Saturday, July 14, 2012

Au revoir, Food.

Greta Alfaro, In Ictu Oculi: "Bêtes-Off" show, Conciergerie

We are writing from Texas.  Our internet connection is terrible right now, so this will have to go up somewhat unedited.

We gave up our Paris apartment on June 18 and fled to Bretagne, or Brittany, in an attempt to choke back the despair over our imminent departure. We made a circuit of towns along the Breton coast, which was never less than interesting, and often crazy beautiful, and above all, constituted another leg of the A.S. Byatt Heritage Tour, the Baie des Trépassés chapter of Possession (“How can I come if you cannot hear the little thing dancing?”)! O, the blasted heath and crags of Pointe du Raz and the homey, tidal stench of Audierne! And the rose/coral/salmon rocky shoreline of the Île de Bréhat, which is what Mars looked like back when it had water!
A washed-out pic of Bréhat, or Mars--this is the best we can do with the colors.
 The colors of rock, water, and sky were so wacky that they burned out both the red and blue cones in our eyes and temporarily blinded us with awesomeness. Then we crossed the border to Normandie to visit Mont-Saint-Michel, which is famous for having the Very Worst Restaurants in France. (It ought to be famous for bugs: we inhaled swarms of flies and gnats—Le Prof caught a fly in his mustache and almost fell off his bike, which should learn him not to sport moustaches—and on the train back to Paris we were continually brushing ants and baby spiders out of our bras.)
 That, Mont-Saint-Michel that is, brings us from the subject of Despair to that of Food, about which several of you Gentle Readers have requested more information. Where do we start, after five months? First, with La Potiche's inability to edit for continuity on the I's, we's, and they's. Le Prof is a game eater with great knife skills in the kitchen, but nobody has ever accused him of having a palate.

 At dinner in Quimper, Le Prof stunned La Potiche by identifying the citrus segments in our refreshing langoustine tartare as pink grapefruit, and making a neat comparison between the chive-crème fraîche mixture dolloped on top and the Axelrod onion dip that is La Potiche's favorite food back home. Then he reflected, “Langoustine: that's a kind of melon, right?” For what it's worth, Le Prof has been known to refer to grapefruits as “cantaloupes,” all smaller fruits as “apricots,” and basil as “spinach.” (“I never called an apple an apricot!” Le Prof shrieks defensively.)  (In the interests of not being a jerk, I will point out that a langoustine is a kind of shellfish, like a crawdad.)

 Most of our French eating consisted of French food we cooked at home, three meals a day. Thus, we begin with the grocery notes:

