June in France

In June, a whim and a brand-new budget carrier took me all the way back to France.

It had been more than 20 years since the last of my childhood adventures there. I have an aunt who is very happily expatriated in Paris, and during several adventurous summers during the 1980s my intrepid parents lashed us to their luggage for global half-circumnavigation and an education in all things French. This was a thrilling treat, which reached its climax at the moment a steamed artichoke was first put into my pudgy hand, with instructions (loosely translated) to shovel mayonnaise into my face.

Perhaps it was on these trips that I began to hone this craft. A page from my 1989 voyage reads:

July 10th. Today we drove in the car to the country. My sister let me play the Gameboy. For lunch I ate steak-frites, and had to add salt. I saw a swan. At the grocery store, my parents lost all self control upon hearing that crates of artichokes had just arrived from Normandy.

The 2012 trip began in Paris, where Tante Patty did an expert job of pointing my chopsticks in all the right directions.  First stop: Marché du President Wilson, the ultraglam farmers’ market where Hollywood lettuce lies between piles of lobster on ice, mountains of peonies, and imitation Hermès necklaces. For a few coins, I stuffed my pockets with sumac and sel de Guérande, painfully passing on some horn spoons. An African merchant was baking enormous seasoned flatbreads on a half-dome griddle. I tried one smeared with half a cup of dried thyme- completely delicious.

Next stop: Ravioli Chinois Nord-Est, rue Civiale.  Approximately eight seats in this hole-in-the-mur serving only Northeastern Chinese regional dumplings and a few accompaniments.  A favorite of Patty’s and the blogs. The star here was a salad of matchsticked potatoes, steamed and then dressed in a thin robe of seasoned sesame oil. We engaged the proprietress in a little conversation; I tested my Mandarin rather well until she slipped back into French without my knowing.

Then through the fields of wheat and poppies to a centuries-old stone house on the Picardie-Normandie border.  The days were cool and crisp. No signal, no internet, no reason to rise from a pile of quilts and good books (Clementine in the Kitchen) except to disembowel tourteaux steamed in German beer and slathered in sorrel pesto (or Lao Gan Ma, hand carried from Honolulu)… to shave purple spring onions over fava bean soups… to stew fresh apricots… or roast them with salmon.  Or just to pile up all these leftovers onto a piece of toast for a little country lunch.

These home-cooked meals, all from Patty’s stove and knife, were pure magic.

Then back into Paris, where I intersected for a week with Smita, a college friend who travels through life in a cone of good fortune and incredible glamour. We were wandering around the arrondissement on our first afternoon together in search of a light lunch when she spotted, on a hunch, a promising little shop….that turned out to have a well-priced formule dejeuner and a Michelin star.

It was superb, of course; and we sought out lunch specials at other one-stars, with great success. But for the next 20 years (or however long it is until I return again to France) I don’t think it’s the monkfish cheeks in sauce Grenoble that will chase my memory so much as a haunting plate of steamed artichokes, served on a tiny kitchen table. Merci beaucoup.


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