At this point is must seem that I had only gone with Courtney to Paris to eat magnificently and drink great wine, but that is certainly not true. In all honesty my main draw to Paris was that it gave Courtney and I a reason to spend a very extended weekend together. Paris is the city of love after all and I am that type of romantic. I wanted to enjoy it with her. I wanted my first time in the city about which I had dreamed so much to be with a person about whom I cared so much about. Courtney is that person and being there with her made the magic of it all the better. While good food is inherently romantic, there were actual sites in the city to see where we could feel the romance of Paris in a non-edible way. In that spirit we awoke Saturday with the intention of visiting Notre Dame.
Of course, though, food was first on our minds. What would we do for lunch? Our wonderful landlords had left us a packet of information that told of an open air food market on Saturdays and of one of Paris’ best bakeries nearby. We did some research and found a famous cheese store in our neighborhood. It was decided. We would have a picnic lunch before going into the church. I packed up our half bottle of wine that our landlords had given us and we left to go shopping.
First, though, we wanted to go to a cafe for a late breakfast. Instead, we couldn’t resist the smell of a nearby bakery and the sight of their croissants. We bought a couple and walked towards the open market down the block assuming that we would find a suitable place to sit and maybe some coffee. Well, we didn’t exactly find a place to sit, but we did find the most impressive “farmer’s market” (simply open markets in Europe) that I had ever seen. This place was a foodie’s dream.
I know, I know. More food. But what can I say? It was Paris and Courtney and I love to eat well! We have our priorities and good meals happen to come very high on the list. Anyway, this place trumped the Union Square market in New York, all of the Asheville markets and any Connecticut market. It literally had everything. The first food stall we came across was selling roasted meats, such as what looked like pigs’ legs simply roasted in a fire. My eyes were turned here and there, smells whipping my body across itself in a hectic attempt to identify each one and to find each one. There were fresh fruits, vegetables, fish, meats, poultry, oysters, mushrooms, legumes, game, olives, cheese, breads, baked goods, prepared foods, ethnic foods and deliciousness. It was heaven. Courtney and I had two French oysters for 1.20 euro. We found an Italian place and got a discount on our semi-sundired tomatoes and olives because I spoke Italian to the proprietor. We got some French cured ham (like prosciutto but drier) and a spinach and goat cheese tart from another place. We got olives and anchovy tapenade from a third, a beautiful loaf of brown bread from another. We got grapefruit and figs. We walked around trying not to spend all of our money in this Mecca of food. Once we began to leave I started to feel a sadness because we don’t have anything close to it in Connecticut. I could only imagine the dishes I could make with those quality ingredients and those varied forms of meat, bird, cheese, foie gras, fish, vegetables and fruits. I would be eating high and mighty very often there. I swear there were more butchers in this block long market than in Connecticut.
And that’s another reason my heart grew heavy upon departing this paradisiacal garden of food; America’s food system is so crappy and backwards that a marker like this would be impossible for so many reasons. Besides all of the likely idiotic bureaucratic reasoning behind not allowing butchers, fish mongers, bakers, cheese producers and prepared food providers to operate in the open America simply does not have the food culture for such a wonderful place. These were family run or small operations, not gigantic industrial projects. As I have tirelessly lamented, America’s food system is in shambles (again see my articles on Early Risers). There are not enough small food purveyors and growers and harvesters and farmers and breeders and fishermen to even half fill a place such as that. Also, our subsidy system has made it so that the more unhealthy, less tasty mass produced food comes at a much lower cost than that of the small farmer. The rich get richer…the American motto. Sad. In this case it means that Americans are still not willing to shell out money for the higher quality food (which admittedly is expensive compared to the artificially cheap industrial food). If people don’t buy farmers won’t grow. Welcome to the American food conundrum.
We ventured away from the market, somewhat reluctantly, dropped half of our winnings at home and started towards one of the most famous cheese stores in Paris. Oh, but just another quick mention of that market. Courtney and I ate our croissants while wandering the two aisled market. They were buttery, so buttery, soft, flaky and airy. My first Parisian croissant more than lived up to the pedestal on which I had put it. I could likely eat those continuously all day everyday.
We found the cheese store very easily (go google maps on the iPhone which stays loaded even without internet) and it was fairly tiny. There were cheeses in the window, on a small back wall, and on the wall parallel to the window. Everything looked magnificent, but being foodies (Yes Courtney I am officially bestowing that title upon you) we wanted goat cheese. Our helper did not speak much English, but luckily one of the words I picked up in my chefdom was chevre, which either means goat or goat cheese. He got the picture and indicated two small rounds of not creamy cheese, one riper than the other. Courtney turned around, saw Brie, and we got some of that as well. I probably could shop there everyday of my life. The smell was not overpowering until you leaned in close to the cheese and got that deliciously moldy odor of properly aged and matured cheese. They were in all different stages of ripeness which had allowed the molds to infect each with a different taste, smell and texture. Cheese is a miraculous invention of he human intuition. There are few meals I enjoy more than good cheese, good olives and good wine. With this purchase we were well on our way there.
