Food musings

This current stay in France isn’t a vacation and there hasn’t been much vacationlike dining. Still, I’ve managed to squeeze a lot of enjoyment from my meals, along, of course, with nourishment.

Everywhere you look there’s something interesting to eat. The Quick hamburger chain offers a foie gras burger for under 3 euros. The Bar Tabac down the street has Lay’s potato chips in Bolognaise (tomatoes and herbs) and Roast Chicken flavors.

There’s a sad grocery store nearby with a sign in the window apologizing for their poor assortment. “Day by day,” the sign laments, “our shelves grow emptier.” They blame their sorry state on a “lack of support from the community.” Slam!

But even in that gloomy post-apocalyptic skeleton of a supermarket one finds gems. I came across some excellent Catalan sausage with hazelnuts in it. It’s musky and rugged, like the Pyrenees foothills where it’s made. Here’s a picture.

And just down the shelf there sat at least thirty varieties of cheese. Bries of a half-dozen brands and prices and the same number of chèvres, Emmenthals and Gruyères (French and Swiss, sliced and in blocks), five or six bleus from three countries. All this in a store that apologizes for its poor variety!

At the outdoor market in Carcassonne a few weekends ago I bought a length of Rosette from a cheerful woman who asked me how firm I preferred it. I’d never been asked that by a sausage vendor – or anyone, really – so I just pointed to the little pile of slices from which I’d taken my sample and said, “Comme ça.” Madame then spent a solid minute squeezing the links in her basket before settling on one that was exactly as old and firm as the one I’d tasted. She offered it to me for a confirmatory squeeze before weighing it, putting it in a paper sack and accepting my money. She was truly appreciative of my business and that’s how retail sales should be.

Nearby in the same market was a table of pâtés and potted meats. The man behind the table excitedly said over and over that they were all made from his own animals. “Mes animaux! Mes animaux!” he proclaimed with one hand over his heart and the other waving over the merchandise. I looked down at the jars of rillettes de lapin and then back at the big smile on their producer and was inclined to buy something except for the fact that the layer of fat at the top of each jar was about three times as thick as the meat beneath. I’d bet it was very luscious fat, though.

Much is made of the fondness of cheese among the French. Even the homeliest roadside diner will offer you cheese after your meal and they’re generally very proud of their assortments.

But what isn’t advertised as widely is the universal love of salad greens. At every market – of both the super- and open-air varieties – you’ll be met by rows and rows of lettuce. Big heads and small, smooth leaves and frilly, and it’s all beautiful. Perfect green leaves roll over each other like waves, like rose petals. More than once I’ve seen heads of frisée measuring two feet in diameter. The shopper doesn’t need to remove anything unattractive because the vendors do it themselves. Behind every vegetable display is a heap of trimmings. I love the pride that producers here show for the food they produce.

Here is the most beautiful spinach I ever saw. Some of the leaves were six inches across and they were all perfect. It came from the Saturday market in Perpignan.

Carcassonne, the medieval walled city I’ve mentioned in these pages before, sits smack in the middle of cassoulet country. White beans are baked for hours with various meats – most often local sausages, duck confit and slab bacon – and metamorphose into a finished product exponentially greater than the sum of its parts. In years past I have made this unctuous dish, usually following Julia Child’s long and detailed instructions, but cassoulet is essentially peasant food and allows infinite variations. Every restaurant in Carcassonne touts its Cassoulet à l’Ancienne or Cassoulet Languedocien and they’re all good. You can even get it in a can, and that’s good. The only thing not good about cassoulet is making and eating it in August in San Antonio, Texas, which I have done, but that was my fault and shouldn’t reflect adversely on such a noble dish.

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