Friday, October 16, 2009

The Summer of Figs

Christine bit directly into the cabernet fig, swallowing skin and pulp whole. Eve enjoying the fruits of Eden, she leaned over her plate to avoid staining her swelling belly. I, on the other hand, carefully peeled my fig with a paring knife. I had long ago learned to wash or peel my fruit before eating it. Watching Christine, though, I began to question my practices. This wasn’t the U.S. No killer pesticides or bacteria lay in wait to do me in. I put my knife down, bit and scraped flesh from the peel with my front teeth. The sun had kissed this fruit, turning it to nectar. I studied the ruby points that still clung to the peel. They held on tightly, unlike those I had just consumed.

I sat back and threw my leg over the armrest of the chair. I turned my gaze toward the Bay of Toulon. French Navy ships, an aircraft carrier and destroyer, bobbed in the azure water. Christine ate another fig.

Ficus carica, most likely originating in Western Asia, spread to the Mediterranean region thousands of years ago where it has been cultivated ever since. Some 250 varieties now exist, coming in three different colors—white-green, red-gray, black-violet. Although the white-green figs found around Marseilles are delicious, Christine and I prefer the black-violet figs with their wine pulp.

“You know what would be good?” Christine asked.

“No, what?” I responded, taking another fig and twirling it around in the tips of my fingers. Firm, but yielding to the touch, it had reached the perfect stage of ripeness. I decided to take my chances, eat it skin and all.

“Stuffing these figs with fresh goat cheese, grilling them, and then drizzling honey all over them.”

“Sounds divine,” I said, running my tongue over my bottom lip.

Figs have long played a role in the mythologies of different civilizations. Romulus and Remus were born under a fig tree. Figs were the preferred food of Bacchus, Roman god of wine and intoxication. Their unusual botanical design makes them an obvious choice to symbolize the gods’ fertility. Neither fruit nor flower, they are rather a vessel holding a multitude of flowers that upon reaching full maturity transform into seeds. These flowers never see the light. They sleep in darkness, curved inward, creating a tight cavity, wrapped in velvet skin. As figs ripen, they swell, causing the skin on the fig’s bottom to stretch and split. Christine and I always eat the split ones first.

We continued to sit in the stillness of the August afternoon, our pareos wrapped in toga-like fashion around us, unable to move except to reach out for a fig and drop it into our mouths. The minutes slipped past. One fig remained in the paper barquette. A stain had spread out across the clover-green bottom of the container from where the fig sat bruised on its side.

Karine stepped out onto the veranda, put her hand up to shield her eyes and looked at the bay. Seeing nothing of interest, she looked down at us. “What’s with you and the figs?” she asked. “I mean, Christine has an excuse, but you, Mayanne?”

“I like figs. I’ve always liked figs, ever since I was a little girl,” I sputtered. “I eat them in Texas all the time.”

“They’re so good this summer,” added Christine. “We just can’t help ourselves.

“Can I?”

Christine picked up the last fig between her index finger and thumb. I wanted it, but she had already popped it into her mouth. I nodded. I told myself we could always buy more. It wasn’t really the last one.

We did buy more, kilos and kilos more. I ate figs nearly every day. I couldn’t get enough. Now, it’s mid-October. Weeks have passed since my return to Paris. Many of the figs in the market no longer come from France, but from more temperate Spain and Turkey. Shriveled and hard, rarely do they hold the promise of last summer. I continue to buy them, hoping to find a glimmer of sweetness. Amid the eight or so filling a barquette, I might find one. I always know which one it is. I set it aside, admiring its beauty. Then, I ease my teeth into it, break the skin, pull. Pulp and skin slide into my mouth. Summer returns.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

"Step Right Up..."

“Step right up, folks, and buy some mustard. You’ve got to taste it to believe it. Better than Dijon, better than Meaux, la Moutarde de Provins will enhance your meats and give your vinaigrettes that certain something.”

Although my friend, Christina, doesn’t actually say this—her audience consisting primarily of native Parisians and her French nonexistent—I imagine these words flowing from her mouth as I watch her greet each passerby. She has taken over Patrice’s booth at the Salon gourmand, a trade fair featuring gastronomical delights from the region surrounding Paris. It doesn’t matter that she’d met the man whose mustard she now touts only an hour before. She likes his Paul Newman eyes and cordial demeanor, and she likes his product.

