Saturday, January 21, 2012

An Omelet in Paris

     Can one remember the taste of a memorable meal long after one has enjoyed it? I think so. Like a particular scent, a specific meal can linger in the memory  especially if it was associated with a beautiful and pleasurable experience. That experience could be anything: a romantic assignation with a loved one,  a dinner  on a first visit to a new city, or even just the simplest fare to ease the pangs of appetite after a long hike.  In my case, I tend to associate a memorable meal with a memorable city or a scenic view. Sometimes you can just be having coffee and a sandwich, but when the scene spread out before you is the Pantheon in Rome or a dazzling white-sand beach in Tahiti, your perspective changes.  That coffee and sandwich will become imbued with the romance of the scenery and will seem like a feast fit for a king or queen.
     Nothing lasts forever. A pleasurable experience, like a meal, lasts while it does, and then flits way, like everything else. One of the ways of remembering it is through taking pictures. Nowadays, this is an inescapable part of the digital experience. Facebook is full of pictures of meals taken with friends and family.  However, pictures alone don’t tell the whole story. A couple could post a picture of themselves enjoying a luxe dinner in a posh Parisian restaurant: the very picture of happiness. What their smiles, Bordeaux and roast quail don’t tell us is they’ve fallen apart and are in the  initial stages of a separation. Or that the waiter was rude. Or that  the accompanying ratatouille reminded  them of home and mama’s cooking and the beautiful childhood summers one spent in the Auvergne or Ormoc City. Yes, photos are great and helpful, but a memorable dish can whip up memories and emotions -- like the ones experienced by Marcel Proust when he bit into a madeleine .  Only  an essay, a novel , heck, a movie, can fully explore and give meaning to it. Is it any wonder that Babette's Feast remains one of my favorite movies of all time?
I’ve had the good fortune to travel the world due to my work on cruise ships. That means, I’ve had many a chance to experience and delve into the local cuisines of the countries I visited.  I always made it a point to eat what the locals eat, even if it’s just a sandwich. A  sandwich in Italy is called a “panini” and in France a “croque-monsieur”.  Somehow, the experience of eating a panini in Rome or a croque-monsieur in Paris seems subtly different from  eating a ham-and-cheese sandwich in  your local Arby’s.  Ambience is everything.
     In my next posts I will attempt to recount meal experiences that have lingered in my mind years after I’ve had them. The landscape of the mind can stretch decades back into the past. It is possible to remember the room, the atmosphere, the music, the good feeling and the company associated with a particular meal, if one wants to. If  nothing else, I will recount these meals so as not to totally consign them to the bin of forgotten pleasures.
For starters, here's a brief account of  a lunch I had on my first visit to Paris.

                                An Omelet in Paris

     I had a full morning walking on the Champs-Elysees, taking the bateau-mouche for a cruise along the river Seine, traipsing through the courtyard of the Louvre (and deciding not to join the line to get in because it would have taken me half the day just struggling to see the “Mona Lisa”) and walking on the tree-shaded river embankment, thrilled to finally visit Paris. My time however was extremely short. It was already noon. I had to be back at the Gare St. Lazare to take the one pm  train back to Le Havre where my cruise ship, the old M/V Crown Princess, was docked. All I had time for was a quick lunch. Was it possible for me to partake just a little bit of that famous French cuisine here in Paris?
     There were so many bistros in the street I walked on (I believe it was the Avenue Montaigne) that I was at a loss which one to choose. The prices displayed on the menus were also eye-wateringly high. I finally decided to throw all caution aside and enter a small  bistro whose prices seemed to be on the lower side.
     The waiter approached to take my order. It is on an occasion like this that I am eternally grateful to a priest (now former) who first turned me on to the French language back in the seminary. Without him, I probably wouldn’t have bothered studying  the language. What sounded snobby at the time can really help you out when you travel, especially in France. I also decided, much later, to study French more intensively in preparation for an (aborted) trip to Europe. I put a lot of work into it, studying genders and declensions. I also had the help of a Belgian doctor who was sympathetic  and appreciative of my attempt to learn the language. Even if I decided not to pursue an European vacation due to Chernobyl, the knowledge remained with me.
I ordered the only item that I felt wouldn’t take long to prepare: an omelet with fried potatoes plus a glass of  white wine and some French bread. It was quite easy to say: “Une omelette et vin blanc.”  To any question the waiter uttered, even if  I could barely understand it, I automatically responded: "Oui!"  (“Des pommes frites, m’sieur?” –“Oui!” “Du pain?” -“Oui!”) Note: It's one thing to learn how to read and speak French. It's a totally different matter understanding what a Frenchman actually says!
     The waiter quickly brought my order. He had none of the rudeness that  tourists (mostly Americans) like to complain about.  Because I spoke a little French, perhaps it was easier   for him  to tolerate me.  And I didn’t order a coq au vin or poisson en papillote, which would have complicated matters. No, I decided to order the simplest and quickest lunch I could (and please, spare me McDonald’s).
What did the omelet taste like? Strictly speaking, just like any omelet washed down with an alcoholic drink.
     But then again, a French  omelet enjoyed  with the accompaniment of French wine and French bread on an outdoor table on a street of a French city that many consider the most beautiful city in the world is bound to be an omelet that tastes like no other. Now that I have committed the memory of that omelet into this blog, the pleasure is, as it were, complete.

How to Make a Classic French Omelet
Items needed: For each omelet: 3 eggs (just 2 eggs for a smaller omelet), 1 tablespoon milk, 1/4 cup shredded cheese, butter.

Mix eggs & milk with a fork until blended. In a non-stick omelet pan melt 1 tablespoon butter over medium-high heat, when butter stops foaming pour in eggs, swirling around pan to distribute evenly. Cook, lifting sides of omelet to let uncooked egg flow underneath, until almost set (about 1 minute), quickly sprinkle cheese over half of omelet. Fold plain side of omelet over cheese and cook for an additional 20 seconds. Serve at once. Salt & pepper to taste. Serve with fresh French bread and coffee or wine.
Bon apetit!

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