  • The bread, cheese, and wine are as good as they say. Great baguettes are, uh, great, though we had a hard time rustling them up outside Paris, except in Avranches, where a baker near the Scriptorial produced a good pain ancien (the name for traditionally made sourdoughs), a good chausson aux pommes (puff pastry stuffed with apples), and a damn good pain aux raisins (puff pastry twisted in a circle with raisins): if your pain aux raisins doesn't contain a swirl of yellow pastry cream to moisten the raisins, find another bakery.  While we were gearing up for our final weeks in France, the best baguette of 2012 was elected!  But sadly, we didn't make it up to Montmartre for a tasting.  Somebody else can let us know if it matched up to 2011 baguette.
    Raw milk Camembert
  • Le Prof's Fromage of the Week tastings turned into a Fromage of the Every Other Day. His favorite: a peppery, moist Saint-Nectaire. La Potiche's favorite: raw milk camembert, lovingly dented by the thumb of your fromagère to make sure it's just ripe enough and tasting like nothing we've ever had at home, for €5.
  • The wine: O, the vins naturels from Le Garde-Robe! O, the cellars of Burgundy! With Profs. K and J we toured the Côte d'Or, and also visited the Patriarche cave at Beaune, where we tasted eighteen wines, ranging from the interesting to the Way-Too-Sublimely-Complicated-For-Us-To-Understand. Some of the flavors we detected: green apple, pepper, rose, litchi, cherry, plum, mulberry, blah blah blah. Also, maple syrup, prosciutto, bananas foster, and haricots verts. Because your vigneron isn't working hard enough, if you can't taste Thanksgiving in New Orleans in every sip!  Even though La Potiche was spitting, she worked up a pleasant little buzz, but she wasn't sick all night, the way she usually is after four sips of wine, because it was an educational experience, not just a gluttonous one.
    Snackie.  Vin naturel.
  • Also delicious were the juicy prunes, roast chickens, honeys, dried sausages, crème fraîche, terrines, and jams (our B&B proprietor in Pontorson made her own superb caramelized rhubarb jam (!), one of the most delicious things we ate in France, but any market carries a rainbow of fruit varieties. “Plum” is not a flavor. “Reine Claude” and “Mirabelle” are flavors). We easily bought almost any ingredient we wanted (exceptions below): chipotles in adobo, cock sauce, sherry vinegar, sesame oil, smoked paprika, peanut butter, fenugreek, quinoa, kimchi, ssamjang. Some of the wonderful produce is unavailable back home, like wild asparagus (which is not actually asparagus but does make your pee smell funny); Charentais melons; mâche, a very ephemeral salad green (which we can get at home, but not in such a pristine condition and not for a couple euros per whopping sack full); Spanish clementines that really do taste like a holiday, because they hadn't been picked too green to travel 3800 miles in a shipping container to go moldy for U.S. Christmas consumption; heirloom apples with winy flavors (prosciutto! tiramisu!) unknown in the U.S. 
    wild asparagus
  • Cauliflower! La Potiche's favorite lunch was half a cauliflower, Greek yogurt with a spoonful of black cherry preserves, and three grapefruits (as Anaïs Nin remarked of June Miller, La Potiche likes oysters and grapefruit and will eat nothing insipid) or their equivalent in summer fruit. (“You are...a Fruit Eater,” Prof. E. observed at lunch once, having watched her consume a quart of cherries, two nectarines, four clementines, and a small melon). Every day after lunch, she'd throw herself on the couch, groaning, “I ate too much cauliflower. Again.” As M.F.K. Fisher remarked in The Gastronomical Me, French cauliflowers are different: they are starchier, sweeter, and give off less water and fewer bad smells while cooking. They also grow into much more compact heads, curling up all fractally, so you get a higher flower-to-stalk ratio than from the cauliflowers back home. And when, after virtuously steaming them, you toss them with pepper, Breton salted hand-churned butter (which costs the same as run-of-the-mill butter at home), and fleur de sel de Guérande (which costs a little more than run-of-the-mill salt but is infinitely more satisfying), they make a lunch that you can't quite seem to stop eating till you need to throw yourself on the couch, thinking about M.F.K. Fisher and how her third husband wrote an essay claiming that, famous gourmand or not, her favorite breakfast was steamed zucchini with butter. She divorced him, but went on eating piles of zucchini, and sometimes peppers and pickles for lunch, and never gave a fig for men's opinion, also like June Miller.
Then there are the sweets. Maybe you're one of those “I'm not a sweets-type person” people, like June Miller, also according to Anaïs Nin. We rather think that if Anaïs had taken June pastry shopping, instead of shoe shopping, June might have, like, widened her horizons (incidentally: you want to know what the women of Paris are wearing? They're wearing jeans cut-offs over black tights, and sneaker-wedge-heels:  stilettos enclosed inside sneakers so you can't actually see the heel. And summer scarves, and leather jackets in 85-degree heat. We have nothing more to say about fashion in Paris.) Le Prof and La Potiche weren't sweets-type people either, before they went to Paris. Then, on two trips to l'Étoile d'or, they blew a hundred euros on candy, which is why they never took their weekend jaunt to Strasbourg. Instead, they instituted Sweetie Time after lunch every day. (Which is when they eat candy and pastry, smear themselves in pitch or black paint or grease or something, and leap about naked in their tree house to the chagrin of their sisters.)

