My first trip to Paris, age thirteen, comes up a lot now that I’m living in Paris (I have a huge quantity of photos from that trip…in a box in my bedroom in Arizona). In fact, just the other day I realized that the hotel where my mom and David are staying, Hotel Lutetia, is the same one where I stayed with my grandparents more than ten years ago. There was just something eerily familiar about the lobby, and then I noticed that there is a Maison du Chocolat next door to the brasserie on Rue de Sèvres…where we definitely stopped on our last day in Paris because I couldn’t leave without some French chocolate. (I still have the bag from that errand in another box somewhere at home!)
Obviously a first trip to Paris is notable for a lot of reasons (first escargot! first asparagus–really! first visit to the Louvre! first ascent of the Eiffel Tower–and last? first several chocolate soufflés!), but I remember it fondly as a formative reading experience. I was thirteen, a little cranky, and thoroughly jetlagged for most of the week we spent here, but I had brought incredible reading material. Bridget Jones’s Diary, Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel, and the first book I read on the trip, which I finished in Newark Airport, and the subject of this entry, Chocolat by Joanne Harris.
(Italian movie poster!)
I’ve read this book more times than I can count, but it had been a long time (on the other hand, I watched the movie with my roommate and a hunk of frozen cookie dough–no judgment!–last year), so the other day when I was at the American Library and noticed that somebody had finally returned it, I snatched it up.
It’s not high literature. In fact, except that I’m totally biased because of when I read it and how many times I’ve re-read it, it’s probably not even that good of a book. But I think it’s marvelous, to this day.
Setting the actual plot aside for a second, Joanne Harris is really a master of making food magical (quite literally, since Vianne does stuff like read the future by looking into the surface of hot chocolate…), and I think I’ve had her culinary descriptions in the back of my mind since the first time I read Chocolat. Observe:
“Anouk reads a book of nursery rhymes behind the counter and keeps an eye on the door for me as I prepare a batch of mendiants–thus named because they were sold by beggars and gypsies years ago–in the kitchen. These are my own favorites–biscuit-sized discs of dark, milk or white chocolate upon which have been scattered lemon-rind, almonds, and plump Malaga raisins. Anouk likes the white ones, though I prefer the dark, made with the finest seventy-percent couverture…Bitter-smooth on the tongue with the taste of the secret tropics.”
I know I’ve brought up “mendiants” before, and I wouldn’t know what they were, or why I should like them, were it not for Chocolat. Recently I was at a chocolaterie/tea shop near Parc Monceau, and after my two bonbons and café crème, I caught sight of a tray of mendiants, with candied orange peel and hazelnut; I ordered “un mendiant lait à emporter.” I felt a sort of frisson of excitement, like I was living out a literary fantasy that I’d been holding onto for ten years. Of course, it wasn’t the first time I’d bought mendiants in Paris, but it never stops feeling magical.
I didn’t remember the original arrangement of events, before the movie switched things around, but I definitely remembered this description of the food that Vianne, Anouk and Armande ate with the river gypsies:
“I remember river crayfish, split and grilled over the embers, sardines, early corn, sweet potatoes, caramelized apples rolled in sugar and flash-fried in butter, thick pancakes, honey. We ate with our fingers from tin plates and drank cider and more of the spiced wine.”
It’s a description of the food that the poorest people in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes have to offer, and yet it sounds almost better than the enormous feast Vianne prepares for Armande (which is several pages long and glorious). Anthony Bourdain often points out on his travels that some of the best food in any country, often national specialties, originally became popular because they were so cheap.
Here’s some of that fabulous feast:
“Then the vol-au-vents, light as a puff of summer air, then elderflower sorbet followed by plateau de fruits de mer with grilled langoustines, gray shrimps, prawns, oysters, berniques, spider crabs and the bigger torteaux–which can nip off a man’s fingers as easily as I could nip a stem of rosemary–winkles, palourdes, and atop it all a giant black lobster, regal on its bed of seaweed. The huge platter gleams with reds and pinks and sea greens and pearly whites and purples, a mermaid’s cache of delicacies that gives off a nostalgic salt smell, like childhood days at the seaside.”
