAGNE WINE TASTING, Friday, May 11 from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Department: Wine Department One of the five great regional wine styles you should know. Stop by the Wine Department to sample a selection of wines from Champagne. Fun for: Winos.
RHONE VALLÉE WINE TASTING , Friday, May 11, from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Department: Wine Department One of the five great regional wine styles you should know. Stop by the Wine Department to sample a selection of wines from the Rhone Vallée. Fun for: Winos.
BORDEAUX WINE TASTING , Saturday, May 12, from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Department: Wine Department One of the five great regional wine styles you should know. Stop by the Wine Department to sample a selection of wines from Bordeaux. Fun for: Winos.
PROVENCE WINE TASTING , Sunday, May 13, from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Department: Wine Department One of the five great regional wine styles you should know, stop by the Wine Department to sample a selection of wines from Provence. Fun for: Winos.
CHEF'S TASTING, Tuesday, May 15, from noon to 1:30 p.m. Department: Chef's Case/Catering Learn to make, and then sample, Oven Roasted Salmon with Trois Sauce Hollandaise, Béarnaise & Charon, made especially by Central Market chefs. Fun for: Foodies .
CHEF'S TASTING, Thursday, May 17, from noon to 1:30 p.m. Department: Chef's Case/Catering Central Market chefs have been creating new dishes and are ready to share them with you in the special tasting of Warm Duck Confit Salad with Raspberry Vinaigrette, Dried Pears and French Radishes. Fun for: Foodies .
KINGS OF PASTRY SHOWING, Thursday, May 17, from 3 to 5 p.m. Department: Community Room Sixteen French pastry chefs gathered in Lyon for three intense days of mixing, piping and sculpting everything from delicate chocolates to six-foot sugar sculptures in hopes of being declared by President Nicolas Sarkozy one of the best. Filmmakers D A Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus secured exclusive access to shoot this epic, never-before-filmed test of France's finest artisans. Following the screening is a discussion and pastry tasting. Fun for: Anyone with a sweet tooth.
BURGUNDY WINE TASTING , Friday, May 18, from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Department: Wine Department One of the five great regional wine styles you should know. Stop by the Wine Department to sample a selection of wines from Burgundy. Fun for: Winos.
CHEF'S TASTING , Tuesday, May 22, from noon to 1:30 p.m. Department: Chef's Case/Catering Central Market chefs are back with a new dish to sample. Stop by and try Sautéed Poulet Rouge with Cognac Cream Sauce with Morel Mushroom and "Passport" Vegetables. Fun for: Foodies.
CEREMONIE FINALE , Tuesday, May 22, from 5 to 7 p.m. Department: Outdoor Patio As Central Market closes out the third annual Passport, they bid adieu with an Aperitif wine tasting and light meal, along with a Finale chorus: La Marseillaise, Un Salut en France!
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.