The butcher shops close each day from one to four. At first this made no sense to me. I thought of shopping as a continuous and hefty event, one which required a car trunk and a double wide refrigerator and could be executed at any hour of the day or night. But here in Paris, people shop daily and shortly before meal time.
To a degree, this is of necessity. Our refrigerator is three feet tall and two feet wide with a single drawer that can hold three or four leeks. The two shelves are no more than 12 inches deep. I store things like butter and cream and a pot of jam. The freezer, for all practical purposes, is a concept—present, but not terribly functional. (Full disclosure, I could put something in the freezer, but I’d have to remove the bottle of limoncello. And that’s not going to happen.)
I ask myself, do the French have so little storage because they buy everything fresh? Or do they buy everything fresh because they have so little storage?
Dinner is religion here; I choose to believe the former.
By six each evening, my slice of the Rue Oberkampf between Richard Lenoir and Parmentier buzzes, reaching a crescendo by seven, before dying down as the vendors shutter their stops at eight. At its most frenzied, people queue at the chicken rotisserie, squeeze inside the tiny cheese shop, or await a warm baguette.
I generally wake up with an idea of what we’ll have for dinner. Some of this is set by the weather or what’s fresh at the outdoor market on Tuesday and Friday. If it’s a rainy Saturday, no matter what I was considering, I shift to beef bourguignon. On a sunny market day, I buy mussels or fish.
Last Friday, I decided we’d have Cabillaud from the market. I also bought a bouquet of tulips—as I do every week—plus some potatoes. To inaugurate my new copper pan, I decided to make dauphinois potatoes and found a recipe on the internet that called for gruyere cheese necessitating a stop by The Cheese Garden.
The cheese shop is so tiny, you can’t close the door with more than four or five people inside. When it’s busy, the windows fog. As I pulled open the door, I was greeted by a bonjour and a pungent smell that I love, smelly cheese.
“Bonjour madame,” I replied.
“Have you chosen?”
“I need a gruyere.”
I shrugged. (while thinking, there are types of gruyere?)
“What are you making?”
“Pomme de terre dauphinois.”
“Non,” she said, “Pas gruyere.” She shook her head firmly.
Since we were speaking in French—and I couldn’t remember the word for recipe—I told her this was what in my… (pregnant language pause) … “book.”
“I understand. But pas gruyere.” She pulled out a wheel of cheese the size of a bicycle tire. “You need this one.”
I shrugged my shoulders. Stuck out my hands in an I don’t know what to say sort of gesture (because literally, I did not know what to say).
“You choose,” I told her.
“This,” she said, “Pas gruyere.” With no hesitation, she sliced off a piece from the bicycle tire and wrapped it like a gift in an adorable white paper decorated with sketches of cheese.
Back at my apartment, I prepared the potatoes, put them in the oven, and returned to Oberkampf to select a bottle of wine.
Although there are three wine shops on the block, I use the same one every day. He remembers what I like, and his suggestions are impeccable–and affordable. As I described dinner, he scrunched his face in thought. Then he handed me a Sancerre. “This,” he said, “This is what you need.”
On the way home, I stopped at the produce vendor for two handfuls of greens and pointed to a tomato.
“Do you want to cook with it? Or eat it?” the vendor asked.
“Eat,” I replied.
“Then not that one. Here, this type is better.” She didn’t await my reaction, but instead snatched a different (although to me, identical) type of tomato and added it to my bag.
The last stop was, as it always is, the boulangerie. Baguettes are baked fresh throughout the day. I love the way the woman wraps a white paper napkin at the waist and hands it to me. They are never bagged. This day, it was still warm, so I raced to the door. The moment I was outside, I ripped off the end and ate it while walking home. (I rip off the end every day, but I only run those days when the baguette is still warm.) As soon as I came into the apartment, Pat pulled off the other end.
The fish cooked in five minutes. I diced the tomatoes and tossed the greens with olive oil and then removed the foil to allow the potatoes to brown. Lastly, I poured the wine and sliced the bread.
The fish fell apart under the lightest touch of my fork. The potatoes were creamy with just the right amount of cheesy zing. If the salad were a painting, it would hang in the Louvre. Pat wiped the last drop of the potato sauce with a slice of bread. The wine was perfect.
As Pat washed the dishes, I pulled out my phone to check the next day’s weather forecast and to plan dinner.
Categories: A year in Paris