Patrice takes the American invasion in stride. He pours more of the white wine he uses in the mustard for us to drink and sends his son over to the next booth for some Brie to go with it.

Mustard and Brie are just two of the many products hailing from Ile-de-France, the most populated of all France’s regions. Although Paris takes the limelight, natural areas and farmland make up 80% of the territory. Drive to the outskirts of the city and you’ll find yourself wrapped in a patchwork quilt of sunflowers, vegetables, grains and hay. The Franciliens, the name given to Ile-de-France inhabitants, also produce a number of local specialties. These include la menthe poivrée, a particularly pungent mint, which brews into a refreshing herbal tea, and one hundred different cheeses, among them several different sorts of Brie. This Brie, however, differs greatly from the hard, plastic-wrapped wedges Americans find in their local supermarkets. This Brie smells of straw and earth, and ripens over time. At its best, it oozes out from its center, begging to be dripped over a crunchy baguette.

The plate of Brie Patrice’s son sets down before us doesn’t quite measure up to expectations, but no one seems to care. We need something to assuage our hunger, something to absorb the wine. I wonder what it would taste like if I smeared mustard on it, but refrain from indulging my whim. I don’t want to break some unwritten rule. Instead, I swallow my cheese, take another sip of wine, then dig a swizzle stick deep into the grainy mustard. I hadn’t actually tasted it yet, having spent my time up until then chatting with Patrice and other producers who’d stopped by. But now, the crowd has dispersed and I can give myself over to one of my favorite condiments. I look around to see if anybody has noticed just how much mustard sits perched on my stick, then slurp it into my mouth. An explosion of tang, touched with a hint of sweetness hit my taste buds. The tiny, brown grains of mustard pop on my tongue. I flash on a nice picnic ham, punctuated with cloves and slathered in this mustard. I envision pork tenderloin sandwiches with sweet pickles and mustard. I tick off a list of possible recipes.

“Earth to Mayanne,” calls Christina.

I open my eyes and put the stick down.

“This lady wants to buy a jar of mustard. I need change.”

“Where’s Patrice?” I ask.

She gives me a look. “Behind you.”

Cell phone glued to his ear, he unlocks the metal box on the table, takes out 16 Euros and hands them to me. I pass them over to Christina who nods, mumbles “merci” and hands the change to the lady. Another jar down, just a few to go.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Importance of Cell Phones

Without a cell phone, you can’t play the game. Its mobility gives people the illusion of privacy, discretion and a certain anonymity, hence its indispensability in the rituals of mating. “What’s your cell phone number?” is the all-important first line. Would you like to pursue this, whatever this may be, or not?

It took me years to identify this discussional turning point and recognize its true significance. The first time it happened, I already had a few decades and relationships behind me. It occurred on New Year’s Eve of 2000 in Paris. It was three o’clock in the morning and my friend Christina and I had just eaten a six-course dinner and quaffed two bottles of cheap champagne at La Fermette Marbeuf, a restaurant just off the Champs-Elysées. The Art Nouveau décor, candlelight and waiters in 19th century costume who tended to our every need—and perhaps the champagne—had transported us to a place and time outside our usual good girl, Southern reality. We had just taught the entire wait staff the proper way to dance to the Village People’s song YMCA, showing them how to form each letter correctly with their arms. Now, we were dancing in couples to a series of 1970’s and early 80’s disco songs and hoping that nobody we knew was there watching.

I kept glancing over my spinning shoulders at Christina, my big-sister radar detector for conduct not besuiting a proper lady at full alert. Her dance partner had propositioned me during the previous dance, using direct language that even I could understand, and I was concerned. I feared that the French language factor might lead to confusion and Christina would find herself in a predicament. Head tossed back as she laughed, she didn’t appear in any danger—at least not yet. Her innocence and inability to speak French would protect her I supposed.

I turned my attention back to my partner, a slight man with a fine nose, doe eyes set in a face that saw little sunshine. He seemed kind and very French. I liked his smile and quiet manner. The song ended and we returned to my table. He refilled my glass with champagne and served himself one.

