Sunday, 19 August 2007

French leave

If your perfect French holiday starts with a big steaming bowl of cafe au lait and an arm's length of baguette slathered in butter each morning, then a gluten and dairy intolerance will more than take the edge off perfection. Lunch, dinner and every passing whim to devour your own body weight in patisserie, chocolate and the odd mouldering cheese will be severely hampered too. Paris is no longer the carefree food heaven of my twenties but a minefield of butter-laced reductions and floury confections. Gone are the nonchalant orders for a grand creme and a pain au raisin. They have been replaced by a battery of questions about the small print of each and every thing I order. Mostly the French just give their famous shrug and feign ignorance but just occasionally, the odd restaurant will care enough to check with the chef. Perhaps it's a sign of the slow but sure creep of American litigiousness ("I'm going to sue your ass for giving me food with wheat in it!"), but I'd like to think that maybe, somewhere, the French do care. After all they care passionately about their food but their passion gives them more than a few culinary blind spots. Vegetarians get the same treatment as Americans - we know they exist but we don't want them over here ruining things for the rest of us. For the French, anyone who doesn't want to regularly consume a blood sausage is clearly missing a few IQ points. Philosophy, principles and morality - like, for example, eating animals - are all good fodder for a lively discussion over dinner as long as they don't knock the odd saucisse or bloody onglet off the menu.
Imagine then the effect of refusing to eat bread and cheese in France. I'm usually met with a degree of snottiness ("Another bloody English speaker with a silly fad") and confusion ("How can you not want to eat everything on our menu?"). On a recent trip to Paris the rare exception was the excellent Rose Bakery, where I managed to have brunch without the usual accompanying three-day gluten bloat. You'd think scrambled eggs and smoked salmon would be easy to prepare without dairy or gluten but you'd be wrong, as I discovered this weekend when I had brunch in a restaurant round the corner from my flat in London. So full marks to Rose Bakery.
And at the other end of the culinary scale, Michel Rostang's Bistro d’à Côté Flaubert was also very accommodating. Even with their twiddly menu, they managed to give me a proper three course meal. I missed out on a few amuse bouches and a shot glass of green tomato ice cream along the way but it was worth it for the foie gras mousse. Skewered on fronds of fresh rosemary, each ball of mousse was firmly anchored in a plate of aspic. As someone who often can't eat the more interesting and innovative things on a menu, it was a real luxury to unplug my rosemary infused mousse lollies from a sea of jelly. Beats plain grilled chicken and plain potatoes (no butter, please) any day.

Rose Bakery, 46 rue des Martyrs, 75009 Paris, tel: 00 33 1 42 82 12 80

Bistro d’à Côté Flaubert, 10, rue Gustave Flaubert, 75017 Paris 00 33 1 47 63 40

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