Updated: Jan 2, 2021
by Francesca Arniotes
There are so many French words in the English language that, were we not so afraid of looking foolish, we should all be able to speak French. Well, sure the pronunciation is ridiculously impossible, but we think people who speak English with a foreign accent sound sexy, so doesn’t the same go for us? As a kid, I would file away in my brain any words I came across -- most were food-related --combine them with words from common phrases like “c’e la vie” and think I could speak French. I even told everyone to call me Frenchy. I must have been a riot. C’e l’enfante comique! As an adult, with decades of language study under my belt, I now mostly know how much I don’t know. But when travelling, I have never encountered anything but delight and open arms when I try speaking the local language.
So back to our little street in Paris.
The first morning when everyone went off to Notre Dame, I scoped out the market street in our neighborhood, bought cheeses, baguette --- I learned that you don’t buy for the whole day, but for each meal -- some charcuterie, pastries and a bottle of wine. While Bordeaux can be found in supermarkets for as little as .79 Euro, ours was a merchant of high quality wines and I spent about 9 Euro. So we enjoyed our first Paris meal in our flat that afternoon. Our evening meal, as we tend to do on our first night in town, was taken at a restaurant. We always look for, ask around for, a place that the locals favor, off the tourist beat. We were, even at 7:30, early. We ordered a variety of things to sample and everything was wonderful. As the place filled with locals, we kept seeing one dish coming out of the kitchen over and over. I recognized it as Carpaccio and it was, apparently THE thing to have as a starter or light supper. I had found my mission for the next day: I would learn about Carpaccio and serve it up for our supper.
It’s funny how things can be right in front of you, but you don’t notice them. That first morning, before we saw the plates of thin, bright slices of raw beef filling tables at the restaurant and it became meaningful to me, I hadn’t noticed the paper plates stacked up in the cases of the butchers on the market street, with lovingly laid out slices of beautiful lean beef upon them, covered with plastic wrap.
In the morning, I arrived in the street. Three butcher shops. So which one do I choose? When shopping markets, you might want to sample everyone’s wares, but I guarantee that if you are going to return day after day, this is the beginning of a relationship. And once established, you will find your loyalty rewarded with answers to questions, cooking instruction, conversation, the best quality products and a fair amount of freebies thrown into your sack because “Here! You’ll need some parsley” or an anchovy for whatever particular dish you’re getting the instructions for. But stray from your fruit and vegetable lady and don’t think she won’t care. The thing is, you don’t handle the produce at the market. It gets chosen for you, so you see how that can go if she thinks you done her wrong! Your next visit to her stand will have you lamenting the bruised tomatoes and wilted greens. So. Butcher. How to choose? I usually look for the stand or shop that has a line of local middle-aged ladies with their baskets. They’re shopping for quality, service and value.
So I chose. When it was my turn, I pointed and said in perfect French (I’m joking):
“I would like to prepare the Carpaccio. That is the beef, is it not?” It was and I went on to ask how it should be made. Since I was not unfamiliar with the dish, it was easy enough to understand the ingredients and I could concentrate a bit harder to understand the proportions and the steps. It all ended as it usually does: with a smiling butcher asking where I was from, expressing his surprise that an American tourist would try to speak French (let’s change that, people, shall we?), his delight in my interest in his recipe, and tossing a bunch of parsley into my sack.