A Taste of French Cheese

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During my first couple of months in Paris, my lunch was often a half-baguette slathered with brie or camembert, which I’d wolf down before heading off to my French-language class.

I was in thrall to the deeply flavored cheeses I’d only just discovered at a supermarket around the corner from the apartment where I was then living in the 14th arrondissement, before I found the cheese shops in the neighborhood. These cheeses tasted like nothing I could get in the U.S.

Today I don’t consume cheeses in France with quite the same abandon as I did then, but I do eat more cheese in Paris than I do in New York (just not so much at one sitting). Cheese is a significant part of a French meal. My Parisian friends might not always offer a first course to their dinner guests, but most do make sure to have a cheese course before dessert.

In France you generally purchase the cheese you’re going to consume for that day, or perhaps the next. Cheese isn’t something you buy to keep for weeks, unless it’s a wedge of parmesan. That said, my friend Philippe V., who takes French thrift to an extreme, sometimes asks people over for a dinner “à la bonne franquette” – that is, potluck – to finish scraps of the weeks-old (and sometime months-old) cheeses he’s found lurking in his fridge. I sometimes offer to bring over newly bought cheese, just in case what’s there is inedible.

As with much in French life, there’s a certain way of doing things, and this applies even to a cheese course. You generally stick to odd numbers of cheeses: one, three or five (my friend Roland has served as many as seven). You mix firm, soft, mild and tangy styles, with cheese made from cow, sheep or goat’s milk. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, however. A platter of small rounds of various chèvre is what my friends Jean-Paul and Dominique usually offer. You could also serve a single camembert or a brie.

Some friends of mine use up leftover cheese by making it part of their breakfast. They might spread remaining camembert on a baguette from the night before and have it with their morning coffee. Apparently this is a delicious combination.

For a simple cheese course, I might include a ripe camembert, a firm comté and a blue-style cheese such as a Roquefort. Once I referred to a Roquefort as a blue cheese but my friend Jean F. corrected me. “It’s not a blue cheese,” he said. “It’s Roquefort.” Here we go, I thought: the French love of categorization and putting you in your place. But Roquefort actually differs from blue cheeses because Roquefort, and only Roquefort cheeses, are aged in the Combalou caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. This is a distinction Americans don’t usually learn or even much care about. For us, a blue cheese is a blue cheese. And for us, Roquefort is a blue cheese.

Not in France, where you grow up recognizing the differences. From a very early age the French taste many cheeses, getting to know styles from different regions and what makes each unique. Even at pre-schools (écoles maternelles), where children are served a multi-course lunch, a local cheese is always included: camembert from Normandy in the north, Roquefort from Aveyron in the south, comté from Franche-Comté in the east.

As for comté, I look for ones that have been aged for more than 24 months, which have a nutty flavor and a sometimes-crumbly texture (especially those that are aged for 38-40 months). In the U.S., most comté is six or nine months old, and has less character than aged comté. Older comté cheeses are rarer, don’t ship well, are harder to come by and available only in late autumn for a couple of months. Sometimes instead of a comté I’ll choose a Salers, which is a semi-hard cheese from the Auvergne, in central France. It’s a little like a Cantal, but saltier and tangier. I might offer a brie de Meaux or a brie de Melun instead of a camembert. Brie de Meaux is an unpasteurized brie, as is brie de Melun. The brie de Melun is much sharper in flavor, sometimes even with a hint of ammonia, which tastes too much like an accident to appeal to me.  I also have a fondness for creamy goat cheeses such as Saint Marcellin or rocamadour, which come in small rounds that flatten and spread as they come to room temperature, lying in fragrant, oozing white puddles on the cheese plate. In any event, you’ve got a lot of cheese to choose from.

You generally let cheese come to room temperature before serving, though Roquefort is better held in the fridge until just before serving, since it can get too soft.

The cheese generally comes after the main course, alongside the salad. My friends are of two camps: some take salad first, then cheese, while others take both at the same time. Some eat the morsels of cheese with a knife and fork or use their fingers for a wedge of camembert, while others prefer cheese with a bit of a baguette. A French cheese plate doesn’t have the usual froufrou you see on cheese platters in America: no grape leaves or mounds of fruit.

We Americans generally have cheese before dinner as an appetizer or during a cocktail party. It’s a different way of organizing dinner, although I’ve come to prefer the French way of serving cheese, as part of a meal. You’re less likely to fill up on cheese before you sit down to eat. Still, in New York I don’t offer a cheese course with dinner. It would feel off somehow. Although it’s best to respect local customs I sometimes try to see if a French approach might work in the States. When one of my sisters was hosting a family gathering she had me bring cheeses, I asked her when she was going to serve them – before or during dinner. I could sense her rolling her eyes at me over the phone. “During cocktails,” she said. “Like normal people.”

Unnamed Flavors in France

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The semiweekly market in Foix, Ariège.

At a little open-air market in Foix, a small city in Ariège in the mid-Pyrenees region of southwestern France, I came upon a cheese stand selling local products. I’ve become fond of the area’s bethmale, a firm and tangy cow cheese, and its cousin toudeille, which can be made from cow, sheep or goat milk, or a combination. I picked up a bit of each from the seller. Then, tasting a delicious sample from a heavy wheel of cheese that the fromager was displaying on the counter, I bought a little bit of that too. I asked the vendor its name.

“There’s no name for it,” he said. “It’s simply a cheese from the Pyrenees.”

