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A CONSPIRACY OF PLEASURE
Imagine a gastronomic romp through Paris weaving the living past into the lively present, the story of the great Parisian conspiracy to enjoy life—the city’s centuries-old passion for food, wine, dining out, and entertaining. That’s what this book is about.
Long ago this love affair with food and wine earned Paris the title of the world’s capital of fine dining. I had a foretaste of the fun as a young man during my first visit to the city in 1976. A decade later in the spring of 1986 I became a full-time conspirator, taking possession of a seventh-floor, cold-water walk-up maid’s room in the 17th arrondissement near the Arc de Triomphe. As soon as I unpacked I began mapping out Paris’ gastronomic topography—the markets, stores, restaurants, and cafés that became my second home.
As a lover of edibles, potables, and urban exploration, my goal was to transform my life into an endless treasure hunt through the City of Light’s historical layers, from the roughshod days of ancient Gaul and Julius Caesar to the multicultural, molecular present and its superstar chefs. That joyful, sometimes irreverent, unapologetically personal treasure hunt is the object of these pages.
On that first chill day in November over forty years ago I sensed the sublime Parisian conjunction of things contemporary marinated in yesteryear. But I was only eighteen and could not understand how or why the intersection of physical, historical, and cultural ingredients had come together, placing Paris above other great food cities like Rome, Madrid, London, New York, and Shanghai.
My first sit-down lunch in Paris in 1976 was anything but gourmet. I chose a vintage bistro on the lateral heights of Montmartre far from the scrum at Sacré-Coeur, a church that still looks to me like a lumpy white wedding cake topped with scaly octopus-head cupolas. The bistro had a tobacco burnish. It also smelled of wine, stale beer, toasted cheese, and sweat with an overlay of talcum powder and perfume: Parisians at the time seemed allergic to soap and water. An unusual wire rack on the bar displayed hard-boiled eggs. I watched fascinated as grizzled men peeled the eggs and wolfed them while gulping glassfuls of white wine and joking at someone’s expense, possibly mine.
Alone on the outdoor terrace I studied my foot-long baguette sandwich. It sat on a white saucer on a round table tilted above the drizzly city. Peeking inside I saw ham, cheese, and cornichons. Beyond, through the misty keyhole view, were the tin-covered gabled roofs and distant spires of the city bathing in native sepia. I devoured the atmosphere. The sandwich seemed secondary.
Most of all I remember the eye-stinging mustard, presumably from Dijon. It came in a white porcelain jar with a wooden paddle. The waitress showed me how to apply it not with a spoon to the ham and cheese, but rather on the doughy inside of the bread using the paddle. It was the first of many corrections.
In retrospect the baguette was probably baked from frozen dough and the ham, cheese, mustard, and pickles pulled out of cold cases and off dusty shelves. I didn’t know and wouldn’t have cared. I was in love.
In the mid-twentieth century when I came of age in enlightened Northern California, even in a gourmet household the zeitgeist was not yet organic, free range, fair trade, locally grown, or homebrewed. Sourcing was limited. The farmers’ markets and mom-and-pops were gone. For the boomer children of the 1950s and ’60s, like me, supermarkets were playgrounds. My mother, a European transplant, adored them.
Paris was different. No matter what they looked like or where they lived Parisians shopped and ate with glee. Unlike me they were thin amid indescribable bounty. If I flipped a franc, it would land on something worth swallowing. Shoehorned between the bistros and cafés, restaurants and brasseries, chocolate shops and wine shops were groceries of the kind we no longer had. The butcher shops were decorated with flocks of farmyard animals and wild game, the real thing but now very dead, staring at passersby from hooks, fur, head, feathers, tusks, and horns trickling. Whole lambs’ heads roasted along with the chickens in giant rotisseries. You had to love food to gaze at the offerings with rapture as the Parisians did. The displays reminded me of still-life paintings in the Louvre, masterpieces of gore.
