“French food is characteristic; they bring to their consideration of the table the same appreciation, respect, intelligence, and lively interest they have for the other arts, for painting, for literature, and for theatre.” – Alice B. Toklas
Owww. I said, to no one in particular. The Literary Tourguide, visiting me in Paris from Berlin, glanced at me curiously.
We had just had our usual Paris breakfast: two kinds of baguette, ham, four kinds of cheese, an almond croissant, fruit, and cafe au lait.
I. May. Not. Be. Able. To. Eat. Anymore. Today. I said. The Literary Tourguide, who has known me for thirty years, raised one eyebrow and chose not to express her skepticism.
And indeed, by lunchtime we were chowing down again, at a restaurant in St Germain de Pres called Cafe Les Editeurs. We chose it only because it was full of books. I ordered salad, expecting little. But, ah, it was beautiful: citrus fruits and smoked salmon on a bed of mixed greens, with a delicious citrusy dressing. A basket of excellent baguette, as usual.
That evening, The Literary Tourguide treated me to dinner. Tired after our trip to Pere Lachaise Cemetary, we settled on the first unpretentious canal-side restaurant we found, Moska. The waitress was diffident, the people on the terrace blew smoke onto our table.
But we then proceeded to have the best duck of our lives: tender morsels of canard with “ponzu” sauce – citrus, soya, ginger, grappa – with pureed sweet potatoes. Simple, multi-valanced, with flavours that played off against one another in clever ways. The fondant au chocolate with orange sauce that we share afterwards gilded the lily: deep robust, elegant.
The next day, a last-minute dinner choice en route to the Eiffel Tower turned out to be the kind of touristy restaurant I avoid, full of Americans who couldn’t figure out the French word for ‘menu’, or ‘wine’ or ‘thank you’ if their lives depended on it.
Absentmindedly, I ordered the dorade. It arrived perfectly seared on a bed of sauteed spinach. The frites were thin, crisp, lightly sprinkled with sea salt. The couple next to me argued quietly and tensely about their relationship. I reveled in my aloneness (the Literary Tourguide had returned to Berlin), savouring each bite.
Yesterday, on the way to the metro I smelled spices and sweetness and heard a babylon of voices and languages. I had stumbled upon a temporary neighbourhood market. It stopped me in my tracks.
Every town or city has its great food. I’ve found incredible meals in Edmonton, Alberta and Eugene, Oregon. Paris was not even on my top-ten list , Julia Child notwithstanding. But somehow being here makes all the food-searching, writing and agonizing over adjectives, worthwhile.
The meal may be brief, or or random, or unplanned (or it might just be a picnic by the canal) but it is almost always thoughtfully created, with the best of ingredients. Cooks and chefs are artists, making original statements in even the most obscure of venues.
This city of patisseries, boulangeries, bistros and cafes conveys grace and greatness and historic importance on the essentially humble acts of creating or consuming or writing about, a meal.