How Do They DO That?” Paris, October 16, 2015
Every time I take my first bite at even the tiniest, simplest French restaurant, the intensity of fine flavor bursting into my awareness brings to my mind the question “How do they DO that?” How come food here in Paris seems to brim with taste and energy, utterly seducing my taste buds (my “papilles” – a word I’ve seen used several times since coming to Paris)?
The other day, for instance, in a hole in the wall place, chosen because the menu looked simple and the prices reasonable, I ordered their speciality, roasted “bio” (organic) chicken. On the plate, when it arrived, were a beautifully roasted chicken leg quarter, with a patch of lettuce topped with homemade French dressing, and a serving of beautiful golden fried potato pieces. The plate was visually appealing and, for 12 Euros, a bargain. When I hungrily took my first forkful of chicken, I came close to swooning. My mouth was suffused with the most glorious flavor – a little salty, a little herbed, a lot wonderful.
How do they DO that?
I assume the chicken had been brined before being roasted. But beyond preparation in the kitchen, it has to have had a wonderful life foraging for bugs in a green yard, being lovingly raised to become a perfect tasting chicken at a later time. Long ago, my husband and I used to take trout fishing trips. When we were at establishments that raised trout and then released them for fishermen to catch, the real prizes were the fish that had been released the previous year, that had foraged on natural food for a year or more. Their flavor was so much richer than the grain-fed trout that had been released the previous week. There was no comparison. I doubt that feral chickens exist, ones that escaped slaughter the preceding year and are much better now. They wouldn’t be better – they’d be old, tough hens. When I was in France the first time, right after graduating from college in the US, the French, who were contemplating starting to import American raised chickens, were raising a political ruckus because the way American chickens were raised was so artificial and toxic, there would be no comparison with French chickens. They were right! I think that for that meal, I benefitted from a genuine French chicken.
But it’s not just chickens that make me ask that question in Paris. It’s salad, potatoes, ratatouille, eggs, duck, pork, green beans, apple pie, and the dozens of wonderful, rich flavors of house-made sorbets and ice creams – for example. Every meal is a wonderful surprise of rich, bursting flavor, no matter how simple the preparation and presentation.
How do they DO that?
The other thing I realize each time I come to Paris is “I’m in love!” This culture is deeply infused with the love of sensory pleasures of all kinds – music, visual harmony, beautiful parks – to name a few examples. The food is just one way in which moments spent in Paris abound in beauty of all kinds. When I catch a glimpse of a courtyard through an open front door, the plants are expertly arranged so that colors, textures, shapes and fragrances create a harmonious whole. The concert the other night at the Sainte Chapelle exquisitely married visual beauty with rich musical tones — both so exalted as to be other-worldly. The interior of the department store Au Bon Marche, which we visited yesterday, presented awe-inspiring modern design vistas at every turn. Store windows and counter displays were artfully designed, with surprising colors and shapes that also contributed to sophisticated visual compositions. Advertising has a graphic elegance that one appreciates esthetically while absorbing the commercial message. Enjoyment is built into the fabric of Parisian everyday life.
It’s a bit addictive. Having to leave such constantly pleasant moments to return to a life that is mostly focused on accomplishment and results is disappointing. When I went home the first time after my first 3 year stay in France, some of it spent in Paris, I was full of hope that I could bring back my newly honed sense of enjoyment and create some of that ongoing pleasure in my American life. It was not to be. I realized, after returning to the United States, how very contextual cultural experiences are. When nothing and no one in one’s environment attunes to something one appreciate, it’s impossible to bring it about in splendid isolation. Our quality of experience results from a kind of conspiracy – an agreement on what is important. There is no better place than the United States to enjoy clean, effective, well functioning experiences of everything mechanical. We expect it. Even when we take it for granted (which is most of the time), we appreciate it. And it’s fundamentally different from the exquisitely pleasant sensory experiences that form the fabric of everyday Parisian experiences.
There is just no way of duplicating Paris. You have to come here!