I learned to say “fishmonger” in French and stood mesmerized before the stands where live crabs and lobsters wrestled. Back home the same entertainments were staged at Fisherman’s Wharf for tourists. Here normal customers bought live sea creatures, dragging them away in caddies with squeaky wheels or slung into premodern string bags. The oysters came in a variety of shapes and sizes, on the half shell or whole. I wondered if each tasted different. What work to cook them, I thought, until I saw diners gulping them raw like the seals gobbling sardines at Fleishhacker Zoo in San Francisco.
The vegetable end of the spectrum was no less astonishing. Pyramids of bumpy, contorted squashes and lopsided orange pumpkins, anemic apples, and suggestively shaped pears tumbled from fruit stands. Nowhere had I seen or smelled so many cheeses: mold-pocked blue or green Roquefort, runny Vacherin, and giant wheels of aged hard Comté or floppy Brie oozed and rolled and crept across counters and sidewalk tables. They seemed eager to escape, like the lobsters and crabs. On street corners charcoal-dusted men wearing berets yodeled and hawked blackened chestnuts. I burned my fingers and palate on a paper cone brimming with them hot off a brazier.
Burned, blistered, and puckered my mouth would not stop watering. Drowning by hunger seemed a real possibility. Cold intensified the sensation. The chattering of my teeth could not erase the red wine stains on them renewed daily at lunch and dinner. Thanksgiving was upon us. But the streets of Paris were a permanent party, the city laid out like overstocked supermarket aisles and banqueting tables. Maybe every day was Thanksgiving in Paris. Hadn’t I read somewhere about a movable feast? The relish for life spread across the sidewalks, giving everything, even the smoggy yellow atmosphere, a special flavor, a tasty tang.
That first taste of Paris was one reason I relocated to the city ten years later. In the interim, I had slimmed down from an obese youth into an average-sized late twenty-something. By reading Sartre, Camus, and others I had also caught an incurable disease: romantic existentialism. The binomial seemed contradictory, but was really a paradox. Where else could I live and write but Paris?
DELICIOUS AND SOMETIMES NUTRITIOUS
Beyond the low rent, an unforeseen dividend of my windowless garret was the lack of kitchen facilities. Eating was an adventure. The cafés, bistros, and brasseries offered cheap, often delicious, and sometimes nutritious fare. No proper bohemian novelist had a kitchen. Never did Balzac, Hugo, Flaubert, Musset, or Maupassant, let alone their female counterparts think of preparing food or shopping and cleaning.
Regularly scheduled escapes from my room were essential. I got busy drawing up a roster of favorite places for watching the world sup and swill. They exuded an attainable past, a flavorful, redolent history to be studied and consumed. The choice seemed limitless.
In the existentialist enclave of Saint-Germain, for example, I skipped the haute touristy Les Deux Magots, Café de Flore, and Brasserie Lipp, and went several times a week to Le Petit Saint-Benoit, unchanged then and still in business now, a Left Bank landmark. Unchanged meant the menu, bread and tooth-staining wines had presumably been around in similar form since the restaurant’s founding in the Belle Époque. The requisite cloth-draped wooden tables for two lined the sidewalk. They were crammed side by side indoors, where a chalkboard hung, a cabinet with numbered pigeonholes held the napkins of regulars, and the waitstaff snapped dishcloths at crumbs and shouted after spiking your scrawled order for crunchy crudités, green pepper steak, and a carafe of white or red. The dining room was scented by garlic and sautéed onions, boiled fish and beefy pot-au-feu, roasted pork and cigarette smoke. The firm-boiled potatoes and herrings came bathed in seed oil, not in Ernest Hemingway’s bread-mopped olive oil from A Moveable Feast but that seemed alright. Maybe things were different in the 1920s, I reasoned, and anyway who cared if Hemingway preferred remembering olive oil.
