The American media warns us at every turn that Christmas is a time of over-indulgence. Women's magazines sprout articles about how to avoid the buffet table, not to mention an extra ten pounds. Readers flip quickly past that article to the one depicting how to decorate a sugar cookie.
Honestly, that cattle call to temptation has never bothered me all that much. My university's English department parties tend to offer a lively selection of cheap wine, together with three different kinds of hummus. Besides, I shed calories wrestling a five-foot tree into submission, grading final papers for my Shakespeare students, and fighting my way to Fed Ex to mail late presents.
But this year my husband and I are on sabbatical from our respective universities, so we packed up loads of books, two children and four laptops, and moved to Paris. We have a rangy apartment in the 9th arrondissement, with floors dating to the 1760s, four patisseries within a block or two, and a covered market just over the border in the 10th.
In our first few months here, we made some charming discoveries. A teenager can be pried out of bed for church if bribed with a stop at a café for chocolat chaud and pain au chocolat. A little restaurant near us in Passage des Panoramas serves meltingly rich boeuf bourguignon for nine euros. The gourmet section of Galeries Lafayette sells fifteen different kinds of dark chocolate with orange, not to mention their freshly ground spice mixtures. In my opinion, their couscous blend is worth a six-hour plane flight.
Then came December.
Overnight our little covered market, Marché Saint-Quentin, transformed into the movie set for a Dickens musical. At home, meat comes wrapped in plastic, shiny and shrink-wrapped; the very sight of it reminds me that carnivores are liable to cancer. Here every kind of meat looks fresher than the last. The butcher chars the last feathers from a beautifully plump goose as he lays it before you. Pigeons cease to remind me of my office window back in New York, and look like tiny, delicious chickens. The bio, all-natural pigeon seems particularly enticing.
Our favorite fromagerie puts out boxes of tiny quail eggs and three new kinds of goat cheese, produced only for the Christmas season. I am boggled by the beauty of fresh mushrooms; it's only when the fruitier asks me if I am quite sure I want that many that I realize this particular 'shroom costs the same as our rent.
The gourmet section of Galeries Lafayette sprouts tables crowded with flourishes for bakers: jars of edible gold flake, silver stars, candied violets. While telling myself that I must shop for presents to send home, I am lured into buying lavender-flavored mustard. What can I do with mustard in a moody violet color? Ditto the pomegranate molasses and three kinds of Himalayan salt?
I get home and my husband says grumpily, "Salt is salt - but how could you forget to buy a baguette?" We have taken to smearing baguettes with robust blue cheese and then a layer of prosciutto. My eleven-year-old daughter has happily dropped her former snack of PB&Js for this new version, the bread toothsome and perfectly crackly on top.
What Parisians do so well is not tempt you to gluttony, per se, but to the pure beauty of food, the way it can be decorated and dusted and turned into something gorgeous.
-- Eloisa James
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