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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
What Writers Eat In Paris When They Are Not Writing About Eating In Paris
Just in time for lettuce leaves and diets, January is high season in France for enjoying a slice or three of la galette des rois, or King’s Cake, made with flaky puff pastry and a rich filling of frangipane (with some variations on the recipe). Although the cake is officially for the celebration of Epiphany on January 6th, it unofficially gives everybody a good excuse to continue nibbling through the first weeks of the New Year. Bonus: each cake has a ceramic or plastic figurine baked into it and is sold with a paper crown. Tradition has it that whomever finds the fève, figurine, in their slice of cake is king or queen for the day. (Specific guidelines for or desires of monarchs may vary.)
Writer and eighteenth-century Enlightenment epicurean Brillat-Savarin’s observation that, “Dessert without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye,” could extend this month to include a big slice of King’s Cake. And if you’re worried about what will happen when February comes, the French have it covered with Candlemas: February 2nd is la Chandeleur, when everyone eats crêpes as part of the celebration of this Catholic feast day.
Not limited by just desserts or the Age of Enlightenment, writers in this month’s Apéritif share their favorite cheeses and sweets and entrées that they have savored, dreamed about or cooked up. Grab your paper crown, some cutlery and a scepter—the party is starting over at the dinner table.
Michelle Wildgen (Bread and Butter):
I have never done much writing about eating in Paris because others do it better and more exhaustively, but I certainly do dream of eating there more. Actually, one of my favorites is a cheat; it was in Mougins about 15 years ago, not Paris. I can’t recall the main course, but the first course was a salad with wild mushrooms–and it arrived with an unheralded half-disc of foie gras terrine perched along the side. Only in France would they decide the foie gras need not be mentioned. Otherwise, when I think of Paris I think of rabbit, which not enough people serve here; pastry, obviously, though I have no particular affiliation with any one choice; but most of all, cheese: raw milk, redolent, funky cheese, cheese with those little crystallizations that arise with age, cheese with odoriferous, slightly sticky apricot-colored washed rinds, cheese with soft mushroomy bloomy ivory rinds, cheese with soft, chalky, goaty centers, cheese rolled in herbs and cheese veined with green, cheese the very variety and beauty of which is the best argument I’ve come across for not writing off the human race all together.
Jillian Lauren (Some Girl):
Two of the world’s most exquisite pleasures are eating with friends in Paris and eating alone in Paris. I did a lot of both when I was there last. I enjoy the adventure of grappling with menu French alone, even if it does result in debacles like believing I ordered a steak for lunch and choking down tartare instead (which was, confusingly, not called tartare). While at home I’m often guilty of scarfing lunch in the car; in Paris I ate a simple jambon beurre in the Place des Vosges. Or a fois gras and fig tartine, served with fresh grapefruit juice, in the sandwich shop next to the Poilane bakery, which has divine bread. And when I got tired of the contents of my own brain, I landed at Le Felteu in the Marais, where I gabbed with an expat friend over a hearty lamb plat du jour, soaking up the sauce with chunks of baguette, ordering a second carafe of wine. All this was served to us by a rakish chef, who stopped to chat and show me his Tweety Bird tattoos. Paris both sharpens my senses and slows me down, which is surely the best way to approach a meal- with sensual awareness and time to spare. And everything, everything tastes better there.
Michele Filgate (The Paris Review):
I’ve eaten the best meals of my life in Paris, but nothing comes close to one rainy August day when I decided to have an indoor picnic while I was staying at Shakespeare & Company. I wandered down to a bakery and bought a baguette that was still warm from the oven. It smelled so good that I ate some of it while standing under the awning of the shop. I picked out some juicy tomatoes and ripe avocados at the market. I went to the local cheese shop and bought duck pate, prosciutto, and two types of cheeses—one gooey and pungent, one firm. I paired it with a couple of glasses of Côtes du Rhône. It was quite the decadent meal, and I enjoyed every bit of it while looking out the rain-streaked window at Notre-Dame. It’s raining in Brooklyn as I write this. Gloomy days will always remind me of that sublime afternoon.