The Right Bank was also rife with romantic dives. One particularly dark and seedy street, a contemporary Court of Miracles in the still-unfashionable, smog-blackened Marais was home to Le P’tit Gavroche. The food was less memorable than the adhesive quality of this shadowy old bistro’s tile floor. But the tawny interior and the literary moniker made up for it. Gavroche evoked the heroic street urchin of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, a ragamuffin who would have gladly sunk his baby teeth into anything including the bistro’s veal blanquette thickened with fistfuls of flour. I loved it, lumps and all.
Both Gavroche and Hugo had lived nearby: Hugo in a lavish mansion on Place des Vosges, Gavroche at Place de la Bastille inside a giant papier-mâché elephant, as told in a remarkable work of fiction. Hugo’s favorite part of Paris for many years was the Marais, and it soon became mine, and my new home, in the shape of a tiny apartment complete with an electric hot plate and indoor plumbing. New digs and mod cons didn’t stop my culinary explorations.
Also on my growing list of restaurants, places glowing with the brand of yesteryear that fed my gaudy imagination, was the venerable Trumilou on Quai de l’Hôtel de Ville. A hundred yards east of city hall, this was one of those joints we used to call “greasy spoons” where white and blue collars slid their backsides on oxblood-red vinyl banquettes. Trumilou has improved to the point of unrecognizability, but in the mid-1980s was known for its yellowish walls, a palimpsest of insect-capturing layers. The kitchen supplied the tacky grease. Generations of clients layered on the cigarette, pipe, and cigar fumes that made swirls on the walls when grazed by stray fingers. The food seemed succulent enough, though everything including the celery root salad, braised rabbit, Normandy apple tart, and house wine had a smoked quality, still the case in many Paris eateries today, where tobacco addiction is a prerequisite for hiring. Performance art—an unrecognized native specialty—reached paroxysms if a fly or hair was found in the onion soup or a member of the scarab family scurried along the wainscoting.
Farther inland on the Right Bank, with lighting from some long-ago World’s Fair, linear miles of brass, and ranges of napkin nooks for regulars, Bouillon Chartier served the working classes, package tourists, and ladies of the night of the Faubourg Montmartre and Grands Boulevards. I long suspected that Émile Zola and the real-life doppelgänger of his prostitute-heroine Nana, as well as the sexually repressed Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau and his equivocal partners were habitués at Chartier a century or so before I became one. This appetizing, speculative condiment helped send down the mounds of oven-roasted potatoes and chicken of admittedly indifferent texture and fleeting flavor.
The Latin Quarter was even lousier with atmospheric dives, more than could be counted, largely because they were hidden in banks of smoldering tobacco. Coughing, my eyes filled with tears, I sometimes joined the hordes of college kids crowded into the single, airless dining room of Polidor on rue Monsieur le Prince, later glorified in Woody Allen’s nostalgic Midnight in Paris.
Did Allen know that pioneering Romantic Age photographer Félix Nadar had lived four buildings up the street at number 45, and may well have procured the oysters he famously swallowed for months on end from the eatery that was here before the founding of Polidor?
I don’t recall ever seeing oysters on the menu of student places like Polidor thirty or forty years ago. Then again especially in the days before 2007 when smoking was allowed indoors it was easy not to see, and even easier not to pay attention to what was on your plate in Paris. What anyone ate or drank was not what the restaurant experience was about. The unappetizing term “foodie” and the nauseating “foodista” had not yet been coined. Wine bores were still rarely seen outside Michelin-starred temples of haute cuisine, and I had neither the means nor the desire to enter them.
Each distinctive quarter of the city boasted several nonesuch eateries of iffy repute, only-in-Paris locales with handwritten, mimeographed menus generally bearing dates of foundation reaching into the nineteenth century, the golden age of Paris restaurants and a coveted pedigree.
Though I did not patronize them I mapped out the upper scale from centuries past and sometimes stood before the city’s gastronomic pilgrimage sites at dinnertime, fantasizing about what I would eat and who I might meet. Le Taillevent, named for France’s first celebrity chef and cookbook writer, was so exclusive you could not even approach it if improperly attired. I didn’t eat there until I’d lived in Paris for over a decade.