“So, you were telling me about a place that has really good, traditional bistro food,” I said, taking a sip of champagne.

“Yes, it’s in the 10th arrondisement. I often go there with friends. I could show you where it is. What’s your cell phone number?”

“I don’t have a cell phone,” I said, the words traveling out of my mouth before I realized what I’d done. I’d told the truth, but I had also said “No. I’m not interested” in the unofficial language of mating.

“Ah, bon,” he said, sitting back.

I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t take the words back. A part of me knew that it was just as well. I took another sip of champagne and looked for Christina. She and Monsieur Lecherous still danced among the tables.

“Excuse me,” I said getting up from the table. “I need to speak to my friend.”

My would-be suitor pushed back his chair and stood up to make room for me to pass.

Eight years later, I find myself in Paris once again. I’ve been here for a month and still haven’t bought a SIM card and units for my cell phone. I tell myself that I don’t need one despite the fact there are few pay phones, and those that exist require phone cards. Every day I vow to go to the phone store. Every day something else comes up.

Today I receive an e-mail from a man who took me out dancing some 20 years ago. He wants to meet me around seven tonight. I’m supposed to call him on his cell phone to confirm, using my cell phone so he has my number in case he’s running late. It’s nearly noon, the deadline to make the call. I stare at the clock on my laptop and grumble “why can’t I just send an e-mail?” Then, I remember how we danced until dawn, ate croissants out of a country baker’s oven, laughed over how I had an hour to finish packing before heading back to the States. I close my laptop and pick up my bag. I run down the stairs, out the door and across the street to the nearest cell phone store.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Guidelines for Staying Healthy and Fit in Paris

Brows furrowed, mouths pulled down in dismay, some of you may have become quite concerned over my recent obsession with food. Never fear, the aerobics instructor / personal trainer in me remains alive and well, and has devised a set of health and fitness guidelines to which she strictly adheres while in Paris. They are:

1) Rent an apartment on the seventh floor and always take the stairs, particularly when going out for fresh bread in the morning. Make it a point to take the stairs at least two or three times a day. This provides a short cardio workout and tones the gluts, hamstrings and quads.

2) If it takes less than 30 minutes by foot to get to a destination, forgo public transportation and walk—unless it’s raining (as it so often does). Then, take the subway. Eschew all escalators and skip up and down the stairs, weaving in and out the strollers, adolescents on scooters, students and businessmen using briefcases to block their way through the crowds. The more transfers between lines, the better, thus insuring proper agility training.

3) Look regularly out the window, and if the sun happens to appear, rush immediately outside. Walk quickly to the nearest park with benches and handrails. Work the upper body by doing two or three sets of push-ups, triceps dips, step-ups, and if the grass isn’t too damp, doesn’t have a sign saying not to walk on it or isn’t covered in dog poop, do three sets of crunches. Warning: it’s advisable for women not to remain in one place in the park for too long. They risk having to endure the latest pick-up lines of the ever-present lonely hearts that lurk in Paris parks.

4) Go to the prepackaged food sections of a grocery store, such as Monoprix. Examine the serving sizes, particularly for meats, dairy products and snack foods, such as pretzels and crackers, to rediscover what an appropriate serving size really is. Eat according to this new-found knowledge. Order a glass of wine or a cocktail in a café or restaurant to discover the same for alcoholic beverages. Soon, the super-sized remnants of the past will melt away from the hips and tummy.

5) Only eat the best quality products, no matter its fat or carbohydrate content. This means shopping in the street markets and specialty shops. Sure, it costs a bit more, but appropriate nutrition and satisfaction will guarantee less consumption and a trimmer figure. Moreover, one can always count on the ever-responsible digestive tract to announce its displeasure if overindulgence occurs.

6) Beware of dehydration. Although bottles of mineral water and Wallace fountains providing free drinking water are ubiquitous in Paris, toilets are not. Consequently, it is tempting (and sometimes wise) to go long intervals without fluids. To stay properly hydrated, it is advisable, then, to plan one’s drinking around trips to a department store or museum. Otherwise, be prepared to shell out a few euros for a cup of coffee in a café in order to use its toilet. If said cup of coffee is not purchased, and one heads straight for the stairs leading down or up to the less than pristine toilets, a tongue-lashing will ensue. A third option, of course, is to reserve drinking as a nighttime activity when access to a toilet is assured. Caveat: If you’re a man, none of the above toilet restrictions seem to apply. The smells of the city would indicate that almost any place where two walls come together will adequately meet your needs.