We left for the Notre Dame island, making a stop to make dinner reservations at a small bistro run by older ladies which my dad had recommended to us (Courtney you cannot deny your foodiness…did we do anything but eat?). Once at the park we attempted to find a park which Abby had told us was a good place to picnic. We thought we had found it, but turns out we were actually in an adorable little plaza on the end of the island. We were happy. There was a wedding reception going on with cute kids running around and people dressed to the nine. Can’t wait for that day! This was undoubtedly an upper-class community where we picnicked on our olives, semi-sundried tomatoes, some ham, bread, the cheeses and our little bottle of red wine. The food was spectacular. It was the best cheese I had ever tried. Everything meshed. I was living my dream of picnicking with Courtney in Paris, drinking wine, eating olives and cheese. What could make it better? Well it was a gorgeous day. I guess that helps. No matter what though we would have been happy on that park bench near the wedding, enjoying each other’s company and munching on fabulous French fare.
Ok, we finally left our foodie heaven and walked over towards the Notre Dame. The place is quite impressive in its Gothic architecture. It’s almost intimidating. There are gargoyles, statues and a giant plaza underneath the mammoth church. I could see this church being an imposing reminder to Parisians to act more holy. We entered fairly quickly and were struck by the height. The ceilings rise above you leading the eyes towards heaven. There are knaves with paintings, statues and places to pray. The main altar is massive with enough room for many priests to sit, separate from the laymen. There are Gothic works of art everywhere, which add some color and light to the otherwise dark and gray stone interior. There are stained glass windows and columns. It feels holy and overpowering. It commands the respect even of a non-believer like me.
We left the Notre Dame and walked to the nearby Musee D’Orsay which we heard had many wonderful impressionist (Courtney’s favorite) works of art. We got free admission for being students (I love Paris) and decided to sit for a bit because our feet were aching. This turned out to be a bit of a mistake because the museum began to kick people out at 5:30. We had only begun walking around at 5:15. Still, we saw some impressive pieces of art. There were French works depicting the Muslim world with camels, desert sunsets and oases. We saw impressionist landscapes, some of my favorite, which completely alter themselves at a distance compared to from up close. There were Monets and Degas among others. The arts struck us, even in that short time. I have never truly appreciated Impressionism, but these were fantastic! The scenery, more than anything were stunning. It was a return to nature and an appreciation for the natural. Even though we only had about 20 minutes in there it was memorable and beautiful.
We made it home around 6:30 and I bought a new plane ticket for Milan on Tuesday, this time from the same airport ad Court. I felt better. Now both of us were at leas flying from the same airport. Still, the little gnat of worry would not be swatted. But what could I do, stop enjoying Paris? I ignored it.
Our dinner reservations were at 9 because we both like to eat late and we had eaten a semi-late lunch. The place was adorably cozy and homey. This meal would be nothing like our previous high end meal, but from the smells and the plates we were sure that it would not be a forgettable meal. We were ushered to a table by the old man of the restaurant. He smiled and showed us our table and gave us the menu in French. He began speaking to us in French, which was always funny for us because we don’t understand a word of it. We knew basics but nothing else. He kept up the cute charade for several sentences before switching to English with a laugh. It was cute. I ordered what I thought was a bottle of red (it was white), but still delicious. The man helped us with the menu and then left us to decide. The restaurant was romantic in a old sense. It was small. The tables were wooden and crowded. It was not fancy. It was the definition of a French bistro. We were happy and swooning in each others presence. The magic of Paris continued to overwhelm us. We lightly held hands across the small table and stared at each other’s eyes. This, though always what we do when we’re together, had some sort of deeper intensity than normal because we were in Paris, in this marvelous little place, owned by older people who decided their menu based on the market purchases of the day. I’m really not sure how I could have been happier.
For appetizers I ordered escargot, something that Courtney and I ordered at our first meal together when I fully realized my feelings for her, and she surprised me by ordering a salad with raspberry vinaigrette and chicken livers. I was truly impressed. For mains she got veal with a mushroom cream sauce and I ordered roasted lamb. The escargot were delicious in their garlicky butter and Courtney’s salad was well balanced between the harsh livers and sweet dressing. While this food did not have the ‘wow’ effect of the Jules Verne, it had a homey aspect that warmed the belly. This was true home French cooking. It was not fancy. It was peasant food and I loved it. Sometimes the best meals are those shared simply at home with family. Comfort food in its essence. Our mains were prepared in the same manner. Each of us had potatoes au gratin or scalloped potatoes as sides. Her veal was tender and delicious in its heavenly mushroomy cream sauce, but my lamb took the cake, at least for me, as best dish of the night. It was cooked without adulteration. The lamb was left to be its lamby self. Perfectly roasted, the quality of the meat jumped in the mouth. It tasted like a farm, but in a good way. This lamb actually lived. It ate that which it desired and moved to where it desired. The fat was crisp on the outside and melty within. It was the best piece of lamb I have ever tasted. For desert Courtney got chocolate mousse and I got a three fruit, apples, pears and peaches, cake with vanilla cream. I was honestly too full for much food, but the cake was delivered and I ate the whole thing.
We were the last ones in the restaurant. The kitchen was closed and the two ladies were eating their dinner. Courtney and I let the time slip away talking and laughing. We don’t need stimulation to enjoy each other’s company; we always have something about which to discuss. Around 11, though we got the check because we wanted to meet Anushree again, hopefully for some dancing. We found her at a bar in the 5th arrondissement. Instead of dancing, though, she was calling it an early night. She told Courtney and I to head toward a neighborhood where we would “easily find this dance club.” I had my doubts but we went anyway. We found no such club and after an hour of walking I was ready to go home, which stinks because it would have been amazing to go dancing with Courtney. I love dancing and so does she. The Metro closes at 2, a bit early if you ask me. We miraculously found a cab, but it cost an arm and a leg to get home. Well, sometimes it happens. Sorry Dad, what could we do?