France has hundreds of cheeses, many named for their regions – the bethmale comes from a valley of that name where the cheese was first produced – and I was a little surprised that France, land of relentless categorization and insistent codification, allowed such a fine-flavored cheese to remain nameless. But some things, such as handmade local products sold locally by locals to locals – and to the occasional visitor – apparently fall outside the purview of the entrenched French bureaucratic mindset.

If I wanted more of that cheese the next time I visited my friend Jean in Foix, I’d have to be there on that same market day and find that same stand and hope that the same fromager would have that same anonymous cheese. But since cheese is a living thing it’s also ephemeral, and the cheese would not be exactly the same as the one I tasted. Besides, the cheesemaker’s supply depends on what is available to him and what he chooses to create. So, even if I wanted to find that cheese again, I’d have to rely on chance rather than count on certainty. I have come to expect certainty when I’m in France, because the French do so many things a certain way, though apparently with some exceptions, such as the making and naming of regional artisanal cheese.

I didn’t come to France to find certainty, however, but to be unsettled, or to find a place where being unsettled seemed more normal than it did at home in New York. I have a tendency to forge habits – a necessity when you work for yourself – that can become routine and that can insulate me from discovering what’s beyond my immediate view. This happens even in Paris, where so much remains unknown to me, even if so much is now comforting and familiar, though still beguiling. Although I finally feel that I belong, in a city where I will still always be a foreigner, I sometimes take for granted my growing familiarity with French culture, which can lead to complacency. So, even the trivial act of tasting a new and unnamed cheese created in me a slight and momentary sense of imbalance that not everything can be labeled. I’d had to appreciate a specific taste without knowing the name of what I’d tasted beyond the generic, and had to savor the moment, knowing that it would probably never be repeated. I was looking for a sure thing, but I had to accept uncertainty.

I’ve always lived in uncertainty, for my future, for my work, for who I am, for who I want to be and for what I’m worth. This is perhaps why the routines I create to establish order in my day often lead me to relying on habit that maintains stasis rather than using it as a springboard for leaping into the unknown. I remind myself that I must push myself to change, because I know that it’s too easy to become used to what I have, even if it’s not what I want. This is why I first began to build a recurring temporary life in Paris, so that I would have a series of set dates when I would have to move from one place to another. This would necessitate some sort of disorder in me, and I’d be shaken out of whatever everyday isolation I’d fallen into, an inadvertent apartness that I somehow cultivate, because I am by nature someone who prefers to be alone, as much as I long to connect. Perhaps my solitude is a way of remaining unknown, and perhaps unnamed, somehow there and somehow elusive, like that cheese I’d bought.

I was in Foix again a few weeks after I’d sampled that unnamed cheese, and I saw the same cheesemaker. I didn’t notice if he was displaying a wheel of cheese that might be similar to what I’d tasted before, because I was rushing to catch a train. But I overheard a group of English tourists being led through the market, who were marveling at the varieties of mainly local cheeses on display on that and other stands. “There are so many cheeses,” gushed one woman to the guide, “how can you remember them all?”

“Impossible,” she said, her French pronunciation making it seem both a fact and a challenge. “But you should try them.”

The trying, I thought, is the answer: I never know what I have when I have it, since it’s always later when I appreciate the time, the place, the food, the people, because I belittle the validity of my responses to whatever it is I encounter. That’s why I must try again and again, not simply to recreate an evanescent experience, though that will remain a frustrating constant in my character, but to thwart the self-abnegation that holds me back from appreciating the fullness of life.

And all that from a slice of cheese.

 

 

 

Culinary Exactitude in France

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When I first served some new French friends blanquette de veau, a classic French dish, a few months after I arrived in Paris, I was told that my version wasn’t really French, as tasty as it was, because it differed from the classic preparation that millions of French grew up eating. I realized that certain French classics must be prepared in a particular way in order to be worthy of the classic name. And if you’re an American serving French food to the French, you’ve got to be careful of doing anything that strays from the standard recipe.

So, I began to call any vaguely French dishes that I served something else. If I prepared a slightly different version of blanquette de veau that included peas or fennel – something green that wouldn’t appear in a classic version of the dish – I’d call it simply a veal stew. My French friends would then be able to enjoy what I’d cooked without the cognitive dissonance of eating one thing while knowing in their hearts that it was not exactly the name by which they’d known blanquette de veau all their lives.

The French can be literal-minded when it comes to cooking. Maybe because France is a nation of bureaucrats, and the French live in a society in which you are expected to follow certain customs, such as saying “Bonjour” when you enter a store or an elevator, the French are easily thrown by change. Since the French long ago codified their cuisine, any deviation from the way dishes have been prepared for generations may lead to suspicion. Especially if it’s not a French person who’s deviating from the culinary norm.

I once watched an episode of a competition show, La Meilleure Boulangerie de France, or the best bakery in France, that illustrated this in a different setting. One of the judges, an unimaginative stickler named Bruno Cormerais, who himself won a national award for his baking prowess, goes strictly by the book of accepted baking practices. Part of the competition involves making the pastry or bread most popular with customers. One baker in the south of France, an American who runs the bakery with her French husband, served the judges her brownies. The jingoistic judge criticized her choice, saying that while her brownies were good she should have demonstrated her baking skills with something more typical, regardless that her customers asked for her brownies all the time. The poor baker’s crime in this competition had been to offer something non-French at a French bakery.