Given the location on the quay of another famous luxury restaurant, I could not help speculating whether the supreme Romantic seducer, the poet, playwright, and novelist Alfred de Musset had held George Sand’s famously small hands at a table in the dark recesses of Le Voltaire. This velvety establishment was and remains in the building where Voltaire, a fussy eater, having finished Candide and several other masterpieces, died in the dying days of the Ancien Régime. It was plausible. If not Le Voltaire, then Musset and Sand might have been habitués at the even older and more beautiful Lapérouse a few blocks upstream. Sand, among the world’s unrepentant lushes, lived in an attic apartment between the two establishments. Only once in my bachelor days did I enter either restaurant and then only to glance around before being escorted out. A single meal at such a place would have cost more than my monthly rent, ruining me the way his first meal in Paris at Véry ruined Balzac’s tragic hero Lucien de Rubempré.
A RECIPE FOR CULINARY SEDUCTION
Le P’tit Gavroche is no longer in business. The longevity and apparent changelessness of the others I knew over a quarter-century ago is like that of Paris itself—tenacious and little short of miraculous. So it is not surprising, not to me, that decades after my early explorations these and scores of similar revamped evergreen establishments still thrive. The theatricality of the experience is intact despite the digital age and is, I have long suspected, one of the ingredients in the Parisian recipe for culinary seduction: atmosphere, atmosphere! Courtship, love, romance, sex, and food are intimately linked in the City of Light.
Ironically, given my love of history and the past, in the late 1980s I was contracted by Paris’ hip, sassy, modernist Gault & Millau guides to edit, translate, adapt, and contribute to various European guidebooks for the American market. Through my labors I soon discovered the cookbooks and revolutionary writings of the classic Napoleonic-era chef Antonin Carême and his contemporaries the proto-food theorists Grimod de la Reynière and Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. They piqued my curiosity about the rise of French cuisine. Luckily Gault & Millau also championed “terroir,” a newfangled concept it seemed to me but one I embraced with gusto, especially when I found that the term was coined in the early 1800s. Eventually I began writing restaurant reviews and travel articles for publications worldwide and in the 1990s added my own guidebooks and cookbooks to the mix, then histories, crime novels, and essay collections. As a correspondent or contributing editor to an array of glossy magazines, my assignments often came with all expenses paid. I navigated the galaxy of the Michelin-starred temples of gastronomy, savoring their sous vide, chaudfroid, vertically constructed, molecular, intoxicatingly complex cuisine. It often left me feeling dazed, queasy, and baffled.
Food and wine had become a livelihood and a way of life. I poked new holes in my belts then bought new, longer belts and an elasticized wardrobe. As the years turned into decades and I realized I was a Paris lifer I became increasingly fascinated by the Who, Where, When, Why, and How of the city, especially its culinary past.
Where and how had the Parisian love affair with food and wine started? Was it genetic or a myth, like the French Paradox? Had the Gallic tribespeople and their Roman conquerors loved eating and drinking and handed the tradition to their successors, or had it all begun in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, or in Versailles during the reigns of the gourmandizing Bourbon kings such as Louis XIV? The nineteenth century seemed like yesterday in Paris so I guessed that’s when modern tastes were formed.
The past was endlessly engrossing, but it eventually became clear to me that it was equally urgent to ask some hard questions: Was Paris, the birthplace of the restaurant and haute cuisine, still the greatest of food cities and if so why? Had French cooking died, as some pundits claimed, including brash Americans parachuted behind the lines with expense accounts and attitude?
To find at least a few of the answers to these questions and place them in something like chronological order I decided to begin at the beginning, in the bull’s-eye of the city, where Paris was born more than two thousand years ago, the Île de la Cité and Latin Quarter, and share my findings in book form. Voilà: A Taste of Paris.
Copyright © 2017 by David Downie