Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter (2015)
NIGHT 2: TASTE
Chapter 22. Proposing a Toast
ROD: Um, I was gonna ask you who you think would win in a fight between a grilled cheese sandwich and a taco.
DENISE: Well, I think the grilled cheese sandwich—in a fair fight. But if it was prison rules, I’d put my money on the taco.
Hot Rod, script by PAM BRADY
In lunchtime popularity among cost-conscious eaters, the salade composée is rivaled only by the tartine.
Neither “on toast” nor “open sandwich” conveys the complexity behind the word. As a verb, tartiner means simply “to spread,” while a tartine is the material, generally bread or a cracker, on which something is spread (écrit des tartines means “to write at great length”—like spreading butter too thickly on toast).
Simple in theory, the tartine encompasses everything from Nutella on toast to a Bayonne ham and goat cheese croquante basque. A tartine in its most basic form, a length of baguette with butter and confiture or honey, is the preferred after-school snack of every French child. (A chain of stores for children’s clothes is called Tartine et Chocolat.) Because of this, the French reach adulthood with a readiness to munch on any slice of bread with a toothsome topping. Of the 1.3 million sandwiches consumed in France each year, 62 percent are still the classic jambon beurre—ham on a buttered baguette—but exotic variations are creeping in. There is even an annual two-day sandwich-and-snack trade show to demonstrate that the tartine, like pizza, is now the plaything of chefs, something on which to show off their virtuosity.
One of the most popular food programs on French TV is Le Meilleure Boulangerie de France, a search for the nation’s best baker. Two judges, dressed in white coats like orthodontists, travel to regional bakeries, nibbling slices of local loaves and watching every stage of their manufacture, from the mixing of the flour, water, salt, and yeast—the baguette contains no fat—to the kneading, leavening, and baking. Under French law, all these must take place on the baker’s premises. It’s literally illegal to freeze the dough as bakers do in other countries.
The next day, they review a selection of the baker’s products, smiling benignly at the wives and children who’ve put on their Sunday best and had their hair done for the occasion. After this, the judges are filmed strolling through some bucolic beauty spot—woods are popular, though they’ve browsed some medieval ruins—while they discuss the bread’s quality in terms that would flatter a new selection of aphorisms by Lacan or a particularly searching reexamination of Alain Robbe-Grillet. Quotes from La Rochefoucauld and Voltaire fall like autumn leaves.
But bread deserves no less. To the French, it has an almost mystical significance. References to bread are scattered through French idiom. Of a person who began promisingly but fell on hard times, they say “He ate his white bread first”—dark rye bread being a sign of poverty. Speaking of his friend Luis Buñuel, Jean-Claude Carrière, who scripted his films and ghosted his memoirs, told me seriously, “He was good—like good bread.” The phrase “our daily bread” carries religious significance. Marie-Dominique’s grandparents still cut a cross in the underside of each loaf to acknowledge bread as the gift of God. If I carelessly place a baguette on the table flat side uppermost, she will automatically turn it round side up; to show it upside down is as degrading as lifting a woman’s skirt.
Bread is also political. Traditionally, revolutions took place when the harvest failed and there was no grain for bread. Such a shortage helped ignite the revolution of 1789. Angry citizens walked from Paris to Versailles to demand Louis release wheat from the royal granary. As they walked, they chanted, “We’re going to see the baker and the baker’s little boy.” During World War I, both the French and British were incensed when the government ordered bakers to stretch scarce wheat by adding flour from such lesser grains as millet and barley. To do so was almost sacrilegious.
Bread and the dishes that use it are central to the French diet. The most popular non-baguette bread dish, and the one with the longest pedigree, is the croque monsieur—literally a “mister’s munch.” At its simplest, this is a grilled cheese sandwich. But implied in the verb croquer is a degree of relish. Tu es à croquer means “you look good enough to eat.”