The other night, I offered my guests a chicken that I’d braised with tomatoes, leeks, mushrooms, carrots and some leftover white wine. I’d mentioned to them that it was a very sort-of poule au pot, simply because it was a chicken I’d cooked in a pot but, unlike a poule au pot, it didn’t have potatoes or turnips or an onion studded with a couple of cloves. Sure enough, one of my guests said, on seeing the final dish, “When you told me it was poule au pot, I was confused.” I said that I’d never claimed it was an actual poule au pot, but something I’d come up with for a dinner à la bonne franquette, an expression the French use to mean a meal that is simple, unfussy and sometimes improvised. But even the passing reference to a poule au pot was enough to cause my friend Raoul’s bureaucratic brain to buckle slightly under the weight of unmet expectations when the poule wasn’t made au pot in the way it usually is.

Perhaps a French person cooking something similar to what I’d served wouldn’t have thought to mention the term poule au pot, since he or she would have known it was nothing like that dish, and instead simply called it tonight’s chicken. If he were planning to serve a poule au pot, he’d have made a poule au pot. I guess I want more wiggle room in using the names of French dishes. But then, that’s probably because I sometimes want them to be something other than they are.

Of course, I know that I do the same thing when I see French versions of American food in Paris. So, perhaps, I’m as literal-minded as I claim the French are.

There’s a very successful chain called O’Tacos here, whose tacos, if you could call them that, look and taste nothing like what you’d get at a taco truck in the U.S. (for example, the “taco” sauces you can choose from include harissa, mayonnaise and something called samurai). The frozen-food chain Picard held a recent monthlong celebration of American food, selling French versions of mac-and-cheese, pulled barbecued pork, bacon cheeseburgers, and even a birthday layer cake, among other dishes. Picard’s American food didn’t seem, to judge from the packaging, quite like the real thing you get in the States. I tried the mac-and-cheese – which the box claimed to be the best, authentic version of mac-and-cheese – just to see how closely it resembled one of the many versions you can get anywhere in America. While it was serviceable, it just didn’t taste like real mac-and-cheese.

Maybe if Picard had given it another name such as gratin des macaronis à l’américaine, I myself would have expected less of it and been willing to enjoy it more. A simple name change can make all the difference.

Feeding the French a Bit of America

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The French are easy to cook for. They arrive ravenous (people don’t generally eat between meals in France) and they are happy to eat whatever you serve.

Most Americans are idiosyncratic about food. Most French are not. (Though one friend of mine, who hails from Normandy, confesses that he hates camembert, which is in the firmament among the stars of Normandy’s culinary heritage. There’s always someone.)

I have sometimes wondered if Americans are afraid of food, or simply choose to be fussy about it because they can afford to picky when so much is available to them. Maybe the French are less fussy because their collective memory involves so much privation – including two devastating wars in the last century when millions went hungry. So, in France dining remains less of a quick fuel stop than a cherished part of the day that you linger over. Or dining rather than feeding is simply a matter of national character, at least in how the French approach food.

The French are interested in other cuisines, though. Once my friend Pierre asked me to make something American for him and a few other friends. This was a rather broad request. American cuisine can mean so many things, at least to an American. It ranges from Italian-American to Southwest, to Southern, to the Mediterranean- or Asian-inspired cuisine of California and the Pacific Northwest, to Amish cooking or New England fare or the influences of so many Latin countries that you see in cooking from Florida to Arizona and even to Illinois.

Of course, for the French, American cuisine, such as it is, reflects the American national food character, which usually means hamburgers. Just as Americans picture France as a land of scrawny beret-wearing smokers carrying baguettes, the French see Americans as a nation of fat gun-toting philistines gobbling cheeseburgers. But I wasn’t going to make hamburgers for my guests. Besides, I feel that hamburgers are things you eat at restaurants, which are better equipped to handle the splatters from grilling the burgers and from making the proper French fries to go along with them. So, I decided to serve my friends meatloaf.

This wasn’t as easy as getting a meatloaf mix at the supermarket, since meatloaf mix is something unheard of in France. As is meatloaf – though the French do have an idea of what a pain de viande is, since variations of meatloaf (not to mention pâtés and terrines and such) have surely been served in France and pretty much everywhere ground meat is available. Another little quandary was the ground beef itself. I’ve found that ground beef in France can be grainy when cooked. I can’t quite figure out why. It’s probably the particular cuts they use, though I still haven’t figured out how French cuts differ from American ones. I haven’t had an opportunity yet to befriend a butcher savvy to the different approaches in butchering in the two countries who could explain it all to me.

Many meatloaf recipes call for proportions of half ground beef, one-quarter each of ground veal and ground pork. At my neighborhood Monoprix supermarket, I asked the butcher to grind a half-kilo (roughly a pound) of beef (bœuf haché or steak haché). Ground pork is less readily available in French supermarkets, and you can find ground veal shaped into patties and sold in little packages in the refrigerated meat aisle, but I didn’t want something that had been prepacked at a factory. Luckily, most butchers in France offer a seasoned mixture of ground pork and veal for stuffing vegetables – it’s usually displayed next to samples of stuffed tomatoes for sale in the butcher case. So, I got a quarter-kilo of that (about a half pound). And there was my meatloaf mix à la française.

Rather than use packaged bread crumbs, I decided to bind the meatloaf with a panade, which is a mixture of bread soaked in milk. I never remember the science of why exactly this keeps meat tender – something to do with how the milk and the bread when mashed together in this way prevent certain protein strands in the meat from seizing up when cooked. Whatever – a panade has the ability to offset the potential graininess in French beef and provide it with a more pleasant texture.

I made my meatloaf in the usual meatloaf way, with parsley, garlic, onion, a little Worcestershire sauce, an egg, salt and pepper. I’m not fond of sweetish glazes on meatloaves, so I made a variation of Marcella Hazan’s famous tomato sauce recipe – good canned tomatoes, half an onion and  a few tablespoons of butter simmered together for half an hour – to serve alongside it. The meatloaf baked nicely and was just finishing up, browned and aromatic, when my guests arrived for their apéro.

