Thursday, September 07, 2006

Lose Yourself – ‘Foods to Die For’ Meme Item #4

This is my continuation of a Meme called: ‘5 things you've eaten and think that everyone should eat at least once before they die’, started by Melissa, of The Traveler's Lunchbox. I was selected by Haalo, of ‘Cook (almost) Anything at least once’, to offer my thoughts on the subject. Where upon I promply broke the rules and called mine 'Foods to Die For'. This #4 in my ascending list of 'Foods to Die For'. With #s 3,2 and 1 still to come.

Some make plans. Where to go, what to see. An hour here. Then a quick visit to there. Some photos. And on to the next thing.

And they check off a lot of items on their lists. Eifel tower. Big Ben. Neuschwanstein. Lined up with dozens of other tourists toting bazooka-sized cameras.

I generally find that I can get these types of pictures with better framing and just that perfect position of the sun or clouds in the form of a post card or souvenir book.

So I walk. Away. The other direction. It doesn’t matter which direction. As I have found that there are things to see everywhere. The main obstacle to finding these things being that they are overrun by too many tourists.

But these tourists, of which I am of course also one, tend to flock in significant numbers around the advertised highlights. Avoiding the ‘lesser’ sights.

So I walk in some other direction. With no plan in mind. But with a clear goal. To lose myself into the surroundings with the hopes of stumbling upon a ‘hidden treasure’.

San Francisco, Amsterdam, Budapest, Tokyo, every city has fascinating things to see that are off the tourist track. It’s both a matter of stumbling upon them, as well as being in a frame of mind to even perceive them. I’ve occasionally had someone describe to me some fantastic thing they found in some city, only to realize that I had been by there too, but had not really taken notice. Harsh.

One of my favorite things to find is an open air market. A neighborhood market. Ideally brimming with local specialties. Things sold not because tourists will buy them, but because local residents demand them.

And even better is to find an open air food market. By chance. In an unexpected corner of a city. Far from the tourists.

But best of all is to stumble upon such a local food market in a city not only known for oppressive tourist populations, but one known as well as a culinary capital.

So when I set off from my hotel in the 17th Arrondissement of Paris, I was really not expecting much. Close to the Gare St. Lazare. Just off Rue de Rome. Which is as big and ugly as they come. A non-descript, fairly neat little area where I found an inexpensive hotel on the Rue de Saussure with a tiny kitchenette. Important if you do in fact find some special food shop or market. (Ok, ok – apparently I do plan, but just a bit!). I believe the area is known as the Batignolles.

The morning was spectacular. Still cool, sunny, bright blue sky. Aside from avoiding all the dog poo on the narrow sidewalks, there were few obstacles to enjoying an early morning walk, no tourists, enough shops. Little traffic yet. Things just starting to get going.

But is was clear that the general flow was down the Rue des Dames, apparently towards the Metro station on the Ave. de Villers. So I just sort of let myself get swept along.

And there it was. Just like that. On the Rue de Lévis.

Unexpected. Packed with people. For the most part they seemed to be local residents (no white sneakers). The street was blocked off from traffic and lined with stands set up in the street selling every kind of food I could have wished for.

I had stumbled upon a wonderful open air food market. In Paris. That was seemingly not overrun by tourists.

I was pretty happy with that. And began investigating each stand in detail. Fresh fruits, vegetables. A pastry shop had also set up a stand outside with huge bundles of baguettes and fresh pastries, and was doing a brisk business. A stand selling seafood, the oysters and muscles looking very fresh despite it being a non-‘R’ month.

Behind the stands were shops selling a broader array of foodstuffs. Wines from all regions. Cheese! Hundreds of cheeses (I always love a shop that doesn’t reduce the entire dairy exports of Switzerland down to a single sort, then mislabel it). Along with several cafés.

But I think the thing that made the market magical was the Patê shop. Offering an array of dozens of types of patês. All seemingly hand made (with my feeble French language proficiency I could not be absolutely sure). The aroma in the shop alone was something worth dying for!

Naturally Patê de Foie Gras. In several variations. As well as rougher country patês. Patês of chicken, veal, duck. With champagne and herbs and spirits. In crusts or packed in fats, or wrapped in bacon. Sliced or scooped out of huge ceramic bowls. On shelves ranging from knee high to out of reach overhead. With samples of many of them available.

The dilemma is naturally that you could never try everything in one visit.

So I made my choices. And went back out, after a last deep breath. Adding baguettes, wine, cheese, a melon, some fruit and some fresh vegetables to my purchases. Plus, of course, a bottle of water. I picked up a basic place setting from the hotel room, along with a wine opener, and headed to the nearest park, just a few blocks away.

As the day got warmer, what was left of my patês and cheese eventually began to melt a bit. But it didn’t matter anymore. As I was still lost in the enjoyment of the feast and in the thrill of finding such an unexpected ‘hidden treasure’.

I had the chance to visit the market each day for several days, trying different things. I haven’t had the chance to go back since.

Certainly the fact that you cannot do something like that anywhere in the US that I have ever lived helped make the experience special. No doubt the wonderful weather helped as well.

But mostly it is the care that the individual shop keepers show in creating and presenting their wares, and the fact that the local people are there every day taking the time to find the freshest bread and just the right thing for that evening’s dinner. Food lover’s all. You can see right away that you are among people who take pride in their food, and who enjoy it to the fullest.

It amazes me (in a positive way!) that people still take the time so support this. Surely the few markets that are left are going away, like LPs and land phone lines (can you even remember way back when you had to stand by the wall in your house to make a call on your old fashioned telephone?). Everyone is just too busy (doing what?!!).

But if you look, wonderful food markets like this still exist. In few cities. Full of food loving people creating and enjoying wonderful foods. And that elevates the food at markets like this, in my opinion, to ‘Foods to Die For’.

Next – ‘Foods to Die For’ Item #3.

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