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.

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