Thursday, November 09, 2006

Tous à table

Pheasant with grapes. Monkfish with sorrel. Blanquette de veau. Pork stew with mushrooms. Grilled prawns in whisky cream sauce. These are just some of the dishes that have been offered recently in my corporate lunch room, courtesy of our remarkable caterer. The desserts are similarly tempting: crèpes with vanilla cream and strawberries, chocolate pear tarts, and coffee éclairs.

Not everyone eats this well at work in Paris, and the fact that I count lunch as one of the highlights of my day is the result of a compromise and a happy accident. When my company moved out to the far suburbs, relocating in a mostly residential area, the employees bitterly complained of the lack of local restaurants. It was bad enough we all had longer commutes, but losing the cafeteria or any other civilized place to eat at noon was almost insulting.

I remember when my former company back in the US was confronted with the same problem. We had no cafeteria, and made do by calling out for sandwiches or Chinese food. Once the last person willing to phone in the order every day was laid off, we each fended for ourselves with a lot of fast food runs and trips to the local burger joint. There was a good sushi place nearby, where we ate at least once a week, but otherwise lunch was generally pathetic.

In France, I suspect the same situation would lead to a general strike.

My current company happily fixed the situation by converting the mail room into a lunch room and inviting a caterer, found at the last minute by word-of-mouth, to bring preprepared lunch plates in every day. I was a bit skeptical at first, since everything would necessarily be reheated in the microwave upon delivery, but the compromise worked out perfectly. The food is, quite simply, inspired. I've heard that the caterer's staff make early morning trips to Rungis, Paris' wholesale food market, where they pick up whatever's in season and then improvise. They make everything themselves, from quenelles and ravioli to all manner of tarts and pastries. The owner is a patissier by training, and his talent shows. (My only regret is that I was apparently the one fan of his pistacchio macarons, which haven't made an appearance for some time. There were rum-soaked cherries hidden in the middle of that crème patissier filling... oh! What loss!)

So much text has been written about food in France that I'm honestly not sure what new perspective I can bring. However, it is so much a part of my life here, and I can no longer resist. My lunch story illustrates what I find most wonderful about food in France: mealtime is sacred. It's easy to fall into this French way of thinking, to start taking two hour lunch breaks and consider the dining room table the most important piece of furniture in the house.

I don't want to sound like a French food snob, and there are some aspects of the French cult of eating that drive me crazy.

First, I find French cuisine is often a lot less inventive than American cuisine. Most restaurants, or at least those in the price range accessible to mere mortals, build their menus around a core selection of classic recipes. Steak au poivre. Choucroute. Saumon with beurre blanc. I understand sticking with a winning team, but the average Parisian dinner menu puts me to sleep. I want something daring, something trendy, something unusual, and this remains something you have to seek out and be prepared to pay for. I estimate that 90% of Paris mid-range restaurants have 80% of their menus in common.

The last time I was in Seattle we ate at a wonderful restaurant where we had, if I remember properly, lime risotto topped with fried smelt. The only place in Europe where I've found such inventive dishes, though my travels are admittedly limited, was in Germany, where we once had asparagus with chive-infused whipped cream. I love reading menu descriptions I can't fathom until they show up in front of me, beautifully constructed.

(A restaurant in Paris that specializes in this sort of thing is Ze Kitchen Gallery, which we haven't yet tried, but intend to. It is quite pricey, however.)

The other thing that perplexes me in France is a curious French dependence on frozen food. Granted, the quality of frozen food in France is quite high, and you can easily find all kinds of frozen primary ingredients, such as unprepared fish, all varieties of vegetables, and even chopped herbs. Then there are the prepared dishes, from basic pizzas to foie gras and patisserie-worthy cakes. There are two major market chains devoted exclusively to selling all this. I was fascinated with it when I first arrived, and bought up an entire freezerful of the stuff.

Then we hardly touched any of it, and chucked it out after a year and a half.

I know people who live on frozen food, however, and many seem to have no scruples about serving entire surgelé meals to guests. Every year at the beginning of the holidays we get a flyer from Picard, the most well known frozen food chain, describing their Christmas and New Years' offers. Last year we dropped by on the 31st of December to buy some frozen raspberries for a coulis, and judging by the length of the checkout line, the marketing is working. I can't imagine any American I know cutting such corners at Thanksgiving.

So meals are not to be skipped or improvised, but a bit of cheating is perfectly acceptable.

What would Brillat-Savarin think?

Thursday, November 02, 2006

All Saints' Day

Le Toussaint, or All Saints' Day, doesn't even figure on most American calendars. I certainly knew little of the tradition before moving to France, where it is important enough to be both a national holiday and a week-long school vacation. It is the pivot point of autumn, when the last warm days of any lingering indian summer are finally given over to a cool, northern European winter gray. "Un temps de Toussaint," they say here: "All Saints' Day weather." This year was no exception, for although the weather was unseasonably warm up until the end of October, as night fell on Halloween I was glad I had finally taken out my winter coat.

All Saints' is one of several Catholic holidays which still figure prominently on the French calendar. The Feast of the Assumption and Ascension Day are both paid holidays, and Pentecost Monday was only recently dropped as a result of social reforms. These holidays have largely lost their meaning to most, and I suspect the average Frenchman couldn't tell you whether Ascension comes in May or August. All Saints' is different, because even if its strictly religious meaning has been somewhat blurred (and combined with All Souls' Day which falls the day after), it is still an important part of French tradition. It is still, quite simply, the day when families gather together to remember the dead.

It is fitting, and doubtlessly not by accident, that this occasion falls just beyond the official end of summer. The season is by nature about renouncement and endings. Most French remember being led to the cemetery as a child, often through the rain; they remember solemn adults telling stories about people whose names were to them only letters carved in stone. These aren't happy memories, but they aren't unhappy, either, just part of the normal rhythm of the year. One never makes the mistake of bringing chrysanthemums as a gift, however. The flower is too closely associated with gravesites decorated for Toussaint.

Although All Saints' fell on a Wednesday this year, we decided to make the trip out to Troyes for Tuesday night and the following day to keep the tradition with my husbands' aunt. The rest of the family was out of town, taking advantage of a last week of vacation before the holidays. The day was sunny and crisp, "un temps de Toussaint" but just barely, not yet cold enough for frost.

I usually find French cemeteries uncommonly depressing. There isn't any grass, as there is in American cemeteries, just gravel walkways behind high stone walls. Massive stone tombs are much more common than headstones, and most are covered with sad collections of plaques and porcelain flowers. The oldest graves have rusting and deteriorating ironwork which give a rather uncertain notion of eternity. Worse, the city hall often posts small signs in front of plots considered abandoned, waiting for relatives to come forward before the gravesite is reallotted.

Troyes' cemetery is no different, objectively, but I only see it at Toussaint, when it is covered in fresh flowers and looks almost cheerful. Chrysanthemums are the only flowers, and they paint the typical gray in a patchwork of orange, yellow, red and violet. It feels as if for one day the living have remembered to come and scatter a bit of their life upon the forgotten.

My husband's aunt comes faithfully to the cemetery all year to water the flowers she plants on her parents' and grandparents' graves. She does not enjoy coming, but is moved by a sense of duty to memory that is noble, old-fashioned, and recently uncommon. I come only once a year, but to come that often feels important to me. We stand together in front of the graves and she tells me of people I never knew, but to whom I am linked, and to whom I am grateful.

Like many Americans, my family memories are scattered across continents. In three generations we moved from Michigan and Indiana to Seattle and Paris. There is no place I can return to to remember where I came from, so I carry it with me. I feel as though that makes memory that much harder.

I'm reminded, however, how much it is worth.