I, Mayanne Wright, do hereby attest that the above guidelines have kept me slim, trim and healthy in Paris.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Truffle Magic

Mainstay of haute cuisine, revered by gastronomes everywhere, truffles have steadily climbed the pretentiousness index joining the ranks of beluga caviar and Cristal champagne. For years I’ve wondered what all the fuss was about. What magical powers could these knobby clods of fungi possibly possess? What about them causes people to swoon and readily empty their pocketbooks? Thanks to my friend Karine, I was about to find out. She had made reservations at chef Clément Bruno’s eponymous restaurant, and chef Bruno was the King of Truffles.

We had driven a little over an hour to get to Restaurant Bruno, nestled among the vineyards and olive trees just outside the village of Lorgues in Provence. Now we sat under an arbor of mulberry and olive trees on an outdoor terrace. I was famished and couldn’t wait to take my first bite of truffle. There it sat, on a plate in front of me, slivered and piled high on a golden round of toast drizzled with olive oil. I looked at my friends and grinned. Only Karine knew what to expect. My other two companions, Marc and Christine, were virgin truffle eaters like me.

“Bon appetit!” Karine smiles behind glasses reflecting the candle light.

“Bon appetit,” we giggle.

I take a gentle bite. I mince the amuse-bouche with my front teeth, then use my tongue to disperse the specks of flavor around my mouth. I close my eyes and swallow, drawn deeply into the earth after a summer rain.

“Alors, c’est bon?” Karine asks.

“Ahhh, oui,” I whisper and place the other half of the toast in my mouth. My insides swim. I take a sip of champagne and settle back into my chair. I’m ready.

On Karine’s advice, we all choose the set menu featuring the summer truffle, tuber aestivum, for 65 euros. Although more common and less expensive than its upper class relatives, she assures us that tuber aestivum will more than adequately initiate us to the truffle. Our menu is no different than the more expensive ones, except for the type of truffle. At Bruno’s, diners eat the same dishes, but pay more or less according to the truffle they choose. Tonight the more expensive menus feature tuber melanosporum, the famous black truffle that gourmands so covet, and tuber brumale, a winter truffle, less expensive and not as flavorful as its well-known cousin. According to Karine, one thing all diners can count on is getting their fill of truffles. Chef Bruno believes that truffles should not be a luxury item and uses them liberally in most dishes.

The first course arrives—truffle caviar served in a tin accompanied by a dish of fresh cream whipped into cumulus clouds and homemade blinis. Following Karine’s lead, I tear off a piece of blini and spread it thick with cream. I scoop out a dollop of caviar, press it into the middle of my creation and pop the blini into my mouth. I soar up from the earth and into the stratosphere. I repeat the process and fly higher. What did they put in those mushrooms?

I reach for my glass and sip the local red wine. Velvet dances across my taste buds. I sink to the earth again. Beads of sweat form across my lip. I sneak a peak at the other truffle newbies, gage their reactions. I watch emotions play tag across Christine’s face. She says nothing and takes another bite. She licks each of her fingers. Marc focuses on the task at hand: tearing, spreading, scooping.

“Oh, this cream. It’s so light,” Karine moans.

Cream, I think. Forget the cream. Give me more of that caviar.

Within minutes, it’s over. Marc grabs the tin, looks at each of us, and scrapes out the last few morsels of truffle with his index finger.

“Marc!” scolds Christine.

Marc grins and continues scraping. Christine and I look around. Nobody noticed. If Chef Bruno had been there, he probably would have laughed his approval.

“What’s next?” Marc asks, setting the tin back down on the table.

Plates with the butteriest potato ever known, smothered in truffle cream sauce with piles of truffle shavings, appear under our noses. This is Bruno’s signature dish— pommes de terre aux truffes— a recipe harkening back to a time when truffles were plentiful, a standard ingredient in country fare. I dig in. This time, I travel back in memory to my grandmother’s kitchen. Pies bake in the oven and I’m helping her mash fresh butter into boiled potatoes for Sunday dinner.

