Thursday, February 26, 2009

eating in Paris

Everyone makes a big to-do about French food. And, I suppose there's good reason for that because it can be spectacular, and it certainly is legendary. Anyone who has read Julia Child's My Life In France or M.F.K. Fisher's The Art of Eating will doubtless be fascinated by French food. And when you live here (I feel like you might not get the same effect from a week or two of vacation in France), you come to realize that the reason French food is so amazing has little to do with the extraordinary culinary powers inherent in the French gene pool; it is the result of super-fresh ingredients and attention to detail.

For the French, food is an experience, not simply something that nourishes and is therefore a necessity. When you go to a cafe in France, even ordering an espresso is an interesting experience. It is somehow more formal. It makes you want to exhibit your best manners and display that you are bien eleve (well-raised). Think about going for a coffee in the states. First of all, people rarely order just a plain coffee. It always has to be something like a double skim coconut latte extra foam with cinnamon sprinkled on top. When your $6 drink is ready, the "barista" yells the name of your drink out loud so everyone around can judge you by what you ordered (don't say it's not true; coffee choices reflect a person's character). Here, you sit down (yes, they come to you) and order one of a handful of things. The most common are cafe (and unless you specify cafe americain or cafe long you will be served a tiny, little espresso), chocolate chaud, and cafe creme. If you want something fancy schmancy I would advise you to learn to say it in French before you order and then leave a tip afterwards. "You might want to button that up--your American is showing."

I will say that sometimes I would prefer the super-casual coffee shop atmosphere in some American cafes. I miss being able to bring my own cup (although here you are never served in styrofoam or paper cups, so there's really no need; oh, and you can't get coffee to go unless you go to McDonald's or if you happen to have a Starbucks nearby--there isn't one in Angers, and I never saw one in Paris although I'm certain there must be one somewhere), get my coffee, and sink into a comfy chair. But there you go. Everything is an experience in France.

Having started a long harangue about French food and dining (I always get carried away with these things), I will now say that I have not eaten a lot of stereotypical French food. I have not eaten cassoulet or foie gras. I have had quite a few French pastries and desserts, but those are a dime a dozen and priced accordingly. The fact is, French food is tres tres riche (very, very rich) and tres, tres cher (very, very expensive). I am not a huge fan of rich foods as a main dish. I like my veggies and my salads and my whole grains. Anyone who knows me will know that a typical lunch for me is a big salad with tuna, almonds, and orange segments. Let me tell you (I can tell you because I have already made this mistake) that when you order a salad in France you are not ordering a salad. You are ordering lots of ham, cheese, and a few weepy lettuce leaves drenched in a mayonnaise-based dressing. Unless you like ham, do not order the salad (unless you happen to be at one of the two vegetarian restaurants in France). So for the most part I have not eaten "French" food.

When you're traveling on a budget, an important thing to remember is that ethnic food is usually less expensive. In Paris, the cheapest (and still quite delicious) places to go are Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, or Indian restaurants. Cheaper, plenty of food, and tasty and usually healthier to boot. The best thing I ate in Paris was at a Vietnamese restaurant called Le Bambou. We had steamed dumplings to start with and the main course was a type of spring roll filled with lettuce, mint, apple slices, and pork. Absolutely delicious and I didn't feel as if I had eaten a tub of grease afterwards.

Aha, but you'd better believe I did taste some things you can only get in Paris. I did lots of research beforehand and discovered several must-see/taste destinations, one of which was Laduree (2nd photo). Laduree is famous for its macarons. Let me make one thing clear, however. A French macaron is not at all the same thing as a macaroon. Macaroon indicates coconut. A macaron has nothing to do with coconut (although I'm sure there are coconut flavored macarons somewhere). Macarons are little cookies with a slightly firm (not crunchy--just a little resistant to the teeth; the French word is craquant for which I don't think there is a suitable English word) exterior and a soft, smooth interior. They come in every imaginable flavor, and their color corresponds to their flavor. Bright pink macarons are either strawberry or raspberry. Brown ones are chocolate or coffee. White ones are vanilla. Green ones are pistachio. The filling inside some of them (usually the chocolate or coffee or vanilla ones) has the consistency of frosting, but for others (usually the fruit-flavored ones) the consistency is more like really thick jam. But in any case, they are fabulous and I cannot believe you can't find these in the US (you probably can in bigger cities--if anyone knows where I can get macarons in the US, please post a comment).

Well, of course I bought a little box of Laduree macarons. Again, the attention to detail was amazing. The box could've held precious jewels it was so pretty (as for me, I think I'd rather have macarons than jewels anyways), and the 8 macarons were nestled neatly inside, tucked in with wax paper. I've eaten them already (it says on the box to consume within 3 days, as if macarons could ever sit around for longer than one day while in my care), but I think I can remember which flavors I had. Chocolate, bitter chocolate (hey, I like chocolate, okay?), lemon, orange flower, red fruits...I'll get back to you on the others. They were amazing. That's all you need to know for now.

This is a bad photo, but my hope was to give you an idea of the whimsical desserts the French are famous for. This is at the Maison du Chocolat, which is also a famous Parisian destination for the chocolate lover. Do I need to tell you that I tasted a few? This sort of display will never cease to amaze me. I always have to stop in front of these windows and look in at the dainty, impossibly perfect desserts that are somewhat mysterious in terms of how you actually start eating them. Ok, do I use a knife and fork or a spoon or chopsticks? I guess so long as it tastes good it doesn't matter if it's a little...awkward to consume. It hasn't stopped me yet.
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Fiona said...

You might be able to find macaron here soon - they've been an obsession of the food blogging world for the last 6 months or so. I think they'll trickle into restaurants and bakeries, too.

That last picture really proves your point: everything perfectly lined up, immaculate and neat. Formality in visual form. I, too, loved the fact that things were a bit more formal in Paris (less so for us in Angers because we were with friends).

That said, I think ordering less artery-clogging food in French restaurants is possible, though I agree it's a challenge. things like consomme are helpful, and so are vinegar-based foods.

brandi said...

lovely post! one of my favorite things of exploring a new city is checking out the food.

you should ask if they have ketchup macarons.


Robin Chalkley said...

Mmm, food! Now this is more like it! I don't think of France when I think of chocolate capitals, but I suppose I should reconsider. Sounds and looks splendid!

Also, the differences in coffee shop experience is striking. Being served sounds great. Real cups sounds great. Fewer choices sounds boring. (By the way, according to its Web site, Starbucks has 36 locations in Paris...)

meg said...

I don't doubt it--I figured there were Starbucks somewhere. Paris is just so huge that unless you specifically look things up it's hard to just run into things.

I haven't had Belgian chocolates yet, which are supposed to be the creme de la creme, but the chocolate here is amazing. I'm already trying to figure out how much I should bring home.

About the macarons, I've decided to try making them myself. If all goes well, Asheville might have a macaron supplier!

Tartelette said...

La Maison du Chocolate has the best eclairs I have ever had!
One thing I miss about Paris is the wonderful Vietnamese restaurants in the 13th. Always so good and pretty cheap for a student on a budget!

meg said...

Oooh, if I go back I'll remember to get an eclair there.