The Many Glories of France
Well, I’m back. Made it home late last night, after having been awake almost 24 hours straight. I apologize for being out of blog-touch, but next time, I’m taking my laptop. Blogging is too difficult from an iPad, especially because it was impossible to post photos with the set-up I had. I hope to make it up to you. There will be several posts to come today. But let’s get started, shall we?
Look at these oysters above. They died for the greater glory of France, fallen on the field of my tummy-tum-tum. They were the first French oysters I ever ate, and without question one of the greatest culinary experiences of my life. I love oysters, and had made a point to want to try the French version while in Paris this time (April is the last month of the season). When I told my old friend Philippe this on our first night in Paris, he said, “You love oysters? Welcome to my town, baby.” He booked us all a table at Le Bar a Huitres in the Marais, near where he and his wife Beatrice lived when they were based in Paris. Philippe ordered me a sampler platter of various types from around the North Atlantic coast of France.
The taste was electric, almost indescribably good. It was one of the few times in my life when the experience of tasting something delicious made me feel a sense of exhaltation. They were like cold sea grenades exploding in my mouth, bursting with saline, iodine, and that metallic taste you only find in oysters. I slurped them from the half-shell, holding them in my mouth longer than usual to savor the new sensations. I have never, ever eaten oysters that prepared me for these glorious creatures. Later, I e-mailed Julie that eating French oysters was like licking the ta-tas of Poseidon’s favorite concubine. She was not amused. But it’s true! The aesthetic frisson was absolutely erotic. Dominique Strauss-Kahn lives around the corner, at the Place des Vosges; I think his proximity to Le Bar a Huitres (Oyster Bar) might explain a lot.
I was so crazy about French oysters that I asked the oyster shucker on the way out to make me a chevalier des huitres (knight of the oysters), which he happily did with his shucking knife on the spot.
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Earlier in the day, Philippe and Beatrice met us at Notre Dame cathedral for Easter mass — the Novus Ordo in Latin, which was pretty great — after which we drifted across the river to Le Petit Pontoise, a small country bistro in the Latin Quarter that had been recommended to me by a New Orleans friend. It was wonderful. The service was friendly, and the foie gras, which they make themselves, out of sight delicious. It came with a fig, and drizzled with honey. Yes, yes, I know, the Lenten fast was not over for us Orthodox. But Christ had risen that morning in Paris, if not in Moscow, so I felt entitled to have some foie gras in His honor. Don’t hate me because I was full of goose love.
Anyway, oysters. One of the best things I did in advance of this trip was to follow a Parisian contact’s advice to check out the American food bloggers living in Paris (e.g., Paris By Mouth), and follow their advice. I kept running across recommendations for Huitrerie Regis, a tiny oyster bar in St. Germain des Pres, which was, happily, where our hotel was (the Hotel de Lille: wee, but very well located, affordable, and with a super-friendly, English-speaking staff; highly recommended). Best place in Paris to eat oysters, they said. Mark Bittman raved too. I was now on a mission.
When I found the place, it was closed. Dommage!
But the next day, the temple was open for members of the cult. I should warn you now, oysters here are really expensive. The cheapest ones are about $25 a dozen. But I cannot think of the last time I spent so little for so much pleasure. Oysters is all you can get at Regis (well, they do throw in some shrimp for non-oyster eaters), and it’s all you want. I had a glass of Chablis and a dozen large speciales de claires, and a glass of Chablis. Absolute heaven, I tell you. Here is Regis, le maitre, preparing my dinner:
These oysters were much bigger than the ones I had had two nights earlier, and had a sweet, almost melon-like taste. Rapture! I told Regis that I had just been made un chevalier des huitres, and he was my liege. I think he thought I was a lunatic. I credit M. Regis’s good judgment in that matter. If I could have justified the cost, I would have eaten two dozen more. But one must show at least some restraint, non? Eating French oysters this second time, I was reminded of a phrase I had just come across in a (wonderful) book I began on the flight over, “The Hare With Amber Eyes,” by Edmund de Waal. De Waal quotes a 19th-century collector of Japanese art as describing netsuke, tiny carved figurines, as “plus gras, plus simple, plus caresse” — very rich, very simple, very tactile. Such are French oysters as well.
I went back to Regis once more, on my last night in Paris. This time I had the smaller oysters, which I found I liked better because the intensity of flavor is even greater. Here was I, in flagrante:
It came with a crisp Sancerre that made the entire experience sublime. “Monsieur Regis, may the Good Lord bless you,” I said on the way out. He laughed, and surely thought, “Who is that idiot?” But I don’t care. I am a chevalier des huitres and a fool for Regis.
Believe it or not, there was other great food in Paris! (Heh.) Hannah and I met my old pal (and reader of this blog) Fred Gion for dinner at Les Papilles, another great, affordable small restaurant highly recommended by food bloggers. It was truly special. Turns out there is no choice there: what you get is what they’re serving that night. We were served a pale green terrine of watercress and bacon soup, with creme fraiche, to start, and if the dinner had ended there, it would have been a big success. But then they brought this magret de canard (duck breast) out, and brothers and sisters, we gasped:
See that roasted garlic pod on top of the duck breast? I pinched it and popped the soft flesh into my mouth, and was a very happy man. Look, here’s Fred recording the dish:
Then the waiter brought us all a small course of fourme d’Ambert, a stewed fig, and bread. I had never had this French blue cheese. I like blue cheese, but often find it a bit too strong and too salty. This was perfect: flavorful, but the salt and the mold did not overwhelm the dairy flavor of the cheese itself. It was the most delicious blue cheese I’ve ever had. We finished the dinner with a panna cotta of stewed apple and salt caramel. Again, none of this was anything we chose, but based on this one dinner, I would eat anything Les Papilles served me. The restaurant is near the Pantheon. Better get reservations; we were there on a Tuesday night, and couldn’t get a table until 10pm.
