Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter (2015)
NIGHT 2: TASTE
Chapter 21. Strictly from Hunger
Do not devour with your eyes the dishes
brought to the table.
Christian Politeness, a manual of good behavior for Catholic schoolchildren
With its history of deprivation, Contrescarpe looks to be an unpromising place to explore a sense of taste—except that rue Mouffetard hosts one of the busiest food markets in Paris, a torrent of fruit, meat, cheese, fish, and wine spilling down the narrow street. To hungry men and women, its richness can overwhelm the senses. One author saw the produce as a painter’s palette. “Colors of the four seasons on rue Mouffetard at midday. Cherry red, lemon yellow, orange orange, apple green, and radish pink.” The English writer Michael Palin sounded almost delirious as he surveyed this cornucopia of edibles: “the smells of fresh-baked bread, cheese, coffee, crêpes, roasting chicken, almonds, herbs, sausages, shellfish and everything the French find so important in life induce a series of small olfactory orgasms.”
While a demonstration of plenty makes more poignant the hunger of those who live here, a background of appetite expands one’s appreciation of food. Balzac in Le Père Goriot chose a metaphor of eating to introduce his story of old Goriot and his enslavement to his greedy daughters. “Now and again,” he wrote, “there are tragedies so awful and so grand that the impression they give is like a luscious fruit, soon consumed.” Culinary images pepper the book. Of the greedy widowed landlady, Mme. Vauquer, he says, “her heart, like a larded partridge, sweltered before the fire of a burning desire to shake off the shroud of Vauquer and rise again as Goriot.”
Hemingway, walking from his apartment on rue du Cardinal Lemoine to visit Gertrude Stein, detoured through the Luxembourg Gardens because it had no restaurants to distract him with savory aromas. He believed that modest hunger sharpened the other senses, increasing his appreciation of Cézanne’s canvases in the Musée du Luxembourg. Back in his room, he snacked on clementines and roasted chestnuts bought from a street vendor—a supper as sparse as his prose.
For some, hunger encourages creativity; for others, it stifles it. Deprivation fed the inspiration of Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun. In his autobiographical novel Hunger, he described waking hungry at five in the morning.
I wanted to go back to sleep but could not. I was wide awake and a host of thoughts flooded through my mind. Suddenly a few choice fragments came to mind, perfectly suitable for use in a rough draft, or to be serialized. Instantly I found, quite by chance, lovely phrases such as I had never conceived. I repeated them to myself slowly, word by word; they were excellent. And still more followed. I rose and snatched a pencil and paper from the table behind my bed. It was as though an artery had burst inside me, one word followed another, found its correct position, adapted itself to the context, scene piled on scene, events unfolded, one vessel after another bubbled in my mind, and I was enjoying myself immensely.
George Orwell’s experience was exactly the opposite. Forced to starve for three days during his darkest days as a plongeur, he spent them in his rented room, rereading the Sherlock Holmes stories.
It was all that I felt equal to, without food. Hunger reduces one to an utterly spineless, brainless condition, more like the after-effects of influenza than anything else. It is as though one had been turned into a jellyfish, or as though all one’s blood had been pumped out and lukewarm water substituted. Complete inertia is my chief memory of hunger.
It’s said that sex is the poor man’s opera. In that case, eating is his folk music. And like folk music, the best is often found in the least pretentious places. True, there are establishments around Contrescarpe where haute cuisine flourishes. They include the Michelin-starred La Truffière. Sited in a seventeenth-century mansion, it offers truffles in almost every dish, with the option of even more on the side. One of its specialties elevates that nursery favorite, a boiled egg with toast fingers, to new heights. I can unreservedly recommend its oeuf cuit à basse température, croquant de pain au jus, purée d’oseille, anguille fumée et truffe de Bourgogne, poudre de cèpes et échalotes avec la truffe blanche d’Alba (soft-boiled egg, crisp bread with juice, sorrel purée, smoked eel and Burgundy truffle, cepes and shallot powder with white truffles from Alba). A unique culinary experience, and a mere $150 a plate.
But restaurants like La Truffière are in the minority. Those that don’t serve ethnic food—Chinese, Greek, couscous, the ubiquitous pizza—rely on such staples of low-priced eating as the salade composée and the tartine.
The visitor who, scanning a bistro menu, says, “Oh, I’m not very hungry. I’ll just have a salad” is seldom prepared for the salade composée. The food writer who described it as “cheese and meat decorated with a few pieces of lettuce” wasn’t far wrong. While it resembles such American “dinner salads” as the Waldorf, the Cobb, and that gluey staple of Californian stand-up suppers, the peanut-sauced Chinese chicken salad, French eaters would protest at those dishes’ stingy portions and lack of variety. The composée is a hungry man’s salad, robust enough to see one through a long afternoon on the business end of a shovel. It’s customarily served in a dish, not on a plate, and a deep dish at that, with ingredients heaped above the lip. Since composée means, literally, “compounded,” it strives to include the maximum number of ingredients. A few will be greens—lettuce, mignonette, frisée, romaine, sometimes young spinach leaves, endive, watercress or mâche (Britain’s lamb’s lettuce)—but these exist mainly as spacing for the protein that makes this dish a meal.
Of these, hard-boiled eggs are standard. Expect at least one, quartered. Cheese too: cubes of cantal, mozzarella, and chèvre. Lardons of salt pork, kernels of corn, cold boiled green beans and potatoes, perhaps artichoke hearts or hearts of palm. Croutons add body and crunch, usually in small dice, commercially produced, but occasionally replaced by squares of old bread, fried crisp in bacon fat or butter. Seldom included are onion or garlic, obnoxious if breathed around the office. Too creamy a dressing can reduce the salad to sludge, so most cooks stick to a simple vinaigrette, although occasionally one chances something richer and whisks a raw egg yolk into the oil, vinegar, mustard, honey, and salt.
After that, each cook uses his imagination. One of the most popular salads, Niçoise, in the style of Nice, on the Côte d’Azur, mixes tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, anchovy fillets, tuna, olives, and capers. Salade à l’italienne uses the chewier varieties of pasta: spirali or farfalle. Dice of cooked beet, potato, and carrot make a salade russe. Other international variations include salade norvégienne (smoked salmon, capers), North African (couscous or tabouli), Greek (feta cheese, black olives, and slivers of salt-preserved lemons) and Mexican (red capsicum and shreds of corn tortilla).
From there, one moves into the terra incognita of salades gourmandes—salads for gluttons. For these, among cheeses, only Roquefort will do. Thin slices of smoked duck breast replace the workaday lardons, or, in the greediest variation, cubes of foie gras. This is where the less adventurous tourist gives up. I once watched an English tourist sort through a salade gourmande, fastidiously picking out the morsels of foie gras and placing them on the side of her plate. When she’d finished, she forked up a mouthful of greens and said brightly, “It’s really quite good—once you get rid of the nasty bits.”