A.A. Gill stated, “the ingredients that French food comes from that astonishing obsession with the finest things could be grown or plucked or bottled, the most labour-intensive manufacture for the smallest possible production by a peasant society, are all dead.”
Thankfully, in various rural regions, people still take time to pluck the fruit off their trees, and there are still artisanal cheese and wine producers who keep the French cuisine spirit alive.
Calling the Gauls – Here & There collected travel writing, 2011.
My sojourn in the Southwest
The morning baguette…
On a large wooden board, next to a bread knife, inviting me to crave off a slice. Its crispy on the outside, soft and fluffy on the inside, reignited my love for French food.
I found a log of chèvre cheese in the fridge on the kitchen bench was a bowl of freshly picked figs, especially for me. I sliced open the baguette, layered slices of figs followed by slices of chèvre. I took a bite. The sharpness of the cherry with the creamy chèvre on a hunk of crunchy, chewy baguette had my taste buds sky-rocketing. As my friend, Jules, would say, “a taste explosion.” Accompanied by a cup of chocolaty coffee, this breakfast banished my travel fatigue.
A few days later, Rand suggested trying some of the cherry jam (confiture de cerise). For the next seven days, breakfast was started with “what do I fancy, figs or cherries.” On the fig mornings, I would walk over dew-covered grass to the laden trees. Picking the figs was a little hazardous as I had to duck and dive to avoid the wrath of bee colonies out collecting nectar.
Farmhouse kitchen lunches…
Lunch is a French institution, a leisurely affair best enjoyed in the company of friends. In the countryside businesses still close at lunchtime.
After a visit to the Boulangerie, the Boucher and the supermache Rand would head home. I would get out a large wooden board while Rand talked about the local cheeses he had picked up at the nearby supermache. These were placed next to the tomatoes picked from the garden plus a few large Marmandes (classic ribbed beefsteak tomato). Lastly, we arranged the local charcuterie, either jambon (ham) or salami. We chatted about our lives then and now, inevitable segue into the main subject dinner.
Food is a way of life for Rand. Before becoming an Osteopath, he had been a Chef, both running and owning restaurants. Juggling running a practice with three teenagers and good friends arriving to stay meal planning is routine. However, for him, it also is an enjoyable and quintessential part of his daily life.
Except for movie night, dinner was always eaten at the table. Wine flowing, water for the teenager and lots of conversation. Potatoes, small firm Bintje, Charlotte or Raclette varieties, sliced to make Dauphinoise potatoes, cut into uneven slices and roasted in the oven, or sautéed; accompanied the majority of meals. In this household, a weekly favourite was large baked potatoes, with small dishes of accompaniments to suit all taste buds.
The butcher, Casamayou (Boucher) in the village, Navarrenx, was a mix of old and new worlds; above the glass cabinets of traditional meat, cuts hung a digital screen showing a video detailing the farm to the cabinet process, perhaps a little too much detail for some. Monsieur Casamayou and his son are conservators of the traditional ways of butchery producing their own charcuteries, pâté, confit de canard and confit de proc. I bought a rabbit, rolled and stuffed with prunes, plus some local sausages. The rabbit (de lapin) was sautéed then roasted with freshly picked figs; at €25, it was a special meal and only enough for three, thankfully the girls didn’t eat de lapin.
Paris food pleasures…
With my inability to walk long distances, I decided to stay in the Marais district. It has an abundance of ambience, old winding cobblestoned streets, boutiques, and art galleries. Plus, two of my favourite places in Paris, Place des Vosges and the Seine, were within walking distance of Hotel Saint-Paul.
Dinner – the first night …
The hotel concierge Cyril suggested Chez Janou, 2, rue Roger Verlomme, a restaurant serving provençal homemade-style food, as a perfect local option for dinner.
Chez Janou was pumping when I arrived, but I took a chance and asked for a table.
The barman turfed out two girls sitting, chatting at a table without drinks or food, and viola, I was sitting down with the menu. After ten years, I was back in Paris. I decided to celebrate with an aperitif, Kir Royale. My salad entrée was disappointing; old-fashioned and lacking flair. The main course of Magret canard au romarin, duck breast with a deep wine coloured jus flavoured with rosemary and thyme served with sliced potatoes, and thinly sliced button mushrooms, sublime. The silky jus with the succulent duck was, for me, quintessential french cooking. Accompanied by a glass of Côtes d’ Provence, I felt like Julia Roberts character, Liz, in the Eat segue of the Eat Pray Love movie. The food, the lively, bustling atmosphere of the bistro had made me blissfully happy. To top off this bliss, the barman sent over a glass of champagne. It was on the house. Later the Maitre’d appeared with a shot glass and a bottle of melon liqueur saying, “please have a glass for you and one for me.” Apparently, the staff felt my table had been overcrowded by punters at the bar. I stopped at one shot, paid and shuffled back to my hotel.
