My Parisian Restaurant Map

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

This little piggy went to the market...

Take a trip down to the Basque region and you will no longer feel like you are in France. Everything here is different, from the colors of the houses, to the way they play boules, to the language they speak, to the food they eat and the wine they drink.

But there are three really amazing things that come 
from this region: ham, cheese and cake. (Not to mention wine and piment d'espelette, and the Lindt factory that's near Pau. Let's just say that I would get really fat if I lived here. )

One of the most well known dishes from this region is probably the gateau basque. There are traditionally two different fillings to this amazing cake, black cherry and frangipane, which is a kind of almond paste mixed with sugar and butter. But one quick look at the landscape around you will reveal that there are indeed no almond trees to be found- which seems to be a clue about which filling is the more authentic one. Look a little closer and you will also notice that black cherry jam is traditionally served with their cheeses, so I think it's safe to say that anything made out of black cherry is probably the more indigenous choice, and that the almond cake filling is probably a more recent addition. 

As for the ham. Well, here is a picture of some very happy little piggies frolicking in the sun in the middle of the Aldudes valley in the Pyrenees mountains. These little piggies, which are black and light pink, or white, are the traditional Basque pigs, which were almost going extinct before a man named Pierre Oteiza decided to revive the race and make amazingly delicious ham and pâtés with them. Oteiza now has boutiques in Paris and exports to the US and Japan.( If you get the chance, buy the black pork pâté with the piment d'espelette, spread it on some crusty bread and drink with a good glass of red and you don't need much else to make you happy.   

So as cute as these little piglets look, they taste even better.

And finally, the cheese. The most commercialized version of their local cheese is the petit basque, a cheese which is frequently found advertised on billboards in the Parisian metro. You can find it anywhere, and I have to say that it never dissapoints. But of course once you visit this region, you realize that in fact, like everywhere in France, there is no 'one definitive cheese,' but instead practically every little village or valley makes its own special cheese. While driving around in the Iraty region, every 500 meters or so there were little hand written signs by the side of the road telling tourists that they are only 200 meters away from amazing, hand made sheep's milk Ossau Iraty cheese. The regional government has tried to standardize these signs by making one big brown sign depicting a sheep's head, a piece of cheese and an arrow, which is actually quite amusing.

So apart from all the amazing produce, the restaurants that I've visited really seem to try to incorporate the local ingredients into their dishes. The salade Iraty that I ate in the Iraty region contained, of course, Iraty cheese, basque pig ham, and local asparagus. For my main dish I continued with the tradition of eating small, cute animals and chose to eat baby mutton cutlets, simply seasoned with rock salt and grilled on a sizzling hot plancha. While gnawing on the bones I could literally see the little baby muttons grazing on a nearby hill. Now that is what I call 'eating local.' 

Oh, and the wine is really good too. 

Monday, September 6, 2010


Foodie is a relatively new term that entered our vocabulary during the mid 1980's. The word is defined as “a person having an enthusiastic interest in the preparation and consumption of good food.”

But when I picture a foodie, I think of a snob. 

Of someone who will turn their nose up at my cheeseburger because it's not made with Kobe beef. Of someone who won't let me eat tuna because it's over-fished. Of someone who sneers at a tomato salad served in winter, the season when they're out of season. When I think of a foodie, more "dont's" come to mind than "do's".

If someone wants to be taken seriously as a foodie, they need to show that they're serious about food. In order to do this, they do in fact need to know what vegetables are in season, which fish are facing extinction and why El Bulli is closing. But this level of purism, knowledgeableness and awareness often times become conservative in its approach and restrictive in its practice. Pleasure, enjoyment and satisfaction no longer remain the muses of the foodie; instead, self-righteousness, snobbishness and pretension prevail. Foodies nowadays have started taking themselves too seriously---sometimes I just want to eat a chili-dog or a gyros, not because it's a symbol of local (sometimes immigrant) identity but because it's simply good. It's comfort food, food that I crave in the pit of my stomach, food that once I eat satisfies me in a way only comparable to a warm bubble bath or a sunday afternoon nap in your lover's arms or a good cup of tea. I'm not going to deprive myself of these pleasures simply because of they way that they are labelled- “fast food”, “dirty food”, “hangover food”. We forget that these foods are someone's cultural heritage, even if they have become dumbed down and Americanized for the Western palate. And even if they aren't culturally notable, they still serve an honorable purpose: to nourish. To nourish not only our hunger, but also our bodies, our hearts, our emotions and our souls. I admit that a chili-dog may not be the healthiest thing with which to nourish my body, but in this world of culinary excess and permanent access to any food any way we like, in this world where we no longer need to hunt and gather but can have food delivered to our laps with the click of a button, it's important to remember that the purpose of the chili-dog, despite all of its flaws, is to nourish.

And why should I feel embarrassed to admit that that is what I'm craving? In all honesty, I would never dream of publicly conceding to my guilty pleasures, chili-dogs and gyros included. But pleasures they are, and when did we start living in a world where admitting our pleasures became looked down upon? The answer to that question is probably 'always'.

I do consider myself a foodie, but not one of those foodies. I consider myself a foodie who worships at the altar of pleasure, of satisfaction, and of hedonism. If I'm craving a tomato in January, then by all means I will sink my teeth into that tomato and eat it like an apple. To not do so would be to deny my most primal cravings, which is, quite frankly, a sin. We would not deny ourselves water when we are thirsty, so why do we deny ourselves food when we want it, when we need it?

To me, it's all about balance. If I eat a tomato in January, I eat it because I crave it, but with the full knowledge that it will taste nothing like the blood red beef-heart tomatoes that I eat in Greece in the middle of August, when the heat of the summer sun has practically baked them into a caramelized red the color of blood. The awareness and knowledge of when I should ideally eat this tomato are what make me a foodie.  But the fact that I will ignore that knowledge, close my eyes, and bite into that tomato with the full hope that it will taste like a Greek summer day, is what makes me a hedonist. But perhaps it is this constant search for pleasure, comfort and nourishment that makes me a true foodie, a pure foodie. Because whoever argues that pleasure is not the most important thing when it comes to food can go join Greenpeace and leave the good food for the rest of us.