Sunday, October 17, 2010

Food Observations

But before food the weather needs some discussion.

I mentioned previously that the wonderful Paris cold had returned last Sunday morning. Today is next Sunday morning and the cold has even become more archetypical. The skies are overcast, the wind is coming directly down the Seine and Paris is back to how I have always known it. I guess I am glad to have sweated a couple of days; at least I feel as if I have flirted with the Paris everyone else in the world seems to know.

Food, everyone says, is one of the many exceptional things about France in general and Paris in particular. As far as I have ever been able to divine, everyone is right. But they are right, in my experience, with some exceptions. At least my experience has shown me some exceptions. And if my experience is valid and those exceptions actually exist, I think it gives some interesting insight to French thinking.

My personally experienced exceptions are two: pizza and Mexican food.

I have never had a decent pizza in France. Actually I had one that was close once and that was in a little town in Entre Deux Mers called St Marcair. But that was from a restaurant run by an expatriate British couple, so I don't think it counts. In France I seldom want a pizza anyway – my cravings for that food type have over the years been confined to Amalfi's in Portland and, more recently Olympia Pizza on Capitol Hill in Seattle. Since those are both about five thousand miles from France it is easy to just not ever have pizza cravings when in France. But they have occurred. And I have always been disappointed. One time I even made special trip half way down the Champs Elysees and back a couple streets to go to an "American New York Style Pizza Restaurant". The pizza was a mass of not very good dough with not very good, although pretty spicy, tomato sauce. I think that was the last time I have tried pizza in France.

Mexican food is not bad in France. It's just not Mexican food in any form that I have ever had. I guess one could call it mexigualic. Maybe that is not a bad thing, but I'd rather eat any of the myriad variety of things that are part of the French tradition than eating TexMex Fusion. There is a Mexican restaurant in London not far from Covent Garden that is really good and really fun. The first time I went there it was a Wednesday at about 1300. The place was hopping. It is a big restaurant up a flight of stairs from the street and it was about three quarters full with what seemed primarily to be office workers out for an afternoon lark. They were swilling chips and salsa and beer and having a great time. The chips, salsa and food were all in the better-than-good range; it was especially good for a chain – because that is what Pacifico is, a chain with stores also in Sydney, Amsterdam and (at the time) Paris. I liked the place so much I bought a Tee Shirt.

In the process of liking the place and buying the shirt, and all of that, I had an on-going conversation with my server, and ultimately, with a couple other of the people who worked there. I asked where the Paris store was – it was on Boulevard Montparnasse – so I could go there the next time, which was going to be a couple of months after my trip to London that year. The staff laughed about how there was a friendly competition between the London and Paris stores as to the quality and Mexicanness of the food. I was pretty excited, because, unlike pizza, Mexican food is a craving that I have little control over.

I figured that since Pacifico was a chain there must be procedures that would cause the food to be the same from store to store, at least within very narrow boundaries.

I found the store on Montparnasse and sure enough the food barely resembled that which I had had in London. The store was gone a year later. They said it was due to building renovation, but it seemed to me if they had been doing well they could have found a different location.

Having said all of that, and having invented the obviously tongue in cheek term mexigualic it is worth mentioning that, if you want mexigualic, a great and fun place for it is at Senior Chunko's, a weird little place at the opening of an alley off of rue St André des Arts. Don't order the vin rosé; it's horrible, but everything else is interesting and good - just not Mexican. (Oh maybe the fajitas are a near miss.)

Renting an apartment in Paris has a number of advantages which can be summed up with the facile phrase "live like a Parisian". But, allowing for people like me who have marginal French skills that phrase is probably kidding oneself. But, beyond whether "living like a Parisian" may be to some extent true, even for someone who can order a croissant or a glass of wine and not much else, the real advantage is that an apartment has a kitchen, refrigerator and dishwasher. So if one is of the cooking sort, one can eat in and save money ahead for occasional splurges in the restaurants that abound.

Over the years I have found a number of things to take home to the apartment for some form of follow-on preparation that are really good.

Almost any of the quiches that can be bought at your neighborhood boulangerie are really good. Even at room temperature (you can also try to heat them in the inevitably available microwaves, but you'll get a soggy crust) they can make a fine main course with salad, bread, maybe a vegetable and some wine.

Picard is a frozen food department store. David Sedaris made them famous, but the fame is well deserved. Picard is cryogenics for food and the stores have that sort of ambiance. Anything one can buy from a fish market or butcher or green grocer seems to be available in the large transparent-lidded chest freezers that fill the space they occupy. I have only bought one thing from Picard, but it is really good and it is kind of up-scale special: coquille St Jacques.

I occasionally actually cook a main course. I have discovered that if there is a covered sauté or frying pan available that a little olive oil with a thin cote de porc smeared around in it and then covered, turned on high and – carefully watched to avoid burning – seared at intense heat and then turned and repeated on the other side, and then allowed to continue cooking for a while at a lower heat can quickly turn out a superior pork chop. Once it's done, slicing a mushroom and sautéing it in the residual oil and meat juice, removing the mushrooms when done so that a little red wine can be added and so that the mixture can be allowed to cook down so it is thickened a little with the mushrooms re-added once thick, makes a great sauce to be poured onto the meat for serving.

The other night I tried something new: salmon. Cooking it in basically the same as described for the pork chop, with the skin side down and no turning, and with special care to keep it just slightly rare, I turned out a chunk of salmon that was restaurant quality. It even had a slightly smoky flavor.

And finally, last night the most mundane of vegetable accompaniments turned out like some kind of vegetarian ambrosia.

I bought a chunk of broccoli at the Bucci Market – the one across from what used to be Champion, its local next door competitor and the cheese and wine lady – with no expectation that it would be any different from any other broccoli I have ever had. I really like broccoli but I can't wax poetic about it. That all changed with the Bucci market broccoli. The sign said that it was from Bretagne, which didn't surprise me: when Mysti and I spent five weeks in Brittany a few years ago it was September and October and the fields were full of cabbage, artichokes, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and broccoli. I just had never happened to eat broccoli from there.

All I can say is, for intensity of flavor, that broccoli ranked with the best of anything I have ever eaten. I never knew that broccoli had anything but, within a narrow range, a kind of pleasant green flavor. The stuff from Brittany makes its own standalone flavor statement, and it is one that I am going to regretfully miss when I return to the land of factory farms.

When one doesn't know that one is missing something, it's easy to be pretty happy with that which one doesn't know is missing. Once one knows that one is missing something, and even better, knows what that something is, some kind of response - a reasonable person might surmise - would probably occur. That is why I keep coming back to Paris; now it's the broccoli.

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