Le Livre des Huîtres

Some pearls from a year in Paris. Advice and Requests most welcome.

Month: April, 2013


My visit to the Bibliothèque nationale de France turned out to be rather comically inessential to my research. One of the books I was hoping to see (Plücker’s Analytisch-geometrische Entwicklung (1828)–available via Google books but without legible figures) was mysteriously not available to borrow. The other book came promptly and shortly thereafter I realized I had a scanned copy of it on my computer already.

Nevertheless, the journey and inscription were well worth while as I found myself within the largest quiet space I have ever set foot. I have been to the top three largest libraries, but only in the museum part of the Library of Congress, besides French quiet is much quieter than American quiet.

This is because the French do not fidget.

As an aspiring academic I am often seated in uncomfortable chairs for multiple hours in drafty or stuffy rooms. In these lectures it is very easy to play, spot the American, because she is the one squirming around every five minutes. The French have remarkable composure–they do not cross and uncross their legs, they do not tap their feet, they do not slump back and forth, they do not scratch imaginary itches, and so on. I do. All the time.

I do not think this is some sort of attention deficit. I think this is called being human. All that beautiful French stillness is a result of many years of disciplined training. Don’t believe me? Read Foucault (who, fittingly, spent a whole lot of time at the BnF).

The BnF is like a secret small town inside a contemporary Mayan ruin. You must walk up many many stairs and then go down a very long sloping escalator to get inside. There is a metal detector at the entrance. Then, if like me you have not yet registered, you take a number and wait. There is an interview and you show all your necessary paperwork. Then you sign an agreement, listen to many instructions, get your picture taken and receive a card and a map. The card will not function until you pay for it. I bought a non-consecutive three day pass. All bags must be stored at the coat check, but you will be provided with a clear plastic briefcase to store belongings. Finally, you are ready to descend.

Scan your card once, pass through two doors, take the escalator down to the garden level, use a computer to reserve a seat and order any books to be delivered to that seat, scan your card again, pass through two more doors and voilá! you are now in the research section of the BnF.

The research section is a huge hollow square surrounding an impenetrable garden with soundproof cafés at each corner. Food is limited to within the cafés or certain designated indoor pique-nique sections. Even bottled water must be kept off the desks and away from the books. Over the summer, I was discussing secret eating in libraries with a French colleague, who said he was surprised to see it so rampant in the states. In the past seven months I have seen surreptitious cookies and tangerines at the bibliothèque, though only in the hands and mouths of teenage girls (so at least they aren’t smoking!). Today though, the woman across from me occasionally shook out a couple cashews from a carefully concealed bag and silently chewed them up.

Aha! I thought.

Until I noticed that her computer was plugged in with a European adapter.

Sure, it’s possible that a French person owns a small American computer. But that the same French person would also secretly snack while reading old books…ce n’est pas possible.


Du pain (again! but not for the last time.)

Growing up I had a very definite knowledge that my parents’ favorite kind of bread was something that sounded like “pen oh la van” and my favorite kind of bread was something that sounded like “pugliese” (oh how I love Italian!).

Well, as Oscar Wilde foretold, I now am soundly in the pain au levain camp, and happily living in the right place to enjoy that sort of thing.

At least, that’s what you would think.

But observe, when the clock strikes noon or six o’clock you will notice that every other person is clutching a baguette. Based on very circumstantial evidence I would estimate that the average Parisian consumes about one baguette every two days. And since French women can not get fat, that does not leave much space for other bread consumption.

There is of course the ubiquitous Poîlane, which makes possibly the best croutons ever. Exceptional toast as well. Fresh, though, it’s only so-so.

Before I go further into French bread denigration, let me explain that it is all my aforementioned parents’ fault. I was raised by talented cooks with good taste in a culinary mecca. Inevitably, I am a food snob. Blame them, not me!

