On our last trip to Paris, Himself and I rented a flat in Montmartre with a kitchen. Not that we wanted to spend our entire time there cooking, but having a kitchen allowed us to whittle quite a few euros off the cost of our stay. It also allowed us to do more than merely wander the city’s markets, sighing over what we could admire but not take with us. Instead, with grocery list in hand, we could strike up conversations–using our quite limited French–with the shopkeepers and get a taste of what it’s like buying groceries each day as Parisians. This is a type of “touring” the average traveler doesn’t do, and it gave us a more personal view of the city and its food culture. And as the only Yanks wandering through in search of ingredients for dinner, it bought us more than a little good will amongst the locals.
Truthfully, we did very little cooking while in Paris. But having a kitchen in which to do it if the spirit so moved us made us feel très parisien. Silly, but oh well. Working in that tiny kitchen certainly gave us more respect for what the average Parisian cook is able to accomplish in an astonishingly limited space.
This pleasant memory sprang to mind recently as I was preparing for a luncheon I was about to cater. Buying the necessary ingredients sent me from store to store, collecting everything I needed for the meal. But this enterprise is entirely different in the United States from the way in which it is undertaken in Paris.
While in Paris, we visited a number of shops to get what we needed for a meal–to the fromagerie for cheese, the charcuterie for terrines and pâtés, the boulangerie for still-warm baguettes (the best bread I’ve ever eaten), the marchand de vin for wine and the pâtisserie for dessert. Fruit and vegetables we bought from the sidewalk produce stands, hand selected for us by the sellers. We didn’t touch a thing unless they handed it to us. All of this was done on foot, all in the same neighborhood–no car required.
Buying ingredients for a meal is quite a different experience back in the States, where you go to a chain grocery, and if it doesn’t have everything you’re looking for, you go to its competitor. And to another if need be. Most food shopping in the States doesn’t provide that pleasurable aspect of engaging with the person selling the goods, who is generous with suggestions and samples and makes the experience a social as well as practical one. In fact, if I ask for help in a grocery store, I’m relieved if the employee knows which aisle contains the item I’m looking for.
Parisian food sellers take great pride in what they’re offering, and they want to be sure their clientele get precisely what they need. You don’t just pick up a hunk of cheese or a tomato and buy it. You tell the seller what you’re looking for and when you plan to eat it. This guides the selection process. If you’re going to serve that brie tonight, its center should give a little more to the touch than if you plan to eat it tomorrow or the next day. The shop keep will see to it that you get the best item and even offer suggestions for how to prepare it.
I know my burbling on about this seems foolish and sentimental. It was pretty easy for us–we only lived this way for a week. We weren’t there with jobs and kids and all the busy-ness of everyday life. But it’s pleasant to muse on, especially when I’ve made my zillionth trip to our neighborhood giganto-mart which is packed with the exact same stuff as every other giganto-mart. France does have its equivalent, the hypermarket, and like its American counterpart, the food there is inferior to what you find in the specialized food shops.
The good news is that I can engage in this style of food shopping, if only in a limited way. I try like crazy to wait for the Saturday morning farmers’ market to buy fresh local produce that has been ripened on the vine, not with chemicals, and certainly not picked green and shipped halfway around the world. Likewise, unless I’m truly short on time I’d rather hold out for the quality cheeses I can get from one of the area cheese stores, rather than settling for the rubbery, off-tasting mass-produced stuff from the grocery. Perhaps I can’t find everything I’d like to in our neighborhood, but our meals are much better for us and much more enjoyable when we can incorporate as many foods into them as possible that are made with integrity and grown with care.
They may be more expensive than the mass-produced stuff, but paying more for a little less in quantity and a lot more in quality is still a bargain in my book.