 Even if you're not a sweets-type person, if you like food, you should experience the wonderful, unexpected flavors and textures of really good French pastisserie and confiserie. You mostly don't have to pay a hundred euros; that was just a bacchanal (the Kestener Atlantique--a chocolate-coated, salted-caramel and brown-sugar sablé bar--goes for €6). Most things go for €2 or less. And here's some advice: you can buy items similar to these at any patisserie, and you'll still say, “Wow, that's so much better than the XYZ at home,” if you're lucky enough at all to live in place where XYZ=espresso éclairs. But for the two euros you'll be paying, you might as well seek out the best, the “Wow, I didn't know they made this good on this PLANET.” That is why we are going to help you by telling you what's best (our food peregrinations were informed very heavily by David Lebovitz's blog and Chowhound.  Thanks, people.):
croissant, Blé Sucré
  • The Kayser coconut-chocolate financier, which tasted like the best, moistest, American-style cupcake La Potiche had ever eaten, and La Potiche prides herself on being a cupcake connoisseur. Unfortunately, it appears to be off the menu now, but the plain, chocolate, pistachio, and raspberry are pretty good, too.
  • Vandermeersch's kouglof, a sugar-crunch-topped yeast cake studded with golden raisins, recommended by D. Lebovitz.
  • Blé Sucré's croissant, recommended by D. Lebovitz as the best in Paris. It was, indeed, the best of the 12 or so croissants we tasted, made of the most ridiculous BEST puff pastry ever, all the layers caramelized and standing crisply, meltingly apart. No other croissant even came close. NO OTHER CROISSANT.  Really.  The pain au chocolat was perhaps even more delicious, though, as Prof. D noted, it would have been better with darker chocolate.
  • Pierre Hermé macarons were out of this world. Even the parfums that we thought would be weird (carrot-orange, and jasmine—La Potiche didn't like jasmine-flavored things before) were divine. Don't tell us about Ladurée macarons, because Ladurée's are, frankly, crap. Even supermarket macarons are tasty little figments, but any place that flavors a macaron like Fruity Pebbles and charges you €3.75 for it is CRRRRRRRRRRRRRAP, unless they call it the Fruity Pebble macaron, in which case, that might actually be kind of clever. But that's not how it played out.
  • The rhubarb, pear, and passionfruit pâte de fruits (fruit jelly candy) of Jacques Genin. Each one's only the size of your thumbnail, and it will cost you like €2, but it packs such a flavor wallop it's worth it.
  • Breton salted caramels. On Breton salted caramels days, Sweetie Time consisted of two caramels, and then, once our jaws were deliciously fused together, we had to stop. Also a flavor wallop.
  • Arnaud Delmontel, who is in my opinion the most criminally underrated baker in Paris, makes an apricot-pistachio bear claw and an outrageous bichon au citron: a puff pastry half-moon filled with zesty lemon Bavarian cream. His was the best puff pastry we tasted after Blé Sucré's. (His baguette aux grains, covered with poppyseeds and other seeds, vies with the Kayser baguette and the Top Baguettes for Top Deliciousness.)
  • The immortal Pruneski, however, has vanished from this earth, and we are sorry that none of you will be touched by the pruney angel that touched us.  We will experiment with making them at home.
There are things we miss. Like...
  • Tingly oily Sichuan food, which we'd last eaten in London. We had some better-than-adequate Sichuan on our third-to-last evening in Paris, but it wasn't tingly, since it lacked Sichuan peppercorns, and the flavor would have been richer with dribblings of red chili oil.
  • Milk that doesn't go bad after a single day. We didn't mind grocery shopping every day to stock our tiny fridge with the day's rations, but we did mind throwing away a whole bottle every day. Parmalat was okay till we chanced upon several bottles that had rotted on the shelf, and now we can't abide the cooked-rotten flavor.  Also, we miss grass-fed.
  • French yogurts are delicious, but most stores and markets sell only individual servings in tiny pots, even if they're charming little glass or ceramic pots, but we don't like the waste, so we wound up going to a Greek deli for a bucket of Greek yogurt once a week (which was not a hardship, especially since we were a little bit in love with the proprietor). We'd have made our own yogurt, as we do at home, but then there was the milk situation.
  • $1 sacks of fresh corn tortillas, for those days when life is too awful to bear unless you can whip up a vat of guac, slice up some radishes and Whatever, and throw yourself a personal taco party, at which you devour fifteen or twenty tortillas in a sitting. 
  • The French red-spotted heirloom lettuces are ravishingly still-life-worthy, but La Potiche, who eats about a head a day at home, must admit that she's got a hankering for the American kind of garden lettuce that isn't bitter.  In general, foods have a slightly more bitter profile in France: lettuces, radishes, olive oils, sodas, even candies.  
  • We also miss kale. Ahhh, we love kale, we eat about four bunches a week at home, but there is not a bunch to be found in Paris. If you want a good time, check out the Chowhound France conversations about kale, and whether or not you can buy it in Paris. Belligerent English and American ex-pats argue for days and weeks about whether or not the curly vegetables they've seen at their own, special neighborhood markets are kale. They're not; they are frisée, which is not kale. We've been to twelve or fourteen different street markets, including the own, special ones mentioned on Chowhound, and they have No Kale. And for the record, every foodie in Paris thinks that his own, special neighborhood market is definitively the best in Paris, but the ones that we visited were all awesome for different reasons; there was no objective Best, just the subjective one.
It would be silly to write a food post on Paris without a restaurant report. However, we don't dine out that often, our food budget being confined to the maintenance of our prune-stuffed prune supply. And we generally don't take photos in restaurants.  But we did eat some notable restaurant meals, mostly when we were traveling and couldn't get to our kitchenette, or due to the extreme generosity of family and friends (thanks, Profs. D and H! Thanks, Prof. E and Grad Student N! Thanks, Profs. K and J! Thanks, Mom and Dad, for the anniversary dinner!). And so, notable restaurant food:

