I love a great meal, but I’m not a foodie. A hint of black truffles in the soup? I have no idea what that means. Recently I saw a wine menu which described one choice as having hints of “dust and tobacco”. Seriously? Does anyone deliberately eat dust or tobacco, let alone their pairing? Some piece of this is pretension, no doubt. But certainly there are more informed palates than mine. In the gradient of palate intelligence, mine barely finished high school.
That said, there is no greater pleasure in my life than preparing a meal and eating it with family or friends; I cherish nearly all fruits and vegetables, any cheese speckled with blue veins, paper thin pizza, dark chocolate, and warm bread. As long as a dish is served with fresh ingredients and effort; good cooking requires little else.
When we moved to Paris, in my inadequately small suitcase I tucked a wooden spoon and the world’s tiniest cookbook entitled, “Simple Italian Cookery” which was published in 1958 before everything became so dastardly supersized. At the townhouse we rented at Christmas in Philly, I found this book tucked behind a shelf in the kitchen. I ordered my own copy from Amazon before we left town. After all, if you have one really good cookbook, not much can go wrong in the world.
Where food is concerned, Pat likes what he likes, and he will order the same meal repeatedly. If it is on the menu, a simple pot of “moules”, mussels, is dinner. Every Tuesday and Friday the moules vendor comes to the farmers market with a huge vat. I decided to surprise Pat by preparing his favorite meal for lunch.
Luckily, the day I thought of this was market day. While Pat attended a critique session at his photography workshop, I googled a recipe for moules marinières, jotted down the five ingredients in French, and set off to the market.
The first stop – because really, if I can’t buy the mussels, I don’t need the other ingredients – was the fish vendor. Since this is Paris, the man who sells regular fish, the varieties which swim with tails and scales, is not the same man who sells shellfish. For the couch potatoes of the species, I sought out a mollusk specialist.
In the back corner of the market, surrounded by piles of mussels, oysters and shrimps, I found him. But the mussel pile was disappointingly small. “Les moules sont frais?” I asked. He appeared irked that I would question the quality of his wares. “Bien sur,” he assured me. “I just returned from vacation yesterday. Of course they are fresh.” He doled out two servings and grabbed a few sprigs of parsley garnishing the ice and tucked them into the bag. Everything else would be easy: garlic, shallots, and dry white wine.
The produce vendor was locked into an earnest discussion on apricots with an older French woman. “Do you want to eat them today? Or tomorrow?” he inquired. “Half today and half tomorrow,” his customer responded. He carefully selected some number of ripe and other nearly ripe fruit. The more pedestrian shallot and garlic request required much less negotiation. He grabbed one of each, and I dropped a few coins into his hand.
Lastly, I stopped to buy a bottle of white wine, “dry”. “What are you making,” inquired the shop owner. “Moules,” I replied. Without debate or hesitation, he strode across the room, reached down to the lowest shelf, grabbed a bottle, and put it on the table. “Nine euros, please.”
I added a bunch of greens tossed in an extra virgin, Greek olive oil and a freshly baked baguette. A half hour after arriving home, lunch was served. We sopped the bread into the wine sauce. Perfection.
Yet in spite of this most pleasurable way of eating, I wondered if a night at one of the uber chef’s establishments should be a once in a lifetime splurge. But my dreams never turn to action. I am immobilized someplace between a belief that no soup is worth 100 euro and a wardrobe that is more appropriate to a McDonald’s combo meal than a Michelin star (let alone three) feast.
Then, we stumbled upon A Taste of Paris.
For three hundred euro, we attended two meals – dinner on Saturday and lunch on Sunday. Our payment bought 50 euro in wine and 150 euro in food tokens, coupons for two glasses of champagne, and priority entry. When we walked into the immense exhibition hall of the Grand Palais as the very first customers of the evening, Pat and I stood there gawking like two kids from the wrong side of the tracks who wandered into the debutant ball. “Holy cow, Pat,” I gasped as my head swizzled in every direction, “I would have paid 300 euro for this one moment.” We ran to the booths of Alain Ducasse, Joel Robuchon, and Guy Savoy (which dashed any lingering fantasy that I could fit in with this crowd).
I enjoyed meeting the chefs, and overall I liked the food. Yet I still can’t describe the taste of a truffle – even though they were sprinkled over every dish. I carefully extracted a morsel with my fork tine and placed it on my tongue. Nothing.
At home Saturday night, I researched the restaurants and signature dishes, and planned our attack for Sunday. After two days of tasting the best of the best, I would characterize their dishes as frothy, green, at times runny but with an underlying crunch, and often with a fish taste. The samples ranged from decent to sublime. And we saved a fortune leaving with the realization that we would never pay a thousand euro for dinner.
My taste buds, fortuitously, are solidly middle class. Thank goodness. Give me an entrecôte or a simple baked chicken, a five euro glass of bordeaux, crisp french fries or a tossed salad, and I am in culinary bliss.
Plus, half the fun is the shopping. When I worked, I loved Saturday morning. Sipping my coffee in an Einstein Bagel, I glanced through a pile of cookbooks. Then, I selected recipes, created a list, and walked to the neighboring Whole Foods.
Now, strolling through the market, spontaneously buying a bag of woodsy morels and then planning a meal around them, or grabbing a head of fresh garlic the size of an orange is my singular great joy. This time of year, I most likely will pick up a parcel of cherries, three or four apricots and a bunch of greens. When I walk into the bakery, before I place my order the woman spins around and grabs a baguette tradition and turns back just as I pull out the exact change.
Yesterday, a pair of dueling vendors hawked their watermelons vying for customers. As I approached one of them, he handed me a slice to taste. I nodded, and he turned to inspect wedges covering the table. Having made his selection, he handed it to me and smiled, “Trust me, this is the best. Just please, make sure you eat it today.”
Categories: A year in Paris