Adventures in the French Digestive Tract

Peter Wortsman

USA

“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.” – Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

The cliché is that the French are obsessed with sex. But I would argue that if the French, and Parisians in particular, are fixated on anything, it is, rather, their digestion. Farfetched as it may, at first, appear, Paris being densely populated and most Parisian habitats consequently being as compact and tightly packed together as the inner organs, stairways and elevators metaphorically recapitulate the function of the organism, stirring in the ascent, digestive in the descent. It has always seemed to me as if those narrow flights of winding steps and minuscule elevators the size of shopping baskets dangling by a cord that you find in the French capital had something intestine-like about them. As if they had been modeled after the human body, powered by the same dynamic of peristaltic motion. This at any rate is my interpretation based on the ascent and descent of many a winding flight of steps and snug lift, and the consumption of countless meals over the 30 plus years of intimate nibbling with my wife, Claudie, a French native.

New Yorkers suffer heartburn. Parisians complain of “crise de foie” (liver crisis). The great gastronome Jean Anthelm Brillat-Savarin, author of “The Physiology of Taste,” the serious eater’s bible, summed up the French attitude to food: “Those persons who suffer from indigestion, or who become drunk, are utterly ignorant of the true principles of eating and drinking.”

The French meal from beginning to end might well be conceived as a ritualized teasing of the intestines: from the opening “amuse geule” (throat tickler) or “amuse bouche” (mouth amusement), those unexpected tidbits intended to stimulate the taste buds and arouse the enzymes, along with the accompanying aperitif drink, to the coffee and digestif at dinner’s end, everything is geared to facilitating smooth waves of peristalsis as the key to happiness.

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Cities have certain distinctive sounds. I identify my native New York, for instance, with the honk of car horns periodically punctuated, particularly at night, by the whine of police and ambulance sirens that penetrate the soundest sleep. As if the city were in a perennial rush and you ran the risk of being run over even in your dreams.

The sound I most closely associate with Paris is the resonant clatter of cutlery against plate and the accompanying clink of glasses. This distinctive tinkle reverberates from open windows, outdoor café terraces and restaurants three times a day, at breakfast-, lunch- and dinnertime, calling the faithful to table, as in former times the toll of the church bell called to mass. The French meal remains a sacrament of sorts—This is my body! This is my blood!—bread and wine still being the symbolic bonding agents. French children are taught early, simultaneous with their toilet training, how properly to wield knife and fork and to sit still at table. Adolescents often engage in more raucous consumption, deliberately muddling the domestic melody and adding a cacophonous clang to anger their elders, but they know the rules and will mellow out and harmonize in time.

It is an exquisite pleasure to listen to the table music of Paris: from the piccolo tinkle of the appetizer dish, to the deep bass clink of cutlery against dinner plate, a passionate polka of knife and fork, to the soprano serenade of dessert fork against dessert plate, the whole interspersed with sotto voce gossip, perfectly timed trills of laughter, and the cymbal clash of wine glasses colliding in a toast, followed by the closing notes of plunked sugar cube, spoon striking cup, and the tinkle of the small change by way of applause.

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It all begins at the boulangerie. Whereas the béret, the once prototypical headgear of the French, has, except for a few shepherds in the Pyrenees, largely faded from view, the baguette, that proud symbol of the Gallic palate, remains omnipresent. Twice a day, in the morning and again at noon, rain or shine, you can see armies of men, women and children marching home with a long loaf in hand.

Behold, two men walking, one gripping a baguette, punctuating his observations with a furtive nibble broken off the end. The gist of their exchange may well be of limited interest, but the actions relating to the baguette, a cross between an edible baton and an abbreviated walking stick, are telling. Whereas the American would rather hide his bread in a paper bag, the French cherish the object itself as much as its nutritive value. Not to touch the golden brown crust of the bread of which you are about to partake is as inconceivable to a Parisian as not to catch of a preliminary glimpse of the fish you are about to eat, eyes popping out of its head, or not to caress the partner with whom you are about to make love.

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Believing as I do that the incidentals, in life as in a meal, matter at least as much and perhaps more than the main dish, permit me to digress concerning the lowly and often neglected pickle.

In the past, I had always been an enthusiastic, indeed a fanatical proponent of the sour pickled cucumber, a large, bold, firm, warty green finger of taste, hardly noticing that curled pinky of a pickle, the dainty little French cornichon, but I have recently come to reconsider. Assuming on my last extended stay in Paris that the large (700 gram) jar of Maille cornichons, designated as “Grand Croquant” (or Big Crunch) according to the label, would last me for at least a month or two worth of lunches and midday snacks, I was astounded to discover its contents rapidly dwindling, with no other likely culprits than my wife and myself.

Dating back to 1747, the label proclaims that Maille cornichons are the product “of a rigorous selection process […] prepared according to a unique recipe, blending vinegar and pointes d’estragon (tarragon tips), to bring you,” the company promises, “freshness and crunch.”

I have long debated the relative virtues of various gherkins with my son, Jacques, a lean and hungry 22-year old, who has been known to go through an entire jar of cornichons in a single sitting. “It’s the crunch factor,” according to Jacques, that and the sharp vinegary brine, as well as the dainty size, that make the cornichon so enticing.

