Friday, November 22, 2013

French Fast Food

Written by Karen.
We were greeted warmly as we walked into the small Saint-Remy bakery.  You could not help to deeply breathe in the warm, yeasty air that swirled around us as we walked into the bakery and towards the sandwich making section. Our steps slowed as we realized that our idea of picking up a quick and freshly-made sandwich for a picnic somewhere in the hills of Luberon later this afternoon now seemed utterly insufficient.  Our stomachs were growling and our mouths began watering as our eyes surveyed the multi-levels of freshly-baked breads, pastries, croissants, baguettes and other artistic visions of baking goodness. I calculated that I wanted one of each.

"Oui, Oui, can I help you?" the counterperson asked again.  "Oui, pardon, Madame," I lamely replied, reluctantly pulling my gaze from the still warm raisin cinnamon rolls and chocolate filled croissants and looked over to the increasingly impatient baker as the line behind us suddenly grew in length. "Deux classiques, s'il vous plait." Two classics, please.

Five minutes later, we were perched on an ornate metal bench located just outside the bakery.  Pigeons, sensing that perhaps we were going to make their day by dropping a few crumbs, came swooping in for a landing as we settled in for an impromptu early lunch.  Our freshly-made sandwiches never had a chance of making it to the Luberon for a picnic later on this afternoon.  We unwrapped the thick white butcher paper and then dove right into our foot-long sandwiches.  A French classic sandwich is simply ham and cheese tucked inside a generously buttered freshly-baked baguette.  It is simple food and utterly delicious. 

It is hard to pinpoint exactly what makes simple food so sublime.  The ordinary, freshly-baked baguette that is light and crusty are lined up naked in baskets ready to be wrapped with a white napkin and then quickly taken out the door.  It is a scene that is present nearly everywhere in France - in the countryside and the city alike. There are seemingly endless choices of local cheeses and cured meats to sample and savor in small shops.  A sandwich created with these ingredients is not considered to be sophisticated food, but the complex and intense flavors constantly surprise us.  

This is fast food rounded up to a very high level, beautifully prepared and consistently delivered on a daily basis by the French locals.  Once tasted, it is difficult to accept anything less. I've found that the simple, ripe, freshly-baked and locally prepared foods purchased here in the land of light seem to taste better than similar artisan foods purchased at specialty stores or farmer's markets back home in California. What is it about French cuisine that it completely excels at the simple and exquisite joy of eating?

Maybe it's simply the terroir that makes the taste difference.  The French believe strongly in the terroir - the sense of place - of their food and wine.  It’s the idea that the effects of the environment can be - and should be - tasted in the final food product. Maybe it's simply the easy availability of fresh, seasonal food products and the dedicated time set aside each day to appreciate them.  After all, this is a food-centric culture, and in most places daily life shuts down for two hours in the middle of the day in order for people to fully enjoy their lunch. Maybe it's just that the French truly seem to know exactly what to do with food.

Nearly every day while we are in Saint-Remy-de-Provence, Adam and I will walk down the cobblestoned streets, stop in several small shops, and in just a few minutes pick up a couple of baguettes, several chunks of the local cheese, cured olives bathed in locally-sourced fragrant olive oil, thinly sliced ham and salami, a few heavy, red, perfectly ripe tomatoes and just-picked basil - the list all available for well under $10 USD.  Toss in a bottle of local wine and set aside a couple of hours to eat under a shady tree and you've put together a simple and sublime lunch fit for kings, the French, or for those visitors - just like us - who are living and thus eating well in France without much effort. 

In addition to the small specialty shops that line the cobble-stoned streets, the Saturday market will provide you with endless options to try the local foods. 
Stacks of locally-produced cheeses and jams.  
Parma ham and goat cheese with ripe tomatoes and a little lettuce makes a very satisfying breakfast sandwich.
Parma ham with brie cheese.  Simple and satisfying fast food!


G&C said...

C'est magnifique! Hard to believe there is such a difference in baguettes, cheeses and hams, and you are so right, it's tough or impossible to duplicate that over here. Would love to get an email as to where in St. Remy you are staying as we hope to be in that region in '15. Much love,
Gus & Cam

Observers of Life said...

Hi Gus and Cam!

That's great news that you are planning to visit Provence in 2015 - you will love it! We stayed at the Villa Glanum, about 1/4 mile away from downtown Saint Remy. The website is www.villaglanum.com. We stayed in a room - serviceable - in the main house, but it hadn't been updated yet. I understand that rooms either in the villa or overlooking the garden have been updated. The grounds and pool are wonderful! Villa Glanum is within walking distance to some Roman ruins and is an easy drive to downtown. We would stay there again :)