For potatoes I made a gratin dauphinois, which is really just a dish of scalloped potatoes with a French name. I also made green beans – the skinny French kind, which I told myself worked as an American vegetable since you can get them in New York too.

There were six of us at dinner. And the meatloaf disappeared. As did the sauce – which I have a feeling my guests preferred to the pain de viande. (Who wouldn’t? It’s sensational.) Pierre told me that his mother prepared something like the meatloaf I had so carefully sourced and fixed for them, though hers was made with what was left over and chopped up and fashioned into a mound from a weekend pot au feu, a boiled-beef-and-vegetable dish, and served like penance for days after Sunday dinner. It didn’t sound at all like my meatloaf, and I didn’t know if this comparison was meant as a compliment.

Still, my French friends did get to taste a very small sample of what might be considered American food, and they liked it. They’re generally more impressed, however, when I make Italian food, since the proper cooking and saucing of pasta eludes most French. A meatloaf isn’t all that different from certain ground-meat dishes with which the French are already familiar. But for some reason, making sure the pasta is al dente is beyond the majority of home cooks. But they would say the same about anyone outside of France trying to make a proper French baguette. And they’d be right.

Extra Cheese in France

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The interior of Alléosse, a noted cheese shop on the Rue Poncelet, in the 17th arrondissement in Paris. 

During my first few weeks in Paris several years ago, my lunch was often a half-baguette slathered with brie or camembert, which I’d wolf down before heading off to the Alliance Française on the Boulevard Raspail for my language class. I was in thrall to the deeply flavored cheeses I’d discovered at the Monoprix supermarket around the corner (before I found the cheese shops in the neighborhood). These cheeses had a taste much more pronounced than what passes for brie or camembert in the U.S.

Today I don’t consume cheeses in France with quite the same abandon as when I first started spending time there, but I do eat more cheese in Paris than I do in New York. Just not so much at one sitting. Cheese is a significant element in a French meal. My Parisian friends might not always offer a first course to their dinner guests, but most do make sure to have a cheese course just before dessert.

In France you generally purchase the cheese you’re going to consume for that day, or perhaps the next. Cheese isn’t something you buy to keep for weeks, unless it’s a wedge of parmesan. When I buy a camembert, I specify whether it’s for that night or the next day – the fromager will press on the cheese to determine if it’s sufficiently ripe to consume in the next few hours or 24 hours later. And although you can find some non-French cheeses, such as parmesan or gorgonzola or English cheddar or stilton, more than 90% of the cheeses you’ll see at the fromager are French. A Parisian friend of mine visiting me in New York was astonished at the variety of cheeses he could find at Zabar’s, the fine-foods store near me on the Upper West Side. “I had to come to New York to find a Spanish cheese,” my friend Roland told me. But France is a land of more than 400 different cheeses, so it’s natural that its fromagers will favor French cheese.

Within a 15-minute walk of where I stay in Paris, I have a choice of about five or seven different fromagers, or cheese shops. The one I prefer is Alléosse, on the rue Poncelet, a rue commerçante with a variety of bakeries, patisseries, fruit-and-vegetable stands, a coffee roaster, wine shops, butchers, fishmongers and supermarkets. There’s even another cheese shop a few steps from Alléosse. But Alléosse, which has its own caves d’affinage, or aging cellars, in the same arrondissement, has the most flavorful, perfectly ripened cheeses.

As with much in French life, there’s a certain way of doing things, and this applies even to a cheese course. You generally stick to odd numbers of cheeses: one, three or five (I’ve even seen plateaux de fromage with seven different cheeses). And you mix them up: hard, soft, mild, tangy, cow, sheep, goat. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, however. My friends Jean-Paul and Dominique generally put out a platter with a variety of small rounds of goat cheeses. That’s a little extreme for my taste, although I like goat cheese. Still, people do sometimes serve just one cheese: a nice ripe camembert or perhaps a large wedge of brie. They’re both cow cheeses.  In my experience you’re less likely to see a single goat cheese as your cheese course (unless you’re serving a dozen little goat cheeses). In any event, you’re more likely to put together a plate of three different cheeses, as I do.

If I offer any more than that, I’m left with more cheese than I can reasonably eat over the course of a week. My friends Pierre and his brother Michel solve that little problem by making leftover cheese part of their breakfast. They might place slices of remaining camembert on the baguette from the night before and have it with their morning coffee. (It turns out that coffee and camembert go well together.)

A simple cheese course of mine might include a ripe camembert, a blue-style cheese (such as a Roquefort) and a hard cheese such as an aged comté. I look for comté that’s been aged for more than 24 months (which you can’t get in the U.S. – most of what you see in the States is at most six or nine months old), since I really like its rich, nutty flavor. Sometimes instead of a comté I’ll choose a Salers, which is a semi-hard cheese from the Auvergne, in central France. It’s a little like Cantal, but saltier and tangier. I might offer a brie de Meaux or a brie de Melun instead of a camembert. Brie de Meaux is an unpasteurized brie, as is brie de Melun. The brie de Melun is much sharper in flavor, sometimes even with a hint of ammonia, which can be too much for me, despite my liking strong-flavored cheeses. I also have a fondness for runny goat cheeses such as Saint Marcellin or Rocamadour, which come in small rounds that flatten and spread as they come to room temperature. Sometimes I’ll offer the Brillat-Savarin, but only rarely, since with its high fat content it’s as indulgent as butter.

