Monday, 5 December 2011

Food for the soul in Paris

And so, adieu Paris – until the next time! We pulled out Gard du Nord with Sacré Cœur silhouetted on the horizon in the brittle winter sun. And as we picked up speed, La Tour Eiffel rose against the sky like a hand raised in farewell.

The Other Half describes me as a 'romantic Prussian' on occasion, but it is a romanticism that I also feel in Paris; the ghost of a past era seems to permeate the walls. It is almost within reach; almost an aroma that I can smell.

But enough of such intangibles. This was not a trip about romance - but it was (in part at least) a little pre-Christmas gourmet adventure.

We arrived on Thursday evening - too late to dine, and ready only to lounge outside La Terrasse with a glass of something and a cigarette, watching the world go by. But before that, I booked us in for the following evening at Septiéme vin, our favourite eatery in the city.

Just around the corner from where we like to stay, we visit at least once a trip. Olivier, the maitre d' and co-owner, has always been an utterly charming and generous host, making us feel more like returning friends than simply occasional customers.

It's a small place, but comfortable and warm. In the warmer months, we've enjoyed dining outside, but this was most definitely not the time for that. And with the temperature falling, winter food was on the agenda too.

The menu is, if not quite unchanging, one where you know what to expect. But on Friday's specials of the day was something I don't recall seeing there before: marrowbone gratinée. After my introduction to that ingredient in Carcassone in July, there was no question what my starter would be.

What arrived was a piece of bone, around eight inches long, halved lengthways and with a very fine topping of breadcrumbs and garlic over the marrow itself. There was toasted baguette to accompany and fleur de sel to garnish.

Scoop out the jellyish marrow onto toast and eat. This is not haute cuisine. It is not food to worry about eating elegantly. But boy, oh boy, this is the food of the gods. Sweet, with a fabulous mouth feel, and so, so satisfying.

So satisfying, in fact, that I struggled to eat all my main course of scallops with beautifully julienned vegetables and a very nice buerre blanc. It was further evidence of something I'm starting to understand: that fat - the real, natural stuff - makes you feel sated quicker than any other foodstuff.

I had a lemon sorbet to finish - although Olivier suggested having it with vodka and seemed impressed when I named that as a 'colonel'. I'd known about it for ages, but never tried it. I swear he put more booze in there than would be usual: the sorbet was nearly swimming. It's a great - hic! - combination.

The following evening, we made the error of eating at Café de Champs de Mars, just near the tower – my favourite piece of bling in the world. Now this is a fairly touristique spot on a small roundabout, but I love it: it absolutely reeks of the 19th century and 'gay Paree'. However, we had forgotten that it's fine for eating if you stick to their grills or steaks and frites, but less so if you off piste, so to speak.

We both felt like a change and opted for dishes with pasta. Neither was bad - they simply weren't much better than average.

The next night, we went back to see Olivier - with me hoping that the specials would still be the same. They were. So it was a case of the marrowbone redux.

You always worry at least a tiny bit that, on repeating something like that, it won't be as good the second time. Oh, but it was: every bit as good if not even more.

Olivier told me that they pre-cook the bone - as I understand it, in a court bouillon. Whatever they do, it's stunning.

What struck me was just how basic such a food is - how much it plays to our core. And how much the fast and junk food industries spend fortunes trying to replicate the same sort of impact with all their chemicals, additives, sugars and salts.

Now it's a very long time since, in an act of desperation driven by food deprivation, I consumed fodder from one of those such outlets, so things might have changed, but on the basis of memory, they don't come close to what I ate at the weekend.

Marrowbone has plenty to recommend it in terms of the old nose-to-tail eating philosophy alone, but ignoring that, it's a sensational food to taste. Why on each did we stop eating it and when?

If you're still interested, I followed with cod and a little rice and more of those julienned veg - I asked for a small portion, but it was still a bit too much. Y'see what I mean about being sated?

I did manage to cram a first ever taste of Iles flottante - the classic French meringue dish. I expected it to be as meringue that I've tasted has always been: hard and crisp, but it was soft and, well, sort of floppy – the result of having been poached.

But swimming in a quite delightful chilled custard, with a drizzle of caramel, it was very, very nice indeed.

Aside from the eating, there was preparing for future eating. Or put another way, shopping in the food hall at Le Bon Marché, which is an absolute joy, and saw me transformed into something like the archetypal child in a toyshop. And in the kitchen section was the biggest selection of moulds and rings I've seen anywhere outside of the catalogue of professional cooks' suppliers.

There was also a reminder of just how many top-notch chocolatiers and patisseries there are in Paris - every street has at least one of each, it seems! Even a fleeting look in the window and you're drooling like one very happy cat.

So, that was Paris in summary.

But I warn you: it may not be the last you hear of marrowbone.

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