Renaissance Man: A Dessert to Kill For
Conde Nast Traveler stuntman Mark Schatzker is on a mad quest to make himself into a modern-day Da Vinci during a month's stay in Europe. So far Mark has "mastered" golf in Scotland and "excelled" at gardening in England His next task: cooking in Paris.
My intensive course in fancy Parisian food learning has yielded stellar results in a mere two days. I now know, for example, that when you order a plate of raw oysters, you should eat them in ascending order of, as the French put it, "puissance." Start with the mild ones, end with the less mild ones, and sip plenty of white wine in between. And for goodness' sake, don't obscure that sea-fresh taste by piling on a mountain of grated horseradish, lemon zest, and Jamaican hot pepper sauce.
At Rech, a Parisian seafood restaurant, they serve champagne in retro-style glasses, and the bubbles swirl around in the stem like a mini tornado. We ordered oysters, and they were accompanied by a single garnish--shallot vinegar. It's mild, all right. But Christophe suggested that instead of spooning shallot vinegar over all that delicate oyster flesh I merely grind some white pepper over it. Christophe is an oyster purist. He eats them plain.
I learned also that there's a new front runner for the title of Best Dessert in the World. It's called pain perdu, and it literaly means "lost bread." I've eaten pain perdu before. From what I gather, it's the progenitor of that favorite family breakfast known as French toast. The pain perdu at Rech is on a whole different level. It's the kind of dessert that makes you swear in languages linguists haven't discovered yet. If the pain perdu at Rech cost $80 per gram, you'd quickly find yourself stealing car stereos and hawking your dad's stamp collection to get your next hit.
It hasn't all been food epiphany after food epiphany punctuated by bottles of red and white Burgundy. We finished up at Rech at midnight. I went back to my hotel, brushed my teeth, and went to bed. At 2:15 a.m., I received my wake-up call from the front desk, and I have foggy memories of saying some pretty rude things to the guy on the other end of the line. By 3:30, we were at Rungis, a small city outside Paris. Rungis is like any other French town, except that its citizens are all buyers or sellers of wholesale food, and everyone drives a refrigerated vehicle, some of which are enormous. If food is a drug to the French, then Rungis is where all the big deals go down.
Picture in your mind a well-lit hall. Fill it with Styrofoam boxes, and now fill those boxes with dead fish. Welcome to the fish pavilion at Rungis. There were sardines, tuna, mackeral, redfish, hake, sea bass, lobster, crabs, and king crabs. It was like all the fish in the ocean had come to France for a sales convention. We met up with one Monsieur Bataille, who happens to be among the top fish suppliers in Paris and the main supplier for the Ducasse restaurants. (The oysters, sardines, shrimp, and dorado I ate at Rech were all directly from M. Bataille's primo stash.)
According to M. Bataille, choosing fresh fish is easy. You look at them. You ensure that their skin is glistening, their eyes are brilliant and clear. Then you smell them to check that there is no odor. The one drawback to this method, of course, is that it helps if you're looking at a whole fish, which means you need to know how to filet said fish. Your next best option is to visit a fishmonger you trust implicitly. Fish, M. Bataille pointed out, is not the kind of thing anyone should skimp out on.
Fruits and vegetables aren't so easy. A good piece of fruit, I always thought, was a matter of look, touch, and smell. If a mango was, say, ripe, tender, and fragrant, then it would be a good mango. Well, a French fruit and vegetable wholesaler named Alain Cohen--the Bataille of produce--showed me that this is not necessarily the case. He showed me a box of wild purple asparagus that looked, to be perfectly honest, incredible. According to M. Cohen, however, its taste is no different from green asparagus. It's just a color thing. Then he handed me the most beautiful fig I have ever seen. Plump and soft, with inviting pink flesh. Here's what I have to say about that fig: Distilled water has more flavor. M. Cohen shook his head. He was disappointed but not surprised. We moved on to a purple carrot that, thankfully, was sweet and delicious.
I asked M. Cohen what the secret to buying good fruits and vegetables was. He said, "You have to buy from someone who tastes the fruit and the vegetables. That is all." He seemed downright incredulous that there are shysters in this world selling produce that they don't themselves taste. But M. Cohen, sadly, is an anomaly. Unfortunately, he doesn't sell in North America. Which is why my suitcase will be filled with purple carrots.