This is what one does when visiting Paris. Or, at least, what we chose to do: As the coffee steeped, I scrambled to the boulangerie to pick up a few croissants. Down the rue Rochechouart there was a lovely charcuterie with a sniffling proprietor that struck me as a taller Toulouse-Lautrec. There, I acquired a small rasher of smoked salmon and a tub of creme fraiche. It was early, but we had nowhere to go and were looking forward to a lazy morning meal and a slow decent from our perch in the 9th to the very center of Paris.
Breakfast started with fresh orange juice and coffee. I found a small sauce pot and, lucky me, a bottle of white wine vinegar. To a pot of simmering water I added about a tablespoon of the vinegar and let it mix. Meanwhile, Sherry split and buttered the croissants and set them cut-side down in a skillet.
I broke four eggs into separate cups and set them aside. In another pan, I brought two tablespoons of lemon juice and a tablespoon of water to a simmer with a pinch of salt and two dashes of Tabasco that we had brought with us from the States. While Sherry separated three eggs, I got the butter and made a bad Marlon Brando joke. I thought it was funny. You know, Paris, butter... never mind.
Into the lemon juice went the yolks, one at a time as I whisked like a dervish. We saved the whites. After the yolks had thickened and cooled slightly, I worked in the butter piece by piece until a smooth sauce was formed.
The whole eggs were laid gently into the simmering water-vinegar and poached lightly, about six minutes. We put the croissant halves onto our plates, buttered-grilled side up, spread some of the creme fraiche, and laid a few leaves of the salmon on them. Next came the poached eggs (dried off, of course) and then the Hollandaise.
After this, there was not much to do but get back into bed for an hour and watch French television. We dosed, awoke again and set about the day.
I suppose that it's not entirely proper to say that a particular animal is "king" if that animal is being devoured with relish at white covered tables, but, hey, we humans are sentimental sorts and we like to elevate what we consume.
Au Pied de Cochon was not our chosen destination our first morning in Paris. We had scoped out Chez Denise or Chez Clovis for our lunch, but alas, both these icons on the south side of Les Halles, the long-gone wholesale market in Paris' 1st arrondisement, were closed for the Sunday, despite the promises that brasseries around the empty iron stalls never shut their doors.
We had made our way down Rochechouart and then took rue Montmartre to Les Halles. Just about every guide book
and travel guru will advise not to go near the nearby subterrainian mall out concern for safety and to protect visitors from experiencing what disasters urban renewal can bring: it has been mentioned that a quaint waft of urine and cigarette smoke eminates from the place. We decided to heed the warnings and stayed to the surface streets instead.
Just before the entrance to Les Halles, now a park-like affair that showcases the carcasses of what used to be places of unending commerce, there was an open food market the likes of which is rarely, if ever, seen in the US. If we were not planning to be out for much of the day, we could have picked from dozens of varieties of oysters, mollusks, crustaceans and fish, sausages of various lengths and ingredients, mushrooms, vegetables, delectably stinky cheeses, meat and poultry (I was particularly taken with the squab and quail) wine, fruit, breads, and pastries.
This wasn't a food museum a la Fauchon, but a wide open, egalitarian market plopped down in the middle of the city. Hundreds of Parisians, obviously out ans shopping for the Sunday dinner were tasting, poking, haggling and carrying away their booty. Sherry finally had to drag me away from the scene, noting that we weren't about to be invited to sup with any of the shoppers.
On the southern side of Les Halles we stopped in a shop that looked promising. We have been searching the globe for a particular photograph by Robert Doisneau for years, and in the windows was spied the usual suspects (the couple kissing in front of the Eiffel Tower, etc.) but we were disappointed that Creatures de Reve was not to be found here, either. So off we were to look for lunch.
When we realized that the two aforementioned brasseries were not available, a certain panic set in. My God, is there any place to eat in this city? Is everybody at home cooking? How can this be? Enough of that. We circled around to find au Pied de Cochon, literally, The Pig's Foot, open and bustling. Inside, Art Nouveau mixes with kitsch and white tablecloths. The gigantic menu proudly announced that the establishment boasted Paris' most famous Soupe à l'Oignon Gratineé (Sherry's favorite). We had heard and read about au Pied, so we were happy to find a table, order a half bottle of Beaujolais and fix on filling our stomachs.
Sherry would have the onion soup, of course and a salad. I was in the mood for some honest French cooking, the type made of the nasty parts, which is the best cooking in the world. au Pied makes no bones about the fact that it has been around since the beginning of Les Halles and has never turned its stoves off. It also is the place most associated with all things pig.
