Friday, 9 April 2010

Nous sommes grecs (Είμαστε Έλληνες)

This post forms part of the series of our culinary adventures from our recent trip to Paris and London.

We had just stepped off the train that that took us from Charles de Gaulle airport to Gare du Nord. We had not even stepped out of the station yet when the bombardment began: wherever you looked, there was food; whatever you did, it would eventually involve food. However hard you tried, your senses would eventually be overwhelmed by the sight, the smell, the taste of food. It was practically speaking to you: "I am here and I'm not going to go away easily!"Food. French food.

gare du nord food shop
"Mmm, look at that bread...," exclaimed my husband. "And that ham, and that cheese..." We had not yet stepped out onto the Parisian rues. This may look a little kitsch, but it heralded what else we were about to discover in the next hour.

I thought I was the one who lived in a foodistic society. Yes, it's true that the visitor to Hania may feel overwhelmed by the culinary sights that s/he will encounter on their visit here, but they are very different to the bombardment of the senses that I experienced in a large urban Euorpean capital. The tourist there cannot help noticing the brasseries and bistros on nearly every single corner of every street, the patisseries and boulangeries lining the roads, the abundance of fresh produce and the emphasis on 'good food'.

Being a distrustful traveller, I decided that the main streets we were walking on and couldn't stray from out of fear of losing our way were possibly not going to be the best representations of the food lover's paradise that France generally is. How does one find a genuine slice of Parisian life? Which side street holds the promise of finding that cosy neighbourhood food shopper's delight?

My food photos from Paris; click here for my restaurant meals.

I must thank my husband for helping his wife digress from her firm map-reading habit. Despite the taste sensation he was surrounded by on his first visit to Paris, he still had Greece on his mind. "Look!" he beckoned to me, as we were walking along the rue La Fayette. "EDESSA!" Below the sign bearing the name of a Greek town was a window from which could clearly be seen an upright grill with a pile of meat staked through it. "Don't even think about it," I warned him. I had come to France to eat French food, not souvlaki.

It is always a special moment to find little reminders of Greece in a foreign country to make us feel more homely. My eyes could not stop wandering, with the thought in my mind that I have no idea when I would be able to do this again; I tried to take in as much as I could of the atmosphere on the Parisian streets. We were now on rue de Maubeuge. "Did you catch that one?" I pointed to a sign on a non-descript side street: Traiteur grec.

This was where the kitchens of a Greek catering business were located; their retail outlet was located at the end of the road...

"Well, we've got to check that one out, don't we?" I made up some excuse about how we shouldn't go down there because we would end up getting lost, but he insisted. The window was full of filo pastry triangles: tiropites, spanakopites. While I cringed, the children demanded some of their national food. Too late, I thought: quelle dommage! I kept looking back towards rue de Maubeuge, with the feeling that if I lost sight of it once we went into the
traiteur grec, Paris would disappear under my feet, because when a Greek meets up with another Greek in a foreign place, βρήκε ο γύφτος τη γενιά του*...

The traiteur grec had been living in Paris for a long time, and gave us some transport tips, in the good old-fashioned Greek-style GPS manner: "Go down this road, and then turn left, and walk along this way till you reach the church, which you walk right round, and you'll see a metro station, bt don't go in there, because you should get yourself across to the other side of the street where you'll find a bus stop for the no. 74 bus which takes you right to the Hotel de Ville near the Louvre, so you'll be able to see a bit of Paris as you make your way there." We thanked him for the tip, and continued to walk along that boring little road, where the sounds of school children could be heard behind a wall among the rabble of the rubbish bin collectors and service vehicles which were blocking the view to its end.

food shops
... amongst all the other specific and varied French food outlets.

When we finally reached the end, we forgot all his other instructions because... that's when the bombardment began. On the corner was an epicerie, with a charcuterie next door to it; across the road was the fromager, flanked by the boucher and the poissonier, the patissier and the boulanger, all bordered by a cafe and a bistro, with a brasserie just round the corner, a sushi shop and the traiteur grec's retail outlet, lending an international air to the place. There was also a tabac, a bijouterie and a household necessities store that stocked anything from the likes of toilet paper to firewood, the kind of stuff most of us would buy at a supermarche (a SHOPI was located here too, but not of the magnitude often associated with supermarkets). There was a genuine neighbourhood feel to the place, located in the middle of a European capital city, with everyone playing an equal role in creating the convivial ambience of the area, the epitome of a city planner's paradise.

We forgot about the Louvre for the time being, and savoured the sights and smells. We had already worked out what we were going to have for lunch that day: First we went to the boulanger...

... then we bought some raclette aux epices and camembert from the fromager...

... and some cured meats from the charcuterie...
raclette aux epices, camembert and cured meats

... with which to fill our baguettes...
baguette sandwich

... finishing off with some pain au chocolat for dessert...
pain au chocolat, chaussons aux pomme, croissant
This photo was taken at a railway station.

... that we could eat on the banks of the Seine.
ile st louis
We spotted these happy-looking picknickers on Ile St Louis.

And all this would never have taken place if I had not pointed out the traiteur grec to my patriotic husband. Greeks often search out other Greeks wherver they go. This is a fundamental characteristic of the Greek mentality. It's always a comfort to know that one is not a stranger amongst strangers.

By being led astray, we all managed to catch a glimpse of the daily food life and goings-on that day in a no-tourist part of this magnificent city we call Paris. If I have one regret about my trip, it is that I went to Paris first and then to London. It should have been the other way around, so that I could stuff my suitcase with some lengths of saucisson and rounds of fromage, along with a couple of baguettes to keep my memories alive of the taste sensations of our Parisian experience.

For more ways to lose (and find) yourself in Paris, check out David Lebowitz's suggestions; Paris is filled with places for food lovers.

*The gypsy found one of his own kind; he then forgot that he was actually the foreigner.

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