D and I recently returned from a whirlwind trip to London, Paris, Reims and Marseille, where we went with a dear friend to celebrate a significant birthday he was having. Our friend, who is an artist, was dying to go see an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London of John Singer Sargent’s portraits of his friends, so we thought we’d take the opportunity to turn this into an extended birthday celebration, and have a few nice meals at the same time. It all started modestly enough. We were to go to London to see the Sargent exhibition, and then take the train to Paris for a couple of nights to explore the food scene there, and then fly home. As things tend to go with us, however, a small side-trip got added here, and another there, and next thing we knew, a 4-night getaway had turned into a 10-day holiday with additional stops in Champagne and Provence.
We tried our best to be cultured: we hit 2 galleries and 1 museum, and took in a West End show in the 48 hours we were in London. The Sargent exhibition was fantastic; I don’t know that I’ve ever seen portraits of anyone that are as sensual and engaging as these were.
Portraits by John Singer Sargent
We also did the Louvre in Paris, hitting almost all of the highlights in about 2 hours. We toured the champagne caves of Pommery and Taittinger in Reims (and of course, did the obligatory tastings), and explored magnificent churches there, and in Marseille.
We also shopped a bit. Within minutes of our arrival in Paris, we were racing across town to one of the few hat shops that sell authentic Basque berets; we did BHV from top to bottom, literally, going through each floor to see what kinds of things French shoppers bought for their homes. We particularly marveled at the snazzy home appliances and the beautiful table linens that you purchase not in sets of consisting of a tablecloth with napkins, but by the meter, so you can have your seamstress (everyone in France seems to have their own seamstress) make up exactly what you require for your table. All I could afford here was a tea towel … but it’s very nice.
But if I’m being perfectly honest, I need to admit that everything we did on the trip was just a way to kill time until the next meal. Because in that part of the world, while it’s still easy to have a lousy meal, options for fantastic meals are almost endless, especially in France. I don’t mean to suggest that the restaurants in London aren’t up to snuff; we went to a couple of places that were very much of the moment. And the food was generally good. But my sense – and this is a gross generalization, I admit – is that the British see meals out more as an opportunity to socialize, to catch-up with friends, eat something, and knock back a few drinks. The French do this as well, in the zillions of cafés that border pavements across the country. But it seems to me that as you move up the dining-establishment hierarchy, from café, to bistro, to brasserie, and finally, to restaurant, the focus is less on finding out what’s happening in your friend’s love life, and more on what it is that being set down in front of you on a plate.
When eating in a good restaurant or brasserie, the French take their food very seriously. You can see this just by watching a table of diners. Shortly after being seated, menus are examined carefully so that a sequence of dishes can be put together that will be pleasing to the palate, and that will, one hopes, lead to a satisfying culinary climax. Enquiries are made about the provenance and freshness of the fish, or how recently it was that the iced langoustines and pink shrimp used on the seafood tower were cooked. When the food arrives at the table, conversation stops. Diners inspect their own plate carefully, and then take another several moments to examine the plates of other diners at the table. A few words are exchanged consisting of appraisals what they see before them. If the correct wines haven’t yet been ordered, a consultation with the waiter or sommelier takes place, and new glasses are brought to the table; wine is tasted, and if it passes muster, glasses are filled. Only at this point are the first, tentative tastes made of the dishes that have been served. More appraising comments are uttered, and the wine is sipped to see how well it complements the food. It seems that only after all diners at the table have gone through this ritual of planning their meal, assessing and commenting on what it is they’ve been served, and doing the initial tasting does the conversation return to more the more prosaic matters, such as where the best place is to get one’s Citroën serviced. But like a parent who watches their child in the playground out of the corner of their eye while talking to a neighbor, people are easily distracted from conversation by a particularly tasty bite of something wonderful.
This reverence and respect for food is something I think I share. I get excited when I have a beautiful piece of meat, or a perfectly fresh fish in front of me on the counter. I go a little nuts in mid-late summer when giant, brilliantly white heads of cauliflower, and firm, shining eggplants and tomatoes of all colours appear in my local supermarket. I’m not sure what it is exactly that’s behind this feeling I get when I am presented with good produce. I see fresh apricots and I immediately feel compelled to to make jam; the appearance of bushels of plum tomatoes at the supermarket are virtually a guarantee that our kitchen will be splattered in red for days as prepare sauce for the next year; the first rhubarb of spring gets snapped up for pies.
After a particularly long, particularly cold winter, I was, until this trip, starting to feel a little jaded about food. Anyone who’s tried to eat a tomato in Toronto in March will understand why. I would still make bread regularly, I made chicken, veal and beef stock from time to time, and I was pretty pleased with my Christmas geese, but generally, I wasn’t getting too pumped about being in the kitchen. This trip definitely re-invigorated my enthusiasm.
My next several posts to this site will be devoted to the culinary highlights of the trip, or rather, my attempt at recreating them. Some of the dishes that were highlights were actually fairly simple: perfect roast lamb at Le Train Blue, in the Gare de Lyon; sole meunière at Rech. Other dishes are more involved, though not difficult: bouillabaisse at Peron in Marseille, or quenelles de brochets (pike) gratinées à la Lyonnaise, at Chez Nenesse in the Marais. Finally, there are the really tricky things, like pâtés en croute, which you see at traiteurs in every neighbourhood, but which are almost impossible to find here at home. Pâté en croute
First up will be something that you can find almost anywhere in France – really good bread. Stay tuned …
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