On Eating Strange Things in France

800px-Andouillette_de_TroyesMaybe it’s just me, but it seems a shame when in France not to eat authentic French food. I’m not talking about the onion soup gratinee on every menu in America, or even steak frites.

I’m talking tripe. Kidneys. Calves brains. Frog legs.

The weird stuff.

The French do have a penchant for making silken dishes out of sow’s ears, and feet, and all kinds of things. There is a Brotherhood of the Calves’ Head in France, not surprisingly. They take these things tres seriously.

(If you’re a vegetarian and starting to get squeamish, you might want to turn away now.)

On this, my fifth trip to Paris, I’ve made it my intention to taste the best of authentic, classic French cooking. That’s partly because an excellent, ‘classic’, affordable French restaurant happens to be across the street from my flat. (Café de la Musee.)

So here’s my report. The odder the dish, the more you need a great glass of wine. And then … then it makes sense!

Rongons de veau: Veal kidneys with port wine. My mother actually used to make this, albeit with red wine. So it brings back my childhood. I can remember sitting around cleaning the kidneys, cutting off the membrane with nail scissors. It is soothing, warming and with a texture and flavor second to none. Simply divine.

Tete de veau: I was treated to the best in Paris at a restaurant called La Procope, which serves “Tete de Veau en Cocotte Comme en 1686”. It comes in a nice little iron casserole in a beautiful tarragon broth … and they’ve been serving it that way for a long, long time. Napoleon’s hat, which he left when he couldn’t pay the bill for his tete de veau, sits proudly at the entrance. It’s a historic dish.

My take was that it was a bit bland. The ‘gelee’, presumably the more gelatinous parts of the brain, was a little too strange for me. But the more meat-like aspects of the dish were gamey and good. It’s historic. I’m not going to quibble.cuisse de grenouille.FB

Les Cuisse de Grenouille: Ah … frogs legs. Yes, they look just like flat little frogs on the plate, sautéed in basil and garlic. And they taste not like chicken, exactly, but more like, well, nothing. The removal of the meat, which is minimal, is tiring and difficult. The highlight on my plate was the bright sautéed cherry tomatoes and the beautiful mashed potatoes that lurked underneath. Well prepared, but at the end of the day … enh!

Le Pigeon en fricasseeL This, I thought, was a nice casserole of squab. But no, it actually is pigeon. Like the kind that Hemmingway strangled for dinner in the Jardin du Luxembourg when he was broke. Once I got over that, I thoroughly enjoyed the bird! Meaty and delicious, served in an excellent deep red wine sauce. I recommend it.

Andouillette sauce Moutarde: This is sausage made of intestine from the pig or cow. On a cold, rainy night I sat down to a lovely plate of andouillette, apparently made by hand right there in the restaurant. It had a nice, gamey taste that was totally soothing. And delicious with its sauce of mustard and wild mushrooms. (It’s a bit strange to look at … imagine a big tube shaped sausage that’s really … big.) But it’s also quite yummy.

That’s my report so far, with more to come. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve eaten in France? Or anywhere? Any advice on other dishes I should try?

 

 

 

What I see out my window in Paris

I came to Paris to research my next Transformed novel. Every day I walk through the city, looking for the places where Charley, our transman spy, and Electra, his dominatrix pal will have their next adventure. Any ideas?

On Being Alone in Paris and Finding My Way

fashion in parisThere is a certain vulnerability that comes with travel that can bring you to your knees.

I’m talking about that cold, stiff breeze of unfamiliarity that settles in once you’ve arrived, looked around and dropped your bag. You don’t know these people. You barely speak their language. You realize you are are far from home.

So I found myself this week alone and forlorn in the most beautiful city in the world.

When I was younger, I could fling open the windows of the dingiest garret in Paris, and feel utterly alive and on fire. This mood would last for the entire visit. But now in my mid-fifties, things are different. Paris brings out my tristesse.

I notice myself ruminating more as I walk the streets. I’ve seen the colorful shirt haberdasher before, and his stack of men’s shirts covered with everything from peppermint candies to taxidermy. And I’ve seen the winsome toddlers, dressed in perfect little biker jackets and powder blue Uggs.

I’ve also seen the look in the French man’s eye as he gazes across the table on a Sunday afternoon at the blonde he’s just climbed out of bed with. His love is both measured and mercurial. Love mixed with just a hint of distraction.

Paris puts me in the mood to feel. Or perhaps, because I’m in Paris, I’m finally free to feel.

I can untie the parcel of woes that follow me through my days, but never get opened for one reason or another. I find I can have a really good cry here. Because now I am a stranger in a strange land, emotions pour through me that I never would expect.

Perhaps this is the point.

In an instant, I miss my partner with a deep stab to the heart. I look at her picture and feel all undone. Who thought this was a good idea, this traveling alone? I mourn my daughter, now dead three years, and I long to sit and eat breakfast with my son. I even miss the squeak in my office chair.

But eventually, because I am a grown up, I rise from my maelstrom and go out the door. I’m decide to do something good for myself, like yoga. I will go find my people, I tell myself determinedly.

Instead, I stumble into a swirl of Sunday afternoon Parisians, all milling about an ancient cobblestoned street lined with fashionable shops. They hobnob in their down jackets and jeans with the air of people at a really good cocktail party. Come join us, they seem to say – Fashion est tres important, n’est-ce pas?

This is what Sunday in Paris is really for, I realize. Or at least it is today.

So I slide right in, and find myself trying on big, soft interesting sweaters and perfect little cotton tops. A woman with searing red hair, leopard leggings and I.M. Pei glasses stops cold in front of me. She rattles off several phrases in French, which I do not follow.

“English?” she says. I nod.

“This one looks tres, tres better … much, much better than the other one.” I look in the mirror. She is right. She holds another garment up appraisingly and looks me up and down. “No, no, no …” she mutters, shaking her head. “Too pale.” She looks genuinely concerned.

In that instant, I return to the bosom of Paris. Just one moment in the radical heart of this place can turn everything around. When I am here, I realize, I do indeed belong here.

I buy my sweater and my perfect little cotton top and head out the door into the afternoon, ready to do business once more.

I have arrived.