“That’s it!” I say to myself.

The thought slips away. I become aware of my empty plate. I focus on the conversation. We’re still talking about the food. Good. I haven’t missed anything. Now, what was that thought? Truffles. Time travel. Mommy Dee’s kitchen. Oh yes, remembers my rational brain. Truffles have the same effect as “comfort food”. They reach down into the psyche, striking a primal cord. People respond to them with their limbic brain.

“Ah, oui,” groans Marc, dispersing my thoughts. “Alors, ça c’était bon.”

“Monsieur, mesdames, le pigeon désosé dans sa croûte,” says the waiter, replacing our empty plates with the main course.

I attack the deboned pigeon wrapped around foie gras and truffles, baked in puff pasty and drizzled with satin sauce. I forget I’ve just eaten two previous courses. I lose track of time and place. I look up, eyes unfocused, knife and fork in hand, juice seeping from the corner of my mouth. I hear nothing, then the simmering voices of other diners. I blink and wipe my lips. It’s hot. Karine says something. My thoughts crowd each other. Christine’s fork and knife no longer move. Marc leans back beyond the candle light.

“We must save room for dessert,” Marc commands.

Surely, this is it. I can’t eat anymore, I think. But there is more. The waiter makes a mistake, and instead of one dessert, serves three—homemade ice-cream that tastes like my grandmother’s lemon meringue pie, peach ice-cream in a meringue basket topped with strawberries and champagne granita with truffles.

“Truffles for dessert,” I cry.

“Yes, truffles from start to finish!” exclaims Karine.

I recall my initial doubts about truffles. How could anyone eat fungus for dessert. Surely, Bruno’s had gone too far. I scrunch my nose, prepared for the worst, and spoon a bite. The champagne crystals melt on my tongue, snowflakes with vestiges of autumn, a perfect ending to the evening’s bounty. I stop questioning. I surrender. Some things should remain a mystery.

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Saturday, August 8, 2009

La Girolle, Queen of the Forest

My friend Christine and I cruise the open-air market that lines both sides of my street every Tuesday and Friday searching for inspiration. Drooling over the piles of tiny mirabelle plums, forest strawberries, and plump figs, I don’t notice she no longer walks beside me. I stop, turn around, and a woman pushing a stroller crashes into me.

“Sorry,” I mutter, still looking for Christine. I frown, and then see her, some 10 feet away leaning over a golden waterfall of girolles.

Golden Chanterelle mushrooms, or girolles, have just entered the market this season. The ones that have so captured Christine’s attention come from Portugal, their French counterparts not having yet made an appearance. They will continue to grow wild in the coniferous forests of Europe, Asia and North America through fall, often popping up in a the moss after a thunder storm.

I weave my way back to Christine.

“They’re so beautiful,” she whispers. “like little flowers. Shall we have them for lunch? With chicken?”

I gaze at the cascade of miniature trumpets with deep ridges running along their stems.

“Oh, yes,” I salivate.

The apricot-tinged flesh of this regal fungus would provide me a good source of fiber, something I desperately needed after yesterday’s cheese binge. It would also give me a nice dose of protein and vitamins E, D, K and B-complex.

We buy a pound and hurry down to the Monoprix for the chicken breasts.

Upon returning to the apartment, we take our treasure to the kitchen, a ten-foot long corridor, and ease them into the sink. Christine discards all the girolles that appear wet and have become a shade darker than the rest. She shows me how to scrape off the dirt and cut away bruised spots. Then she reminds me to never wash mushrooms because they’ll absorb the water.

“You look tired,” she says. “Why don’t you lie down. I can do the rest.”

I take her up on the offer and stretch out on the living room couch. Soon, the aroma from the kitchen lifts me onto a bed of moss. Sunlight streams through the pines somewhere in a medieval forest in France. I swallow and smile.

