Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter (2015)
NIGHT 1: SOUND
Chapter 13. Eating Well Is the Best Revenge
Seating themselves on the greensward, they eat while the corks fly and there is talk, laughter and merriment, and perfect freedom, for the universe is their drawing room and the sun their lamp. Besides, they have appetite, Nature’s special gift, which lends to such a meal a vivacity unknown indoors, however beautiful the surroundings.
JEAN ANTHELME BRILLAT-SAVARIN, on eating outdoors
Over the years, my role in August has settled down to that of cook. In return for feeding the house, I’m excused all exposure to the sun. From the shade of the big pear tree in the garden, I watch, book in hand, as Marie-Dominique, her mother Claudine, and Louise and her friends leave for the beach. Until lunchtime, I’m free to read, enjoy another cup of coffee, and plan the day’s menus.
Not that they need much planning. I compile them after I’ve seen what’s on offer, particularly in the ancient stone fish market. To step out of the stinging sun into its moist chill is to enter a different sensorium. The slap of flip-flops on the wet floor echoes through the building like a definition of cool. Closer to individual stalls, sounds contract to the barely audible—the slither of live eels, a clacking of claws from armored crabs, the skitter of gray-green baby shrimp, twitching six inches deep in a box.
A circuit of the stalls gives me a sense of possibilities. Much as I’m tempted by freshly dredged scallops and some plump langoustines, I halt at the seller who offers a méli-mélo of mixed fish, cut in small cubes. I buy a kilo, to her obvious surprise. Why would I, usually a finicky client for whole turbot or Saint Pierre, want these leftovers of salmon, tuna, and sea bass? Mostly they sell to lazy cooks who will use them as a shortcut to a cliché bourride or soupe de poissons.
I try to explain that these pieces, mixed with chopped red onions and herbs, copious lime juice, and fresh green chili, will, after an hour in the fridge, transform themselves into ceviche. She isn’t impressed. This far from Paris, few support the exotic. I recognize her silent rebuke; if it was good enough for Napoleon, it should be good enough for you.
Fouras’s main halle, high and long as an aircraft hangar, has everything else I need for lunch: limes, red onions, broad-leaved basil, coriander, fat heavy tomatoes, and fresh lettuce. For dessert, I’m tempted by melons from nearby Chataillon, still crusted with dirt from the garden where they were picked that morning.
I ask Louise what sense she feels is best represented by Fouras. “Touch,” she says instantly.
I know what she means. Here in the south, one encounters things never felt in Paris: sand in the bedclothes; the dark slickness of a bay leaf fresh-plucked, glossy, flexible, aromatic. And melons still moist, and rough with the earth of the field where they were grown.
I briefly contemplate melon as dessert but decide on a Fouras specialty: jonchée.
To make jonchée—pronounced “John-shay”—dairy farmers add rennet to full-cream milk. It separates into watery whey and soft white curds: the “curds and whey” that Little Miss Muffet eats in the nursery rhyme. Collecting the curds, which resemble jellied cream, they roll them in a mat woven from reeds—also called jonchée. As the mat unrolls, the curds tumble out as a fluted cylinder, to be served with a little of the whey flavored with almond essence, and a sprinkling of sugar or a spoonful of jam. As jonchée can’t be frozen or preserved and is too fragile to travel, it’s that ideal of locavores, a product that must be eaten within sight of its source.
When the beach party troops back, flushed, sandy, and starving, we sit down to lunch under the pear tree. Looking round the table, I try to relate these chic young women, now lawyers, doctors, and venture capitalists, to the gawky teens I first met ten years ago. Back then, they frowned at anything more exotic than noodles and filled up on bread, cheese, and salad rather than take a chance on stuffed eggplant or chicken biryani. Now they scarf up my ceviche, nachos, and fresh salsa almost before they’re served.
“Gourmet food like this, down here,” marvels one, taking a third helping. “Who’d have thought?”
Is there any greater encouragement to a cook than appetite? My safe choice for dinner—salad Niçoise or a quiche—goes out the window. Now I’m thinking Thai chicken curry with coconut milk, lemongrass, and basil.