I took my son to paris this week. It was a reward for more than surviving what was a difficult few months. Eurostar was having a sale; I felt we deserved a treat. In anticipation of this journey, I did what I usually do. I looked for guidebooks. I found a couple of good ones, and one in particular, The little Black Book of Paris (2014, Peter Pauper Press), proved particularly useful. I have also begun to buy a novel about the places I am visiting before going and this time I purchased a book called Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard. I was going to Paris, I planned to eat lunch, it seemed a good choice. Both books were a good choice, as was Paris, and as were the meals I chose while there. Let me tell you about it.
We arrived on Monday night, found our hotel and immediately set off to locate some food. This is where the guidebook came in handy, not that we consulted it for the restaurant, but because we were able to actually navigate using the maps provided. The guide book is pocket sized, bound like a notebook (spiral binding) and organised by area, meaning the maps are both small enough to consult without looking too much like a tourist and detailed enough to actually see every street. It also makes a somewhat artful addition to a food photo. The quiche, was my dinner and had a seam of gorgonzola through the centre. It was absolutely divine. A rich, custardy texture that felt like a feather duvet should feel–warm, airy, and soft–but without the gagging that arises from eating a mouth full of feathers. The crust was subtle and really only there to hold the shape, the gorgonzola not overwhelming, but adding a distinct flavour. I shall dream about this quiche. This was a creation to be remembered as it resembled nothing of the somewhat rubbery concoctions one gets in British supermarkets. I now feel inspired to make more quiche.
The second day we walked through Montparnasse, where we were staying, to the Notre Dame, and then past Hotel de Ville and into Marais where we hoped to find the Picasso Museum, which we had read about in the guide book. We had seen a Picasso exhibit in Hong Kong and thought it might be nice symmetry to visit the exhibit in Paris.
Although the museum was closed for refurbishment until spring, which I now recall was why the collection was travelling to Hong Kong, we did find a lovely restaurant, called Les Philosophes, located at 28 rue Vieille du Temple. Simon had boeuf bourguignon, which he has demanded I recreate for him at home. I had steak tartar. The first time I had steak tartar, I was in San Francisco at what my parents referred to as a “special restaurant” (men were required to wear ties). My father referred to the particular act of parenting that involved taking us to eat at nice restaurants as “exposure”. The intention being that once grown up, and exposed, my siblings and I would be able to handle ourselves in situations where we were with those who could afford to eat like this all the time rather than be intimidated. The byproduct for me was not only a love of good quality restaurants, but also a fondness for steak tartar. And while I have been in a number of highly rated restaurants since, this lunch was the first opportunity I had had to re-experience steak tartar. It was worth the wait.
The combination of slow cooked meat in the Bourguignon and no cooked meat in the tartar seems highly indicative of the French philosophy concerning beef. The cuts are cooked (or not) depending upon their nature and the methods are designed to bring out the best that each cut has to offer. What we might consider a cheap cut of meat is cooked long and low until it falls apart with tenderness. The steak, on the other hand, is a leaner cut of meat and so is tender through chopping and enhanced by the addition of spices, mustard, anchovies, capers, and onion, olive oil, and egg. In fact the dressing is similar to that which you might find for a caesar salad with a couple of additions. This is decisive cooking (something that Bard also identifies), not the wishy-washy approach that produces meat cooked to medium doneness (and which is pretty much the only way you can get a steak cooked in the UK).
Fortified by our lunch we headed off to the Louvre to see Mona. We got there in the late afternoon with sore feet but strong in constitution after having eaten all the meat for lunch. We discovered that while you can walk through the grounds, the actual Museum is closed on Tuesday. Strike two.
The thing about Paris is that the city is a museum in and of itself. Fortunately for us, there is a stop for one of those open top bus routes located right at the Louvre so on we got. It is not an inexpensive venture at 31 Euro per person, but it did afford a much needed break from walking and it allowed us a view of the Champs-Elysee, the Arch de Triumph, the Place du Trocadero and multiple perspectives on the Eiffel Tower. We got off the bus at the Dome and walked back through Rue Du Bac and St. Germain to our hotel in Montparnasse. Along the way we stopped in a grocery where we were able to secure sustenance to consume in the apartment where we were staying.
In bed that evening I re-lived some of the sights we had seen in the day through the eyes of a young women who is falling in love. The reason I often choose a novel concerning the place where I am traveling is that the form of communication offered through a novel gives insights into a place in ways that travel guides cannot. Neighbourhoods and their cultural practices emerge through the emotions that novels are able to conjure. Lunch in Paris, is about the courtship of a young couple written in an engaging manner. Neighbourhoods are populated with characters, but also the experiences and senses or life of the place. What makes this book particularly evocative is that food features strongly throughout as the spark that ignites this couple, as the lubricant that enables them to overcome cultural differences and as the glue that helps hold them together. But what is more, at the end of each chapter there are a number of recipes for the foods discussed as well as a few other offerings, and the promise of a life similarly sparked, lubricated and glued if one only cooks is presented. The book is travelogue, cookbook, and romance in one package and thus offers hope and inspiration all in one fell swoop. An ideal combination for a new year and a new beginning.