One rainy day on our little table we had a spread of creamy, orange-yellow scrambled eggs, little bowls of honey with the comb, crème fraiche, orange marmalade, and black caviar, a crunchy baguette, some smoked salmon, lumps 0f soft, gooey, smelly cheese, tiny sweet strawberries, and a little salad of mache tossed with arugula, tiny sweet tomatoes, some slivered almonds, anointed with a fruity extra-virgin olive oil, a dash of sherry vinegar and a little finishing salt.
We found all of those things in our little Paris fridge and pantry and consumed it with gusto. It’s just the way things are in France. Excellent ingredients are a priority and people take their food very seriously.
Now you may think that we were fixated on the culinary aspect of French life to the exclusion of their other notable cultural accomplishments. You would be correct. Unless you are unconscious or you have an eating disorder, it is impossible to be in Paris without obsessing about the next meal you are going to eat or reliving the one you just consumed. Walking miles in Paris has less to do with seeing the exquisite city than it does with trying to control the excess tonnage before your waistline is completely sabotaged by butter, cheese, hot, fresh baguettes and chocolate, all washed down with an endless variety of elegant, affordable French wine. We did get around to enjoying many of the other delights that Paris offers, but I’ll get to those later.
Food choices are everywhere with irresistible offerings available to purchase, take home and prepare, or all ready to take home and wolf down. Eating on the street is considered terribly gauche, so you have to wait until you get home. Gnawing the end off the baguette your carrying doesn’t count against you, however. Living in Paris is like being permanently trapped in the October/November issue of Cook’s Illustrated. There are fresh vegetable and fruit stands, tiny meat markets, extraordinary fish vendors, bakeries, pastry shops, wine stores, cheese stores and chocolatiers on almost every block. And I haven’t even mentioned the regular grocery stores and the thrice-weekly farmer’s market that comes to the 15th arrondissement three times a week and stretches for six or seven blocks.
For people like me, going to the market in Paris is a religious experience, and the French do seem to have a spiritual relationship with food. Although they are not always the most patient people in the world, I have seen shoppers in the produce section of the market stand quietly and wait until a person carefully choses precisely the peach which deserves a place in his cart. It seems that everyone is allowed to worship at his own speed. Even in the smallest local grocery market the variety of ingredients is staggering and Tim and I have wasted several perfectly good mornings perusing the bounteous shelves. Thank God our enthusiasm was limited by the size our little rolling cart and the prospect of dragging our purchases up an incline to our lair six blocks away. Our budget would have been shot in two weeks if we’d had a bigger cart. Not having a car in that city is a good thing for many reasons.
Even our ignorance of the French language didn’t spoil our relationship with the local purveyors. Foodies have a language of their own and soon Tim was on a first-grunt-and-point basis with the pretty girls whose baguettes came out of the oven fresh every evening at 7 on the dot. After a few days he learned to indicate the one he wanted and drop the exact change into the wooden box provided for bread purchasers only. This efficient arrangement gave the clerks time to deal with people purchasing their exquisite display of desserts, since the line for baguette buyers sometimes went half way down the block. It became such a ritual that every day about 6:45 he would simply rise from his computer, peck me on the check, and head for the door. The baguettes were so hot that he’d come in holding the little paper cover daintily with two fingers to avoid burning himself.
My best pal was the cheese guy down the block who spoke not one word of English. I have no French, but he and I both understood “delicious” in any language. One morning I managed to explain with my best charade moves that I was having four people for drinks at 6 PM and needed cheese for the occasion. The piece of brie he cut for me was at its peak of perfection – runny and outrageously delicious, at precisely 6 PM. Not 5:30, not 6:30, but 6 PM. Now, I call that some serious expertise.
Living, shopping, cooking and dining at home in Paris changed more than just our waistlines. Being in a neighborhood removed from the tourist haunts gave us a chance to appreciate the delights that fascinating city so much that we have reserved an apartment for three months next year. We’re determined to learn some French by then and of course we are going to begin building our vocabularies in the culinary section of our textbooks!