Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Eating in Provence

Having covered the horrors of air travel in the first installments, it’s now time to explore the real reason anyone would go to the French Riviera- no, not nude beaches! (not in December, anyway) Food!

To begin with, we found it’s even more important in the provinces than in Paris to time your sightseeing around meals- you simply will not be served except at designated meal times. Between 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm nothing more substantial than a crepe or an ice cream can be had, and usually not even that. If you speak French, and are very polite, and have a really good reason for not being there at the appointed hour (like your plane being late), and they are feeling guilty over some secret sin and need one act of charity to be promoted from Hell to Purgatory, they will tell you where the nearest convenience store selling baguettes and cold cuts is- that’s as close as you’ll get to off-hours service. The reverse if often true as well- even relatively important tourist sites may well be closed during the critical lunch and dinner hours.

Once those restaurant doors open, however, wonders await. Being on the Mediterranean, you would expect a lot of seafood specialties, and you’d be right. True Bouillabaisse, for example, cannot be made anywhere else- it depends on species found only there. Bouillabaisse must be ordered 24 hours in advance (especially when you’re there in the off-season as we were). There’s a bit of ritual to it, too. First they present a silver platter heaped with freshly caught... well, I assumed seafood, although some of the specimens were so exotic that I could only hope they came from terrestrial oceans, for your approval. This is a very dangerous moment for me, just like the moment when the sommelier offers the cork and small sip for approval. Am I the only one who has to suppress an impulse to spit it across the room and scream “Are you trying to poison me?”, just to see what would happen?

Ok, evidently I am. Well, since I am not writing from jail, I suppressed the impulse with the chef, too, and he took the platter back to the kitchen. After appetizers and a bit more wait, servers came out with huge bowls, trays of condiments, breads, etc. The bowls were piled high with all the strange things I had approved earlier, each one cooked separately in whatever specific manner each demanded before being loaded into the bowl. Lastly, a large tureen of broth was produced and ladled over the pile in the bowl. In the interest of public sensibilities we should probably draw the veil over the rest of the scene.

Desserts in France are different from American restaurants- smaller, less heavy, less of an “instant diabetes” feeling. On the other hand, all French restaurants serve Creme Brulee. It’s not that Creme Brulee is the ultimate dessert, but for someone who grew up as a cross between Bart Simpson and Beavis & Butthead, a dish that combines a sugar rush with a blowtorch is irresistible. Afterwards is something else you won’t get in America: brandy and cigars.

There were other surprises as well. I had thought that raw fish was unique to Japan, but it’s not. “Carrapacio” is very thinly sliced, raw meat with spiced oil drizzled on it; it was available in salmon, beef and lamb. Being in close proximity to Italy, there was pasta and beans on the menu- in the rest of France, your only carbohydrate choices are bread or Pomes Frites. One last surprise was the method of pricing on the menus- be very careful, because it may not be what you think. We ordered a rare fish that was priced at 18.00 Euros... when we got the bill, it was over 80.00 Euros! The part we had missed was that it was 18.00 Euros per 100 gram serving, and that having killed the fish, they serve (and charge for) the whole thing, however many 100 gram servings it turns out to be. Had they not accepted plastic (which many places outside of Paris do not) it might have been very embarrassing!

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