Friday, June 17, 2011

French Foodies

Twenty years ago, at the age of twenty-one, I traveled to Europe for six weeks of backpacking with my great friend Sarah. Our travel budget was bare bones and miniscule, we aimed to live on something close to $25 per day. This meant that our culinary experiences left a lot to be desired.  A French baguette, a jar of confiture, and a can of corn enjoyed while sitting on a bench at le Jardin des Tuileries helped us stick to our daily budget (and left more funds available for the booze and nightlife). And besides, we needed a reason to put our Swiss Army knife's can opener to good use.

My forty-one year old palate thankfully does not need to restrict itself to surviving on $25 per day. Given the weak dollar, that's only 17 euros as of today.  That amount won't go far in Paris, especially considering the inflated food prices at the Michelin-rated and tourist trap restaurants. Soren and I have succeeded in doing a pretty good job circumventing the pricey tourist traps and instead live like locals by seeking out Paris's lesser-known restaurant gems. Lunchtime is the best time to capitalize on Paris's great food at lower cost.  Formules du midi are our friend because they allow us to dine at a Michelin-rated restaurant for lunch and spend sometimes as little as 17-19 euros each on a prefix menu that consists of either a two or three course meal. This is a fraction of the cost we would incur if we were to dine at the same establishment for dinner.

Parisian cafes are hopping at lunchtime. Why? Well, France has this little obscure law that we recently learned about: Since 1903, it has been illegal for a French employee to eat lunch at his or her desk. Incredulous upon learning this fact, we told just about every one of our French friends and relatives what a splendid law we think this is for the sake of workday balance and for sustaining the restaurant economy which includes over 35,000 cafes and bistros scattered about Paris. Guess what? Nobody we spoke to knew about the existence of this law.  What they do know, as French citizens, is that dining out, especially at lunchtime, is just part of one's day. Amazing how laws can influence culture to the extent that the source of the resulting cultural norm becomes forgotten. However, not all Parisians can afford a daily lunchtime formule du midi that costs, on average,  around 13 euros. No worries, the French have this problem figured out. Their solution is called Ticket Restaurant and Chèque Déjeuner; incentive programs offered by employers that give employees meal vouchers that are each worth around 10 euros and that are accepted at participating restaurants who post a sticker on their window indicating that vouchers are accepted at their establishment. Ingenious!

Even at the carnival, food vendors accept the Ticket Restaurant.

I haven't gone all snobby during my stint in Paris and seeking out Michelin-rated restaurants, although fun and delicious, is not a prerequisite. In fact, I've enjoyed some of the better meals at restaurants off the beaten path in some of Paris's less swanky neighborhoods such as in the 14th and 20th arrondissments. Of course, there have been restaurants on our list that are well-known for one reason or another and our year abroad would feel incomplete without experiencing them. For example, Les Duex Magots, a famous cafe that, in its heyday, was patronized by the likes of Sartre, Camus, and Hemingway. Like many of these nostalgic cafes and bistros, they are overpriced (because they can get away with it) and their food, in my opinion, is not memorable. But, in keeping with history, we got into literary character, so to speak, and made a fun experience out of it with a heady brainstorm and a glass of rosé.

Notes dictated by Soren on his thoughts for an upcoming book.
Our growing collection of Paris restaurant calling cards.

Dining out has provided me with all kinds of cultural learning opportunities. French etiquette requires one to use a knife and fork for foods, such as hamburgers, that Americans eat with their hands. Salads are made with untorn lettuce leaves so that both a knife and fork are required to cut the big leaves into bite-size pieces. The way one orders a meal in France is different too.  In America, when I place my order I typically say, "I would like the," or, "I'll have the...". Therefore, American French instructors teach Americans to say, "Je voudrais..." ("I would like...") when ordering meals. It took us several weeks to realize that the French take a meal, beverage, or food item. Therefore, unless I order with the words, "Je prends le salade de chevre chaud si vous plait," ("I'll take the warm goat cheese salad please,") my waiter will be hard-pressed not to activate his  hard-wired French linguistic superiority.

