Ever since my family went to Paris back in the early 1980s — or was it the late 1970s? — I’ve been hearing about how much better the food is in France. Friends swoon at this pâté or that confit de canard, or over the bread or cheese or wine. But let me throw down the gauntlet and say that nothing I ate over the course of nine days of full-on, combat binge eating and drinking could beat the best of what I’ve had in America. There, I said it.
Now before you start waving your hands around, understand two things: First and foremost, I am not saying the food in France was bad — although I did have two appalling items over the course of the trip. In fact, I will go ahead and say that the ambient level of food in at least the part of France we were in was considerably better than in a comparable place in the USA. Second caveat: I did not have a “food plan” on this trip. I did not research the best of this or the best of that on this trip, largely because Holly and I were there to celebrate the 25th anniversary of our friends Soraya and Erik.
So I am left with a sense of ambivalence, a sense of incompleteness.
We were based in a little town in the Languedoc called Esperaza; this is in Southwest France, duck country. We managed to eat in Toulouse, Carcassonne, Quillan, Montsegur, on the coast in Coullioure. We ate in much-heralded places like Restaurant Robert Rodriguez and J’Go, in small-town gems like La Galerie in Quillan, as well as in typical local bistros and the like. I also cooked for everyone twice, which leads me to the first conclusion about French markets: They rock.
We went to a Sunday farmer’s market and a typical supermarket called Intermarche. The produce in both were fine, nothing better than you might see in Folsom or any smallish California town. Ditto for the bread. I’m sorry, but I had only two truly great pieces of bread in France, both seed breads. There are plenty of California bakers doing just as well. Where the French markets have a big advantage over ours is in cheese, meat and fish.
Even the little Intermarche outside Esperaza, which is a town of just 2,100 people, had a cheese section that can best even the vaunted Corti Brothers in Sacramento. I am not even a huge fan of most French cheese, and I loathe those foul, reeking soft cheeses people seem so much to like — they always taste like greasy, ass-y body odor to me — but there were more than enough to suit anyone’s taste. Even mine.
And I gotta tell ya, seeing all kinds of cool meats in the market, and in the three boucheries in Esperaza (yes, three butcher shops for a town so small) was way cool. Quail, guinea hen, lots of chickens and turkeys and ducks, rabbits galore, odd cuts of meat and some not so odd, like the onglet, or hangar steak, I love so much.
Oh, the duck! Oh, the humanity! Holy Christ. There were so many duck products to be had I was in heaven. Everyone seems to eat confit de gesiers, or confit of duck gizzard, and regular leg confit was everywhere, as was foie gras. Dude, there was an entire lobe of fresh foie on sale for 9 Euros — that’s less than $12. Dayum. My favorite, however, was the fact that magret de canard, the giant duck breasts from the ducks they raise to make foie, was priced like cheap shitty steak in the market. It was sold in three-packs weighing about 4 to 5 pounds (yeah, for three breasts!) for something like $20.
Let’s talk about the cured meat for a moment. We ate all kinds of it, several times a day, wherever we could find it. Most of it was good. You know, nice. OK. Not transcendent. Not once did I have a slice of saucisson sec that had that long-aged funk that at least I associate with properly cured salami. But maybe that’s it: Maybe the Italians age their salami a lot longer than the French age their saucisson. If that’s the case, I’ll stick to Italy.
The one consistently shitty piece of charcuterie we had in France was their magret seche, which is French duck prosciutto. Again, maybe this is a cultural thing, but there was just no age on the stuff. It tasted like corned duck breast served cold, and the fat was still largely uncured. I almost left it on the plate a few times. Almost.
In restaurants, the overarching theme was good, solid technique with a near total lack of innovation or visible joy. There were still a lot of menu items straight out of Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire, which, while wonderful, are more than a century old. No matter where we went, there were many of the same dishes, served in the same way — down to the side orders. Really, folks? Does seared duck breast have to be served with carrots and fries all the time? That said, the duck was good. Both times.
Also excellent were the coeurs de canard en brochette, which Holly and I ate at two different restaurants. Yep, that’s skewered, grilled duck hearts. At J’Go in Toulouse, they put a little lardon of ventreche in between each heart, which was a nice touch. Super simple dish, executed perfectly both times. I will be posting my version of this one soon.
Only twice on the trip did I see a menu item that showed some of the chef’s creativity: The first was a foie gras appetizer at Restaurant Robert Rodriguez in Carcassonne. This was a beautiful little saucisson of foie (like a little sausage) served with a sprinkling of flavored salts, edible flowers, chives and toast. Definitely the best dish I ate in France. The second time was at J’Go, where I had a dessert of fresh strawberries in a violet nage — a nage is a broth, and in this case was a very light syrup, maybe 3:1 ratio of water to sugar, with crystallized violets in it. The violets turned the nage, well, violet, and added a lit to the aroma. Uber simple, yet truly memorable.
Remember I mentioned the two appalling dishes we had in France? Sadly, one was at J’Go: By far and away the worst French fries I’ve ever tried to eat. Soggy, utterly soaked in duck fat, limp and tepid. An abomination. And in Collioure, Holly and I had shrimp so mushy they were like eating wallpaper paste; the “meat” stuck to the shells of the shrimp and would not come free without some effort. It’s a wonder we did not get sick from those we did eat.
So where does this all leave me? Betwixt and between. I had a lot of good food — and universally great wine — in France. A couple of truly awful dishes, a couple of truly great ones, worthy of emulating back home. But I expected to be wowed, and I was not. The reason, I suspect, is all the great food I’ve eaten from American chefs in recent years, not only in places like New York and San Francisco, but also in smaller cities and even towns not so different from Esperaza: Our cheese, our cured meat, our restaurant dishes all stack up well to what we ate these past nine days. We’ve come a long way.
Yet I know there is wonderment out there in France, waiting for me. I just failed to stumble upon it in our short journey. Guess I’ll have to return.