  • Couscous. Early in our stay, we watched the marvelous movie The Secret of the Grain (La graine et le mulet, which would lead you to believe that the Secret is le mulet), about a man who loses his job and decides to invest his life's savings in starting a couscous restaurant. We were all, Ick, couscous, guess this movie's going to be a tragedy. That was because we had only eaten couscous at home, where at its best it was a pasty, Play-Doh-tasting blehhh. But, because we are highly suggestible, the movie made us say, “Mmm, couscous,” and go out to the 10th in search of some. Were we surprised! Couscous made correctly is just as delicious as a Pruneski; it is rich, nutty-semolina-tasting, fragrant, bouncy, and rolls delightfully around your astonished tongue; with harissa and an inexpensive stew of carrots, celery, chickpeas, and raisins, it makes a feast! We are going to learn how to steam it properly, because, in Quimper, we ate some take-out couscous that tasted like couscous from home: quel horreur!
  • Corails de coquilles St. Jacques: which is to say, the red-orange bits of the scallop. When you buy whole scallops in the U.S., you are probably not getting the blob of bright scarlet attached to the round white nut. (You are not seeing the eyes, either, which are terrifying.) That scarlet blob is the coral, or roe, or gonads, and when it's sautéed in butter (it curls into a firm comma-shape) and sprinkled with mâche and a little red wine vinegar, that is a salad of scallop gonads, and it tastes a bit like lobster.
  • At various Parisian restaurants, the most memorable dishes were: gouges out of a family-style terrine of pork with cornichons; morel risotto; a perfect poached egg served in a foam of something (memory begins to fail); steak frites; parmentier topped with mashed sweet potato; new potatoes topped with crème fraîche and salmon roe; a bouillon crémeux of spring peas topped with crab meat and a salad of pea shoots, mint, and fenugreek leaves; pork belly; simple white beans cooked with lamb; a mi-cuit, or partially baked molten chocolate and caramel pudding; vanilla madeleines that were, unlike any of the madeleines we'd ever eaten stateside, buttery, light, with only a hint of sweetness. At La Régalade, Le Prof ordered vanilla pots de crème with passionfruit coulis, and to his surprise, was actually served pots: two of them, both containing a serving. They were exquisite. They might even have been better than the rice pudding à la grand-mère that La Potiche ordered: the best kind of rice pudding (vanilla bean, arborio, full cream, and cooked-down milk), served to her in a pint jar. A whole pint for her to dip out of! “C'est tout pour moi?!?” La Potiche cried. “Tout pour vous,” the waitress agreed. It is heaven to be served more rice pudding than you can possibly eat in a sitting.
  • In Normandy, even the candy looks like fruits de mer.
  • In Normandy we dined at modest, homey restaurants serving: a buttery, warm spinach mousse, fish pâté, rabbit terrine, a fine skate wing cooked in cider, verbena-infused crème brulée, duck breast with boysenberries, tarte tatin (upside-down puff pastry-topped apple pie), a really nice assiette de fruits de mer (seafood platter) with scrumptious bulots (sea snails), icy-crisp oysters, and pear-stuffed crêpes with vanilla crème anglaise and caramel sauce. La Potiche isn't mad for crêpes, the same way she isn't mad for, say, breakfast cereal—it's just there, nothing special—but a crêpe filled with homemade vanilla pudding is something else.