Another issue for me is the fact that I drink a ton of water at mealtimes. This is very un-French. So I've had to learn how to say to my waiter, "Je prends une carafe d'eau si vous plait," ("I'll take a carafe of water please,"). If I simply order water, a costly bottle will arrive at my table. But, if I insert the word 'carafe', my server is obliged to bring me free water. The water may or may not be chilled, and, for my family of four, the amount of water may only be enough for two of us, but that just means that I get to practice more 'je prends' when I ask for 'un autre carafe' (another carafe), that is, if I can get my waiter's attention since he doesn't work for tips.

Paris is known for its rude waiters, but I haven't had any personal experiences with a server I would label as rude. Some are more aloof or abrupt than others, but so far, none have been as offensive as one waitress that we overheard admonishing other diners last weekend when we lunched at Chez Louisette; a restaurant known for its cheeky atmosphere and entertainment by singers belting out the Edith Piaf more so than for its food. Raelyn translated for us that our waitress was scolding two French women for not finishing their plate that, from where I was sitting, looked like it contained a variety of different meats. This waitress was speaking to her patrons with a volume and tone that I have used (on more occasions than I care to admit) when my children have pushed all of my buttons and then some. Had this incident occurred in an American restaurant, it would have likely resulted in the loss of the waitress' job. Given that the worst treatment any of us has received from a Parisian waiter was when one laughed in Soren's face for bungling the word 'moelleaux', we consider ourselves lucky.

I also consider ourselves lucky because we finally found a Mexican restaurant in Paris, and, better yet, it's in our neighborhood. Thankfully, an American friend read a NY Times review about this new taqueria and e-mailed the article to us. With only six weeks left before our return home, we are going to try to get our frequent fill of the amazing tostadas, tacos, and homemade quacamole at Candelaria. Just in time too since, last week, I ran out of my Trader Joes supply of chunky salsa, vegetarian chili, and organic tortilla chips (my mom brought an entire suitcase full of TJs items to Paris for me). The overpriced Pace salsa, the Dennison's meaty chili, and the bland tortilla chips sold at Thanksgiving, our local American food store, just won't cut it.

Parisian tacos? Sounds like an oxymoron to me.

French grocery stores devote only about 1/4 of an aisle to chips. And then, only to potato chips. No tortilla chips in sight.
Never fear, Thanksgiving is here! This American food store specializes in stocking all things processed. MSG and hydrogenated oil lovers will, however, be shocked by the sticker price for such luxuries.

Soren still has not let me live it down that I spent 17 U.S. dollars on a box of Cheerios.

The source for our organic peanut butter that costs a whopping 3.50 euros per jar and is actually labled, 'American Style Beurre de Cacahouete'. The French don't touch the stuff .

My favorite place to buy all natural food is at one of Paris's many open-air markets. Luckily, we have one nearby at Bastille that operates twice a week. I'll never forget my daughters' collective shock and awe the first time we went there last August. Their American eyes had never before seen things such as these:

These little piggies definitely went to market.

There's no hair on this hare!

The novelty of these creatures that the French call food has since worn off. We love visiting our local outdoor market because of the lively atmosphere, the better deals, and the freshest food. It's also fun to watch Soren request two grapefruit, in French, and get twelve of them instead. Lucky for us, we all love grapefruit.

To market, to market to buy a fresh...

While in Paris, I have attempted to shift my Californian health-conscious mindset to become more in line with the French way of thinking about and eating food. This shift has enabled me to try new things, required me toss out my assumptions that carbs and sugar are pure evil, and allowed me to relish in ingesting more animal fat and animal based protein in one year than I have over the past five. I have eaten foie gras (fattened duck or goose liver), ordered joues de couchon (pig cheeks), enjoyed cofit de canard (cured duck poached in its own fat), layered on the butter (the real stuff, not Earth Balance natural buttery spread), and I have even drank (gasp!) whole milk (fat free milk is non-existent in Paris, the best my California-bred self can do is buy half-fat milk known as demi-écrémé). Our special treat weekend breakfasts rotate between homemade crêpes spread with Nutella or, flaky, buttery croissants dabbed with raspberry confiture. My taste buds have loved every minute of what feels like a gluttonous lifestyle.