“The dessert is a chocolate fondue. Make it on a clear day–cloudy weather dims the gloss on the melted chocolate–with seventy percent dark chocolate, butter a little almost oil, double cream aded at the very last minute, heated gently over a burner. Skewer pieces of cake or fruit and dip into the chocolate mixture.”
This meal, while not quite Babette’s Feast-like in complexity, is pretty epic. It’s the kind of meal that requires a good long sleep afterwards, the kind that keeps you at the table for hours and hours. I don’t think the movie quite does it justice (in fact, the movie, which I do thoroughly enjoy, loses a lot of what makes the book so magical–including the out-and-out magical elements like the tarot cards and the scrying and all that).
Ever since reading this book and seeing the movie for the first time, I have held out hope that it’s actually possible to drink hot chocolate and eat cake as often as Vianne seems to and still look like Juliette Binoche. This time through, I noticed this little description of a meal Vianne has with Joséphine, and I realized that, like many television chefs, Vianne probably eats super-healthy foods any time she’s not drinking chocolate with her friends. And the food STILL sounds amazing.
“Joséphine helped me prepare dinner: a salad of green beans and tomatoes in spiced oil, red and black olives from the Thursday market stall, walnut bread, fresh basil from Narcisse, goat’s cheese, red wine from Bordeaux.”
Reading Chocolat from my current vantage point is fascinating, since not only do I live in France now, but I also spent two months pottering around small-town rural France last summer. And it looks a lot like I imagine Lansquenet-sous-Tannes to look. The church is the central feature of any village, surrounded by little quaint shops, bakeries, often a chocolaterie or another specialty store, unappealing cafés just like Café de la République in the book, where old men sit all day over “endless café crèmes.”
What I also realized this time through the book is that it’s not set in the 1960s, as the film version would suggest, but in the 1990s. Reynaud mentions the “summer of ’75” at one point, and it certainly couldn’t be 1875; Joséphine says that her husband has run out of microwave pizzas, and Guillaume has a big high-tech television and a VCR in his house. It’s surprising to realize that a town like Lansquenet, with its “church or chocolate” battle could have existed fifteen years ago, say; easier to believe that the story takes place in a more suspicious era, before the internet, before microwaves, when Hollywood could still believe in someone objecting so strenuously to a chocolaterie on the grounds that it will corrupt people’s moral characters. (The more modern setting of the novel also explains why Anouk has a computer in the sequel, which is awful and feels like fan-fiction. Dear Joanne Harris: Spoiler alert, but Roux and Vianne shouldn’t be together. I’m sure people saw the movie and then read the book and were like, ROUX AND VIANNE 4EVA, but it’s just wrong.)
Living in France today, especially Paris (but also Périgueux, where I spent most of my two months last summer), I’m always sad when I encounter food that hasn’t been given the same amount of thought and care as the food Ms. Harris described. And that’s pretty often, unfortunately. I have often been disappointed by sandwiches on incredible bread that involve packaged ham and processed cheese; I recently had a ham omelette in which the ham seemed to have been removed from the packaging in a clump and place on top of some eggs. Awful.
But then last night I had a Chocolat-worthy meal with Mom and David, at La Bergamote in Saint Germain des Près. Simple and few ingredients, simple flavors, fresh herbs, and all sublimely delicious. To start with we shared a cocotte (see, I’m even going to italicize my French food words!) of mussels, out of the shell, in a creamy garlic sauce with leeks and ciboulette (chives–I just like the French word because it’s also the title of an operetta!). I had duck leg confit, which came with a wonderful honey glaze and fell apart as soon as my fork touched it. Mom had the special merlan, a filet of white fish on a bed of white basmati rice and a sauce of garlic and basil. David’s lamb curry tajine with dried fruits and olives came in another cocotte; everything was sopped up with slightly-crunchy baguette, and washed down with a fruity white wine. For dessert, we split a slice of dense dark chocolate cake, topped with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream, and a tarte tatin, my favorite thing, with fresh chantilly; the apples were perfectly caramelized and spoon-soft.
Well, I may not be as good as Joanne Harris at making food sound utterly magical, but I’ve just made myself hungry with that description. Time for some breakfast!