Other culinary highlights of this trip included a pilgrimage to the Maille boutique on the Place de la Madeleine, where I bought spectacular mustards, drawn straight out of the tap into ceramic crocks, and packaged for travel. Did you know that Thomas Jefferson bought his mustard here? It’s been around that long. You can dip crostini in the four pots of mustard they offer for sampling, which are the four available on tap. I brought home crocks of plain Dijon, grainy, and Chablis, as well as a small crock of truffle mustard for a friend. Again, the intensity of these fresh mustards, straight from the source, was overwhelming. We had a great little hotel — the Hotel de Lille — very well located at the edge of the St-Germain des Pres district. It was small, affordable, clean, safe, and had a friendly, English-speaking staff. I was able to walk from there to lots of great places. The rooms were tiny, but that’s hardly a problem, given that when you’re in Paris, all you require is a clean, safe, comfortable place to lay your head, and a good location. I will return to this hotel next time I’m in the city, and can recommend it to you without reservation.
We also met some French friends for tea at Mariage Freres in the Marais, and I brought back some of their magnificent tea for two of my kids, who adore the stuff (I didn’t become much of a tea drinker till finding Mariage Freres in 2006, the last time I was in Paris). And I made a visit to E. Dehillerin, the famous kitchen supply store in Les Halles. Did you know that the founder of Williams-Sonoma got the idea for starting his stores after a visit to Dehillerin? The atmosphere at Dehillerin could hardly be more opposite that of Williams-Sonoma. It’s cramped and dark, and has the feel of going to an old hardware store. But it is also magical. I had been warned by Philippe, who has been buying his kitchen supplies there for years, to expect to be rudely treated, but in fact they were really helpful, and even dryly funny. “Monsieur, take care,” said the man helping me. “Maybe you don’t want to buy zees fork? It is 40 euro. Zees one is almost ze same, and it is twenty euro. Yes?”
“Ah, good point. I really don’t need that fork.”
Gallic shrug. “Alors, maybe not. But how nice it is to turn ze chicken.”
I bought ze fork. And two knives, and a skillet with a copper core. The all-copper cookware was crazy, out of sight expensive, but boy was it beautiful to behold.
I had the great fortune to consult the Paris-based food writer David Lebovitz, or rather his blog, before my trip, so I knew what foodie things to bring back that might not have occurred to me. Here’s Lebovitz’s list of Ten Things To Bring Back From Paris. I went into the Monoprix in St Germain des Pres, an ordinary supermarket, and bought five pounds (!) of fleur de sel de Gueyrande, the finest French sea salt there is, for $18. To give you an idea of what a bargain this was, that’s how much 4.4 ounces of the stuff goes for in America, on Amazon.com. I also bought bricks and bricks of great French butter at Monoprix, and cheese — fourme d’Ambert, raw-milk Camembert, and crottins de Chavignol — to bring home. Monoprix is very affordable, very delicious, and if you ask, they’ll package your cheese and dairy products to travel so US Customs doesn’t give you any hassle.
Lebovitz also suggested bringing home some confiture by Christine Ferber, saying that Americans go nuts for the stuff made by this Alsatian genius, but you can’t get her wares in the US. Lebovitz said the best selection of Ferber jams is at La Grande Epicerie , at the far end of the Rue de Bac — a brisk 20 minute walk from my hotel. Another pilgrimage! Indeed, La Grande Epicerie was a terrific place to get lost in, but I didn’t have time to linger. Ferber confiture is not cheap — about $9 for a smallish jar, so I brought back only two: Maltese orange and Alsatian raspberry. This morning Julie and I stood at the kitchen counter smearing them on slices of breathtaking tourte de Meule bread from Eric Kayser, who has a boulangerie on the Rue de Bac, a couple of blocks from my hotel, and we looked at each other with that same crazy look we had years ago, when we both had our first taste of Berthillon sorbet, and suddenly realized that ordinary things could taste far, far better than we ever imagined. Ferber’s confiture is without question the absolute best I’ve ever eaten — really, they are to jam as French oysters are to bivalves — and now I only regret that I didn’t buy a jar of each flavor on offer. Tasting Ferber’s confiture is like licking electrical outlets that distribute orange or raspberry-flavored voltage.
So, that was my culinary adventure in France. Over and over it was a chance to reflect not only on the art of good food that the French have perfected, but also on how the glory of God comes to us through matter. I made a real pilgrimage to the Chartres cathedral on this trip — a second one for me, as an aesthetic experience at age 17 inspired in me the first hunger for God as an adult. I beheld once again how the beauty of stone and colored glass arranged by those artisans drew the mind toward higher things — toward God, and goodness, and excellence, and awe and majesty and the Ideal. For me, at least, there is a similar glory in the French oyster, in Ferber’s confiture, in French cheese, and croissants, and all the great things the French eat. I thank God for it all, and for the French people and their special culinary genius, through which He blesses all who are willing to receive grace in this way. Not everybody can experience the sacred in a Marenne oyster on the half shell, but I sure can, and Lord have mercy, did.