Poulet aux girolles (Chicken with Golden Chanterelles)
4 servings

1 lb chicken breasts (deboned), cut into chunks
1 lb of fresh Golden Chanterelles
2 large cloves of garlic, minced
2 spring onions or 1 very small yellow onion, minced
1/3 c chopped flat-leaf parsley, chopped
salt, pepper, olive oil
1. Cut off bottoms of chanterelle stems and any dark spots on the caps. Scrape off any dirt. Wipe off with a damp paper towel or quickly rinse mushroom. (Do NOT wash mushrooms. They will absorb the water.)

2. Pour some olive oil into a large frying pan, just enough to barely coat the bottom. Sauté chicken over a medium flame until cooked through with golden edges. Season with salt and pepper. Take up and set aside.

3. In same pan, add a bit of olive oil (if needed) and minced onion and garlic. Stir to scrape up chicken bits and mix with garlic and onions. Add mushrooms and stir. Cover with a lid and let steam over a low flame. When mushrooms soften and have produced juice, remove the lid. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add parsley. Cook until most of the liquid evaporates.

4. Return the cooked chicken to the mushrooms. Stir to mix.
Serve with a loaf of crusty bread and a green salad with vinaigrette.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Chez Poilâne : August 5, 2009

A pigeon snatches up flakes from the apple tart I’m savoring as I sit in Boucicaut Square, a small park in the 6th arrondisement, or district, the heart of my old neighborhood. Women of varying ages sit on the park benches, enjoying a late lunch in the shade.

Over 20 years have passed since I strolled these streets to and from class. The wealthy and chic have infiltrated the once faded belle époque buildings. Yet, the dorm run by retired teaching nuns where I used to lived still provides students a home. Many of the shops also remain the same, even though they may have changed hands—the butcher shop where I used to buy one veal scallop that I’d sauté and drown in a sauce of mushrooms, garlic, dill, lemon juice and crème fraîche, the hardware store with every household necessity crammed onto shelves that run from floor to ceiling, and the Poilâne bakery.

I’d often walk past the bakery on my way to class, but never dared step in. Sometimes I’d stare longingly into the window at the crusty breads, then tell myself they were a luxury I couldn’t afford. Poilâne was famous, I thought, and therefore, out of my price range. I didn’t know the bakery’s large sourdough loaves made from dark flour and baked in a wood-fired oven would stay fresh longer than the traditional baguettes and pains I usually ate, making them more economical.

Today I was determined to overcome my trepidation and cross the threshold of this prestigious bakery, located at 8, rue du Cherche-Midi, the same address where Pierre Poilâne founded it in 1932. I’d read an article that any true connoisseur of baked goods must try the traditional loaves, or miches, that I had passed up for so long as well as their apple tarts. I took a deep breath and stepped inside the shop, it’s façade and interior the color of a perfectly baked crust.

“Bonjour,” said a diminutive woman of a certain age wearing a crisp white apron, tongs in hand.

“Bonjour,” I responded.

I took one look at the giant loaves of round miche, each weighing in at 1.9 kilograms and knew I couldn’t go through with my plan. How would I eat even a quarter loaf before it went bad? I simply could not justify the expense. My eyes darted around the shop in search of something else I might buy. Behind madame I spied two wicker trays of rolls. I’d get one of them and a small apple tart.

Un petit pain au levain, s’il vous plaît,” I said, pointing to the rolls.

Madame picked up a roll with raisins and began to wrap it.

Je m’excuse,” I apologized. “I meant a sourdough roll,” and explained that I must have mispronounced my words.

Not at all,” she smiled, replacing the roll and picking one up from the second tray.

“And what else?” she asked.

Une tartelette aux pommes,” I answered, pointing to the palm-sized, free-form tarts in the window.

Madame chose a tart from the middle and set it on a sheet of white paper, folded the paper lengthwise, and then twisted the ends. She placed the wrapped roll on top of the tart and stepped over to the counter.

3,75 euros, s’il vous plaît,” she said and handed my ticket to the cashier. I fumbled in my change purse for the money. Instead of counting out the exact amount, I handed a 10 euro bill to the young woman at the register. The cashier smiled and handed me the change. Both women waited while I shoved the coins back into my purse.

Au revoir, madame,” said the lady who’d waited on me.

Au revoir,” I answered and turned toward the door.

Bonne journée, good day,” both women said in unison.

I looked at them and returned their smile.

De même, same to you,” I said, heading back out into the sunlight toward the park where I now sit.