A Paris Winter Picnic

photo: the fish & seafood shop

Shellfish on the left, prepared fish on the right and
whole fish in the interior.

With Central Heating

Paris:- Wednesday, 22. November 2000:- Last week I got to play the 'visitor to Paris' game. The only time I get to play this game is when somebody visits me and Paris at the same time. This does not happen often, but when it does I learn many new things about 'visiting' - being a 'tourist' in other words.

One part of the 'visit Paris' game is to see Paris. I do this all the time anyway; because I live here and because it write about it - so this part of 'visiting' is pretty familiar to me.

I don't think I get the full 'tourist' experience on my own. Since I write an Paris-events column it wouldn't occur to me to buy a weekly events guide; and since I don't carry my own column around, I have no idea of what is going on. Luckily, my visitor has had the good sense to get a guide.

Actually going to exhibitions in museums and galleries, in the same manner as visitors, is something I do so rarely that I can hardly remember it. One rainy Sunday morning in November of 1978, I went to the Louvre - andphoto: fancy salmon it was empty. The room with the Mona Lisa didn't even have a guard in it. I could have kissed it.

These days, if I go at all, it is usually for 'openings' and this is not the same thing because it doesn't involve flying 5000 kilometres first and then standing in line to buy a ticket. 'Openings' also have smaller crowds; who are mainly at them for the wine-and-cheese. Paying customers get neither.

Each day's ready-to-eat salmon has a different filling.

But as strange as it might be standing six-deep, hungry and thirsty, to see a particular painting, or following a herd of art fans clustered around a knowledgeable guide - or more likely, trying to get ahead of them - what I found even stranger last week was the eating habits of visitors.

Actually it is me who is strange. I have completely forgotten that real people prefer to have entire meals at certain times of the day; usually at about the same time and all together.

Even though there are all sorts of fast-food places around that have a sort of food available on a non-stop basis for 'here and now' hunger, most people seem to prefer to have breakfast at 'breakfast time' and lunch at 'lunch time' and dinner at 'dinner time.'

Regular hotel restaurants, cafés and other dining places have set up their operations to coincide with these various 'times.' If you watch the clock and stick to these 'times,' you will end up having meals at the same time as a lot of other people, which are also the same times that the food industry chooses to serve meals.

I guess all of this is very logical. If it is between noon and 13:30, everybody - visitors and civilians alike - all want to have and all get to have lunch all at once, all together.

Doing this is certainly a 'Paris experience' to be tried at least once. Especially if you like lots of company in slightly chaotic atmospheres.

Last week I got the feeling that an average day mainly consisted of meals, with short breaks between them for visiting exhibitions or strolling around the city towards the next restaurant.

Sort of like, breakfast is followed by 45 minutesphoto: too many cheeses of staring around heads for glimpses of 'important art,' followed by two hours for lunch, jammed into a little tables, shoulder to shoulder with hordes of other diners.

General De Gaulle said France has too many cheeses to fit into one photo.

Unseen waiters passed big plates of rich food from behind, over my shoulder through tiny gaps, to completely fill all of the undersized table real estate; causing some things like knives and forks to fall on the floor.

Then, after a period of serious eating, at about the same time everybody would be anxious to get the bill; anxious to get going to the next exhibition or wondrous sight.

Doing this for a day is no great hardship, but doing it every day for a week gave me a clue why most visitors are perfectly content to have only short visits to Paris.

After a day full of complete meals and me full of food, I felt very strange. I felt like a blimp full of food, which is not how a good blimp feels. After two days, instead of looking forward to the next meal, I was seeking ways to postpone it as long as possible.

But, if you misjudge the timing of this, you will end up at a time of day when a lot of kitchens are closed - even though there really are places in Paris that never close.

Anyhow, some other people may be like me and may find themselves suffering from the 'eating-on-time' syndrome and food-fatigue in Paris.

If this happens to you there is a remedy, which can be either simple or elegant. It's only downside requires you to 'think of food' at a time when you may still be uncomfortably half-full. Few remedies are perfect but none of us can do anything about this.

The solution is to have a picnic. Paris has its marchés - the open-airphoto: nicolas, the wine guy food markets - and there are 'traiteurs' - delicatessen shops - too; and both of these have huge varieties of prepared food - and sometimes it is even hot.

The France-wide Nicolas chain has honest wine for honest prices.

Some supermarkets have unpackaged food counters. These will do in a pinch because some of them can be like outdoor marchés; but they are not quite the same - every supermarket has its inevitable checkout where you have to take your turn with all the people who have the plastic-looking packaged stuff.

By 'prepared' food I mean salmon slices slivered with a 'mousse de Merlan' containing semi-exotic herbs. In an insane fit of excess, 250 grams of crab cocktail were added to this, as a 'starter' or follower, or dessert. It's hard to put names on uncontrollable urges.

Visitors can have healthy eating habits, so one pear and two mandarin oranges were picked up from the fruit and veg stand across from the fish place. The pineapple idea was discarded.

Even though I've written above that you should 'think of food' beforehand, we didn't do this - so this is not a 'guide' to how to do it, unless you are doing it all on the spur of the moment - and if you are doing this, you'll do it your way.

At the cheese merchant we found 300 kinds of it. Rather than pick hunks of one or two, I hinted around for a bit for a mini-variety. The good man got the idea and put together a 'taste' variety consisting of a small and wicked 'Trou du Cru,' some very fine Conté, a volcano-shaped Chèvre and a fair-sized piece of Munster.

"A lot easier to take on the inside than the outside," the cheese-pusher said. Munster must be the stinkiest cheese in the world - if your socks smelled like Munster you'd instantly burn them without a qualm.

At the wine dealer, 10 metres further on, all of the new wines like Beaujolais Nouveau were ignored in favor of a slightly more mature Côtes du Rhône after I couldn't immediately lay my hands on any Saumur Champigny.

The baker - the boulanger - has far more than plain baguettes. Many have 'old fashioned' ones too, plus other loaves, plus all sorts of cakes and desserts - but we skipped all of this on account of all the bread served with the 30 oysters we'd had sometime in the course of the afternoon.

Following the oysters with mainly fish in the evening shows the whimsical nature of this sort of dining, and has nothing to do with all the food 'psychosis' currently being inflicted on Parisians by the media.

Just writing this is bringing back the memory of it so strongly that I am not even going to try to give any exact information about how you may hope to eat in style in a hotel room. Let'sphoto: wine, pear, oranges just assume you are clever enough to find a supermarket - in winter - with inexpensive cutlery and paper plates. Do not forget to get a corkscrew!

Even though I am calling this a picnic, I am assuming you will be eating this in your hotel room. Why not? It is cold outside and you are paying plenty just to sleep in it, so using it for a meal or two makes it better value.

Always save a bit of wine to wash down the fruit at the end of the picnic.

Another advantage of hotel rooms is that they often have beds in them. After 30 oysters for lunch and this evening picnic you might begin to feel a bit dozy.

Having a bed is a perfect way to handle doziness. When it is over, you can put on your red shoes, and then you can go out into the cool and rainy Paris night to find some good dance floor to twinkle them on.

You need to do this to build up an appetite for tomorrow's breakfast, even though it will probably be only a light 'starter' for the new day's other major eating activities.

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logo, metropole sml midi logo No matter how good it tastes,
there is no such thing
as a free lunch.
Waldo Bini