In Paris on holiday in August, an air-conditioned kitchen seemed a lovely place to spend a morning. I searched online and found myself at the La Cuisine Paris website. All classes are in English, the website proclaimed. Considering my French these days, instruction in English was a sweet relief. Class choices were plentiful, everything from making croissants, which I could not envision making back home during my post-holiday diet phase, to baguettes, the making of which I was humble enough to concede to the French. The French Market class caught my eye. I had heard the open markets in Paris were better; exactly why I was soon to learn.
Thursday morning, bright early and already hot, we meet our instructor at one of the more popular open air markets in the Bastille district. We traipse behind our instructor down the aisles lined with fresh produce, poultry, fish, and cheese. It seems you can find almost everything here, should you know what to buy and why. Our instructor touches upon these points well in her tour, how to shop for fish, select the best produce, and of course, select the best cheese.
Aside from variety, what strikes me most at the market is the proclamation of the source. Where the duck was raised, where the cheese was aged, where the fish was caught, and where the produce came from. The cheese display alone was a veritable lesson in French geography.
Later that day I asked our instructor about this detail of the source. She summed it up with that one word ~ terroir.
Terroir, she explained, means "taste of the place," and it is the essence of France in my opinion. The concept naturally started with wine. Terroir is why no one other those making sparkling wine in the Champagne region can legally call their sparkling wine "Champagne." But it applies to many other products and produce. The French are adamant the goat cheese from one part of France tastes completely different from the goat cheese from Greece. The climate is different. The pollen in the air is different. The bacterial count in the cellar where the cheese is aged is different. Even the food the goat was fed is different. So appreciative of how distinct environmental qualities create distinct flavors the French take both great pride and much care in the rules and regulations surrounding where food comes from and the labeling process. So intrigued by this concept I carry this word with me throughout my travels in Europe as I sample the porcini mushrooms picked from the forests of northern Italy or the Friulian wine which I can't seem to find in the same level of abundance back in the states.
Back in Los Angeles I wander through our own local farmer’s market. "We Grow What We Sell," is usually all the vinyl banners read in front of each vendor stand. Occasionally I'll see a location listed. And I wonder if the tomatoes grown in Riverside county taste different from those grown in Ventura. I ask myself can we learn to appreciate and celebrate "terroir" in same way as the French?
Back in our Parisian class kitchen I survey what we collected from the market that morning. Fresh peaches, deep red cherries, vine-ripe tomatoes, lemon & Armenian cucumbers, bright green lettuce, and an herb I can't recall the name of. Each item from different regions converged upon the counter soon to be mixed, matched, and paired.
I could hardly wait.
Part II comes tomorrow, September 24th, 2015.