My enjoyment has been intermittently interrupted by some unpleasant culinary dabblings. While lunching with a French friend, she explained that she orders blood sausage at least once a week because it's a great source of iron. The word 'blood' should have tipped me off, but I naively responded, "Yes, please," when she offered me a bite of her darkly colored link when it arrived at our table. I thought it tasted disgusting. And that was before I came home and googled 'blood sausage'. Having learned my lesson, I declined to try a bite of andouillette when it was offered while visiting the town of Troyes. Soren, however, braved the experience. I watched Soren's face as he attempted to swallow his bite. His post-swallow review went something like, "It tasted just like the inside of a pig intestine would be expected to taste- like shit. Literally." I'm glad I passed. We generally love salmon and recently, when our dinner hostess informed us that was going to be our main dinner course, we responded with encouraging smiles. That was until we tasted it. She had taken what, we think, was a salmon fillet, placed it in a blender and pureed it with what we assume was salmon roe, then poured this mixture into a loaf-shaped mold to firm up, and then she served it, sliced like meatloaf, accompanied by white rice. It took me until my 30's to even try sushi (now I'm an addict) and I won't touch anything with a fishy aroma let alone put it in my mouth. This salmon loaf was the fishiest thing I have ever experienced. Thank god for the rice; it provided a hiding place for the bites my kids and I pretended to eat. Soren took one for the team and reluctantly gulped his entire serving down, all the while exclaiming, "C'est tres bon." To her credit though, our hostess is responsible for Raelyn's and Nola's expanded knowledge of French cheeses so I will forgive her for the salmon.

It has been a delight to witness my daughters' progression away from being kids who tended to- like most American kids- gravitate towards chicken nuggets, mac-n-cheese,  or hot dogs as safe bets in restaurants.  Their attitudes about food have really changed this year as their palates have been exposed to new dishes, tastes, and textures. While Raelyn and Nola still tend to gravitate towards the familiar poulet roti avec frites et haricot verts (roasted chicken, fries, green beans) while dining out, sometimes, they bravely venture outside of this safety net. They have tried many varieties of gourmet cheeses and are in agreement that Comté is one of their new favorites. Last weekend, we enjoyed a picnic with friends at Fontainbleu. In preparation, Soren ordered some Comté at the fromagerie. Upon tasting it, Raelyn declared, "Dad, this Comté is okay, but what you need to ask for next time is a Comté that is plus fort (more strong), plus jaune (more yellow), and plus vieux (more aged)." I can't wait to send her into Berkeley's Cheese Board after we move back home where she can order up some of their finest.  Nola is a fan of not only the Comté, but any goat or sheep cheese as well. If she had her way, she'd accompany her cheese selections with a perfectly paired wine or champagne as her exposure to these spirits has confirmed what we already suspected- this girl really appreciates her beverages. And, I could have never predicted that all four of us would come away with a newfound liking for radishes- criss cut on the top with a dab of pure butter inserted inside- simply delish. Dessert, needless to say, is never a problem in France. We just love getting our hands on tarte tatin, moelleaux au chocolat, and tarte au citron. Lucky for us, there is a pâtisserie on almost every corner.

Picnicing, French style.

One of our favorite neighborhood boulangerie/pâtisseries. Like most, figuring out their business hours is nearly impossible.

A popular French dish that I cannot wrap my American brain around is steak hache or steak tartare. This raw or sometimes nearly raw meat dish is ubiquitous in France. Not only did I stop eating red meat two decades ago (and before that, I never cared for it anyway), American news stories about E. coli and mad cow disease have forever brainwashed me into believing that if I am in the same room as raw beef, I may be stricken with bloody diarrhea and possibly die.  And if you've ever driven down California's Highway 5 and seen the conditions of those cattle ranches, or, watched the film Food, Inc., well then, can you blame me?

