Writing about food has never really been my thing. I prefer to take pictures of food and even more I like to cook food. As a result, I have to do something pertaining to French food. I’ll try to provide some dialogue to the food that I saw and that I ate while I Ire in Paris, the differences in food as I headed to the south of France and the food preferences as I visited Cluny. Food is an art form and is as variable and scientific as the making of wine. You could say that food is magical as Ill as mystical. It is an insult to try to recreate the mysticism of food in a test tube as so many food companies do today. I will be taking the side of the food snob in this homage to French cuisine.
To start, I really have to think about what is food? Is food simply calories on a plate or is it something more? And another question where do I draw the line between what is calories on a plate and what is that something more? So I will clear this up with my own opinion of what food is. Food is an art form that is made with a clear thought in mind of the end product that is too be formed both in color, texture, and flavor. Food is described in quality, not quantity, and food is not merely calories on a plate. What I think of as food is a complex means of conveyance to get calories into the human body. Most people eat with knives and forks in a “civilized” manner, our food should be just as civilized to compliment the method of eating.
This is where my food snobbery comes into view. Eating at chain restaurants where food is reheated and plopped on a plate and then served in a sit down setting. To me, this is a glorified form of fast food. By comparison the calories are just as high in both forms of food, the salt is just as high, and a food chemist was involved in both forms of business. My view of food goes beyond the chain restaurant to the restaurant where raw ingredients are brought in and selected by a trained chef to be used in his or her kitchen. A point to be clarified here, many people don’t know it, but there are many restaurants masquerading as non-chain restaurants but if you looked in their freezer you would find neat boxes by companies like Sysco foods that say things like, “pepper seasoned chicken thighs” or “three cheese macaroni”. These foods are heated up in the kitchen and put on the plate and the consumer is charged a premium. Gone are the days where a chef or a cook was in the kitchen really cooking.
I say all this not to depress anyone and not to say that all restaurants are the same. I say this to make people aware that they need to be critical of the food they eat and make the choice between eating mass-market calories, plopped on a plate and an art form. See the video at the end of this post to learn more about slow food and really respecting your food. It is in an insult to the chef and the animal that was sacrificed to not have a great appreciation of food.
By and large from what I can tell, many of the restaurants that I visited before arriving in Cluny Ire cooking in the old fashioned way. However, I did eat at a cleverly disguised pasta chain in Aix en Provence.In Paris there is as wide a variety of food as you would find in New York City. Every kind of food imaginable was there and often separated by districts, which are called arrondisments. In the Latin corridor you find a lot of North African foods as Ill as Middle Eastern food. It is largely Ill priced and a lot of people that you see in this part of Paris will be of other races and nationalities. That’s how I learned to find the good food. If there are a lot of people of the same nationality as the food being served, it is probably pretty darn good.
If you jump from there to the more residential district such as the 10th arrondisement, the food changes. The food prices decrease and things like omelets become regular fare as Ill as warm goat cheese salads and copious amount of bread. I found that prices dropped by as much as half when I left the heavily touristy regions and when in search of local street fare. Head out for lunch around midday and follow the men and women in business attire. That how I found one of the most fantastic sandwich and quiche bars that I have ever been to. You can pick up a whole-wheat roll and with fresh ripe tomatoes, basil olive oil, and fresh goat cheese for 2.70 euros. Or a wonderful piece of quiche for only 2 euros and a dessert for no more than 3 euros. You can make a picnic lunch for two out of 10 euros, which even with the exchange rate is still less than a lunch in the United States.
If you then jump back to the business districts of the 4th and 6th arrondisements and even into the 7th, your wallet must thicken considerably. With the increase in level of the clientele, the food quality increases, as does the style of service. Restaurants become sit-down places with the service staff as salaried employees dressed in ties and button down shirts. The service becomes prompt and courteous with an emphasis on really enjoying the meal and a lot more drinking. It appears that restaurants make a lot on the wines and beers the sell. As a result, there is a large push to accompany each course of the meal with a different drink. There are of course at least 3 courses so you can imagine the amount of alcohol that is dispensed and the bill growing considerably as a result. To put it in perspective, a plate at a restaurant will cost 12 euros and a glass wine will cost 4 to 6 euros. It is all worth it though because the service is almost always good and the drinks they provide are Ill worth the cost. This is a narrative of food but the food speaks for itself. See the picture below.
The food of Paris could take up a whole novel but it is better in pictures. After all a picture is worth a thousand words so I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. See the album at the end of this entry.
As I travelled South to Aix en Provence and to Avignon the food became significantly cheaper as a result of cheaper clientele and lower operating costs. Food became more family oriented and chain restaurants such as the one that I found in Aix en Provence popped up. Still though a big difference in cuisine between Paris and Aix is the amount of expensive type dishes. In Paris, the chefs make careful molds to layer foods and take exquisite lengths to make sure that the food looks like art. There is also a pressure on lots of meat of many different sorts in Paris. Almost every dish has some kind of meat ingrained (pun intended if you get beef jokes) into its very core. One particularly notable factor is that every restaurant in Paris has a form of beef tartare. In Aix the food becomes more fishy and also more pasta based. Not hard to believe because Aix is much closer to Italy. I only spent one day in Aix before moving onto Avignon which became a highlight of cooking in my mind.
The cuisine of Avignon was what is called Provençal. There is a heavy influence of the Mediterranean in the dishes. Olives and olive oil make the seen as well as aromatic vegetables and lots of fresh vegetables. In my experience, I was able to sit down order a glass of cool white table wine and a vegetable platter that came with crusty bread and a bottle of spiced oil. Every meal is washed down with a cup of espresso and often a small cup of gelato from one of the many gelato bars. All that would cost you no more than 20 euros per person for a meal. I wish I had my camera when I sat down for that meal but I had left it behind in my hotel room. This is a good place to note that everywhere you eat should be outside with lots of people sitting at tables. That means that food is probably good and you get lots of fresh air. There is nothing like sitting out at lunch at 1 PM on a warm afternoon under a umbrella watching French life go by and very often unleashed very well trained dogs. I spent an hour at lunch in Avignon watching two French Bulldogs beg from their owners and use their bulldog manners to protest not being fed table scraps.
My time was short lived in Avignon and I moved on again back to Paris and then to Cluny where food changed again. I will have to go back to Avignon to visit the city of Arles and Marseille where I think that I will get quintessential southern France food. Cluny food is very diverse and warrants its own entry. I will break off here and leave food behind for another day.
I will make a mention here about the amazing French breakfasts I have had. Consisting of unsweetened yogurt served with honey and jam as well as fresh bread that is still warm from the baker and the most amazing croissants imaginable. The method of serving the breakfasts is just amazing. In the bed and breakfasts, they are brought to you on a silver tray with a ceramic pitcher of piping hot coffee and another pitcher of steamed milk and a basket of warm floured rolls and slightly sweet croissants. Eggs make a rare appearance and when they do they are hard-boiled or the are poached and served with fresh bread. Fresh jams are always provided in either small ceramic dishes with freshly whipped butter or in little individual glass jars. I wish I had taken more pictures of the breakfasts to show what I am writing about, but I am not a morning person and as I result I did not remember to bring my camera to breakfast often enough.
Moral of the story from me. Respect food for the fact that it should be enjoyed as more than a plate of calories. It is an art from, and it should be appreciated