As Welsh rarebit, grilled cheese on toast is a commonplace of Anglo-Saxon fast food. According to legend, pub owners in Wales invented it to keep clients drinking when they might otherwise have left the bar in search of a restaurant. By melting scraps of leftover cheese with ale and pouring the mixture over a slab of bread, they made a quick cheap snack, with the added advantages that the salt in the cheese created a thirst while its fat lined the stomach, minimizing the effect of alcohol and encouraging more drinking.
So many boozers reeled home full of bread, cheese, and ale that the rarebit gained a reputation for causing nightmares if eaten last thing at night. At the end of the nineteenth century, American comic book artist Winsor McCay drew The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend, about a man who, after gorging on melted cheese and beer, has bizarre hallucinogenic dreams. His bed flies off into space, with him barely clinging on.
In the 1950s, Britain’s drinks industry simplified the bread-and-cheese combination even further, and with the same motives. A slab of cheddar on a plate with bread, butter, and a vinegary chutney such as Branston pickle became a ploughman’s lunch. Served at the bar with, naturally, more beer to wash it down, it was an instant success both with drinkers, who didn’t risk burning their tongue or dripping cheese on their suits, and pub owners, since it required no cooking. Munching their bread and cheese in the belief that, like industrial laborers of another era, they were enjoying their rightful midday refreshment, almost nobody realized that their “ploughman’s lunch” was dreamed up by ad men.
Though it irks them, most French chefs concede that the Welsh probably did invent the croque, but agreement isn’t unanimous. People in the mountainous French Savoie region argued that they’ve enjoyed melted cheese and bread for centuries, either as fondue—cubes of bread impaled on a skewer and dipped into a bubbling mixture of cheese and beer—or raclette, in which a slab of cheese is held close to a grill and the softened surface scraped off, to be eaten with slices of ham, cold boiled potatoes, and pickled gherkins.
Nevertheless, when the first official recognition of cheese on toast appears, in Auguste Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire in 1903, the father of modern cooking accepts the traditional source and describes it as “Welsh rarebit.” He gives two recipes. The first recommends a thick slice of pain de mie—soft “crumb bread,” like an English sandwich loaf—which should be toasted, buttered, spread with Gloucester or Chester cheese, sprinkled with cayenne pepper, and grilled. The second recipe calls for cubes of cheese melted in pale ale with English mustard, then poured over toast. Rivals immediately competed to improve on Escoffier’s recipe. They spiced up the cheese mixture with Worcestershire sauce or anchovy essence. Others made a béchamel sauce with flour, butter, and milk; added cheese and other seasonings; poured it over a ham sandwich; and browned it under the grill.
The ideal bread for a tartine didn’t appear until Paris baker Lionel Poilane introduced his whole meal sourdough loaf in the 1970s. Tough, flexible but tasty, pain Poilane never wilted, no matter how gooey the topping piled on it. Advertisements (cunningly provided by Poilane himself) appeared in café windows. They showed a rustic loaf floating over a tranquil countryside, with a message urging clients to sample le vrai tartine Poilane.
These days, the croque is as common in France as the burger in the United States, and subject to even more variations. Leading these is the croque madame, a croque monsieur but à cheval. (This doesn’t mean “made with horse meat” but indicates a fried egg placed on top of the sandwich, “on horseback.”) After that, you can have it with tomato, à la provençale; à l’auvergnate, in the style of the mountainous region of the Auvergne, with bleu d’Auvergneor St. Nectaire cheese; gagnet, with Gouda cheese and andouille tripe sausage; à la norvégienne, with smoked salmon instead of ham; bolognese, with meat sauce; señor, with tomato, onion, and chili salsa; or Hawaiian style, with (shudder) a slice of pineapple. The oddest variation is the cheese naan, a miscegenation of French and Indian cuisine in which the dough for naan bread is molded around grated Gruyère and baked in the clay tandoori oven. Unknown in the subcontinent, it’s one of the most popular of all side orders in France’s growing roster of Indian restaurants.
