[Paris] – I have been thinking about – and eating – strawberries.
I bought my strawberries last weekend from a fruit stall along the Rue Mouffetard, an ancient street in the Latin Quarter of Paris that is almost totally about food with a little wine thrown in. I may have had better strawberries, some bought from Oregon growers are pretty great, but as strawberries go mine serve as not only a delicious dessert, but as a metaphor of sorts for all food in food lovers France.
You would want to walk the Rue Mouffetard even if the place weren’t a food mecca. The cobblestones echo with history. The street was once a Roman road, it’s that old. The old and lovely church at the foot of the mostly pedestrian street, Saint Medard’s, plays a role in Victor Hugo’s great story of the 1832 revolution – Les Miserable.
Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce and George Orwell all lived and wrote in the neighborhood. Hemingway’s posthumous memoir of life in Paris – A Moveable Feast – opens in the little square where the Rue Mouffetard becomes the Rue de Cardinal Lemonie. Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson, had an apartment just down the street. A plaque today marks the spot. All these literary lights certainly ate here as well and Joyce no doubt found the white Swiss wine he fancied. I’m more a burgundy fan myself and my new favorite wine shop half way up the street has a superb selection both affordable and, well, not so affordable.
But, I digress. Back to strawberries. Don’t marry a girl, it is said, who desires strawberries in January. Strawberries in January are unnatural things. They are natural in June. Strawberries also don’t travel well. They are best closest to were they were grown and when they are picked when ripe. Real strawberries are not the size of a small soccer ball. They are small and delicate, not firm and armored. The United States produces a quarter of the world’s strawberries and almost of them would go begging on the Rue Mouffetard where they know their strawberries.
The strawberries I have been enjoying weren’t even the most upmarket berries on the street. Those were expensive, as in ouch expensive, and they were handled by a young man in a long apron with the same careful touch he might have shown the Hope Diamond or the delicate hand of a pretty girl. He examined each little orb with intense care and only the best were arranged in perfect rows in a basket and then sold no doubt to a serious minded French cook of a certain age who will expect her fraise to be just so. My strawberries were not so good, I suspect, as these carefully arranged jewels in their little box. Mine were in a basket in the usual way you see those massive berries with the white centers that we find all year around in the United States. But the French berry – upscale or down market – actually tastes like a strawberry, sweet, just a little tartness and then the juice is released. Ah.
Along the Rue Mouffetard in Paris
The French, I believe, have a different relationship with food than most Americans. It’s a cultural, historical thing. The influence of American fast food is steadily creeping over the food transom here and the government is attempting to create more disclosure around food that is mass produced and shipped to restaurants to be re-heated and served as if it where produced on the premises. Still, the small neighborhood cafe seems to thrive. The fresh food and vegetable markets sprout up in a dozen neighborhoods in the city. You can get good food here everywhere, great food many places and outstanding food in a lot of places.
Some of the best restaurants in Paris, like good restaurants everywhere, have committed to trying to use the freshest, best ingredients. They are giving awards to those who reach and maintain such standards. The celebrated chef Alain Ducasse – I feasted at his historic and outstanding 100 year old bistrot Benoit today – singles out particular food producers for recognition. And the emphasis on freshness and quality makes a huge difference in the dining experience and also a big difference when you have ready access to fresh fruit and vegetables that you can use at home.
The farmer’s market movement in the United States has a European cousin in the food markets of this richly agricultural nation.
Charles de Gaulle famously asked, “How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?” It’s a funny question, but also profound. The best cheese market on the Rue Mouffetard, by my count, only offered about 150 varieties and not a vacuum packed piece of cheddar in the bunch.
Perhaps de Gaulle, a fellow who knew something about being an individual, was merely acknowledging the obvious with his great question about governing and cheese. With all the effort to protect the French language and culture, and given the political turmoil here over increased immigration, not to mention the country’s dark brushes now and in the past with anti-Semitism, a place that offers so many choices in its food – and considers that a matter of national honor – is going to be a fractured, testy, intensely complicated place where everyone has an opinion, particularly at lunch time.
To quote Captain Queeg from The Caine Mutiny – “Ah, but the strawberries…”
Eat them – all you can – if you come to Paris in June and linger over lunch like the locals do. Sure the productivity here isn’t up to American standards, but a two hour lunch once in a while with time for conversation, a little contemplation, some laughter and discussion won’t kill the economy or you. More likely it will do you good. In any event, the French would tell you that they work late. After that lunch you need some time to get ready for dinner.