So yesterday I set off on an uphill walk to one of the few remaining wood burning bakeries left in Paris. The storefront was bustling with a line of us snaking around the charming pastries and spectacular loaves. I was secretly glad for the wait as it allowed me time to consider the possibilities, all varieties of flours (white, whole wheat, rye, spelt, chestnut, buckwheat, quinoa, kamut, etc.) and fillings (nuts, fruit, cheese, chocolate) were on display and available by the fraction of a kilogram. I opted for a very simple miche with a rye levain in the hopes of an open crumb and a strong tang.

I am sorry to say, I was disappointed (though if I haven’t completely offended my mother by my above accusations, she is cordially invited to join me in their adorable tea room any afternoon in June–I imagine their pastries (or chestnut flour bread) are worthy of the hike).

Not one to lose hope so easily, at home I turned to the internet for advice. I realized that prior searches has combined English and French to ill-effect (best pain au levain Paris) and switching to a monolingual approach yielded a new spate of hopefully amazing options. I now have a list of four bakeries that service some of the best restaurants this city has on offer.

Stay tuned.

des choix

I am not a good decision maker.

That is not to say that I don’t make good decisions (which is debatable). Just that sometimes it takes me FOR-EV-ER to decide. And even after I’ve made my decision, I continue to vacillate. What if…I ponder, what if…

So despite other factors, I probably would have enjoyed grocery shopping in East Berlin pre-1989. No need to decide what brand of jam, mustard, bread, pickles, etc. I’ll just take the state sponsored brand, thank you. This is also one of the several reasons why I enjoy shopping at Trader Joe’s.

The United States is notorious for its variety of choices. Would you like your peanut butter with or without salt? smooth or crunchy? sweetened or not? shelf stable or needing to be refrigerated once open?

Salted, crunchy, unsweetened and without added oils, please.

Phew, at least I’ve figured that one out! However, Paris welcomes a whole new lot of edible options. Milk comes in full fat, half fat, and non-fat, but also UHT, microfiltered, or raw. True Parisians order their baguettes well-done, medium, or pas trop cuit. Steak, on the other hand, is either bleu (blue), saignant (bloody), or why the hell are you ordering steak?

Though the temperature currently hovers around a less than tropical 50 degrees, spring produce is finally arriving. My Ruche sent an email advising us all to wait for the truly local stuff, but the hexagon is only a bit larger than California and I could only hold out on strawberries for so long. This morning I folded.

My market produce stand had strawberries galore. Seven different variants (!) to be precise spanning an array of provenances and price ranges. After quite a bit of council from the salesman I splurged on the second most expensive French fraise gariguette. And though I know strawberries really should be washed, I could not resist eating one there and then.


les jeux de société

A few weeks ago I went to a conference in Nantes. We all (8 of us total, not a big conference) arrived the night before and participated in a conference dinner at a restaurant in which we were the only patrons. As the only non-French person present, I spent the whole time listening. And if I am not mistaken, despite sitting around a dining table for three hours, no one spoke of food at all.

Est-ce possible?

Apparently, yes.

I am at my best in French eavesdropping at the outdoor markets where my fellows in line swap recipes or explain the function of such and such an herb. It is in these moments that I mistakenly believe that my language skills are progressing, but to be perfectly honest I might be able to parse out recipes in Spanish–a language I have never studied formally.

Back in February, I had a so-called “girl’s night” with two other PhD students in the history of mathematics. I am happy to report that the most “girlish” thing we discussed was, what groceries does your boyfriend buy? I didn’t even initiate this topic, so I knew we were all kindred spirits!

Food is a wonderful topic for any conversation occasion. Not dangerous like politics nor dull like your personal medical history. Everyone has eaten, most of us will eat again, and some of us are eating right now (I am just drinking apple cider–drinking too is a lovely thing to talk about!). If you follow the Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hour rule, and estimate that you spend 1 hour eating each day, then all of us over the age of about 27 are expert eaters (so close!!).

