Since I arrived in Paris a while back, a number of food tendances have slipped into our vocabulary. From appetizers served in Chinese-style spoons, to the alarming addition of adding sugar to savory hors d’oeuvres, I’ve learned to become diplomatic when faced with a plate lined with white porcelain spoons with a dollop of minted pea puree topped with a touch of crème fraîche and three salmon eggs in the middle, or a beef cubes dipped in caramel and garnished with a raw quail egg and a strawberry-flavored marshmallow. But I’m still having a little trouble with slate plates. And I’m not the only one.
Recently in Parisian Culture category
When I moved to France, one of the first things a friend said to me was “David, you need to get a good tire-bouchon.” Seeing as an unusually large about of wine bottles were being opened on a regular basis all around me (and seeing the recycling bin on my street was constantly overflowing), it seemed he was right: one does need a decent tire-bouchon (cork-puller) if one is going to live in France.
The problem is that there are a whole bunch to choose from, from super-fancy ones that cost hundreds of euros, to those you simply twist-and-yank, which means that you have to ungracefully put the bottle of wine between your knees and pull with all your might. And for men, a particularly stubborn cork can mean a sudden and swift heel-of-the-hand blow to les bijoux de famille.
A while back, a food editor in the states asked me to send him daily some ideas for articles that I might want to write-up for them. I thought about it for quite a while, then sent a response for an article with recipes for using up leftover bread, which I tentatively titled: The French Bread Crisis. They kindly responded, thanking me for the idea, but passed on the story. I’m not sure why, but maybe it was because they couldn’t imagine anyone in France having leftover bread lying around.
To avoid this crise, a number of people remarked in the previous post on French supermarkets that they bought Harry’s “American Bread” because the puffy, pre-sliced white loaves lasted quite a bit longer than regular French bread. But I’m still perplexed because what’s the point of living in France if you don’t eat French bread?
1. Mes 4 Croissants
Poppin’ fraîche has gone global and even with over 1200 bakeries in Paris, why would anyone bother walk all the way across the street to get a fresh, buttery croissant in the morning, that only costs 90 centimes, when you can simply unroll a package of doughy crescents and never slip out of that comfy peignoir de bain? For all you lazy types out there, I took a bullet for you and tried them out.
And speaking of taking bullets, when I peeled back the first layer of the package, the dough exploded with a startlingly loud pop, which so shocked me that I jumped as the dough quickly expanded as it burst from its tight confines. I almost had a crise cardiaque.
The ingredient list was nearly as wordy as the instructions but the upside is that I learned a few words to add to my French vocabulary, such as stabilisant and agent de traitement de la farine. (Margarine, I already knew). As they baked, my apartment took on the oddly alluring scent of the métro stations equipped with “bakeries” that “bake” croissants this way, whose buttery odors may – or may not – be a result of some sort of traitement.
One thing I often have to remind people is just because something is in French, like croissant or macaron (or elementary school lunch menus), doesn’t mean it’s a good version of that item. Just like one could conceivably call a hot pocket of dough with some warm stuff in the middle a calzone, after ripping off an end of one of the soft, spongy crescents, in the words of the late, great Tony Soprano..with all due respects, I’ll stick with the croissants pur beurre from my local bakery. Even if I have to put on something other than my bathrobe in the morning to get them.
I’ve pretty much said everything I could about the “coffee issue” in Paris here*, but one place that’s trying to buck the trend is La Caféothèque, a shop and café that roasts coffee beans from all over the world. It’s also one of the (very) few places in Paris where I’ve seen a person preparing café express (espresso) correctly, using a tamping device, and actually taking great care with the coffee they’re serving.
A place that roasts and grind their owns beans is no longer a big deal back in America. Of course, it’s gotten a little overdone with all the pomp and circumstance just to get a cup of coffee. (I prefer the Italian model of lining up at the counter, having a quick, well-made shot, then moving on, rather than the whole big to-do in certain places just to get a cup of coffee.) But in Paris, it’s practically unthinkable to roast your own beans, or spend a lot of time preparing the coffee. Yet a few savvy and concerned coffee lovers have opened a handful of coffee shops that specialize in using good beans, properly roasted, and preparing the coffee with care and attention to flavor. It’s a trend that many of us here are hoping will continue.
I’ve sometimes been surprised by how cavalier bodily functions are discussed in France. I consider myself a pretty open person, but sometimes things get discussed that make me a little uncomfortable. And I’ve learned that being undressed in front of others is no big deal. I’ve always been fine with public nudity—well…as long as it wasn’t me—but I’ve had to modify that stance a little since I moved here.
Last week I went back to my sock store and they had a man come and measure my legs. (That may be because my last visit probably sent the elderly salesclerk into her early retirement.) I stripped down to my euro-briefs and he ran that tape measure up and down my legs and around my calves, at one point using his thumb to firmly hold the end of the tape measure down on the end of, um…somewhere relatively private…that would not have made me all that uncomfortable except he did it with all the care of someone trying with great purpose to jam a thumbtack into a concrete wall.
La Poste takes a lot of knocks. But one of the differences I’ve noticed between France and America is that the public services work a lot better than the private ones here. Part of it, I think, is that the French identity is very well wrapped-up in its vast network of public service programs. And if you’ve read about the rash of the unfortunate suicides by long-time France Telecom employees, it’s been noted that many of them may have become depressed when their employer became more of a commercial (and commercially viable) enterprise than a public service one.
(French Residents: I’ll let those of you insert your experiences with France Telecom here, old and new…)
It wasn’t so long ago that if you were walking down the street, or eating in public in Paris, you might get tsk-tsk’d. When I first started visiting Paris, I remember disapproving stares if you were standing on the sidewalk, jamming food into your craw. Croissants got a pass, because they were sort of designed to be consumed on-the-go. And honestly, who can expect anyone to be handed a small paper bag with a steaming-hot buttery croissant in it and walk more than ten paces before diving in to it?
(I also remember way back in 1979 when I first visited Europe and went to a supermarket, and after my twenty items was rung up and paid for, I discovered that there were no bags to put purchases in. So I had to gather everything up the best I could in my arms and try to get them all back to the youth hostel.)
A couple of years ago there was an anti-eating campaign on the métro depicting an obviously Italian man eating a fat, presumably pungent sandwich, surrounded by other passengers who weren’t so happy sharing the same car with a man and his lunch. That set off another kind of stink and the ads were pulled down for being pejorative.