Some branches of McDonald’s even offer a croque McDo, about which the less said, the better. More grisly still is the creation chosen by Esquire as “the most life-changing grilled cheese.” Sounding more life-threatening than life-changing, it’s served with a side order of ranch dressing for dipping and consists of two slices of Texas toast, two fillets of chicken, two varieties of barbecue sauce, some slices of bacon—and, oh yes, cheese: mozzarella and cheddar, though you’d be excused for not seeing them. “It’s still a grilled cheese,” insists the proprietor of the café that makes this horror, which is like saying that a venison steak is still Bambi.
In France, snobbery has dogged the croque monsieur. Nouvelle cuisine, with its emphasis on isolating and emphasizing the essence of each ingredient, shunned cheese and bread equally. No variations on the croque appear on the menus of those chic eateries where the jeunesse dorée gather. Any cafés loyal to the cuisine of gratification tend to lie off the beaten track and identify themselves by the décor of an earlier and less opulent era.
Walking up rue Guynemer alongside the disciplined perfection of the Luxembourg Gardens, I turned into rue de Fleurus, heading toward the onetime home of Gertrude Stein. A few minutes early for my appointment, I stopped for the first time at Café Fleurus, just a few doors from the intersection. Inside, I pulled up short. From the abstract mural of colored tiles behind the bar to the glass vitrines filled with pencils, cigarette lighters, and postcards, it was the very image of postwar Paris. Though the ban on smoking in public places had put an end to the fog of cigarette smoke that hung over such places and exiled to memorabilia stores those heavy triangular Ricard ashtrays, the ghosts of a million Gauloises lingered in the yellow tint of the high cream-painted ceiling above the ancient light fittings.
Two elderly men manned the bar. No casting director could have chosen better faces. Without even opening their mouths, they announced their citizenship in that lost world where Boris Vian might be sitting at the rear of the café, idly working on a first draft of Le Déserteur.
I’ll just be a beggar
On the roads of France
And whether in Brittany
Or down in Provence,
To all I will say
“Refuse to obey.
Don’t let them make you
Fight in the war.”
I’d first heard Vian’s song forty years ago, at a sold-out concert in Sydney, sung (in French) by Peter, Paul and Mary—who, it seemed, harbored a hint of subversion under their white-bread exterior. Did more than a handful of people in that audience realize the song preached draft-dodging? If so, they soon forgot it in the ebullience of If I Had a Hammer.
The waiter plonking down a menu interrupted my fantasies. “Je vous écoute.”
“Une pression.” Unable to hide my admiration, I said, “Monsieur, I compliment you. Your décor … pure 1960s!”
“Pas du tout, m’sieur,” he said proudly. “Cinquante-deux.”
Nineteen fifty-two? So when this was new, Paris was still under reconstruction, coming back to life after the battering of the war. That made it almost too early for Belmondo and Bardot. Who then? Gene Kelly, who made An American in Paris the year before? Or Yves Montand, and the young Simone Signoret?
“Et quelque chose à manger?”
Although I didn’t feel hungry, I studied the short menu out of politeness. Something caught my eye.
“Croque Fleurus? C’est à dire quoi?”
“La specialité de la maison, m’sieur,” he said. “Jambon et Fourme d’Ambert.”
A croque monsieur made with Fourme d’Ambert, my favorite blue cheese, and one of the oldest in France! Not as fatty or as salty as Roquefort, but with a musty whiff of the caves and cellars of the mountainous Auvergne of central France.
“D’accord. Croque Fleurus.”
Even before I tasted it, I knew the croque, washed down with cold beer from the tap, would not disappoint. Like everything else in Café Fleurus, it was, in a word by which the French set great store, convenable—appropriate. Belmondo, Bardot, Montand, Vian … they belonged to a continuity that stretched back to Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Villon, even to the lady of the Unicorn, dreaming in her flowered field.