Lauren in Paris: French food for the soul
March 10, 2016
When I think of Paris I tend to think of food first. I think of chefs in tall white toques that have studiously learned classic French techniques in culinary schools whose names I cannot even pretend to pronounce properly. Then, I’ll think of duck; even before I consider French desserts and pastries.
My first night back in Paris after a three-year hiatus began in a tiny, very French café with plenty of outdoor seating and a stern French waitress dressed from hair to shoes in black located in the Montmartre region. As you may or may not know, this is where Sacre Coeur and the Moulin Rouge are. The menu, tall and skinny, like French people, took up all the space on our little Formica tabletop, its sharp corners darting out over the edge. When opened, the menu practically cast the tiny table into shadow, and every last word was all in elegant script, but mostly unreadable, French. Even though my conversational French may be lacking, or nonexistent anymore, if you stick a menu in front of my face, I usually will not have any trouble finding something to eat. Near the bottom of a long litany of French food, with French explanations, came a dish that was a great first act on my opening night of a week and a half back in Paris.
Duck confit is the epitome of seemingly complex, but always exquisite, French food. It is a dish and a technique where the duck, usually its legs or the thighs as they are the fattiest parts, are preserved and then cooked in its own fat. If it were not for all the cigarettes which the French are always smoking, I would not know how they stay so skinny. My duck leg was deep golden brown and crisp, resting atop of a nest of al dente haricot verts (French green beans), which have been placed over a scribble of balsamic vinegar. The food on my plate was almost too pretty to eat, but I quickly got over it. My fork pierced the outer crust of seared and rendered duck fat and slid into the soft and tender meat with a satisfying crunch. I savored it as if I were hearing a well-tuned orchestra. I may have even done a little wiggle of happiness right there in my seat in that little café, right next to a Frenchman enjoying his dinner with his own kind of restrained and dignified French enthusiasm – something that I clearly lack.
All too soon my plate of food was empty, with just a hint of balsamic vinegar still left smeared to the outer perimeter of my plate. I always think food is kind of ironic, French food even more so; the amount of skill and time invested into French food is oftentimes arduous, all for someone to sit down and consume it in a few minutes. In that same way thinking that you can see much of Paris in a week and a half is funny and maybe even a bit foolish. Like learning classic French techniques such as cooking duck, taking advantage of all Paris has to offer requires time and skill. When coming back to Paris for a second time I was surprised by the number of details I remembered: the streets, the smells, the language, and I treasured it now as I do not think my 17-year-old self could have last time.
My stay in Paris began and even ended with duck, but on my last night in Paris my duck was cut into thick ovals floating on a fluffy cloud of mashed potatoes, while the potatoes were suspended in a thick, dark brown sauce. I delighted in the duck as I had on my first night back in Paris while taking in the the atmosphere of this new café which was packed with other members of my International Traveling Classroom group rather than other French diners. The duck was different and this time my stay in Paris was different, but in the best possible way. I wonder how different my next visit to this magical city will be. Meanwhile, I will soon be exploring a country and city I have never been to before, where new experiences, new foods and new accents are just waiting for me to discover.
Lauren Simenson is a student at UW-River Falls.