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Paul Ben-Itzak
Adventures Abroad
Paris, OT (France)

Just another Sunday afternoon in Paris

by Paul Ben-Itzak
May 24, 2010
Paris, OT (France)
City boy
PARIS — Up until two weeks ago, I spent my evenings regarding a Marseille-based soap opera, "Plus belle la vie," romantic comedies, and 'policiers' or crime shows. When you're living in an isolated 300-year-old stone house in the land of pre-history in the southwest of France, there isn't much else to do at night but plant yourself in front of the television. (Living alone, I found it hard to read; television at least provided the illusion of company.) But since I have returned to Paris, I have found myself embroiled in my own French soap opera, romantic comedy, and even a police drama, with me cast in the role of the kindly neighbor who the police ask to stay with 'the little lady' in case the schizophren who knocked down her door returns. (This was the same young man who previously had lavished my neighbor-friend Valerie and I with fromage, charcuterie, and even marshmellows, as well as taken us dancing to a reggae bar. In the big city, heroes and villains often inter-mingle, even in one person.) It all ended — until the next chapter, anyway, still unfolding — with Valerie hailing me as the man from providence.

So I'm not complaining; dealing with interpersonal dramas is, for this city boy, a lot easier than dealing with insects, floods, not always sympathetic neighbors, barking roosters, foxes who kill barking roosters in the middle of the night, and hot-rodding roadsters who kill the neighbor dog you've befriended and walked every day since your 20-something Siamese died. (You notice I don't complain about the snakes and the bats; the former proved useful in eliminating the rodents, the latter the mosquitoes.)

If there is one thing I do miss about the country, however, specifically the southwest of France, it's the food and drink. So on Sunday, I heavily dragged myself out of bed, still recovering from a sunset pique-nique on the Ile St. Louis with my bouquiniste (Seine bookseller) pal Luc which ended early Saturday morning. (I even got to guard his bookstand while he went to search for provisions; a boy in a group of English school-kids flashed me his tee-shirt, "J'adore Paris," thinking I was a local. "Moi aussi!" I said.) What got me up was the twice-annual Marché de Producteurs in the 12th arrondisement of Paris, which offers degustations of food, wine, and liquors mostly from the southwest of France, the region I just left.

I've been frequenting this market for seven years now, and I was looking forward to re-uniting with some old friends. "Comment ils vas, les deux soeurs?" I asked two young women, both blonde, who have their own winery near Bordeaux. "Ca vas, ca vas," one of them answered brightly. My first big discovery was a late-harvest white from the Narbonne in the Languedoc, not far from Perpignon; slightly sweet and refreshing. Then I tasted the best floc de Gascogne I'd ever had. The floc is a red or white dessert wine, great with chocolate, that tastes like slightly bittery strawberries and is made from cognac and grape juice. Next was a stand, for Croisard & Fils, a producer situated between Angouleme and Cognac (the town) where a nervous young woman offered me a taste of something that also combined grape juice and cognac, but which was a bit too sparkling for me. Then I saw she sold pineau des Charentes, just about my favorite aperitif, also a combination of cognac (30 percent or so) and grape juice. I tried to confirm this with her but she finally gave up. "I'm embarassed because I should know all this, but it's my mother in law who's the expert, and she's not here right now, but if you come back later." I couldn't decide between the rosé pineau and the white, so I decided to ponder while I continued tasting and testing other delicacies and drink.

Finally, toward the end of the market — held on the descending blvd de Reuilly — I found an old friend, Dominique Delvallez, who on his farm Chateau Merle in the bourg of Saint Sulpice d'Excideuil had for years supplied me with some of my favorite aperitifs: Vin de noix, or walnut wine, drunk straight, as well as liqueur de coing (or quince), an old Perigordine specialty which it seems everyone's grampa used to make in the back of the barn, de fraise or strawberry, framboise or raspberry, mirabelle or yellow plums, and even a basil liqueur. All of these can be drunk straight, but I like to drink them as a kir or a kir royal: 2/3 of white wine or bubbly (as the liqueur dominates the taste of the bubbly, I usually just use a cheap sparkling wine as opposed to a more expensive champagne, which would only be wasted. A nice compromise, though, is a Vouvray, also sparkling, and about a third the price of the cheapest bottle of champagne, from the Loire Valley, known for fruity wines), and 1/3 liqueur.

I had told M. Delvallez the last time I saw him, three years ago, that I was moving to Les Eyzies, the capital of pre-history in the Dordogne, about an hour further south than him.

"So," he asked, after a wry smile of recognition. "It was hard, the Dordogne, n'est pas?" NOW he tells me, I thought. He was all out of the basil liqueur — "It's the end of the season" — but offered me something new to try, a liqueur made from a plant with tiny white flowers, sureau. "Quelle bouquet!!" I exclaimed. "Does this work in a kir also?" I bought a bottle — 10 Euros for 75 ml. "What about your hot oil?" I asked, referring to an oil bottled with fresh hot red peppers and other spices. "My wife has that, up in Montmartre." Apparently the other big food fair from the Dordogne was also happening this weekend, up at the top of Montmartre just next to Sacre Coeur.