A sour Polish pickle remains a serious commitment, akin to a Cuban cigar, whereas the furtive snacker with “un petit creux” (literally a little hollow), can dally in a non-committal fashion with the coquettish cornichon, popping one after another in the mouth. The plastic inner pickle-lifting mechanism inside the jar, a kind of pickle elevator, makes nibbling easy, amusing and un-messy. There is the aesthetic factor too. The little green fingers are interspersed with tiny, white, pickled, dwarfed onions, the spectacle of which on view through the glass wall of the jar reminds of the tiny trinkets we pined after as children, mingled among the round, hard, colored penny gum balls in the luncheonette dispenser.

Before you know it the jar is empty, consumed by the furtive pickle fairies that lurk in the kitchen and only come out when you’re not looking.

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Then there’s mustard, the French dressing of choice. The great French Jewish 11th century theologian Shlomo Yitzchaki (aka Rashi), a native of Troyes, in Champagne, who combined biblical scholarship with the wine business, wrote in one of his little known commentaries that the patriarch Abraham dished out calves tongue dipped in mustard to serve to the angels who called on him. Whether true or apocryphal, this tantalizing Talmudic tidbit attests to a longstanding French fondness for the spicy condiment prepared from crushed mustard seed.

Already cherished by the Romans, mustard seed and the recipe for preparing the paste was exported to the outlying Roman colonies in Gaul. This was later picked up and refined by enterprising monks with plenty of time on their hands in between matins and vespers, the same folks responsible, incidentally, for the metamorphosis of fermented grape juice into vintage wine, the brewing of hops and malt into beer, and the distillation of such divine spirits as Benedictine and Chartreuse. Spartan as their diet was, perhaps because they consumed so little and every bite mattered, the monks knew a thing or two about taste.

By the 13th century, Dijon, the capital of the prosperous and powerful Duchy of Bourgogne, became the mustard-making capital of the world. Accorded an Appellation d’origine controlée (AOC) in 1937, subsequently revoked, Dijon mustard still comes incontestably close to the Platonic ideal of mustard.

The ancient Greeks used it to ease the sting of the scorpion. American baseball pitchers allegedly still wipe it on their round projectile as the secret of an un-returnable fast ball. In India the seed is spread around the house to ward off evil spirits. In Germany new brides are said to surreptitiously sew it into the hems of their gowns to assert covert control of the household.

But far more than a mere condiment, unguent or magic charm, in France, bona fide Moutarde de Dijon, prepared as per law from black mustard seed (brassica nigra), wine vinegar, salt and citric acid, is a catalyst—though I don’t pretend to understand the chemistry, precisely what happens when you blend the enzyme myrosinase found in mustard seed with glucosinolates and water, the colder the water the hotter the mix—that binds with the flavor of certain bland white meats, like chicken, turkey and rabbit, performing veritable alchemical wonders in the roasting pot, fricassee or frying pan.

One cannot help but wonder if Moutarde de Dijon may not have been the key ingredient in the magic elixir sipped for fortitude by the cartoon character Asterix, the French equivalent of Popeye’s spinach.

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But now, on to the true French nitty-gritty. A dazzling display of every conceivable kind and cut of meat, whole, chopped, and squeezed into sausage sheaths, along with prepared charcuterie, sliced tête de veau (veal’s head), salade de museau (muzzle salad), choucroute, assorted pâtés, and poultry, large and small, lying head to tail, the whole lot straight out of an 18th-century still life, beckon from the refrigerated glass display case under the counter. I feel a bit like a cultivated beast of prey, my mouth watering, gullet twitching and stomach growling at the killed and chilled array of carcasses before me, the thrill of the hunt sublimated into a civilized exchange of flesh for cash, every time I visit a French butcher.

The Boucherie de la Rue de Bretagne, my purveyor of choice for the six months I lived in the Marais, in the Third Arrondissement, features such a varied selection of steaks and chops, pre-rolled oven-ready roasts, and festooned fowl, I always allowed myself the leisure to salivate, getting dizzy-eyed, before choosing.

On one memorable occasion I opted for quail. The butcher on duty, a genial, portly gent with a sleepy gaze and a bushy mustache like a brace of feathers or a misplaced lion’s mane on his upper lip, had just finished surgically removing the veins from a cut of liver for a previous customer, and proceeded to burn off residual feather stubs on my birds with a blow torch, and patiently string them up with strips of bacon.

Meanwhile, la patronne (the proprietress) held forth from her perch at the cash register, cheerfully clucking her recipe. “First dice and sauté an onion and a carrot or two in a cocotte, my dear, with a dab of butter to keep your oil from burning,” she advised, “then brown the birds on both sides, douse with a cup and a half of dry white wine, and simmer for forty minutes or so, and shortly before serving, add a dribble of cream to bind and thicken the sauce!” She made light of accepting my money with a faintly flirtatious wink: “When’s dinner?”

