French Gastronomie

Food is at the center of French Culture–from fine wine to chocolate to patisserie and baguettes, they take great pleasure in their consumption. Dinner (or even lunch) can turn in to an event with multiple courses that begins with an entrée (in France this is the first course or appetizer), plat (the main course), a cheese course, dessert and finally wrapped up with coffee or thé (tea). And of course many French top this off with 4-5 cigarettes at the table (this ends in January when restaurant smoking ban goes into effect). Lunch often runs to an hour and a half and dinner can easily take up to two. This can be compounded by the slow service. The waiters never seem to be in a hurry and when you want your bill you must flag down your waiter to ask for it (Monsieur, l’addition, s’il vous plait!) because they rarely come back to check on you.

No trip to Paris is complete without a tour of one of the open air markets where Parisians can buy everything from fresh fish and seafood to fruit and veggies (Clothing and household goods are very cheap here too.) I was lucky this morning to take a semi-private tour (there were 3 of us) through the Marché Richard-Lenoir under the wing of David Lebovitz. Lebovitz is an American who has been living in Paris for the last 4 years who is a well-know pastry chef and cookbook author. (I found this wonderful tour through Context Paris.)

Richard-Lenoir is the dividing line between the Bastille and Marais districts. The market has two distinct halves–the higher quality meat and produce sections (read more expensive) and the lower quality section (more affordable if you’re on a budget) run by many ethnic vendors, where you’ll also find more clothing stalls. Lebovitz spent two and a half hours guiding us through this market where he greeted many vendors by name, dropped off gifts of cookies and taught us about all sorts of produce, fresh herbs, meats, and cheeses. I sampled some of the best apples and citrus that I’ve had in ages.

One of the unique things about Paris markets like Richard-Lenoir is that you never pick up a piece of produce and certainly never fish or shell fish on your own. The vendor will pick out what they think you should have and usually dispense advice on how to prepare it. Depending on what you plan to do with it, they may recommend a different type of potato than what you’ve had your eye on and they expect you to take their advice. Lebovitz says this is a common aspect of French culture–they are extraordinarily opinionated and don’t take criticism well either. He also says that they reserve the highest quality food for those they know. A newcomer is likely to get the lower quality produce at first. It can take many months for them to get to know you.

After leaving Richard-Lenoir, I had lunch at a bistro that Lebovitz recommended along the Place de Vosges called Ma Bourgogne. This was one of the best meals I’ve had since I’ve been in France. I started out with a cold salad of tomatoes, green beans and cucumber in a sweet butter sauce. I followed it with joue de beouf, which is a hearty beef stew, and a glass of mild red wine. The couple at the other end of the table was having some; it looked so good I leaned over to the woman and said, “Exucez-moi madame, mais qu’est-ce que c’est?” or Excuse me, madam, but what is that? She told me and gave it a ringing endorsement.

Upon receipt, I could understand why. In the rich broth made from beef stock and what must have been a burgandy wine, was beef chunks so tender that they just melted in your mouth along with carrots, potatoes and onion. The red wine recommended by the chef was a wonderful complement.

Before arriving in France all I heard about was how small the French portions were. I have to say that this has not been my experience. The trend of larger proportions has made it across the Atlantic. Just about every where I’ve eaten in the last two weeks, I’ve been served quite hearty portions and haven’t been able to finish many. (I did make an exception for today’s lunch.) Doggie bags are still unheard of, however. The French government has become increasingly concerned that the French population is getting bigger. Sandwich and snack shops have become common place where a few years ago, you would have had to look hard to find them. The French government has become so concerned about the proliferation of sandwich shops and stalls that they stepped into regulate the content of the bread used to ensure that it was healthier.

But the French Government should worry too much just yet. Most of the women I’ve seen have been very skinny still; of course this may change when the smoking bans go into effect and the number of smokers begin to decrease. French women I’m told stay skinny by smoking and not snacking. French haute couteur houses rarely carry clothing sizes larger than a 12 and some even do not carry sizes larger than a 6.

I capped off lunch with a short visit to the Picasso Museum and some time wandering through the Jewish Marais area. Picasso really was an odd fellow and every time I view his artwork I wonder what kind of nightmares he had. The Jewish area of the Marais is quite quaint and full of cobblestone streets, which while pretty are hell on the feet.

After a short nap, I was off to the Musée D’Orsey to take in the French Impressionists. You really can’t beat the extended hours that the bigger museums offer once or twice a week. The crowds drop drastically after 6 pm and you can move through the museums quickly and have a clear view of works by Monet, Degas, Van Gogh and Cézanne.





After my trip to the Musée D’Orsey, I detoured through the St. Germain neighborhood when I got off the Metro at Place de St. Michele.

Due to the huge lunch, I skipped dinner and went right to dessert from one of my favorite Crêperie stands (one of those places the French government is worried about). I took a crêpe with Nutella and bananas back to my room to relax. The bananas make it healthy right? Of course it does. At any rate, I ended up with a happy tummy.

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