It had been a rough three years for M. Delvallez too. He'd almost lost a foot; the foot was saved, but he'd be retiring in a year, at the age of 58, turning the business over to his wife to run and then his oldest son.

Next I returned to the stand of Croisard & Fils for the pineau; I would have to decide between the rosé and the white. (Both a good deal at 10.50 Euros for 70 ml.) "My daughter in law told me about you!" an older, short-haired woman said with a welcoming smile, before explaining the pineau process, which was indeed what I had thought, one third cognac and the rest first pressing grape juice, although the cognac quotient can be increased to make up for fluctuations in the fruitiness of the grape juice; for the rosé, from the merlot grape and for the white, from ugni blanc, one of my favorites, used in everything from armagnac to, when it's younger, tariquet, a sprightly white; you'd recognize it if you've drunk Colombard.

"I'm having trouble deciding between the rosé and the white," I said, adding timidly. "Could I possibly taste them again?" I was about to get just the rosé. as that was normally my favorite and more suited (chilled of course) for the summer, but the white was *tellement* (so) good and unique, I finally gave in. "I think I'll get both." "I knew you were going to end up doing that," said Mme Croisard. "In the white, you can taste both the cognac and the grape juice," I explained, "whereas the rosé is more balanced."

Before leaving the marché I stopped by Dominique Delvallez's stand to pick up my sureau liqueur. "Your wife will be up at Montmartre until…?" "8 p.m.!" And so, as if I hadn't already enjoyed a week's worth of tastings, I descended to the Metro station and headed for 'the butte,' a.k.a. the top of Montmartre, territory of Satie.

I don't know if you've ever tried scaling a 180-degree mountain on a 90-degree afternoon when you've just tasted dozens of liqueurs and wines, but, well, it's not as difficult as you might think. Maybe I just floated, up the winding rue Lepic, past the apartment building of Theo van Gogh at 54, where his brother Vincent had stayed for two years, through as many tourists as you'd imagine would be at the top of Montmartre on a Sunday afternoon in May and into two rows of more stands with more to deguste. I think what finally did me in was not the cherry liqueur or even the prune liqueur but a 2004 Pecharmont, the local red of the region I just left. But not before I'd stopped by the stand of Madame Delvallez. "So you had a tough time in Les Eyzies?" "How did you know?" "My husband called me and told me you'd be coming up." "Et pour vous?" I asked. With increasing competition from big super-market chains, these aren't easy times for local producers.

"I don't have any complaints," she reported. "We have a house, we have food, if friends come by we can take a pause for two hours. We don't need a lot of money."

After a pause to view the Eiffel through the fencing below and to the right of Sacre Coeur, and a tip of the hat at the statue of the Chevalier de la Barre — he was only 19 when his hands and tongue were cut off and he was then burned at the stake 20 years before the revolution after he refused to take his hat off for a passing parade of dignitaries (thus the hands) and taunted them with insolent ditties (thus the tongue) (this is sometimes the way it works with the French, they crucify you and then they put up a monument to you), I descended from the butte to the rue Caulaincourt, past the atelier of Toulouse-Lautrec, then across the blvd Clichy, past the Moulin Rouge, then past the atelier of Degas, over to and down the rue des Martyrs for a coffee pause at one of my old neighborhood cafes — where the patronne remembered and saluted me — then, as I headed for the Boulevard Montmartre, a dash into a small market to pick up a cheap roquefort and an even cheaper roll of chevre (because the liqueurs I'd bought had to be drunk with brebis or sheep, and chevre or goat cheese, respectively). Then the blvd and two quick metro rides to the place Edith Piaf, and a stop at the local grocery for some cheap (1.19 Euros) bubbly to go with the sureau liqueur before heading home. "I have something to put in your freezer," I announced to Valerie, after she shushed me because her friend Nora's 8-month-year old baby girl was sleeping. "Quoi?" "The apero." "As long as the bubbly doesn't explode," Valerie said, eyeing a bottle of Brittany cider which had done just that, and into whose icy interior her friend Nora had just inserted a straw. "That only happens if you leave it in the freezer for several weeks," I explained.

The adventure continued, the baby entertaining us by balancing a ball between her peg-legs and at one point, spitting on me. "It's okay," I said. "I have the habit (of girls spitting on me)!" Then, after the pineau rosé was sufficiently cold, Valerie and I enjoyed small glasses of it, with the now melty roquefort and chevre and some chips and salsa. The baby had a cracker and promptly threw up, then went ca-ca. "I think I'll sit on a chair," I said.

To cap off a perfect afternoon — still not ready to disappear at 8:30 p.m. — Valerie suggested we all walk to another windey, cobble-stoned, street-lamp lined village-like street she wanted to show me, where expensive bobo cafes mingled with housing projects. So I put on my Stetson — safe again now in France in the post-Bush era — and we descended to the place Edith Piaf, just me and three lively beautiful Parisiennes. Just another day in Paradise.
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