France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

March 24, 2010

Mache it up or, tonight I picked my dinner

I used to worry how I would ever adjust to the food downgrade if I had to move back to the United States from France, especially to New York. (California does a little bit better on healthy food that’s also affordable, especially vegetables.) The New York super-markets especially are, well, just gross. And the most reliable vegetables I found, apart from the Union Square and occasionally Tompkins Square farmer’s markets, were from a Balkan immigrant guy with a great sense of humor who sold fruits and vegetables on the corner of 14th and Fifth.

But now that I live here in the country, in the Dordogne department of SW France, and for social and work reasons am looking to move back to Paris. I’m starting to ponder how I’ll ever make the adjustment from the French country-side to the French city-side. There’s just no comparison. Sure, you can find beautiful vegetables and fancy meat in the markets, but not often at popular (or people’s) prices, particularly when it comes to ‘gourmet’ vegetables and meat. (The French Arab market at Barbes, and others, have cheap prices, but it sometimes reflects the quality.)

This reflection is all brought on by not just the pissenlit (dandelion and its crispy leaves, great in salads and cooked like spinach for omelets and pasta, yum!) being in bloom, but being joined by its more delicate and refined and easier to pick mache. This late afternoon as I headed to the path behind the horse and donkey farm to gather some pissenlit for tonight (the period in which pissenlit is good is very short, so you eat a lot of it while you can), I crossed Mr. Marty, my retired farmer neighbor, and Madeline, Bernard’s mother in law, at Mr. Marty’s vines, where Madeline was already at work picking some. I joined them and shortly she picked up something else, which she said was also delicious: mache. I’d had this in Paris but it looked nothing like this. In Paris, where it’s not always cheap unless it’s on sale, it’s usually dark green, hard, and in cellophane-enveloped little cartons. This stuff, though, is light green and feather-light and unlike pissenlit, you don’t need a knife to cut it at its fierce roots. I made my way down the vines and found several little patches, picking it with the lightest of tugs of the hand. It kind of looks like baby spinach — little bunches, dense at the middle as if about to flower. I also picked a ton of pissenlit. Yesterday I washed my pissenlit at the source (or spring) across the train tracks up the field from the house and man — what a difference in taste (from washing it in tap water). But tonight I looked at the clock and it was perilously close to train time, so instead I walked back to the other source (yes, we have two, since Bernard unearthed the old source at the tracks where he used to gather water as a kid 40-some years ago) and filled up a few bottles with the stuff to wash the pissenlit here, scattering a reunion of frogs along the way.

Speaking of which, better start washing the pissenlit now (7 p.m.) if I’m to have the mache and spinach all washed for salad and pasta in time for Plus Belle la Vie, my (and 6 million French people’s) nightly Marseille-based soap opera.

C’est plus belle le cuisine en province, n’est pas? — surtout quand c’est gratuit!


September 26, 2008

Plus blanc la vie

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I have nothing against the nightly French soap opera (fittingly set in Marseille, one of the world capitals of soap) Plus Belle la Vie. In fact, I’m one of the 6 million viewers that you shouldn’t try to call between 20h20 and 20h50 Monday through Friday; I’m addicted. My French intellectual friends no doubt look down on it but in fact, I’d argue that apart from the usual ludicrous crime threads, it’s a realistic, multi-generational look at human relations, particularly those between families, nuclear and constructed. Even if the crime threads are far-fetched, they usually act as catalysts for the more realistic human relations. Indeed, as often as not it’s the constructed family of the semi-mythical Mistral neighborhood that rescues its own from diabolical plots often as not caused by blood relations, often but not always fathers. But there’s one color in which this world rings profoundly false, and that’s in the invisibility of blacks.

In fact, the neighborhood after which the Mistral seems modelled, and in which much of the action seems to be shot, resembles the Panier district of Marseille, with its narrow streets and steep staircases. Except that… except that in reality part of that cosmopole includes French Africans. Yet if in every other way the world — the family or even community, if you will — of Plus Belle la Vie is admirably representative, with male and female gay couples often playing central roles, and subplots involving all generations, the color white, even in the multi-color Marseille, dominates. There is a brother-sister couple of North African/Magrebian/Arab origin, Malik and Samia, and they’re not only a lawyer and a police intern, respectively, but two of the purest characters in the community. But when it comes to African, or plutot the color black, the score is just about zero. A metisse character, Rudy, is the closest one comes. Apart from that, in the year I’ve been watching the show, I’ve seen a total of two black or African characters that featured prominently, more or less in the same storyline, Rudy’s father and a character named Tamara; one was an angel, the other somewhat of a demon. The only other appearance I can think of was a minor character who, of course, was a voyou or petit criminal.

I’m talking about this now because this morning on France Culture, Lamence Madzou, a former Parisian gang leader and the co-author of “Chef de Gang,” recounted the story of an African-American visitor who commented that on the streets of Paris, he felt like he was chez lui because of the number of black faces, but when he turned on the television, it was the opposite.

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