Conversations and Tips
Michael Roberts explains: I returned to Paris after some years absence to find that my old friends were now combing the neighborhood food markets for a freshly dug head of garlic, not yet too dry, and buying their veal on Saturday morning in the marché biologique, the organic market in the Boulevard Raspail. They had joined the legion of Parisians eating white asparagus nearly every day from mid-April to late June, before it disappears for another year. They now planned meals around the seasonal availability of French scallops, protected from harvesting during their reproductive months. New Year's Eve no longer meant dancing until dawn, but getting home by 1:00 A.M. for a steaming Soupe a' 1 'Oignon and a Coupe de Champagne, the year's first meal. It was as if a yet-to-be-discovered gene had been activated, triggering an appreciation of food that is central to the French cultural identity.
Roberts and his Parisian friends are indeed passionate-and articulate-about food. Here's what some of them have to say:
Parisians often eat their larger meal at midday. Philomena explains that dinner is "the main meal not because it's more serious dining but because we share it with each other and, when they were young, with the children. It's a lighter meal than lunch, unless we're having people in. We don't spend 30 minutes at the table, but rather, more than an hour. We take our time, savor the pleasure. We feast, even though dinner may be an omelette."
The fitness of Parisians, even in light of their passion for food, has more to do with the way they eat than with what they eat. "Eating a variety of things satisfies the senses with lots of textures and tastes," Philomena explains. "When you eat many delicious things, you only want to eat a little of each one. Boring food, that's the culprit. You eat and eat and eat, hoping, waiting for the moment of satisfaction that never comes."
"Eggs for breakfast?" Ghislaine feigns disbelief. French people in general have traditional ideas about which foods to eat when, with what, and in what order. Ghislaine's ideas are only slightly exaggerated from the norm. "I serve eggs to the family for dinner," she explains. "Sometimes I'll order an omelette for lunch, but only in very expensive restaurants where they know how to prepare them. There's nothing more horrifying than a poorly cooked egg, don't you agree?"
"The perfect green salad is like the perfect black dress or blue suit," expounds Sandra, "always presentable, never out of place, perhaps not exciting, but one of the marks of a well-served meal. I think it makes no sense starting a meal with salad, the vinegar taints the palate and can even upset the stomach. And don't forget that wine and vinegar don't mix. Starting a meal with salad you would not be able to serve wine. Salad is taken after the main course. It cleanses and prepares the palate for cheese, which, of course, is the reason for having it."
Commenting on the rising consumption of seafood in Paris, Alain, who teaches at Centre Jean-Ferrandi, the cooking school, observes: "Parisians are mad for fish simply because it's so perishable. Better to dine on fish while it's fresh, for life is fleeting. You could be crushed under the wheels of a speeding métro train, or hit by a taxi, or assassinated in the street. Ah, oui, monsieur, life in Paris can be like that."
In English we swear "like sailors," Roberts notes. But in French you swear "like a fishmonger." "Just question the quality of his fish and see what happens," he explains. "First, he insults you personally. Then he proceeds to insult the good name of your mother and your wife, who must be questionable themselves to be associated with one so stupid as yourself, incapable of recognizing the freshness of his fish."
"People cook what their parents cooked," the butcher tells Roberts. "Everyone prefers to eat the foods that they grew up with. It's our traditions and our culinary birthright that keep us French." Rustic stews have long connected Parisians with their ancestral regions. Today, they also serve to connect young Parisians with their parents' generation, when most ovens lacked precise temperature controls and nearly all home cooking consisted of meat or poultry cooked like a pot roast, in sauce, or gratinéed.
"When I cook with lamb chops, there's an odor of sizzling fat that fills the kitchen and make me feel so, so, like such a good cook," says Ariane, who by her fastidiousness limits her cooking to simple pan-grilled meats or poultry, baked potatoes, steamed vegetables, and green salads. She'll spend 15 minutes at the market choosing the perfect tomato or mushroom and travel across Paris for cheese or ice cream. When Roberts remarks that Ariane spends more time shopping than cooking, she takes it as a compliment to her good taste.
"At school we cook with lots of heat," notes Cedric, a young culinary student. "When we sear a piece of meat it takes on a rich color, the flavor changes. It becomes worthy. His mother chimed in "the neighbors would call the firemen if I tried that at home." At school they reduce stocks and wine to next to nothing, then replace the lost liquid with crème frâiche and butter. Can you imagine if people cooked like that at home? We'd all be dead or so fat that we wouldn't be able to climb the stairs in the métro."
Parisian Home Cooking
Conversations, Recipes, and Tips from the
Cooks and Food Merchants of Paris
By Michael Roberts
William Morrow & Company
Hardcover, $25.00, June 1999
Reprinted by permission.
Parisian Home Cooking
- Cassolette de Coquilles St-Jacques à l'Estragon
- Gâteau de Tomates d'Eté
- Poulet Rôti en Cocotte aux Petits Pois et aux Lardons
- Tarte au Citron
This page created July 1999