Short stays in Paris are much less fun now that I’m gluten-free due to heart issues. All of the quick noshes—crepes, croissants, pains au chocolate, croissants aux amandes, sandwiches—are off limits, as are small plats at cafes and restaurants. Also forbidden are most soups and anything with a sauce or eaten ideally with a slice of baguette. Even expresso in France is usually served with a small cookie (sometimes chocolate). To quell a grumbling stomach when out and about, I often resort to a rice-dough spring roll, a functional, if unsatisfying, substitute.
If one can stock a kitchen, there’s no better place to than France to forage for the most beautiful, delicious, and varied ingredients, but it’s not worth stocking up for the few meals I eat ‘at home’ on short stays. Dining out with friends, I find myself perusing the menu for items I may eat rather that what sounds most appealing, and that eliminates much traditional French food, with its attendant sauces. Nothing fried that’s breaded or dipped in flour, either. Making matters worse, I’ve encountered gluten where one wouldn’t expect it—in risotto and falafel, for instance. Japanese restaurants are pretty much off limits due to wheat noodles and soy sauce.
While I’m an upbeat optimist in many respects, I find my culinary restrictions disheartening. I used to love going to creative, intimate restaurants that often restrict their menu offerings to three or four selections in each of the categories appetizer, main course, dessert, changing them often according to seasonal offerings and limited-availability delicacies found by the chef on their morning shopping expedition to the local marché. Knowing the degree to which wheat flour infiltrates French cooking, I just save time and avoid frustration by eating where I have maximum freedom.
The situation is similar in other locales: no beer, pretzels, bread, or sauces in Germany, no cinnamon buns in Sweden, no pierogi in Poland, no fresh pasta or pizza in Italy. The good news is, I suppose, that I’m more-or-less carb free and eat fewer items that metabolize into sugar (the friend of cancer and aging), although just try and stop me from buying boxes of carefully-selected chocolates at Mococha on the rue Mouffetard, my Parisian chocolaterie. I dare you!
And, thankfully, I can eat cheese. I visited my fromager at marché Monge at lunch time yesterday and bought my two favorites—extra aged, cow’s mild Gouda and perfectly ripe truffled brie. I was tempted to purchase more, but mindful of my short visit. I thought about eating lunch nearby, but the nearby Mosque specializes in couscous and cakes, both off limits, and few of the little crêperies on the rue Mouffetard offer galettes (main course crepes made with buckwheat flour).
I decided to sit in place Marius Constant, a nearby pocket park, and dine on brie. But what to have with it? I had a nearly irrepressible hankering for a crusty bit of a ‘tradition’ baguette from the award-winning boulangerie a block north of Place Contrescarpe. I spent a New York minute, eyes closed, remembering the feel, taste, and aroma I craved. The way breaking the crust releases the yeasty aroma as shards of crust rain uncontrollably, the way sharp bits of crust sometime poke my gums, the effort of chewing. But nothing better complements the flavor of cheeses. I reflected on possible Plans B and settled on endive. Crisp and tart, even if not quite as delicious as a really good bit of baguette.
I repaired to a bench and ate, before heading to Mococha (www.chocolatsmococha.com) to select my box of chocolates with the indispensable aid of Mme Chocolat. For the five plus years I’ve been a regular (for me) customer, she’s faithfully stocked the confections of three, carefully selected chocolatiers—Jacques Bellanger, Johann Dubois, and my personal preference, Fabrice Gillotte. While each conducts a modest amount of experimentation, I reliably find my favorites, with names like Ceylan, Faustine, and Sidamo.
Sated and in possession of my precious chocolate jewels, I repaired to Café Contrescarpe, one of my hangouts, although the personnel don’t ever seem to recognize me. It was chilly and I sat indoors since France has now forbidden the use of outdoor heating lamps. I’d always sat by the window before, but all tables were set for dining, with crisp white tablecloths, silver- and stemware, so I discovered a new corner, one with comfy, leather-upholstered barrel chairs and knee-height tables. Perfect for a bit of coffee and dessert while working.
I opened my laptop, ordered a café crème (coffee with warm milk), untied the silver ribbon of my chocolate box, and selected two pieces. Although bite sized, I like to savor every second those morsels reside in my mouth and so generally devour them in three slow, more-or-less equally sized bites. As the chocolate melted, so did my self-pity. I may not be able to enjoy all the singular culinary delights of Paris as I once could, but these little, densely packed bits of phenylethylamine and serotonin-producing happiness cheer me like tiny, comforting, joy-generating hugs.
Do you have a special taste treat found at a particular spot that cheers you up no matter what?