As travelers, every now and then we're granted the privilege of stopping for a moment and peering into the window of time. What is it that time shows us? For one thing, where we've come from, which gives us an idea of where we're going. My time-stopping moment came in Paris where I discovered some of its culinary treasures for the first time.
Food in the United States is wonderfully convenient, sometimes too convenient that we don't take the time to consider what we put in our mouths, nor take the time to enjoy the simple pleasures of eating. I perfected the "eating-on-the-go" lifestyle of business travelers. Caffeine was a staple. A little wine or beer at Happy Hour and food, well, whatever was available. Cooking - not really interested and no time.
The best way for me to broaden my perspective and experience of food was taking a walking tour through the heart of Paris' central food market - Les Halles. Les Halles in the 1st arrondissement was "the market" in Paris for 800 years. It's here in Les Halles that you can peer through the window of time into the guts of what makes food such a dynamic part of Parisians' lifestyles.
And the story begins with 19th century French writer Emile Zola, who set his famous novel, "Le Ventre de Paris" (The Belly of Paris) in Les Halles. Zola as a writer is known for his beautiful, naturalist descriptions. "The Belly of Paris" follows the lives of people living and working in Les Halles in the late 1850s - "fish mongers, produce sellers, cheese makers, poulterers, snarly old maids, cafe managers, little kids, political activists and starving artists." Here's an excerpt:
"It was there that La Sarriette lived in an orchard, as it were, in an atmosphere of sweet, intoxicating scents. The cheaper fruits - the cherries, plums, and strawberries - were piled up in front of her in paper-lined baskets, and the juice oozing from their bruised ripeness stained the stall front and steamed, with a strong perfume, in the heat. She would feel quite giddy on those blazing July afternoons when the melons enveloped her with a powerful, vaporous odor of musk; and then with her loosened kerchief, fresh as she was with the springitude of life, she brought sudden temptation to all who saw her. It was she - it was her arms and neck which gave that semblance of amorous vitality to her fruit."
"Raspberries added their fragrance to the pure scent. The currants - red, white, and black - smiled with a knowing air, while the heavy clusters of grapes, laden with intoxication, lay languorously at the edges of their wicker baskets, over the sides of which dangled some of the berries, scorched by the hot caresses of the voluptuous sun."
It was in Les Halles at the Bourse de Paris that I met cultural historian, Carolin Young, along with two opera singers, a chef and travel organizer. Her goal was to spend 3 hours with us, weaving Zola's fascinating story and the real history of this place into a fabric of greater understanding about Parisian cuisine.
What did I learn or rather what do I remember?
Lesson No.1: Not much is locally grown in Paris. Most food is brought in from other regions of France. Les Halles was closed as a food market due to the increased traffic and population growth and moved south of Paris to Rungis in 1970/71.
The Bourse de Paris where we started our tour is famous due to one of France's famous queens, Catherine de Medici who has been given credit for transforming French cuisine and introducing such things as forks during the 16th century. As Carolin explained wonderfully - it's food legend, not really true. Parisian culinary inventions seem to be the baguette and croissant. And French food's main amazing specialties are sauces and soups. It was an interesting discussion- how people are given credit or like to take credit for things they didn't do.
Lesson 2: Cheese. "Don't cut the tip off when you eat brie! It's considered rude in France." One third of the world's cheeses are made in France. So Carolin kindly selected comte cheese for us to go with our baguettes and wine. Comte is made from unpasteurized cow's milk under strict French AOC regulations. The cheese is aged 8 to 12 months and wasn't "stinky cheese," which can be an acquired taste. She said it went best with a chilled white wine. Hmmm. Delish. It was great.
Lesson 3: Spices. In medieval times, spices were only for the wealthy. French food in general compared to other international cuisine is not really that spicy. As the prices of spices came down over time, the food became less spicy. Wasn't considered "en vogue."
Lesson 4: Foie Gras. We stopped by this wonderful little shop with presumably some of the world's best foie gras. Won't eat it. That's something I just wont' acquire the taste for. But very cool little shop.
Lesson 5: For the best potatoes you've ever had...cook them in goose fat. Also confirmed by one of the opera singers on our tour. Everybody recommended Nigella Lawson's recipe. On the next to-do-list.
Here's the link: Perfect Roast Potatoes
With all these lessons in hand I came to the conclusion that I just needed to take the time to prepare delicious food. It's worth it. Finding good quality ingredients and sourcing vegetables and fruits from as local or as close to local as you can find doesn't even have to be expensive. The quality of food in the United States has been compromised for the sake of quantity and convenience and that's not healthy for us at all.
I also loved watching people. There is something to be said for Paris' cafe culture which keeps you, it seems more connected to people. Zola's "Belly of Paris" freezes time in 1850, and as I walk the streets of Paris, things aren't really that different today. We just have more choices, more conveniences and lots of stress. And that means we need to choose what we put into our mouths and minds wisely and learn from the past.
The Belly of Paris Tour - Context Travel.
Photo of Summer Fruit: Culinate.com