  • In the Dordogne, we ate goose gizzard salad, which is to say, goose gizzards sautéed in goose fat and sprinkled with a little mâche and vinegar (notice a salad theme?). Have you ever eaten a slice of bacon whose lean, meaty part had a little myoglobin-y aftertaste of liver? That is what a goose gizzard tastes like, and you dig in the same way that you go to a friend's house for brunch and accidentally eat the whole platter of bacon.
  • We visited Burgogne, Le Prof for both sociable and professional reasons, and La Potiche for sociable reasons—and to complete the first leg of the M.F.K. Fisher Heritage Tour! La Potiche LOVES to order her travels around the travels of women writers who go by their initials. So La Potiche forced Le Prof to scuttle over to Dijon's Halles an hour before breakfast, just like M.F.K. and the women of Dijon in The Gastronomical Me. And then, in the beautiful, rose-festooned hilltop village of Vézelay, right “on the road to Avallon” (although the mill restaurant where M.F.K. ate the truite au bleu is, according to other travelers on the Heritage Tour who've blogged about it, no longer a fine place), La Potiche ordered a lunch that perfectly satisfied her expectations of the “spicy, winy” food M.F.K. felt too surfeited to describe properly: oeufs en meurette (poached eggs in a red wine and mushroom sauce). Pork cheeks served on little toasts of pain d'épices with red wine and cloves. Pain d'épices is Dijonnais spice bread made with rye flour, honey, fennel seed, and ground mustard, and sounds kind of vile, but is actually well balanced and tasty. The slow-cooked meat with the wine and the profusion of spices, not to mention those little trenchers of bread, tasted like exactly how I imagine a dish that the dukes of Burgundy might have ordered back in Le Prof's day. For dessert, La Potiche got a clafoutis aux cerises, made with ground almonds (clafoutis is a batter cake studded with fresh fruit, often cherries--cerises--or pears). La Potiche has had lots of clafoutis, but never thought they were anything to write a blog post about till she tried this one with ground almonds. Prof. J got a crème brulée that was bruléed by brushing it with violet liqueur and setting it afire. Isn't that a GREAT idea? Forget those little torches! We finished up the meal with petits fours: hazelnut meringues, grape (because we were in Burgogne) pâtes de fruits, and something else La Potiche can't remember anymore.
Jan Davidsz de Heem, Nature morte au citron pelé (1650), Louvre
La Potiche will wrap up this post with our hotel restaurant in Paimpol. For the price of an average bistrot meal in Paris, we got the most surprising, elaborate meal either of us had ever eaten. Most of the components were delicious. A few were not. All were very well cooked, and the ones that weren't satisfying to us weren't so because of bad cookery, but just because we weren't always willing to follow the chef on his or her personal voyage to NeverNeverLand. But overall the meals created such a circus-like experience—loud, delicious, completely over-the-top fun, and kind of vulgar—that we will never, ever forget the marvelous time we had eating them. Here is a description, to the best of our ability, although we know that there must be items we've either missed or misidentified.