In any event, in Paris I find myself thinking about what cheeses to serve with dinner, something I’ve never done at home in New York. We Americans have cheese before dinner as an appetizer. It’s a different way of organizing dinner, although I’ve come to prefer the French way of serving cheese, as part of a meal. Still, in New York I don’t offer a cheese course if I’m hosting a dinner. It would feel off.

This past Christmas, my sister Deb who was hosting the family gathering, asked me to bring cheeses. I asked her when she was going to serve them – before or during during dinner.

I could sense her rolling her eyes at me over the phone. “During cocktails,” she said. “Like normal people.” She may have added, “you pretentious idiot,” but that might have simply been a bad connection.

Baguettes and Basics

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For a small dinner the other night I asked my friend Olivier to bring two baguettes from the boulangerie that faces his building, on the Boulevard de Charonne in the 20th arrondissement. The baguettes from this boulangerie are among the best I’ve had in Paris, which is saying something, since it’s pretty easy to find a good baguette pretty much everywhere in France.

Everyone here has opinions on baguettes, and if someone’s brought a particularly good one, you mention it. If it’s an ordinary baguette, you don’t. The difference between extraordinary and ordinary is in the texture – or crumb – and the crust. Simply by dining at friends’ homes, I’ve tasted a lot of very good and a few passable baguettes. I’ve gotten used to having baguettes of a certain quality. (And in New York I find myself being “that person” who, thanks to spending time abroad, offers decided and unasked-for opinions on the quality of the baguettes you can find in Manhattan.)

When people order a baguette at boulangeries here, they specify whether it should be “bien cuit” or “pas trop cuit,” which mainly refers to how dark or crisp the crust should be. I prefer “très bien cuit,” with a very dark crust, but I know people who ask for softer baguettes because they feel that these will last longer, and that the bread for their morning “tartine” or buttered baguette – which is usually what’s left of the baguette from the night before – won’t go stale as quickly as a baguette with a darker crust.

People also buy baguettes at different times of the day, close to meal times, to ensure that they’re getting the ones freshest from the oven. Baguettes are serious business in France.

You can order a regular baguette or “une baguette de tradition.” The difference between them is that that a regular baguette can contain certain additives – such as ascorbic acid – while by law the “baguette de tradition” can only be made with wheat flour, water, yeast, leaving and salt, although very small percentages of other flours, such as wheat malt flour or soy flour, are permitted. I prefer the baguettes de tradition – I find they have more flavor.

Sundays, most boulangeries are open just until about 1 p.m., so you usually find a queue for bread as the morning wears on – since people are pressed to buy their baguettes for lunch, dinner and perhaps the next morning’s breakfast.

I’m lucky enough in this part of the 17th arrondissement to have three boulangerie-patisseries close by (a boulangerie offers mainly bread, sandwiches, and some pastries, while a patisserie specializes in desserts, though it can offer sandwiches and bread too).

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The corner bakery is Le P’tit qu’a le Pain (the name comes from a hoary joke about a dwarf). It’s a simple spot, with piles of long standard baguettes, sturdy rustic-looking baguettes de tradition, and a small variety of specialty breads. Les Enfants Gâtés (or the spoiled children), across the Rue Cardinet from this boulangerie, does sell bread, but specializes in desserts. Down the block on the rue Cardinet is La Boulangerie du Parc Monceau, which is a combination boulangerie-patisserie that offers a variety of tartes and gateaux but also good breads and sandwiches, and caters to the office crowd.

The baguettes are different at each spot. I sometimes prefer those at La Boulangerie du Parc Monceau to those from Le P’tit qu’a le Pain, but they’re both good. The baguettes at Les Enfants Gâtés don’t seem to be baked on premises – I’ve seen a delivery truck unloading baguettes there from the patisserie’s other location, in Levallois, just outside Paris. I can actually tell the difference between one baked on site and one brought from elsewhere.

This matters because bread makes up so much of the daily life of France. It’s still an everyday essential that’s more than something to eat, withstanding faddism and changing tastes (and even if gluten-free bread is available at most boulangeries). Baguettes are part of what you look for here, what you expect to see as an element of a meal or a gathering. Bread isn’t taken for granted. Bread isn’t frowned upon as a dietary no-no. A meal isn’t the same without a baguette. The basics still count for a lot.

At the French ‘State Fair’

The agricultural sector in France is, like many sectors elsewhere, struggling. I heard a woeful farmer declare on a radio broadcast at the start of the Salon de l’Agriculture in Paris, which ended a few days ago, that he often asked himself what purpose his work served, or what was the point of his profession. He wasn’t speaking about feeding the world (this was a given), but of his own place in society, as agribusiness overtakes the small farm and farming itself becomes less a profession and more of an industry. Each of us can ask this question of ourselves, of course (none more so, perhaps, than an ex-journalist who writes about his own experiences abroad), but for those in farming, it’s a pressing concern: how to earn a living in a changing world, and whether what we do is worth it.

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Nevertheless, the Salon de l’Agriculture gives you a sense of still how important to the French are land, sowing, tilling, growing, raising, harvesting – farming as a practice, but more so farming as an idea. Many urban French are removed from the rural towns or villages where they were born, but they still harbor a deep affection, or perhaps something stronger – an inchoate connection with a deep generational history – to a place they would no longer want to live, but whose valor they want to maintain, even if it’s only by telling themselves they will buy locally when they think of it.