Deborah Landau (The Last Usable Hour):
I spend lots of time in Paris with NYU’s writing programs–which (among other pleasures) means six weeks of eating in Paris each year. It’s hard to name just one, but here are some things I want to eat every time I’m there: Favorite fruit: raspberries from the Marché Bastille–sublimely sweet and flavorful. Favorite pastry: Flan, especially flan chocolat pistache from the Boulangerie on Rue de Turenne. Favorite place to shop for a dinner party: Mavrommatis (the best falafel and stuffed grape leaves). Favorite lunch: the Assiette des Legumes at Rose Bakery (perfect antidote to butter and cream overload). Favorite ice cream: Berthillon, chocolat noir and framboise, best eaten with a friend on a summer evening while sitting on the steps above the Seine.
Judith Freeman (The Long Embrace):
On the corner of rue de Grenelle near rue Gros Caillou in the Seventh Arrondissement, there’s an elegant little vegetable market called Harry Cover (as in haricot vert). The shop was just around the corner from an apartment I rented from a Swedish couple last year. Each day I walked past the shop and admired the beautiful displays of produce—fresh, organic, and yes, expensive. It was the mushrooms, piled up in mounds on a wooden cart on the sidewalk that always drew me. Different kinds of mushrooms, such beautiful colors and textures and shapes. A little basket of these champignons sautéed in butter and eaten with a fresh baguette, accompanied by a glass or two of wine, with cheese from Cantin and figs for dessert, made the perfect meal for a winter night, eaten in my own kitchen with jazz playing on the radio.
Sean Michaels ( Us Conductors, coming soon from Tin House Books)
In Paris, I’m a hunter. I don figurative tweeds, figurative cap and coat, stalk pastries. It’s done with maps and lists, Google printouts, butter-stained notebooks. I walk and walk and walk, duck into patisseries and boulangeries, chez glaciers and chocolatiers, take my cafés with milk and sugar. I am cheerful and tenacious. And I am always short on money. These things aren’t cheap! All my fortunes squandered on Pierre Hermé’s macarons, Jacques Genin’s lemon tarts, Christophe Adam’s éclairs, Pouchkine’s Napoléons, Fauchon’s St-Honorés.
Mercifully, there are respites from the arrondissements’ most exorbitant artisans. Croissants, chocolatines, financiers, sablés – these things I can (almost) always afford. And yet my favourite pennywise treat is something else again: a rarer treasure, unknown to many, obscure even in Montreal. It is called the canelé de Bordeaux.
Have you never had one? Imagine: a small chestnut-brown cylinder, striated all around, the shape of a miniature beehive or pan d’oro. It is the size of a shot glass, more or less, and its caramelized exterior has the faint sheen of butter, or egg, or pre-dawn starlight. Cooked in copper molds (or silicon), the canelé is more custard than croissant: soft, chewy, with (if you are lucky) the slightest flaking burnt-sugar crunch. The canelé does not leave crumbs or powdered sugar, or any kind of mess. It sits perfectly in a pocket, in a palm, packed for daytrips or night-trips or CDG’s international terminal. It is itself and inimitable.
The first time I saw a canelé, not one but a thousand of them, lined in rows on a baker’s block, I believed they might be wooden talismans, little sculptures, part of a visiting installation. No, they were just food.
I have loved and eaten dozens of canelés. I have scoured Paris and learned to bake them. But there is still more work to do, dear reader. The canelé de Bordeaux? It is from Bordeaux. Bordeaux, in southwestern France. A party must be assembled, investors wooed, an expedition planned. Call it a dream, call it a duty. I call it a calling. A million canelés are mewling my name and I will not ignore their pleas. (You can come too.)
Heather Hartley is Paris editor at Tin House and the author of Knock Knock and Adult Swim (forthcoming), both from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her poems, essays and interviews have appeared in or on PBS NewsHour, The Guardian, and The Literary Review, among others. She has presented writers at Shakespeare & Company Bookshop’s weekly reading series and lives in Paris.