  We began with an unexpected amuse-bouche: a nugget of foie gras rolled in pistachios and dark chocolate. And tiny pellets of gizzard (?) cooked, coated in chocolate, and served on a round garlic crouton. And a scoop of foie gras ice cream, with flaky sea salt, fine cracker crumbs, and raspberry coulis. Though foie gras was, for obvious reasons, not something we'd meant to eat, our bouches were amused, and pleased: the foie gras ice cream was the kind of thing we knew that people made but had hoped, till that point, that nobody would ever serve us, but it was tasty, and the salt, crumbs, and raspberry were exactly what it wanted (other than, of course, wanting not to have been the liver of a force-fed goose, but I digress).

 Le Prof's starter was the oyster plate. It included: a whole oyster served inside a chilly gelatin made of its own brine; two trimmed oysters served in gelatin rounds made with brine, trimmings, and cream; a baked oyster (no surprises there, but then La Potiche, absorbed in her own starter, declined a taste). When the waitress cleared the plates, she told Le Prof, “You didn't eat your feuille d'huitre.” “Excuse us?” we said, completely unable to understand what she'd said, because so far as we knew, oysters didn't have leaves, but Lo and behold, the oyster leaf (Mertensia Maritima) is the leaf of a seaside plant that tastes exactly like an oyster. When Le Prof popped it into his mouth and expressed his wonderment, the waitress went away and came back with a tiny platter containing one more oyster leaf, for La Potiche.

 La Potiche's starter was the langoustine plate. It contained three langoustines, two langoustine/onion beignets (delish), all bathed in a tasty langoustine broth dotted with corn-kernel-sized crevettes on a plate streaked with an interesting chocolate/langoustine-stock reduction. Also, a raw quail egg yolk in its shell on a cracker piped with stars of violet cream had wandered onto the plate, mistaking itself for a langoustine-flavored starter. La Potiche must admit to not really liking violet-flavored things, though Pierre Hermé could probably turn her around if he made a violet macaron, even a violet-langoustine or violet-foie gras macaron, because he is a genius who could convince her to eat anything so long as he'd piped it onto an almond shell.

 For her plat (main dish), La Potiche had a rouget with potatoes (completely traditional), a fried little zucchini flower, marinated baby artichokes, a negligible artichoke risotto, another chocolate sauce (with balsamic this time), a coffee-flavored sauce (no), and white pepper foam teardrops (yes). There were some powders dusted on her plate, but she was losing her ability to keep track of things and can't tell you what flavors they were. And that's also why she can't really tell you what was on Le Prof's plate, except for cod, cantaloupe balls, a heap of caramelized onion confit, green onion something, mackerel, potato purée, spots of raspberry sauce, several sprigs of cinnamon basil, and a crisped black fish skin forming a St. Louis arch over the whole. He also had two sauces, some baby crevettes, and a bunch of powders, we think.

 For dessert, Le Prof got the crème vanille, and neither of us remembers what was on the plate, except that it wasn't really a crème vanille. La Potiche got the basil macarons. Which translated into three pink-and-green basil-flavored macarons stuffed with what we think was basil-flavored rice pudding and a plastic liquid-delivery system that looked kind of like an IV but delivered basil syrup. Plus a lime-green sugar corkscrew. And a sprig of very sour lemon thyme. And a scoop of raspberry sorbet, some strawberries, some melon balls, and a dusting of homemade sugar pop rocks that fizzled when she ate the sorbet. (Le Prof found his pop rocks first. “Ahhhh,” he said, “Something my mouth. Do YOU have something like that on your sorbet?”)

 But nothing they served us was so interesting as a dish that appeared during lunch, two days later, at the same restaurant, where La Potiche also ate a passionfruit dessert sauce with passion-banana sorbet (YUM). Sharing the plate with her duck breast and two ellipse-shaped pads of purple mashed potato (one of which was stuffed with confit) and homemade black onion Pringle, appeared a round slice of Jell-O salad. Or a macaroni salad? Or, a Jell-O macaroni salad, stuffed with more confit! Jello-O macaroni salad stuffed with duck confit was not what we were expecting to eat in France. But pourquoi pas? France was for exceeding expectations.

Au revoir, France.  Au revoir.  Au revoir......................................

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