I’m going to swim against the current here (the Salon du Chocolat is, after all, coming up at the end of October) and state that if you are the sort of person who goes to Paris merely for the boulangeries, patisseries, chocolatiers, and salons de thé, and the vast array of sweet, pretty, pastel-coloured edibles so enticingly displayed in their windows, then you are missing most of the fun. (If that describes you, you can stop reading now.)
Paris is piquant. It is sharp, sour, spicy, savoury, not just blandly sweet. Its young chefs combine a range of flavours in delightfully unexpected ways. I remember a lentil salad with a sharp vinaigrette that included tiny crumbs of gingerbread for contrast, and a another salad made entirely of nearly black foods – dark red lettuce leaves, black radishes, purple carrots, and black beans, in a deep chestnut-coloured vinaigrette that looked and tasted amazing.
So when we go to the food-emporium-to-end-all-food-emporia, the Grande Epicerie at the Bon Marché, you’ll find us in the aisles devoted to the products of Delouis, Pommery, Amora/Maille, and Edmond Fallot, looking for the ingredients for vinaigrette and pork chops piquant (recipe below).
And we well remember the day we had the good fortune to stumble across Goumanyat/Thiercelin in the 3rd arrondissement and its amazing collection of spices, saffron, and fleur de sel. Izraël in the Marais is like Aladdin’s Cave, filled with delights never seen before, or elsewhere.
We discovered Banyuls vinegar in a wine shop when we were looking for something else entirely. And we’ve spent hours at street markets, investigating unfamiliar-looking mushrooms, cheeses, cuts of meat, and varieties of seafood.
Even the most pedestrian Monoprix store can be a treasure trove of the unexpected. Once when we were looking for plain black pepper, we found a heady mixture of pepper, coriander, and cardamom (“Poivre Saveur” by Ducros), that is now a staple in our kitchen.
So many tastes to try, so few meals a day. But here are a few of our favourites.
Ready-made entrées are so ubiquitous the French take them for granted, but we can’t get enough. (Note that when the French use the word “entrée,” they mean the first course or appetizer, not the main dish.) Even a run-of-the-mill of French supermarket provides a range of ready-to-eat options that would be considered sophisticated in North America, including our all-time favourite, céleri rémoulade. This consists of julienned celery root (celeriac) in a mustardy mayonnaise that we find irresistible. (Norman has been known to eat it for breakfast.)
Many butchers sell choucroute, the French version of sauerkraut, brought to Paris via Alsace (the part of France on the border with Germany). Purists insist that the native white Alsatian cabbage known as quintal is the only proper basis for this dish, which is delicious hot or cold, or with chopped-up Alsatian sausages, when it is known as choucroute garnie, a common offering in traditional brasseries. And if you see “à l’alsacienne” on a menu of main dishes, chances are choucroute is involved somewhere. The secret ingredient? Juniper berries (genièvre).
Every market abounds in shallots (échalotes). These smaller, richer and more flavourful offshoots of the onion family are essential components of traditional sauces such as béarnaise (white wine, vinegar, shallots, chervil, tarragon, thyme and bay leaf, to which are added eggs yolks and butter; this is often served with steak). The Romans apparently considered shallots an aphrodisiac; maybe this contributes to the French libido.
Most people have heard of Dijon mustard, which is smooth and pungent, but France has many other mustards. Meaux, once made by monks, is grainier and a bit milder and was Brillat-Savarin’s favourite (look for the Pommery earthenware containers with the red wax-sealed tops). One exception: The version called “Pompiers/Firefighters,” which is hot enough to cause damage to the unsuspecting.
Mustards use grape juice or must from the wine-making process, so you will find variations from the wine regions of Bordeaux, Beaujolais, and Champagne (the latter is sometimes called Florida mustard). “Moutarde à l’ancienne” is mild and grainy. Traditional flavourings include tarragon, fennel and (curiously) violet, but these days, you can find mustards flavoured with everything from lemon to lavender. One day I shall write an entire blog about mustard.
Wine and herb vinegars (such as tarragon vinegar) are everywhere, but more distinctive versions, such as Banyuls, are gaining popularity. This dark concoction is the French answer to Italy’s balsamic vinegar. It comes from Banyuls-sur-Mer (on the Mediterranean coast, close to the Spanish border), and is less sweet than balsamic, but with a slightly nutty flavour. It is made with a sweet wine from that region.
Cornichons are little pickles, often bottled with a few pickled onions. They are sharper, crunchier, and more flavourful than the large, flabby pickles generally sold in North America (Maille cornichons are available in some specialty stores in Canada and the U.S.). In England, cornichons are known as gherkins. French restaurants often serve these with charcuterie. Norman, as you can see, eats them simply, with bread.
The following recipe, one of our favourites, brings together the flavours of shallots, mustard, vinegar, and cornichons with pork. We make it whenever we are in France, and frequently when we are at home. It calls for a simplified version of the traditional “Sauce Piquante,” found in most standard French recipe books.
We ran across the recipe in Saveur magazine c. 2002, described by a fellow who had learned to cook when he was living on a houseboat in Manhattan. He had mislaid the original version, which he had discovered in a 1970s paperback French cookbook, but had recreated a version of the original that uses some of our favourite flavours. We have tweaked it a bit. This was what we made for Canadian Thanksgiving last weekend, as an alternative to the blander turkey. Here’s to Paris piquant and flavours that make our mouths pucker.
Pork Chops Piquant
5 tbsp. olive oil
2 lbs. thin-cut pork chops
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 shallots, peeled & diced
6 tbsp. red wine vinegar
1 cup white wine
8 cornichons, chopped into small pieces
2 tbsp. Dijon mustard
Heat half the olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Season chops with salt and pepper. Brown chops on each side, about 1-2 minutes per side. Transfer the chops to a plate, and cover to keep warm.
Add the rest of the oil, over medium-high heat. Sauté the chopped shallots, until they begin to brown. Add vinegar and stir for a minute or so. Add wine and cook for a few minutes, until it thickens. Stir in cornichons, mustard, and any juices from the chops. Lower the heat and stir until the mixture makes a thick sauce. Put the chops back in, warm them through, and serve.
This recipe serves 4 people. For 2 people, use less pork, but about the same quantities of the other ingredients, because the sauce is what it’s all about.
Me, shopping at the Marché des Enfants Rouges, in the Third Arrondissement.
Text copyright Philippa Campsie; photographs copyright Norman Ball