By Joëlle Laffitte
Olive Oil Times Contributor | Reporting from Paris
Winter arrived early. Paris saw its first snow of the season this week, and my tiny garden of herbs is blanketed in white. Christmas lights are already sparkling on certain streets, and shop windows are dressed in white glittering stars and crimson fabrics. The yeasty- sweet aromas of baked breads and pastries are particularly enticing in the cold, and men in black top coats are seen exiting boulangeries with neatly wrapped packages tied up in little red bows. Petite ladies in fur trimmed hats scurry in and out of butchers’ and chocolate shops, and foie gras is on every restaurant, café, and brasserie menu. It is the season of indulgence. This time of year, the French are ever ready to treat themselves to a little more, whether it be truffles or chocolates or fine wine.
For me, these indulgences come by way of the yearly salon of gastronomie, a large exhibition of France’s finest artisanal products, where purveyors from all over the country come to showcase their brilliance. If ever there was a time and place to taste the crème de la crème, this is it. I felt giddy with anticipation as I dusted off my beret and trudged through the snow, large empty basket in hand, ready for anything. And I did have a little of everything. I sampled the cheeses and breads first, promptly filling up my basket with sheeps’ milk cheeses and a hefty baguette made from wild yeasts. Then there were saumon sauvage and oysters, and small jars of caviar that caused my husband to become weak-kneed and spontaneously generous with wallet. I left him to the trout roe while I waited my turn in a queue that wrapped around twice for plates of stuffed pigs’ feet served with a generous helping of Aligot, a puree of potatoes with as much cheese
tucked into them as humanly possible.
There was, of course, an abundance of olives and olive oils featuring every variety of French olive, including my personal favorite, the glorious Lucque. A knowledgeable and enthusiastic vendeuse described the different regions in the south of France where the olives are grown and harvested, and then kindly showed me how to properly taste each oil, handing me a small cup and instructing me to carefully roll it around in my mouth for a while before swallowing. I liked them all, and was especially taken by the peppery olive oil produced by the Picholine du Gard, though in the end, the Lucque will always have my heart. It’s a good thing I did give every oil a chance, however, as I needed something to protect my stomach from the onslaught of wines I doused upon it next. I came home with three bottles, having tasted six times as many wines.
I received a casual but lengthy education on Bordeaux from a polite woman who became completely horrified when I mentioned that I like to store my wines in the chimney, before I had the chance to explain that I leave the flu open to keep them cool and haven’t built a fire in there for years. So she must have imagined menacing flames coming within inches of the precious bottles. When I explained in my less than perfect French, the expression of relief that washed over her was priceless. We shared a good laugh along with another “taste” before I made my way to the charcuterie, where there were mouthwatering saucisses and potted rillettes, a staple all over France. If you aren’t familiar with rillettes, it is simply meat (venison, pork, goose, and duck are a few examples) that has been shredded and preserved in fat, and seasoned. I picked up a jar each of venison and wild boar, saving the latter for spreading on small toasts and serving to friends at aperitif time. As for the venison, I must confess to polishing off the pot myself, smearing it thickly onto a baguette at lunchtime, accompanied by little cornichons.
I mentioned that it is the season to indulge, and as such, I couldn’t leave the festivities without dessert. I have always believe in sweet endings, and since I had already splurged this much anyway, why not spring for a few- or a few dozen — macarons? I chose a baker who likes to stick to tradition, and as she readily explained, traditional macarons do not come in flashy colors, nor do they have a filling. They are soft and dense and infused with natural flavors of pistachio, apricot, cassis, chocolate, or violet. Each one is special, so, as with the olive oils, obviously I needed a taste of each. The lovely young baker was happy to indulge
me. I guess she could tell I’d be back for more.
You may think I wouldn’t be hungry for dinner after a full day of tasting, but it is my motto to never allow a momentary lack of hunger to come between me and a perfect meal. Besides, heaviest in my basket, other than the bottles of wines and oils, was a large slab of smoked échine of pork, a cut so tender and succulent it seems wrong to even tell you about it, as I have never seen it in elsewhere. The Madame and Monsieur selling it beamed with pride when I returned again the following day, eager for more of the cured pork I had (perhaps greedily) already finished. To my disappointment they had sold out of it, but since I had lightened my wallet so much by taking a detour by a Burgundy tasting, I thought it was just as well.
I felt like a kid at Christmas, overexcited and having spent all my allowance on the first thing I saw, not remembering to save some for later. Fortunately, as in childhood, my elders took pity, and these farmers weren’t about to let me go home ham-less. They accepted a very small donation in exchange for what turned out to be the best smoked sausages I have ever eaten. After all, besides being the season of indulgence, it is the season of giving, too. Grateful for this, I walked home in the snow, my basket full of goodwill, and my wine glass overfloweth.