Some people like to play games with competition and winners. To the sometimes annoyance of the aforementioned people, I prefer a different category of games. One of my favorites is called top 5 foods, where each person lists their top five foods and then we discuss. The foods should be ingredients like cheddar cheese and not like macaroni and cheese. Salt is free.

I am cracking myself up right now at how incredibly lame this makes me sound as a potential party guest! I also like to dance, okay?

So far I haven’t forced suggested this game to any Parisian acquaintances. However, I did play it in Vancouver several times with very interesting results. There was almost a row over papayas and many people ended up revising their lists when they remembered eggs. I had a very solid 5 top foods back then, but I need to reconsider to make room for my new best friend: butter.

Un fou pour le Pont-l’Évêque

This title requires quite a bit of unpacking.

Unlike most of my readers (hello readers!), I was not raised Catholic.

Though I gradually learned the Bible plot, I am completely at a loss when it comes to the rank and file. I know the Pope is at the top (hello Pope!–wouldn’t that be awesome?), but is a cardinal better than a bishop? is a priest equivalent to a clergyman? are there hierarchies of nuns?

Despite the Revolution(s), France is still a pretty Catholic country as witnessed by the public holiday that is the Ascension. The Ascension falls (no pun intended) right next to V-E Day, which is also a public holiday. They call the various early May holidays (which I believe includes May 1st as well), les ponts. As far as I can tell, this name evokes the fact that the days are isolated between real working days, whereas in the States we choose to situate our observed holidays on Mondays or Fridays. No bridges.

Today my cheese lady sold me a bridge. It connects the island of Manhattan to King’s County and it was built in 1883. Just kidding! She sold me le Pont-l’Évêque, a cheese named after a town in Normandy named after a bishop’s bridge (the last part is speculation).

Speaking of bishops, in l’échecs the piece that we Americans call a bishop is known as le fou in French. Crazy, right?

Comme j’aime la cigarette électronique

Let me count the ways…

1. They do not stink.

2. They do not appear to contribute to second hand smoke.

3. They are not thrown to the ground still alight within steps from a proper garbage can.

4. They are not cool or casual, but rather make their users appear like the committed drug addicts they really are.

…one, two, three, four! Four ways that I love electronic cigarettes, ah ah ah!

le voleur

There are professions in French with both a male and a female counterpart, l’acteur/l’actrice (I guess we have that one in English too), le facteur/la factrice, le boucher/la bouchère, etc.

Other professions do not differentiate, for instance, a thief is always masculine.

However, this thief was an old lady.

We were in the library this afternoon. I sat reading a book about the history of mathematics (surprise, surprise). She was pretty severely hunched over with sensible (read: ugly) brown shoes, suspiciously dark hair, and a large leopard print bag. She slowly walked over to the journal section and picked up a copy of Le Parisien. I stopped snooping and returned to my book.

The journal selection at the library is impressive. They carry copies of The Believer. There are nice chairs and it was a gloriously sunny day. I was getting a little sleepy.

Then, all of a sudden (this is where we change tenses from imparfait to passé composé, don’t you know), “RRRRRIP!” (I need to work on my onomatopoeias).

That old lady had just torn out the middle section of the newspaper! Fascinated, I watched her put it carefully into her bag, where I noted there were many other newspaper pages also stored. She then slowly slowly refolded the paper, stood up, sat back down (not enough momentum), stood up again, and walked over to the shelf where she replaced this paper and took out another. I took some notes in the back of my notebook. No one else seemed to care.

I wanted to stay and see if she would do it again, but instead I went home and took a nap.

The End.

la contrepèterie

Since we’re nearing the lusty month of May, (or try this for a much more suggestive version), I thought I’d trot out some mildly naughty bits of la langue française.

Une contrepèterie is best translated as a spoonerism, (thank you dear William Archibald Spooner), but with a French twist in that it is usually une peu obscène.

Now, before you start to worry about where this is heading, let me assure you that the contrepèteries I’ve heard are obscene in a nineteenth century sort of way, as in let’s measure the buttocks of the Hottentot Venus from a distant using a secant and some trigonometry (back when mathematics was useful!).

