Disappointment can take many forms.
Some people are unhappy with their lawmakers. Others experience unemployment, infidelity, natural disasters, wrongful arrest, declining stock prices, or social injustices.
And then there’s the poor folks that face cultural challenges on a daily basis, and have to deal with disagreeable bank tellers, reams of bureaucratic paperwork, and a France Telecom form promising a refund, but with absolutely no information on where to return it to.
I’ve got bigger problems around here. Much bigger.
As you probably have guessed by now, I’m quite different from the other Parisians. Aside from my less-than-stellar command of the language and a rather bizarre desire not to walk right into others on the sidewalk, I don’t buy that many baguettes.
It’s not that I don’t like them. (Baguettes, I mean—although I like Parisians too…except when they walk right into you.) It’s just that we eat so much bread around here and I have a preference for heartier, more rustic breads, often loaves riddled with seeds, and heavy with les multigrains. And lately Apollonia Poilâne has been spearheading efforts to wean Parisians off baguettes too, although from the looks of things, she’s not having much of an impact: Locals still line up before lunch and then return before dinner for their fresh, crackly baguette at their local boulangerie.
Did you know the word ‘baguette‘ means ‘stick’ or ‘wand’ in French and if you want chopsticks in an Asian restaurant, you ask for “les baguettes, s’il vous plaît”? And I can’t tell you how many dinners I’ve been to where the discussion about which bakery, and where, has a better baguette caused nearly violent disagreement. There’s even a contest with a Grand Prix in Paris to come up with a winner every year.
A ficelle is a small baguette, whose name actually means ‘string’. But in French bakery lingo it means a thin little crusty baguette. A ficelle makes a perfect petit snack, especially one like this that’s crusted with lots of poppy and sesame seeds.
One of my all-time, tip-top favorite breads in Paris is the ficelle apéritif baked at Moisan bakery. Although primarily known for their large rustic pains biologiques, breads made with organic flour, these slender little loaves boast a prime ratio of crust-to-crumb, with a golden, crackly crust enclosing an earthy, slightly-tangy mie within.
But what makes this little devil so appealing to me is the heavy-hand the baker lavishes it with sea salt.
Each little bit I rip off has a generous amount of seeds. Not just a measly few, but just the right amount of coarse sea salt—enough to taste each grain but not enough to be overwhelming or salty.
(Which is a good thing, since salt can lead to thirst and thirst leads to water and…well…we all remember where that leads in Paris.)
My first experience with eating seaweed was when my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Barnett, brought in a big bag of gnarled dried Japanese seaweed, presumably to familiarize us with foods from other cultures. Few of us kids growing up in sheltered New England would touch the stuff, although I took a little taste, but didn’t share her enthusiasm for the sea-scented tangle of salty greens.
So she ate the whole bag herself.
Later that day, Mrs. Barnett went home early, doubled-over, and clutching her stomach.
As an adult, I’ve broadened my horizons, overcome any aversion, but most of the seaweed I consume comes surrounding tekka-make rolls, or other sushis as they’re called in France. (They add the “s” to pluralize them, even though you don’t pronounce it.)
My salt man, Monsieur Dion, who I used to get my fleur de sel and grey sea salt from (before he closed), appeared at my market on Sunday with a big barrel of Salicornes Fraîches, pickled in vinaigre de vin blanc with carrots, onions, and a few branches of thyme, which his brother made in Brittany. When I visited Brittany last summer, we visited Algoplus, where I tasted the locally-harvested salicornes, which had the curious taste of green beans. And in fact, the French call them haricots de mer, or green beans of the sea. In English, they’re called ‘glasswort’. According to Judy Rodgers in, The Zuni Cookbook (a book anyone interested in cooking should own) she includes a recipe for Pickled Glasswort and says the English used to call them “chicken claws”.
While the haricots de mer were tasty, just a forkful was enough, although perhaps anything served with a dollop of crème fraîche, as they were served, certainly seems more appealing. And although I conceded that they were tasty, I resisted the tempation to buy a jar, assuming they’d end up in my ‘Too Good To Use’ shelf (which I feel will soon collapse.)
After considering their vinegary, cornichon-like taste, I mentioned to Monsieur Dion that they’d be good served alongside or atop something fatty and meaty, like pâte or a rich smear of rillettes, and before I could finish my sentence (which, as a rule, takes much longer for me in French than in English), he produced a platter bearing slices of crusty baguette spread with rillettes de porc, topped with a piece of salicorn. The next day, I used a few slices of toasted pain aux ceriales to make my own sandwich layered with juicy, vibrant-yellow slices of tomato, cured salmon with lots of fragrant dill, a thin layer of coarse-grained mustard, all finished with a squeeze of puckery lemon juice. I topped them off with a few ‘sprigs’ (I guess they’re sprigs, although in French, there’s probably a special word used exclusively for ‘sprigs’ of les salicornes.)
My sandwiches were terrific, and I spent the afternoon not clutching my stomach, but visiting the breathtaking Musée de l’Orangerie, then walking home along the Seine, without incident…and nary a rumble from below.
Zone du Bloscon
Tél: 02 98 61 14 14
Americans often wonder how French people some know we’re American before we even say one word. It used to be our sneakers; they were the dead giveaway. Nowadays, wearing sneakers, or les baskets, is as French as carrying a baguette.
The other way they can tell us-from-them is that Americans tend to smile. A lot. We are a rather happy tribe. And Americans tend to eat and drink while walking (or while driving, which I’ve explained to some of my French friends, but they look at me in disbelief). Even though in Paris it’s becoming a bit more common, it’s still unusual to see someone chowing down while walking on the street or in the métro. It’s just not done and people will definitely give you funny looks if you’re – say, cramming a Pierre Hermé pastry into your face while sitting on a sidewalk bench. Or shoving a sublime, cream-filled éclair au chocolat from La Maison du Chocolat into your mouth, trying to make sure not one precious drop of bittersweet chocolate pastry cream lands anywhere but in your tummy.
But one little nugget of Parisian tradition still amuses me every time I see it. It’s the yank, twist, and pull of le quignon.
You’ll see it 99% of the time someone leaves a bakery with a freshly-baked baguette. The moment they exit, they grab the crackly knob at the end of the loaf, le quignon, and yank it off. It’s a quick twist and snap, then it gets popped right it into their mouth as they hurry on their way. I tend to think of it as an instant, on-the-spot, quality-control check.
I usually end up with a mess of flour on my dark overcoat, since one of my favorite breads in Paris, le Bazinette, has a fine dusting of flour on it’s crackly crust, and permeating all the little brittle crevasses. If you’re lucky enough to get to Bazin early in the day, a favorite baguette of mine is available with a hearty mixture of grains; flax, sesame, and poppy seeds.
The one shown above is their baguette de tradition, a hand-shaped baguette, slightly sour from the addition of un peu de levain, natural sourdough starter, which gives the bread a hearty, earthy character and allows it to remain fresher longer than the usual 4-hour lifespan of a regular baguette.
Bazin is one of the prettiest bakeries in Paris too, overlooking what I am sure is the smallest (and most unnecessary) traffic rotary in the city. In order to get a Bazinette with grains, you need to get to the bakery early in the day, since they always seem to sell them out quickly.
85, bis rue de Charenton
Tel: 01 43 07 75 21
(Closed Wednesday and Thursday)