While the fabled green cast iron arches of Les Halles, Paris’ central market, dubbed by novelist Emile Zola “the Belly of Paris,” have gone the way of all flesh, every French boucherie worthy of the name still treats the carving of meat as a sacred ritual, with pagan roots dating back to the Roman Cult of Mithras, to which I remain a willing witness.

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Next stop the brasserie, the altar of the French appetite!

We are a few years late for the centennial celebration of the founding in 1913 of the classic Brasserie Le Zayer, the same year Stravinsky premiered his ballet The Rite of Spring in Paris and the wheels of the Tour de France first whizzed around the French hexagon, and a year before Europe hurled itself into the collective folly of World War I. But it’s always a celebration at Le Zayer, on the Place d’Alésia, in the 14th Arrondissement, the locus of two of my own personal culinary epiphanies.

A red velvet curtain discretely stretched at eye-level across the window permits patrons to peer out, while cloistering the plate from the eavesdropping of passersby on our immaculate consumption. We are seated in an ethereal realm. There is a pristine innocence to the swarm of white linen table cloths gracing the empty tables around us, a bit like a virgin snowfall at dawn before being stomped flat and soiled by the crude heels of the madding crowd.

My own double epiphany took place at table at Le Zayer, and I wasn’t even hungry at the time. But my dear friend, Michael Houseman, an American émigré living in Paris for 40 years and counting, who knows that I am stomach-driven, encouraged me to try the magret de canard.

“Duck’s too fat,” I protested, “and I’m really not that hungry.”

Magret is special,” he said, cognizant of my carnivorous bent, “it’s more like steak. You eat it rare.”

The thought of rare poultry repelled me. But the Archangel Michael insisted. “Alright,” I demurred, figuring I’d take a polite bite or two.

Can I ever forget that first spectacle of sliced slabs of mallard breast doused with a peppercorn and cream sauce? “This is duck?!” I asked, as if the chef had performed some alchemical wonder, a transubstantiation of poultry into beef. Michael just smiled.

The waiter brought back the menu for dessert.

“Oh, no, I really couldn’t!” I protested.

But Michael insisted I try the tarte tatin.

Again I demurred.

How can I describe the first sight and taste of that heavenly confection? It is as if the pastry chef had been standing on his head and tipsy, while caramelizing the apples in butter and sugar, and added the dough as an afterthought to hide his folly. The dish was born of a felicitous accident at the Hotel Tatin, in Lamotte-Beuvron, some 100 miles south of Paris. The story goes that one of the Tatin sisters who ran the hotel absently left the apples she was cooking for a traditional apple pie too long in the pan. Smelling burnt fruit, she tried to fudge it by slapping on a sheath of dough and shoving the pan with the whole mess into the oven. Retrieving the concoction and overturning it onto a plate, she was amazed to discover that, not only did the hotel guests not complain, but they clamored for more. Thus a legendary dish was born.

These two treats, magret de canard, duck masquerading as beef, and tarte tatin, caramelized apple pie turned topsy-turvy, comprise for me, the alpha and omega of the edible in my sacred communion with French cuisine.

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Having already treated you, dear reader, to a proper dessert, let’s go light. Homer called it the fruit of the gods. In France it was long considered the fruit of kings. Once a year, Louis XIV is said to have received as a choice homage a single succulent pear along with a case of champagne from the mayor of Rheins, transported by a messenger who declared: “We offer you the best we have, our wines, our pears and our hearts, oh King!”

I always take a slow pleasure, savoring a pear for my lunchtime dessert. Admiring the pert curl of its twig tipped with red wax, I contemplate its perfect shape, that roundness that swells like a falling drop of water narrowing at the nipple, and the thin brown skin that envelopes its white flesh. Only when temptation proves too powerful to resist do I let myself bite in, whereupon my nostrils fill with the fruit’s fragrant scent and my mouth drips messily with its sweet nectar like a sloppy infant at the breast or a profligate old roué.

So why are the stems of certain Paris pears dabbed in red sealing wax? I had always assumed it to be a mere decorative flourish, like an earring, or like the waxing of apples in the States to artificially buff their polish. But the proprietor of a fruit and vegetable stand on the Rue Saint Antoine, near Métro Saint Paul, set me straight. “It’s to preserve the juice, Sir,” he said. The Passe Crassane variety of winter pear is apparently not permitted to ripen on the branch so as to preserve its shelf life. Prolonged storage, up to the six weeks they need to mellow in protected hangers, would ordinarily dry them out, reducing them to the spongy excuses for pears they peddle in New York supermarkets, were it not for the dab of wax that works as a stopper, holding in the precious nectar.

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My wife’s late Uncle Henri, a farmer from the Hautes Alpes, still maintained the legal right, since lost to his heirs, to distill a batch of his pears down to a divine eau de vie, of which I have a lone bottle left in our liquor cabinet in New York. It fills me with longing and a certain dread every time I lift the stopper, as if the bottle were an hourglass measuring my remaining allotment of pleasure.

More balm than beverage, the digestif (spirits) is what a French meal is really all about, a grand finale of gustatory delight that magically kicks off the chemistry of digestion.

All that’s left for me now is to wish the reader a hearty: Santé! To your health!

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Peter Wortsman is a Contributing Writer for Panorama.