One thing the French are well known for is their cuisine. Now that I’ve been here for a few weeks and have had the opportunity to see my fair share of French kitchens during my search for an apartment, I have to stop and wonder how it is that they manage to cook all these fancy French dishes.
Nearly every kitchen I saw had no more than two hot-plate-type electric burners and one small microwave oven. Period. They must never bake anything, since nobody seems to own a real oven. Thus, I suppose, the popularity of the boulangerie, where everyone goes two or three times a day to get their freshly-baked baguettes. I think it must be due to a difference in the yeast or water that I have rarely had a baguette in the U.S. that could compare to the flavor of those here.
Bread is so important to the French that there is a boulangerie on nearly every block. I think the French Revolution would not have occurred if Marie Antoinette had not been so insensitive to the fact that the peasants had no bread and suggested they eat cake instead (though that story is apparently a myth, no doubt cooked up by some guys in the baker’s union who wanted to protest the reduction in their retirement benefits).
My refrigerator is the size of those you find in university dorm rooms, in which you keep a few beers and a pizza that’s been around since the Mesozoic era. The “freezer” in this refrigerator is approximately the size of a cigar box. But it’s not a problem because just next to my apartment building is a Picard; a grocery store devoted entirely to frozen food items. And their products are actually tasty! These shops are all over Paris, so I can just run downstairs whenever I need some quick creamed spinach. It’s like having a walk-in freezer at my back door.
Now I understand how all these little bistrots manage to feed such large numbers of people every day, especially if they have only two burners to cook on. You place your order, then the waiters all run out to Picard, buy a bunch of frozen quiche and ratatouille, microwave it, and put it on a plate decorated with one or two leaves of lettuce.
One of the odd things I recently discovered was that the U.S. does not import most French cheeses because they are not pasteurized. As far as anyone knows, nobody has ever died from eating French cheese, pasteurized or not. As if unpasteurized cheese is the most important thing the U.S. needs to worry about in relation to the health of its citizens. Nuclear waste leaching into groundwater, high levels of mercury in fish, and pollution so thick you can stand a spoon up in it is just fine; but a little stinky French unpasteurized cheese within our borders might just kill us all!
Now that I have a new apartment, furnished only with some basics like a bed, sofa, and a few sundry pieces of furniture, I was looking forward to shopping for nifty kitchen items to fulfill my fantasies of being the next Julia Child. So I went down to the BHV (the department store in Paris where you can find almost anything) in order to buy a cocotte, which is nothing more than a cast-iron pot with a lid. When I looked at what one of them cost I realized why the French all go out to eat. It’s because it’s cheaper than buying pots and pans to cook in. A medium-sized cocotte was about 180 dollars! My designer kitchen fantasies were quickly deteriorating into hoping I could manage to afford a can opener and some paper plates.
A vide grenier turned out to be my salvation. Just like an American yard sale, from time to time, people in their local arrondissement gather together various household items they would like to sell, usually for a reasonable price. I managed to score a red enameled cast iron cocotte for only 8 euros! Boeuf bourgignon, here I come!
As someone who really loves to cook, my culinary efforts have been a little like trying to write with my feet. I’m learning to make do, however, and have been encouraged by attending a dinner party at the home of my new American friend, Dennis. It has certainly been the most elaborate meal I’ve had since arriving here. Granted, he has a somewhat more elaborate kitchen than most I’ve seen in Paris, but it would not be considered large by any means.
Dennis managed to produce a gourmet four-course meal, which I believe took all day to prepare. And while his culinary talents were appreciated by all ten people at this gathering, the best part was enjoying the company of those present. Everyone had something wonderful to contribute to the evening, whether it was a poem, a song, or a fascinating anecdote. The meal itself was magnificent, but the true flavor came from everyone contributing something of themselves to the meal.
Hemingway said that Paris was “a moveable feast.” I understand what he means, even if my “feast” is just a baguette, some cheese, and a glass of wine while looking out over the rooftops of Paris.