Thursday, July 9, 2009

Give me a baguette

Hold the phone. Or the train. Or whatever you were about to get on: I just realized that I have only said a few words about my trip. A few, sweeping, vague words about my trip are hardly worth their weight. After all, it is Europe.

I meant to make grand statements about the places, the people, and the food. I even daydreamed about what I’d write, sitting idly on the trains, thinking up perfect sentences more thoughtful than the most condensed of poems. But all of those things have been done before, and dare I tread on the heels of great writers and big thinkers; I’ll just try to tell you what I found, simply, just like the food I loved.

I once read that in order to know about food, you must eat. It doesn’t take a scholar to make that deduction, but for a time I was convinced that reading would be my main course of action: I would stuff my head so full of braising techniques and pate recipes that it would be churning them out independent from my body. Turns out, that even when you’re in what I call the Depths of College Financial Despair (as I am, and I’m sure I’m not alone), you actually need to shell out for the eating, for the cooking, that really gives you what you look for in all the books. Once you resign yourself to this fact, your foodieness increases exponentially.

Thus, I decided it would be wise to go to Europe. (I wrote it off as a Food Expense.) So, as archaeologists have digs, we have wine tasting, market-grazing, and cheese-consuming – these are our field studies, our research. I was a diligent student. And, as these things go, I developed a thesis statement: that in France, where good food pours out onto the streets, it is wisest and most budget-friendly to sample the street food, the authentic holes in the walls, and of course, the boulangeries chiefly among others. It was in those places (or at them, rather, when their only venue was a street cart) where I found the most unfussy, simply prepared food France had to offer. There was no trying too hard, there was no white asparagus, and most of all, there was no pretense; it was just really, really good, painfully good. And cheap. No one can argue with cheap.

No, but really. I went out for some nice meals, and expensive ones to boot, and they were disappointing in comparison to what we ate for lunches or when we were just walking down the street. For example, I had the absolute best falafel of my life at a tiny place in the 6th arrondisment called L’As du Falafel. (The picture even makes my mouth water.) In Spain, the tapas were the main attraction: little, cheaply priced plates that are equitable to what the US calls “snacks,” only better. I ate calamari with lime in Barcelona that made me swoon.

So those are my grand statements that actually aren’t grand at all; they are a testament to simpler, more modest food. Of course, there undoubtedly are the more upscale places to eat in France, and if you can indulge frequently in those when you go, I’m sure you won’t be terribly disappointed. But the little places that hold the regional specialties should not be forgotten. Give me a baguette and a wheel of Crottin, and I’ll be happy.

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