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The Salon de l’Agriculture is a little like a French national version of a U.S. state fair – albeit with much better food (you’re as likely to find a deep-fried candy bar or a butter sculpture at the Paris fair as you are fresh oysters, foie gras or choucroute garnie at a fair in Iowa). But rather than being held in a fairgrounds somewhere out of town as U.S. state fairs are, the French farm comes to the city to make the fair: the Salon de l’Agriculture takes place at the huge convention center (or the parc des expositions) at the Porte de Versailles, in the 15th arrondissement. Paris is the capital, of course, but holding the fair in Paris is also a way of stressing how important is agriculture in all senses to the French national character.

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One of the many restaurants at the Salon de l’Agriculture, this one with an oyster bar. 

I’ve always been a city boy, and so I love state fairs, or even citified salons de l’agriculture. The Paris fair focuses on the different regions of France, each highlighting a particular livestock – cattle, milk cows, goats, sheep, pork – and the products derived from each, such as sausages and cheeses, as well as the fruits of the earth, such as confiture and, of course, wine. As with American state fairs, you can see demonstrations (of a sort) of cattle or pork traipsing around a hay-strewn pen under the watch of their breeders (I have no idea what such displays are meant to show other than perhaps the robust health of the specimens, but I was delighted simply to see the beasts lumber about). And you can wander around in relative proximity to the animals you only whiz by on the autoroute if you’re off to spend a rustic weekend somewhere.

I stopped by one stand to watch some chicks hatch – this exhibit was devoted to chickens, of course, and you are always aware of what will eventually befall the cute little hatchlings. You’re not at an agricultural fair to ignore the purpose of farming or the raising of livestock. Similarly, hard by the cattle and livestock pens was a beautiful display of freshly butchered meat, ready for purchase.

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At another stand, for the region of Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, I sampled and bought a piece of aged comté.

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Later that day, when I was picking up an additional cheese for dinner at my local cheese merchant, I mentioned to the saleswoman that I’d also bought a comté at the fair, rather than, as usual, from her store. She said, with alarm, “Mais c’est une arnaque,” meaning it was a swindle. She said that the booths at the fair preyed upon tourists such as me. Well, I told her, I was a tourist for the day, but I still wanted to do my part to support the local industry. Anyway, une dame d’un certain âge had bought some cheese from the Comté guy just before I did, and this elderly lady seemed to me to be the very picture of a traditional Parisienne who could in an instant tell a con artist from a genuine merchant. Although this store, Alléosse, on the Rue Poncelet in the 17th arrondissement, is excellent, and sells wonderfully fragrant comté cheese that can be as old as 41 months (Alléosse prides itself on its affinage, or its aging of cheese), the cheese I had bought (which was simply labeled “vieux,” or old) from the vendor at the agricultural fair was also first-rate. Perhaps I’d lucked out.

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The exhibit for Ariège, in the southwest, showcasing its local products. 

But everyone is a tourist of sorts at the Salon de l’Agriculture – the farmers and cheesemakers and winemakers and experts in horticulture who come to Paris, and the Parisians who come to the fair to see their work. Not to mention the politicians, who almost all make an appearance at the Salon de l’Agriculture, to show solidarity with the farming bloc, as it were, and to support this idea of France as a country ruled by ideas but nourished by those who work the land. Many in the agricultural sector, apparently, support the far-right Marine Le Pen, whose xenophobia, racism and “France first” platform appeals to people who think that closing oneself off from the world is the way to succeed in it.

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Socialist-party presidential candidate Benoît Hamon gives an interview during the Salon de l’Agriculture. 

When I was at the fair, the socialist-party candidate, Benoît Hamon, was also there. I caught a glimpse of him as he gave an interview, but when he descended from a platform to walk among the stands, he was lost amid a crowd of journalists wielding microphones and cameras – as fairgoers jostled each other to glimpse him, and as they all moved in a mass toward one or two stands for an awkward photo opportunity.

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The back of the presidential candidate Benoît Hamon’s head, lost in the crowd of journalists, at the Salon de l’Agriculture.

I moved on from the political spectacle, such as it was, to take in more of the stands, and to savor samples of chorizo, chocolate, cheese and sablés.

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The Salon de l’Agriculture is, of course, also a delight for families with children, who love animals as much as anyone who doesn’t have to tend to them.

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And like a born urbanite, I took a selfie with a cow – because, why not?

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Selfie with cows.

I’m going to show the photo to the woman at the cheese store, and let her know that although I was indeed a tourist ready to be plundered by rapacious farmers, I had a wonderful time.

And of course, a Parisian fair simply wouldn’t be a fair without at least one representation of the Eiffel Tower, such as one in fruits and vegetables.

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I’m already looking forward to next year’s fair.

French Attitudes to Food

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The French arrive hungry. When you invite friends over to dinner in France, they will generally eat what you serve. Special requests are rare and, apart from a Parisian aversion to certain foods that they consider to be too spicy (it doesn’t take much heat at all for French palates to feel an overwhelming peppery burn), your dinner guests consume pretty much anything you prepare for them.

This isn’t to say that food trends don’t exist here as elsewhere. At supermarkets and boulangeries you can find a range of gluten-free this and that – pasta, breads, crackers. At the same time gluten-rich bagels have become something of a culinary thing in Paris. One new bagel place on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, in the 8th arrondissement, is packed at lunch.

Overall, what distinguishes French dining from American eating is the French attitude not only toward being a guest at someone’s home for dinner, but the French relation to food itself. Many Americans expect you to cater to the whims of their palate or the demands of their diet, while the French only expect you to feed them, and assume you’ll do your best to prepare something that everyone will enjoy.

