Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A taste of Paris

What can one write about food in Paris that hasn't been written a thousand times before? I arrived in France steeped in a lifetime of cookbooks, memoirs, and novels about French food. Thanks to a voracious reading habit, I have dined many times over with Liebling, cooked in a pre-war kitchen with M.F.K. Fisher and parsed the finer points of egg dishes with Escoffier. Thanks to Julia Child and Jacques Pepin, among others, two whole generations of Americans before me have calibrated their taste to Francophile standards. Julie and Julia was an uneven movie, but must be watched for the parts with Meryl Streep as Julia Child, especially in her early years in Paris. One of the more charming scenes in the movie -- and in Child's memoirs -- was her first taste of French food and the utter epiphany she experiences in what food should be. Her whole life is transformed -- it is as if she is tasting fish and butter and cheese for the first time. I envy her this epiphany.

I have already tasted artisanal charcuterie and eaten seasonal greens dressed in the lightest of vinaigrettes. Much of what I prepare for my family is informed by French methods. I did not arrive in Paris with a lifetime of only meatloaf and ranch dressing and overcooked vegetables behind me. I was skeptical about having any true culinary epiphanies, and a little bit sad. I looked forward to Paris for the architecture and art, and I looked forward to good food. But would it be new food? Would the good food even live up to the memory of my rich literary experiences?

I was surprised by a general lack of seasonality in the menus of the many restaurants we tried over the course of our stay....and yes, we did eat mostly outside of the usual tourist haunts and ate across a wide price range. Partly, this lack of seasonality can be blamed on the season itself. It was too early even for asparagus and artichokes, so there was hardly a seasonal abundance of produce. Morels were scattered throughout a few of the higher-end places, with the best dish being a simple poached egg swimming in a puree of morels and cream, accompanied by thick garlicky croutons. I do suspect, however, that the lack of seasonality has to do more with the dilemma I discussed above. Tourists --and perhaps French people themselves -- arrive in Paris with a set expectation of what they are to eat. They have been informed by guidebooks, cookbooks, and decades of television shows to expect a rigid set of dishes. Duck confit, steak tartare, escargot, onion soup....the list of expected classics goes on. Is experimentation and seasonality rewarding to brasseries that thrive on their ability to provide an "authentic" Parisian experience?

On the shopping front, things were more inspiring. The butchers and cheese mongers were stunning....incredibly high quality food and well informed employees. The bakeries -- even the chains -- were of the highest quality and the bread almost invariably delicious. I also had to love a city that charges 4 Euro for a can of diet coke, but where you can buy a loaf of bread or a glass of wine for half that price. These folks have their priorities straight. The produce markets were dispiritingly similar to our own....mostly imported produce, much from the Americas. Many a cheese plate in the restaurants was garnished with a physalis fruit....ground cherry or cape gooseberry, I am unsure (picture above). I hadn't tasted any before this trip and they were delicious, but when I inspected the boxes in the street markets, they were all from Chile! Who knows if this is par for the course or if, again, we were just too early to see French agriculture in all its glory. The few locally grown lettuces and radishes I found were beautifully displayed. I have never seen a white lettuce with red speckles like this one:

But did I experience anything transformative? Did I have any epiphanies a la Julia Child? Perhaps it is a little over dramatic, but I did have two culinary moments when I was perfectly, absolutely satisfied. In those moments, I knew that I would have never understood these experiences by just reading about them or trying the American equivalent. The first was in the restaurant supply store, E. Dehillerin. Old, and a bit musty, it is a dark shop crammed with all the pots, pans and utensils any budding French chef would need to build her batterie de cuisine. Oh, to have such a quaint, ancient store on these shores! The closest I have found is Broadway Panhandler in New York City. I could have poked around Dehillerin for hours, and had I more money and larger suitcases, I would have left with more than a knife and some brioche molds.

The second moment is hard to admit. I have been generally sneering at the macaron craze sweeping the food scene here in the U.S. for the past few years. And yes, it is Passover, and no, I am not talking about the coconut lumps served at many a Seder this week called macaroons. I am talking about the meringue-like sandwich cookie -- one "o" only -- and I am tired of reading articles and blog posts that worship it. The photos of the precious pastel-hued confections bored me, reminding me of the insufferable cupcake cult I witnessed in New York City in the early 2000's (aughts? 00's? how am I to refer to this time period?). Yet in the course of my wanderings through Paris one afternoon, I happened upon Laduree, one of the world-renowned pinnacles of macaron craft. It looked more like Tiffany than a confectioner, with employees dressed to the nines and pastel containers more akin to jewelry boxes than bakery cardboard. The prices were heart stopping. The woman ahead of me in line spent over 70 Euro on a cake -- a small cake. I selected a few macarons, the two more interesting-colored ones being cassis-violet (lavender purple) and pistachio (bilious green). The cassis-violet had unfortunate flavor references to soap, but the pistachio one! Oh, the pistachio one! It was light and dense at the same time, with an intense but fleeting flavor...I am failing with my adjectives. Writing about this confection is like trying to write about wine. Even good writers can barely make it tolerable. So I will stop, but just know that it was an amazing cookie. Just know that it is now what I will ask for as the dessert at my last meal. It was so good that I don't even want to try to recreate it at home, because I would fear tarnishing the memory. I concede to the macaron-crazed foodie elite. This is a food deserving of worship.

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