Raelyn and Nola ate steak hache at school before they realized what it was. Then, naturally, they became grossed out. Now they have a method of eating their yogurt, then placing their bites of steak hache in the emptied yogurt cup, turning it upside down before returning their lunch tray to the unsuspecting lunch ladies who demand the children eat everything on their plates.

The thing about the beef and other meat and animal products served and eaten in France is that folks can trust in their knowledge of not only where these foods come from, but also how they were raised. With this knowledge, the French can mindlessly enjoy their steak hache without fear of gastrointestinal revolt- or worse.

The French traditionally have a close relationship with their food. Unlike in the U.S., a larger measure of French food is still produced by small, local ranchers and growers using traditional (natural and/or organic) methods. The U.S. has expressed frustration with France's refusal to back EU approval to import genetically modified crops. France's refusal is tied to their demand that any food product containing or derived from genetically modified organisms be labeled and any GM ingredients in food be traceable. The American agricultural industry has argued for free trade and is strongly opposed to labeling, saying it gives the food a negative connotation by implying that there is something wrong with genetically modified food and that this could create a trade barrier. Furthermore, these officials believe that since the United States does not require labeling, Europe should not require labeling either. As a mother, one who is responsible for the meal planning, shopping, cooking, and general health and well-being of my household, I'd really like to know if that succulent tomato at my local grocer's produce section has had its molecules tinkered with.  Then, at least, I can choose to buy a real tomato instead, you know, the kind of tomato without the negative connotation that is derived from the fact that the U.S.'s FDA does not have the time, money, or resources to carry out health and safety studies before trying to sell me that imposter of a tomato.

Since farming is one of France's most important industries, and the country is widely self-sufficient in food supplies, France has the freedom to, and rationale for, resisting America's ethnocentric trade demands. After all, French people take pride in seeking genuine regional products. French grocery stores, restaurants, street vendors, fromageries, and butcher shops take care in letting their customers know exactly what region of France their beef, pork, and cheese products originated from. Most Americans know only that our beef comes from the meat section of the grocery store. Many of us don't want to think about where that cow- or multiple parts from several cows- ground up and pre-wrapped in styrofoam and plastic, spent most of its predestined life; on an overcrowded, disease-ridden cattle ranch eating feed laced with antibiotics and growth hormones while wallowing in its own manure. France's former Agriculture Minister Jean Glavany once slammed the U.S.'s industrialized practice of treating its beef cattle with hormones. He also added, "(The United States) is the country that has the worst food in the world." While my exposure to France's cultural norms around food help me to understand Glavany's viewpoint, I wonder if it's not so much that the U.S. has the worst food, but rather, if we have the worst governmental oversight that is rife with conflict of interest issues when it comes to agricultural health and safety?

"All of our meats are of French origin."

Daily, after I drop the girls off at school, I see meat making its way from ranch to grocery store via delivery truck. I also regularly pass by the windows of my local boucherie and witness them plying their craft. Dining in restaurants means I come in close proximity with the meat that is prominently displayed before being sliced and distributed to diners. One thing is clear: it would be very difficult for me to live in Paris if I were still a vegetarian.

I wonder if this came from that shopping cart?

Can you picture Diablo Magazine endorsing a local butcher with this kind of ad? Well, that's exactly what this French magazine highlighting local merchants and events called "Bon Bon" does. I told you sex and blatant objectification is everywhere!