This isn’t a new observation, of course – the French have always been known for honoring food as something worthy of one’s time rather than as mere fuel or a sinful indulgence. But I notice, as someone who likes to entertain guests for dinner both in Paris and in New York, that the French are far less demanding of what they eat when they’re at your home than are Americans (or New Yorkers). The French are far more likely to clean their plates. And they are far less likely to worry about what their home says about them than about how they can best offer a gracious evening to the people they care about. I’ve had wonderful dinners in tiny, cramped Parisian apartments at which everyone was grateful to squeeze in around a rickety table – bit it’s rare to find that kind of accommodating spirit in Manhattan. Several of my French friends live in the sort of apartments you’d never be invited to in New York – out of that Manhattan fear that you’ll be judged by the limitations of your real estate rather than the expanse of your spirit.

Many Americans fear what food can do to them, as if nourishment is medicinal, or as if food itself is a toxin consumed only with extreme caution. The French aren’t afraid of food. They want to appreciate what food can offer, both in terms of taste and history, and they uphold diverse regional culinary traditions. I don’t want to generalize too much about French cuisine overall, however. Fast food thrives in France, and industrially prepared shelf-stable or frozen dishes are a part of many people’s daily diets, while foreign cuisine (Italian, Asian) is often more of a free-wheeling approximation of what you get elsewhere than a true representation of different culinary customs and tastes.

But my own attitude toward food has changed as a result of my splitting my time between France and the U.S. For one thing, I eat more bread in Paris than I do in New York – how could you not, when first-rate baguettes are available everywhere, are relatively inexpensive and are pretty much an essential component of a meal?

You think less of avoidance in Paris than of incorporating something into what you eat day to day. And you worry less about potential ill-effects of something as simple as a crusty baguette than of why you would deny yourself something that has such deep flavor. I remember one lunch with a visiting New Yorker friend who, after some gentle urging, reluctantly sampled the bread placed in a small basket between us on the table at the little local restaurant where we were eating. Her face lit up with joy at tasting something so good (and for her, so rare), although this didn’t entirely offset her guilt at indulging in the sort of carbohydrates that she forbids herself from eating back home in New York.

It’s a matter of what you want from your meals: mere sustenance or actual enjoyment (even though they’re not mutually exclusive). Or whether a dinner is a chance to show off or an opportunity to spend time with friends. (These aren’t mutually exclusive either.) I certainly have not adopted a more virtuous culinary attitude since spending more time in France, but I have come to realize how much easier it is to spend time with friends if you’re worried less about what they might or might not eat and more about what you really want to share with them. That being said, I don’t mind accommodating my friends who prefer not to eat certain things. But the difference is that in France, you generally don’t think about asking what people do or don’t eat, because people you invite to dine don’t generally demand special treatment.

I have also learned to be a little more French as a guest:  you arrive hungry, so that you can appreciate the importance of honoring the efforts of the host by eating what’s served. Even if it’s not very good (which happens). But you’re not there for the food as much as for the person who prepared it.

French Tarts and Traditions

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The other night over a dessert of the ever-present galette des Rois – a January staple in France – my dinner host Jean asked me if in the U.S. we celebrated the feast of the Epiphany in this way. He was wearing a paper crown atop his head as he said this, having found the fève, which is the word for a bean but that has come to mean in this context the little token hidden in a slice of the galette des Rois. The person who finds the fève becomes the king or queen of the day (a temporary Magi, as it were) and the right to wear the silly paper crown, which most people actually do, at least for a minute or two. (And most galettes des Rois come with their own little crowns.)

As for celebrating the feast of the Epiphany, I replied that it wasn’t marked in the U.S. by any cultural observation, except perhaps in certain regions, or in certain families depending on their ethnicity or religion. In any event, while the French widely celebrate the feast, they do it in a culinary rather than a devotional way through offering the galette des Rois, a tart made of puff pastry with a frangipane filling. This being France, food traditions remain much stronger than religious observances.

The galette des Rois is also a way of prolonging the holiday season well into the gloomy month of January, a freeing of the spirit through pâte feuilletée.  As a result, you are served desserts of galettes des Rois for several weeks, either the classic frangipane or a variation – with apples, or lemon curd or even a circle of brioche in the form of a crown. Each of them comes with a little fève, and these fèves are often quite charming examples of craftsmanship. They’re about the size of Monopoly tokens, and can range from semi-abstract representations of animals to detailed cartoon figures (the Simpsons, Disney princesses, J.R.R. Tolkien characters) to portrayals of buildings or cars or sometimes household fixtures such as lamps. They are collectible (though I have no idea how you’d display your cherished collection of your series of half-inch figurines). There’s even a French word for a collector of these seasonal fèves, a fabophile, and the collecting of fèves: la fabophilie. But this is just a local version of the human tendency to hold onto things of no value.

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A sampling of fèves from galettes des Rois, with a sample paper crown. 

What really holds is the tradition, even as the customary Epiphany galette des Rois season stretches beyond that day into several weeks, until February 2, with la Chandeleur, or Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation, when you move onto serving crêpes or beignets. And even the making or eating of crêpes has its own ritual.

But then, everything here has its own ritual, its own long history, its own regional variation on that history and ritual. And these rituals, particular to France (or to Europe), remain essential to the national cultural lexicon. Some of these appeal to me, having been raised in a country that doesn’t really hold by ritual, especially culinary ones. This is fine – you can become too hidebound by tradition, just as you can become wearily accustomed to tearing things down to rebuild. America is too new, too large, too diverse and maybe too disputatious a country for a seasonal tradition such as the galette des Rois to become planted in the public imagination. In America these days no one can even agree on what a patriot is, so it’s hardly likely that a simple tart with a rich cultural history is likely to be a national touchstone for moving from darkness into light.

