I have a mixed relationship with food. I’m certainly not a foodie but I’m quite interested in learning about different foods. In some ways it places me in a no-man’s-land as I’m not interested enough to make it a focus when traveling, let alone a priority, yet I want to devote enough time and effort to sample and learn as much as possible. Food is as much about culture as it is about taste for me. I call myself a culinary tourist – I see all the main sites, get a brief but comprehensive understanding of the history and move on to the next. In many ways the picnic, at least in France, can be the perfect eating experience for someone like me. The market is the ideal place to obtain all of the fresh regionally produced specialty food. By taking the food out of the restaurant it can be enjoyed “in situ,” side-by-side with the places and even people from where it came. Effectively killing two birds with one stone, if you will.
The first and most important stop at any market in France is the boulangerie. The first and most important purchase at a boulangerie is the baguette. We ordered one along with three éclairs, because how could you not? Later, I found myself overindulging on the latter as they were too sweet for the children’s palettes. Can you imagine the insolence!? One and a quarter éclairs later I concurred with their assessment and hung my head in shame.
From there we divided and conquered. Amanda and the twins prowled in circles, like lions evaluating a herd of wildebeest, around the massive four-sided produce stand in the center of the pavilion. Some four feet of gently sloping wooden stands holding fruits and vegetables of all the colors of the rainbow separated the vendor from the shopper and made the communication barrier that much more difficult. They bought apples, pears and strawberries.
Lydia and I stood in front of the quite popular butcher counter. We surveyed the menagerie of mysterious meat products that stretched the full length of the 15 foot cooler. It was a carnivore’s fantasy. Little chalkboards scribbled with indecipherable names and weird numbers with commas for decimals hung from every glistening product. Hams and sausages were too many to count. Hand-filled jars with metal clasps brimmed with foie gras. A dozen glass pans were labeled “Terrine,” each layered with a unique hue and texture and their own pattern of bits of various sizes and shapes. Tubs of olives and artichokes and at least a dozen other pickled products floated in embalming goo. And a single stainless steel pan was filled full with tiny octopuses no larger than a thumb, their legs twisted like a child’s rubber toys.
When the young woman behind the counter indicated it was our turn I panicked under the pressure and pointed to the first thing that looked good and was close. This was hardly a misstep as there are no bad selections at a quality French market. It was some prosciutto-like ham that glistened with the moisture of fat and looked almost like a wax prop. The young woman offered us plenty of smiles though they possessed a hint of tested patience as the number of gathering customers was growing. In French she asked how much we would like (at least I assume that’s what she asked). In English I replied that we need it for a picnic, immediately realizing we were only a father and seven-year-old daughter standing before her. Unsatisfied, she pantomimed how she would be slicing the delicate ham into thin ribbons. Finally, I recalled the basic rules I had burned to memory during my travel preparation – 450 grams make a pound and, generally speaking, 100 grams is enough for a sandwich. Like a proud child sure of a correct answer I blurted loudly.
“Two hundred grams!”
She nodded with another forced smile and was off to the industrial deli slicer. I was finally feeling confident in our understanding of each other. We had an almost identical encounter with the cheesemonger two stands over, where, once again, I forgot to use my own rule of thumb before eventually recalling it. We convened and compared the quality of our catches and agreed it would be a fine feast indeed.