While the French are generally spared the worry about E. coli and salmonella, they somehow manage to ignore potential contamination from the common cold and viruses due to dirty and germy hands. In boulangeries, pâtisseries, and counter service restaurants, the person who prepares my food is also the same person who takes my money. When I order a baguette, it is handed to me nearly naked with only a small band of thin paper loosely wrapped around the center. At least the baguette can be protected from my dirty hands provided that I only hold it where the paper cover is. But try walking down a narrow and crowded sidewalk. Do you know how many arms and shoulders belonging to strangers brush up against my exposed baguette? The French have been operating in these ways for so long that they most likely have stronger immune systems because of it. Recently, I saw a toddler get the attention of her mother to indicate that her piece of bread had fallen into the gutter outside of my daughters' school. It took longer than the three second rule for the child to get her mother's attention, more like a minute as the mother was absorbed in a conversation. When her mother finally noticed, she picked up the fallen bread, handed it to her child, and told her to eat it. Maybe gutters are considered relatively clean since Parisian dogs seem to poop only on the sidewalks? The bread served in Parisian restaurant bread baskets is recycled. My guess is that this practice occurs in the states as well, but I think it's less blatant and obvious than it is here. We have witnessed the recycling of the bread and, one time, we even ate bread out of our basket before discovering this:

Diners, do you know where your bread has been?

I changed my eating habits prior to our move to Paris, adding a bit of white meat and the occasional pork ribs back into my diet. What I did not expect to change are my drinking habits. Pre-Paris, I was an occasional wine and champagne drinker, usually enjoying it socially and sometimes having a glass with dinner at home. Unlike many of our friends, I had remained uneducated about wine and could count on one hand the number of times I had gone wine tasting in the Napa Valley. Post-Paris, I will likely keep up my new habit of ordering a glass of wine or champagne when I dine out at lunchtime and also drink it much more frequently with dinner meals at home.  Touring wineries and champagne cellars in France has unleashed in me a greater knowledge of and appreciation for good wine and champagne and I look forward to taking advantage of the Napa Valley wineries right in my own backyard.

Post tour at Mumm's Champagne caves in Reims, France

One of our favorite wines comes from this small winery in the Chianti region in Italy- Casa Emma

Paris's annual Salon Vins Vignerons Independants, a 3-day expo featuring all of France's independent wine makers.

Another favorite- Château Belles-Graves. If only we had a dolly to transport it on the Metro, we would have purchased more than two cases.

Another change has affected my disinterest in coffee. It's not that I detest it, I've just always been a tea drinker. Back home, I don't make daily Peet's or Starbucks visits and if I happen to be in one I will occasionally order a non-fat chai tea latte if I'm feeling really crazy. So, while I can say that during my time living in Paris I have acquired new French food and beverage tastes and appreciation, I don't quite place myself in the category of French foodie snob or wine snob. I do declare, however, that I am now an official coffee snob. Thanks to Caféothèque, an in-house roasting, single source bean serving coffee house that treats coffee with the same respect and appreciation that a sommelier treats wine. Pre-Paris, I didn't even know how to operate the electric coffee pot we received as a wedding gift. Post-Paris, I will be creating space on my kitchen counter for a new top-of-the-line coffee maker and scouting out my sources for single-source beans. And as for Starbucks and Peet's? They'll still get my business when I'm looking to spice things up with a chai tea latte.

That's a whole milk flower and it's crazy good.

One of my take-aways for me as a newbie French foodie is summed up by this French proverb: A good meal ought to begin with hunger.  Such a simple concept that has eluded so many Americans. Of the many things that differentiate the way in which the French relate to their food, one of them is portion size. The French people we know who have eaten at a Cheesecake Factory are quick to point out how one main entree can easily feed a family of four. Doggie bags are non-existent in Paris. There is a reason for this: diners are served a reasonable amount of food that a reasonably hungry person can reasonably finish and feel reasonably satiated. For the French, food is so much more than about eating. Mealtimes are considered more sacred and they allow themselves to relax rather than rush through a meal. Mindless and frequent snacking is not a habit in France. Instead, the French enjoy their traditional afternoon snack or, le goûter, between 4-5 p.m. to tide themselves over until dinner. These habits are core to the French dietary lifestyle and my Parisian food experiences have taught me not only to appreciate French cuisine, but also the simple and commonsensical cultural norms that accompany it. Heck, my American refrigerator may just see its first carton of whole milk ever! Hormone-free, of course.