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.