Dinner – an Italian affair …
The next night, sore from walking too far during the day, I chose a nearby restaurant, Le Caruso. A classical Italian ristorante, the walls lined with dark wood panels, crisp white linen tablecloths on the French bistro tables. I started my meal with Bruschetta (tranches de pain grillé, aillé, tomate, basilic, huile d’olive) the well balanced flavours easy to eat as the bruschetta base was finger-thin. The impeccable mannered waiter who spoke some English recommended Chianti to drink. The main course of tortellini with mushrooms and something I couldn’t quite translate. Ingredient “x” had a strong nutty taste, eaten with tortellini and rich mushroom sauce, an explosion of autumn memories occurred. By the time the main course had been delivered, I befriended the solo diner next to me, Judy from New York. With our shared interest in blogs and literature, we had a fun evening.
Le Caruso Ristorante had captivated me, and although it felt a little unfaithfully to be eating Italian in France two nights later, I returned. However, partly because of the previous night’s meal at Café des Musees of steak and fries, the classical french bistro meal had been disappointing. And partly because walking to the Musee d’Orsay and Musee Rodin then onto Place des Vosges had inflamed my injured hip muscles.
Once again, I started my meal with the Bruschetta. But I was really looking forward to the Spaghetti tossed with tomatoes, eggplant and swordfish. The Italian waiter told me it was his favourite dish on the menu. So it was a memorable meal.
Lunch Parisian style …
Having missed breakfast to ensure I was at Musee d’Orsay by opening time, I had an early lunch at their Café Campana. It is worth a visit just to experience the dreamy Art Nouveau interior. My dish salade de chèvre chad vinaigrette au miel, warm goat’s cheese salad with a honey dressing, tomatoes, asparagus and arugula, had me retracting my previous sentiments on the French and salads.
A few days later, I walked across the Seine to the department store Printemps. I had never eaten at their La Brasserie. The restaurant is sighted beneath a 1923’s dome, which is a homage to Parisian life.
The traditional French brasserie food with a modern twist delivered crisp, clean tastes with a hint of the old dish and was surprisingly reasonably priced. My two plates, Scottish salmon with steamed vegetables followed by crème Brulee was part of the special lunchtime menu.
Late Afternoon Parisian style …
This particular day in Paris, Tuesday 14th October, began with clear blue skies; the city responding to sunshine and warmth, was vibrant. After a quick rest, I walked around to Place des Vosges, the oldest planned square in Paris. The central park area was packed with Parisians of all ages. After a quick walk through the park, I headed for my destination; Carette, Patisseries et salons de thé. Taking time out for a late afternoon drink, bière presson or espresso and perhaps some patisserie is integral to the French experience. I ordered an espresso and a Tarte framboise, the pastry perfectly thin with just the right amount of crunch, the raspberries embodied both a tang and summer sun and the crème patisserie silky smooth.
As I ate and drank my espresso, I watched the film production crew on the other side of the road shooting a movie scene or, perhaps, an advertisement, a great Parisian moment.
Finally, finding the quintessential boulangerie …
My last full day in Paris started with breakfast in the hotel, followed by a taxi to Palais Galliera – Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris to view the 1950’s fashion exhibition. After leaving the museum, I walked through one of the Parisian covered food markets. Unfortunately, it was raining, with a gap between awnings and the awkwardness of umbrellas and people I could not linger. From here, I walked along the high-end shopping strip of Avenue Montaigne in a northeast direction to Printemps.
Having had a big lunch, I choose an early night over dinner. I woke up early the next morning, showered, completed packing and went out for a quick walk. As I returned to the hotel, I found the one food experience I had sorely missed; breakfast at a boulangerie. All the boulangerie’s I had come across to date did not have tables nor serve coffee. Here it was on my last day, Miss Manon. I ordered freshly squeezed orange juice, apricot tart and espresso. I was leaving Paris on a high note.
Footnote: as with any good love affair, there is no weight gain. Apart from Paris, when I indulged in two courses, we only had a main in the evening, snacks if at all were olives. The food, though, was all unprocessed and seasonal. Unable to walk too far, meals became the highlight of my day; unhurried and enjoyed.
Originally published in October 2014 – rewritten and republished November 2021, during Covid restrictions.