Thursday, February 25, 2010
Café, Bordeux, Aperitifs, oh my!
Much fuss has been made about French food and the cultural differences between how Parisians approach their food versus their American counterparts. For one, Parisians are said to approach their meals as an experience, one to be savored, while sitting, not grabbed on the go and shoved down ones trap en route to a meeting. There is something to be said for this, as taking a bit of time to enjoy a meal, no matter what it happens to be (a warm soup, a crisp turkey sandwich, or just 15 minutes of peace on a park bench eating leftovers), is good for your stomach and your sanity.
However, I noticed on this trip that the Parisian practice of having a dining "experience" every time they sit down at the table has almost as much to do with the drinks as it does with the food.
I saw that most people usually only ordered one course, not two. Yet what drew out the entire meal was the fact that everyone first ordered an aperitif, which was usually coffee or else a sparkling water, champagne, kir, kir royale, or some other cocktail. All of these drinks are drunk only before the meal, never during, as the ensuing bubbles or palate crushing taste of coffee and/or liquor supposedly dulls the taste of the actual food.
Speaking of taste, French coffee makes regular "American coffee" taste like cat pee. Well, perhaps that is too strong a statement, but the look you would get if you ask for American coffee in a cafe is just about the look you would got if you ordered said urine de feline (just ask the two folks sitting next to us one day that did just this). And to be fair, I am inclined to agree. "Café," either au liat or noir, is so rich and delicious that I am going to be hard pressed to ever enjoy traditional drip coffee again, seeing as I never really enjoyed it all that much to begin with and make my own French-pressed coffee each morning like the dork that I am.
And so, if you are dragging a bit due to jet lag or a bit pooped from a day of art gazing, a lovely café before your quiche or crepe will be just the thing. If you simply need to rehydrate, Pierre or Badoit (which seems to be what most Parisians prefer) are great alternatives and a favorite of Vronsky's. Otherwise, the best aperitif to celebrate your days on the banks of the Seine is a champagne or kir.
Champagne is pretty straightforward, and lord knows I have had my fair share of glasses, both cheap and more sophisticated. But I will say that kir royales are a lovely alternative. A "kir" is traditionally made with white wine a creme de cassis (a black currant liqueur) but spif it up a bit with champagne instead of white wine (preferably dry) and you have the tasty, refreshing kir royale. Both kirs and kir royales have been popular aperitifs in France since the 1800's, and Vronsky and I enjoyed them prior to dinner each night, and sometimes prior to lunch too.
And of course, no meal is worth lingering over without a bottle of fabulous wine. V and I are both red fans, and while I have traditionally been a fan of "New World" wines, especially ones from Argentina, Bordeaux might have me changing my tune.
I am no wine expert, but feel I've at least drunk enough to at least discern differences between a Pinot Noir and a Malbec. I personally prefer spicy, earthy wines. Not heavy, mind you, but still with an almost pepper-y richness. Argentine, Chilean, Malbecs, even Rioja wines will do this for me. Pinot Noir tastes too watery to me--almost like church wine. Too light.
But back to Bordeaux. The Bordeaux region is seven times larger than Nappa Valley and it's primary grapes are Merlot, Cabernet Sauivnon, and Cabernet Franc, with Malbec, Carmenére and Petit Verdot rounding out the lot. The Bordeaux wines we drank during our trip tended to be a blend of two of these aforementioned grapes, and there was a "drinkability" and refinement to the wine that I had never appreciated before, while still retaining the bold flavor that I enjoy so much.
In fact, I appreciated it so much that we would have bottles of it with each meal and not think anything of it.
So what is the lesson here, kids? If you want to dine like a Parisian, neglect not the liquid portion of your meal!