French connection a bit salty but sweet nonetheless


August 29, 1993|By ROB KASPER

One day I tried to make Paris feel like Baltimore. A few days later I tried to make Baltimore taste like Paris. I was mildly successful.

When I woke up Sunday morning in Paris, I did what I would do if I were back in Baltimore. I went to an outdoor market, drank coffee, ate croissants and eyed the peaches.

The buttery croissants I ate in the Cafe Mouffetard in Paris were better than those sold beneath the Jones Falls Expressway at Baltimore's Sunday morning farmers market. But I learned that in the French markets, you can't squeeze the peaches.

You tell the merchant you want peaches and the merchant picks them out. No touching allowed.

When I got back to Baltimore, I tried to cook like a Frenchman. I got a steak and covered it with crushed peppercorns, sea salt and a shallot sauce. The sauce was terrific. But I slipped up and the meat was too salty.

Nonetheless, the shallot sauce made the steak taste faintly French. My wife and I ended up eating the whole thing.

I read about the outdoor market and got the recipe for the steak from the same book, the recently published third edition of "The Food Lover's Guide To Paris," by Patricia Wells (Workman, $15).

During my trek through France, this book, and its companion volume, "The Food Lover's Guide to France," were with me at all times. I used them to find the bakeries, cheese shops -- "fromageries" -- chocolate shops, wine bars, cafes, restaurants and markets that sell the good stuff.

On the final day of my week in France I met with Ms. Wells, restaurant critic for the International Herald Tribune newspaper.

Her husband, Walter, also works at the newspaper, and the couple has lived in Paris for 13 years.

As Ms. Wells sipped a double espresso in the marbled splendor of the "Les Ambassadeurs" restaurant of the Hotel de Crillon, a room she rated as one of the most beautiful dining rooms in Europe, she talked about the French attitude toward food.

For the French, eating is an event, a source of aesthetic pleasure, a constant topic of conversation, she said.

This appreciation of food begins at at an early age, she explained, and told of watching a French family eat lunch. At lunchtime, the mother pulled homemade sandwiches from a basket. The children ate the sandwiches slowly, with nary a crumb falling to the floor. Then, at the end of the meal, one little girl who was about 4 years old, announced: "My, wasn't that refreshing."

This keen appreciation of food keeps the French speciality shops in business, Ms. Wells said.

She also talked about how the French food scene was changing. "There is so much more choice . . . so many more things to buy than there used to be," she said.

Another change, she added, is that diners are not getting as dressed up as they once did. "Ten years ago no one would have thought of walking into a grand restaurant without a coat and tie," she said. Now, diners dress casually. The restaurant proprietors tolerate the dressed-down look, she said, because in tight times they are happy to have the customers.

I said goodbye to Ms. Wells and hopped a plane back to the United States. When I got back to Baltimore, I longed for more French food. So I flipped through the 50 recipes in "The Food Lover's Guide to Paris."

I thought I could handle the steak with salt and pepper. On the way home from work, I bought the only three ingredients I didn't have in my pantry -- white wine, white pepper and sea salt. As I carried the supplies into the house, a neighbor called out to me. He knew I had recently returned from France and told me of his eating adventures there. We stood in our back yards and hollered back and forth about the food. It made me feel French.

The kitchen smelled like France as well when I started making the shallot sauce. By the time I finishing crushing the peppercorns I was calling the butter "le beurre."

I got so carried away I overlooked the fact that I used the wrong grain of sea salt. The recipe called for coating the steak with a coarse grain of salt. I used fine grain, and as a result, the salt penetrated the meat, making the flavor too salty. I ended up trying to wipe the coating off the meat.

The sauce was so good, though, that it saved the meal. My wife and I ate outside in the back yard. After I finished the last of the meat and the wine, I decided the meal, and the trip, were worth doing again.

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