No more glorious time of year to be in Paris than October. I turned 50 in Paris (alone), and I turned 60 in Paris. This time I turned 64. When I first visited the City Of Light I was a callow 27, and if memory serves I became 28 whilst walking around at midnight in the 6th arrondissement.
Just back. We had scintillating weather. Oh my, was it gorgeous. Each day would start out socked-in gray, but by mid-morning we would be shielding our eyes. The light on the surfaces of building walls, and tree leaves, and shop windows, the way the air perceptibly shimmered though there was really nothing there but air, the soft breezes, too, seemingly carrying the sun’s rays, a veritable Parisian faux-aurora borealis.
Who were we? Your Fairway geezer moi along with three of my favorite Fairway peeps, each of whom is key to enormous initiatives involving artisanal foodstuffs, much of it French. We HAD to be here. We never miss this show, and the result is Fairway has so many fascinating, can’t-live-without things to eat, and to purchase as gifts. You see, every other year Paris hosts this world’s greatest food extravaganza, a gathering of foodmakers from all over the world. This international bi-annual is housed in a remarkable facility about a half-hour train north of Paris, just before the Charles de Gaulle Airport stop. We would jump down the ancient, runnel of steps of the Paris Metro at the Notre-Dame/St.-Michel metro stop, jump the RER three levels down, and a half-hour later walk off the train at the Parc d’Exposition. Succes encore! Pas horrible! And then we would commence our remarkable journey from Hall 1 to Hall 8. We walked and we walked and we walked. If you know me, you know I limp because of plates and screws in one of my legs. My 65-year old gams are good for four hours-max at which point the pain is too great. As is my wont, I maxed them out every day of the trip, and I assure you I pay and pay. I brought my cane, though, and again I assure you a cane for a crip such as myself is a godsend. Not to mention how people who notice it often treat you differently if only to move the heck out of your path. Help you jump lines. Offer you their seat. Pick the cane up when it clatters to the ground. That sort of thing. I love it. I could easily and legitimately attain a handicapped license plate, but I just haven’t gone to the trouble.
So, as for our work, we accomplished a number of things that justify the huge cost of this trip. We met with our Italian partners from Milan and Modena in order to make some decisions involving the extraordinary Parma prosciutto and the San Daniele prosciutto (from Friuli Venezia-Giulia) that we are importing exclusively under Fairway private-label. Which in and of itself is exciting enough — enough of an accomplishment, but what’s really important is thanks to our Italian partners Fairway will be the very first in the USA to offer the exalted, prized, coveted pork products culatello and culato (even rarer than culatello). Culatello di Zibello (an Emilia-Romagna village) is the Parma pigs’ butt cheek cured similarly to the great Parma and neighboring village Langhirano hams that are so delicious and so famous and so emblematic, really, of Italian cuisine’s entirety, as a whole gastronomical entity. There is nothing more important than Italian prosciutto, and once you have encountered it lain across a measure of baguette slathered with sweet butter, you will realize why. The lights will come on for you. If up to this point in your life you consider prosciutto a perfectly decent but not exactly worshipful foodstuff, you simply have not gotten it, and it may not be your short-attention-span fault. It may be the prosciutto’s fault. As I say, when you finally encounter the right prosciutto (Fairway-brand Prosciutto di Parma) on the right piece of bread (a Fairway baguette) slathered with the right butter (perhaps the butter made from Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese’s milk’s cream, skimmed in the making of the world’s greatest cheese) which is sold at all Fairway stores, as, of course, is the cheese. Not to mention the half-dozen or more brands of French butter including Celles-sur-Belle, Isigny, President, and my favorite, Lescure.
But back to the butt part. Culatello is not the leg. It’s the leaner rump part of the pig, obviously the part above the leg, which is the ham. The Spaniards in Andalucia and Extremadura who create the magnificent Jamon Iberico also employ the pata negra swine’s shoulder (paleta), but this part of the Emilia-Romagna pig is used for other things – usually as fresh meat – the shoulders are not cured. I thought I knew culatello. I did not. We sat down with our Italian partners Augusto and Mario at the sprawling pavilion at the show dedicated to INALCA, fully owned and operated by Augusto’s storied family, the Cremonini of Modena. INALCA is an Italian behemoth, a global processor of beef, multi-national to the max. INALCA owns a lot of businesses, one of which is an artisanal salumiere, that is, a traditional curer of Italian pork products. It is mid-morning there in Paris at the show. We were brought bottles of just popped-open ice-cold lambrusco, that startlingly delicious fine-fizzy red wine from Emilia-Romagna, along with chunked-up fresh Parisian Eric Kayser baguette, and platters of just-sliced Parma prosciutto, separate platters of just-sliced culatello and culato, mortadella and the rare Felino (a village) salami. A separate plate bore a jiggling, sparklingly moist dome of fresh cow’s milk ricotta along with its attendant bottle of Cremonini NOVELLO, olive oil derived from the just-pressed October olives of Umbria, an olive oil that has the virid power, a luminescence, of comic book lore’s Green Lantern, glowing and cloudily unfiltered. (This just gets better and better, doesn’t it? Don’t think I don’t know.) Another plate was festooned with ribbons of STRACCIATELLA, the moist, toothsome shreds of cooked curd made during the fabrication of mozzarella, and used to stuff the hollow-crafted balls of mozz stuffed with these shreds, and with cream – which is called BURRATA. You know burrata. Fairway was among the very first in New York to fly in burrata, the cheese department superstar since, oh, 2010.