Now, I am no stranger to the animal, growing up as I did among several generations of Hungarian cooks, all, in retrospect, seem to have learned much the same lessons that their more famous French counterparts had. As were in The Pig's Foot, I thought it appropriate to eat the pig's foot.
For a starter, I picked the Romaine Salad à la St Antoine.
The helpful waiter made a circle with his right index finger and thumb. "I feel obliged to tell you, M'sya, that this is a salad of lettuce with pieces of pork--pig-- in it."
"Yes," I answered, "I understand."
"Some of this pork is quite chewy."
"That will be fine. And I will also have the Pied de Cochon Grille à la Bearnaise."
"Now this is a pig's trotter. A pig's foot. It is braised and then grilled."
"Sounds wonderful. I see that it comes with frites."
"Yes. Fries. And the sauce on the side."
"This isn't meat, actually, more like a jelly. There are lots of bones."
"Exactly what I'm looking for."
A sigh. "Very well, M'sya." I could just hear him saying to the captain, "This American wants the pig's foot. Another dish we'll be taking back."
I cannot vouch for Sherry's soup, although it looked authentic. Sherry pronounced it "good enough" but under salted and "nothing like yours." I was flattered, but skeptical. So I tasted. She was right. It would have benefited from some more aggressive seasoning, and perhaps a longer browning of the onions. Not the best I have tasted, not the worst by any stretch, but not what we had hoped for.
On the other hand, my salad, although suffering slightly from a bit too much dressing (a Caesar-type concoction with an extra egg yolk, I suspect) the perfect romaine lettuce provided a crisp contrast to the soft (and in places, rather chewy) pieces of pork. These were not bacon, they were not ham or chop, but from the parts normally thrown away or ground into sausage: shards of rind and jellied bits of connective tissue. Had the salad cook been more sparing with the dressing, the salad would have been a success.
No matter, because upon the arrival of my pig's trotter, I knew that the lunch would end up just the way I had wished. We had been seated next to a stylish older couple who had obviously been there for some time already. They were well into their second bottle of wine and the gentleman was enjoying the same dish I ordered. He glanced at my plate and then up to his wife (I think) and shrugged. Throughout the time in which I devoured my meal, he kept staring at the plate in disbelief. With each tiny clang of a cleaned metatarsal onto the plate provided, he seemed to flinch.
I grew up eating food much like this. Most Americans associate pig's feet with the jars of pickled horror that would sit at the corner of dive bars around the country. My family enjoyed this delicacy around New Year (Hungarians, like the Chinese, believe that eating pork on the New Year is good luck. Must stay away from chicken: Pigs root forward, chicken scratch backward.). The preparation was simple, yet time consuming. The trotters were first split and charred and then put into a large stock pot with vegetables (I think) and set to simmer for hours. All the while, the stock would be constantly skimmed (we're big on skimming) until a consomme-like clearness is achieved.
The trotters were then transferred to soup bowls and covered with the stock. If it was cold outside, bowl after bowl was set out on a table on the porch to cool over night, or else put into the refrigerator. In the morning, we would find that the stock had set into a pig aspic surrounding the now amazingly tender foot, very little meat as my waiter offered, but all tendons and ligaments had broken down into the essence of pork.
I have not had this dish for years, and I would not expect to ever have it again (unless, Mom, you want to make some on your next visit. I'll shoo Sherry out of the house for the day). The version in front of me was both a new experience and a piggy version of Proust's Madelaine. The trotter had indeed been braised to a silky jelly holding together all the bones of the foot. It had then been grilled quickly, the lightly breaded and deep fried. The sauce Bearnaise that accompanied the dish was slightly tart and redolent of tarragon and shallot and intensified the sweet, unctuous quality of the foot. The fries were crisp and tender and hot.
This is a dish one eats with the hands. You must attack the foot with a fork, pulling away each individual bone, dip it in the sauce, and either pop it in your mouth or happily chew as one would a pork rib or chicken wing. Some parts were still toothsome but tender, adding to the rich interplay of textures. The flavor? This is the most sublime pig that can be eaten. Nothing quite comes close to taking a (not the) most base part of a most base animal and transforming it into something delicious.
We went to au Pied for exactly these dishes. While the onion soup slightly disappointed, the foot of the pig more than made up for it. But don't ask Sherry. No tasting for her. Instead, her eyes darted from plate to ceiling as if she was trying not to stare, but couldn't get over the spectacle while I happily chewed and sucked the bones until, alas, they were all gone.