French friends often ask me if Americans note such-and-such date or eat such-and-such dish or maintain such-and-such tradition as do the French. Dates, dishes and traditions are far more important to the French than to Americans, who aren’t likely to ask the French similar questions (putting aside a general lack of curiosity about other countries and cultures among many of my compatriots). Like France, America has its regional specialties, local customs and family traditions, but unlike France, America is less culturally homogenous at the national level. And far less in thrall to how things were done, or less likely to uphold ways of doing things for the sake of doing them. The United States is a country where immigrants and different nationalities hold onto their cultural identities despite assimilation, whereas in France you’re expected to respect above all the idea of Frenchness that exists to some extent in maintaining those French traditions, no matter where you’re from.

Since I’m often something of an outsider in most situations, I can appreciate the upholding of traditions such as the galette des Rois that create a commonality of experience. It’s not that eating the galette makes me feel French (which would be impossible), but that living for a while in a culture where eating such things is a mark of respect for what’s gone before allows me to seem less apart from my own sense of self. I borrow this or that tradition just as I borrow the Paris apartment of my friends, so that I can live in France temporarily and craft an interim home out of something that isn’t mine. I share in someone else’s cultural tradition to create a memory of belonging, since I don’t really belong anywhere,  nor do I own anything other than those fleeting experiences. I live a borrowed life in a way, but then, who doesn’t?

Although I come from a country whose culture is commercial, I like the culture of a country such as France whose traditions are often stronger than that, or where at least the respect for tradition hasn’t been entirely erased by the pursuit of wealth.

“I’m surprised you don’t observe Epiphany,” my friend Pierre said at that dinner the other night. “You Americans celebrate everything.”

“It just seems like that,” I said. “Most American holidays are really just a way of organizing the calendar around sales.”

Seasonal Fare in France

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It’s one of the lovely markers of time here that certain foods are highly visible at certain times of year. In fact, you can’t escape them.

Of course, this happens elsewhere too: you can see baskets of blueberries and mounds of tomatoes in late summer in New York. And now, pumpkins are piled high everywhere. But in Paris, perhaps because the streets are narrower, and the fruit-and-vegetable stands slightly more limited in what they choose to sell, you notice more of what’s in season when it’s in season.

So now it’s mushroom time in Paris. Porcini and chanterelles (or, as they’re known here, les cèpes et les girolles) are everywhere – at markets, at restaurants. White button mushrooms (known here as champignons de Paris) and brownish cremini mushrooms are available year-round. But it’s the chanterelles and the porcini that say autumn.

As do the menus. Everywhere around town you’ll find mushrooms listed as a special. The other night at dinner at Bistro Paul Bert, a well-known restaurant in the 11th arrondissement (on Rue Paul Bert), I started with cèpes à l’ail, porcini with garlic. The porcini were cut into large cubes, seared over high heat so that they browned nicely and then finished with some garlic and butter. Delicious. And simplicity itself. This is the kind of dish you can easily make at home (although many home cooks might find the dish too simple to attempt on their own).

This particular bistro is listed in guidebooks, and last Saturday English-speakers (mainly Americans) made up a good 40% of its clientele. It’s a charming restaurant – but not the kind you need to seek out if you’re visiting. Unless, of course, it’s important during that visit that you experience something “typical,” in terms of its look and its menu, something that says Paris. This one certainly does.

But you can find good, solid restaurants like Bistro Paul Bert all around town, although only a few have become musts for visitors. For many people who come to Paris for a trip, finding a good restaurant is important, since time is limited and you don’t want to strike out on one of your few Parisian nights. So you rely on what you’re told is good, and you believe it.

I don’t know why certain restaurants catch on with the tourist crowd (without being tourist traps) while others remain local finds. Bistro Paul Bert is not a bad restaurant by any means – it can actually be quite good. And its intentions are sound: It grows its own vegetables. It has a special relation with its providers of meat and fish. It only offers what’s known as natural wine, that is, wine made without technological intervention during the winemaking process. (I didn’t drink any, but the verdict of my table mates was that one of the wines could certainly have used a bit of intervention.) And I have to say that the sole was delicious and the Paris-Brest (a dessert of pâte à choux filled with a crème mousseline) was terrific, and big enough for three. Still, while everything was very good, it wasn’t transporting. But it didn’t really need to be. It was packed.

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The Paris-Brest at Bistro Paul Bert.

Around the corner from the apartment of my friends Bob and Loraine, where I stay when I’m in Paris, is a small restaurant known as À l’Improviste, which is the kind of spot that says authentic without actually making any big deal about saying it.

When a visiting friend and I dined there about a year ago, he said, “This is the kind of spot I dream of when I think of Paris.”

And it’s true: À l’Improviste offers the kind of good, solid, somewhat old-fashioned French food that you associate with your idea of what a Paris restaurant should be. But it’s not in the guides, and it remains the kind of place that only locals know.

It isn’t anything special – unless you like homey, cozy restaurants that offer homey, cozy food – but that lack of specialness makes it so. You wouldn’t need to seek it out if you were visiting – but it’s a place that I make a point of dining at when I’m in town.

Like Bistro Paul Bert, it had cèpes à l’ail on its menu this week (as many other restaurants surely did). I haven’t been there to try its version of the dish, but I’m sure the cèpes are just as good as those at the more celebrated spot on the other side of town. But I’m glad that À l’Improviste remains relatively unknown to a wider public: it’s a spot for me, my friends and their friends. It’s part of our Paris.

Anyway, everyone has his own version Paris. Sometimes someone else’s version of Paris becomes certified, in a way, by being written up, leading visitors to embrace it as part of their version of Paris, or what Paris should be to them.