Okay, long story short, the culatello ruled. The culato, too, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s just say wait’ll you taste this culatello. This culatello is finger food. Too good even for baguette and butter. Like a fine anchovy, all it requires is you, the uninterrupted meditative interlude, a spirituous bev and a ready palate.
We met with the woman from Jerusalem who has come up with the Israeli olive oil I have been seeking for 20 years. I found it. Finally. Eureka, I can offer an extra-virgin, un-filtered barrel-shipped olive oil from Israel that is the result of Jews and Palestinians working together. Pollyanna I am not, but I swear to you, this mill and its groves are named SINDYANNA. It’s not here yet, and it may still fall apart, as have all my dreams of importing artisanal Israeli foodstuffs. But I am determined to get this done. Couldn’t have gotten past the starting line had we not met up with Hadas in Paris.
Also determined to import the vinegars from Austria called Golles. Sorry. Didn’t mean to take you from Israel to bloody Austria quite that abruptly. That being said (Who, ME hold a grudge against Austria and Germany?) we got to have these vinegars. Beer vinegar (remarkable), pear, raspberry, cherry (oh my!), apricot, quince, tomato and plum. Golles specializes in not just handmade vinegars made from local grain and fruit, but clear fruit brandies, bitters from black walnuts (world’s greatest nuts, say I), barrel-aged schnapps, marcs and extra-old cigar brandies. Cool outfit, eh? Austrians are not all bad. Maybe.
Buried treasures all over this show. As a result we shall increase our offering of French and Belgian chocolates, Italian cheeses, soft-dried French fruit, Pruneaux d’Agen (the world’s greatest prune, a longtime Fairway superstar), Escala anchovies from the coast of Catalonia (another Fairway superstar), Flanders macaroons, Pedro Ximenez sherry vinegar, Italian Moka Instinct (this original coffee drink absolutely floored us), LoTao rice which is already on the shelves of Fairway, and which you must purchase in one or all of its forms, ditto Artibel jars of figgy and chile-laden preserves from Calabria.
If you have read my second book, The Food Life (Ecco-HarperCollins), you are one of few. Nobody read it except my mom and dad, and maybe one of my sisters. But if you have, you know about Rungis, once a village, but since 1976 the sprawling, industrial food depot just south of Paris that displaced the noisome Les Halles, the Parisian market for professionals that had simply long outstayed its welcome, a suppurating fistula throbbing away right there in the center of town. That area is now the hideous Chatellet/Beauborg, a combination awful shopping mall and outrageous architecturally-designed museum with nothing in it worth seeing. So if you know about Rungis, there you have it. Gargantuan Quonset hut-like buildings housing, in turn, the most glorious assemblage imaginable within your gastronomical dreams — produce, fish and seafood, game/meat/poultry/foie gras, cheese/dairy, flowers, kitchenware. I got my crew, the four of us, plus Ariane Daguin of Newark’s Dartagnan fame, and her crew – dressed, coffeed and on our feet in my hotel’s lobby, the Relais-Christine in the 6th, and subsequently in a spiffy new Mercedes van. It was 3:30 AM Paris time. I took at least four dozen iphone photos, and I assume we will give you a dozen or so attached to this essay. Suffice to say I was born at Rungis in 1978, and I died at Rungis on the early morning of 22 October, 2014.
What I saw at Rungis defies description.
And then there were the restaurants. Oy. As is my method of operation I started making choices and actually booking tables back in July. Let’s just say HERE YOU ARE. From a man who takes his restaurant very seriously, certainly a Parisian restaurant. From a geezer who has been performing this exercise in sheer joy in this particular town for over 35 years. Who has dined there before you, and usually more than once seeing as how his choices are usually utterly spot-on.
You look ‘em up. Describing each of them is more writing than I care to cramp up because of. With the exception of La Dame De Pic, Anne-Sophie Pic’s chapel of twee olfactorial persuasion, they all are FUNKY. Bistros. As opposed to linen-covered tables and fine-dining fol-de-rol like Arpege and Apicius. And shock-of-shocks, each of them is not-so expensive.
- Mon Viel Ami
- Terroir Parisien
- Le Pantruche
- La Dame de Pic (alas, coming to Manhattan)
Until next time…