The most famous of these slips of the tongue is dated back to the 16th century and one François Rabelais.

A not uncommon, femme folle à la messe (crazy woman at mass), quite easily becomes a femme molle, à la fesse (woman with a soft bottom). Shocking, non?

Actually, that is very much the mildest. People in the 16th century were very very rude. You do not want to know what happens to all the young girls who doubt their faith (Toutes les jeunes filles doutent de leur foy). And, hèlas!, neither Balzac nor Hugo were immune to this sort of wordplay.

It’s a much easier thing to do in French than in English what with all the billions of unpronounced letters popping up here and there. The most titter worthy one I could find was, “Three cheers for our queer old dean!” If you have a lot of time on your hands, and a decent internet connection, I hear there are some good ones here.

A well-made contrepèterie is a low form of high art. But don’t take it all too seriously, rather prenons la chose en riant (take the thing laughing).

Or, if you prefer, prenons la rose en chiant…but you’ll have to look that one up for yourself.

des asperges blanches et autres mystères

Things are growing in the ground again.

While the local Parisian fruits are still lingering in “blossom” stage–vegetables have already begun piling up at the markets. Most notably, white asparagus.

The mystery of white asparagus (for me) is not, why is it white? But rather, why is it so popular over here? Many vendors have heaps and heaps of shockingly priced fat pale stalks, and not the slightest whisper of the thin green variety enjoyed most by Jemmas. What’s all the fuss? A more delicate flavor? Is that culinary code for bland?

That leads me into other great mysteries currently haunting my day-to-day:

Why does anyone eat Emmental?

And, who’s been drinking all my wine?

There was another mystery, but I seem to have forgotten. Watched an entire episode of Inspecteur Barnaby last night, which may explain why I am so keen on detective research today. When the show ended, I quickly turned to Google to figure out what in the world had been going on. After reading several in-depth synopses, I still have no clue.

Thus the culprit is twisted British television plots and not (as suspected) my lack of French comprehension.

Case closed.

Je crie pour la glacée

Screaming for ice cream does not have the same ring to it en français.

Nevertheless there was quite a lot of ice cream hubbub today. If a sunny Sunday spells one thing it’s frozen treats eaten in parks.

I began ice cream eating season with a bang last Monday when my very lovely friend Lauren inaugurated her ice cream machine wedding present. She promises to share with me whenever I like! All of my friends should get married, and then invite me over to use their super sharp knives and shiny pans.

Up until Monday, ice cream recipes made me depressed. There would be a picture and a description of something truly amazing like vanilla malt ice cream or grapefruit campari sorbet, followed by relatively straightforward instructions and then put the whole lot in  your ice cream machine and follow manufacturer’s instructions. I made strawberry frozen yogurt sans machine last summer and it’s a helluva lot of work, basically requiring staying home for 8 consecutive hours.

Now when I see ice cream recipes I can store them away for July and August. And I have one more reason to go buy some vanilla pods! Hooray!

Ice cream in a cone used to be my hands down favorite dessert. Then I worked at Ben & Jerry’s for a couple years. Free ice cream whenever I wanted it. Ice cream perpetually stained to my right arm. The constant smell of waffle cones. This lead to a necessary ice cream hiatus that has been dissipating bit by bit. I am happy to say that ice cream is currently my second favorite dessert. Feel free to guess which my first is (hint, it has the shortest season ever).

The concatenation of all of the above lead me to be waiting in a rather long line not too far from my apartment waiting to place my order with Mary. I wanted the avocado ice cream and the yogurt ice cream (I guess technically gelato, but I don’t think that word has AOC status so who knows what that really means), but she was out of both by the time my turn came. So instead I got the green tea and the crema.

I think I like Berthillon better–though perhaps I should wait to judge until I can try the two flavors I really wanted.

Now if only I can find a source for sour cherry pie!