I lived in Paris from 1990-96. I'd wanted to live there since I read 'A moveable feast' by Hemingway. Seemingly he spent his whole time in Paris moving from café to restaurant scribbling works of art on napkins. My dad loves his writing but I've never been a fan. 'A moveable feast' however is different. It's full of heart. The prose is not terse, pared down, modern. He writes naturally, sensually, clearly influenced by his gastronomic surroundings.
On Sunday mornings, my daughter's father and I would travel by metro (I love the smell of the metro in the mornings, an assault of damp fur coat and stale expensive perfume) to Porte de Clignancourt. From there it is a short walk to the flea market, les puces de Saint Ouen, passing the 'merguez' vendors, tall blue black men holding long thin sausages over charcoal.
Inside the labyrinthine market there was a little restaurant with oilcloth red and white checked tablecloths, Chez Louisette. We would order wine in Duralex beakers. A kids game in France is to see if the number on the bottom of the glass corresponds to your age, a lucky thing. (I've just discovered there is even a facebook group 'Quand j'etais petit, je regardais mon age sous les verres Duralex' dedicated to this).
I'd generally order 'soupe à l'onion' or 'moules marinieres'. Baguette would arrive guillotined into slices.
A lady of indeterminate age, with auburn curls, would get up and sing 'Piaf', accompanied by someone on an accordion.
I would breath a sigh of relief. This restaurant, a 'guinguette', a bar or restaurant with musical entertainment, incarnated the elusive Paris I was trying to capture when I moved there.
For the reality of Paris is very different: hostile bureaucrats, staring men on the metro, endless paperwork, no green spaces, no gardens, tiny flats, hissing neighbours, armed police. There is a typical Parisian, who interferes and snoops, enjoys regulations and rules, that I grew to loathe...'collabo' I called them, the slang word for collaborators, those who sided with the Germans in the war. On a depressingly regular basis I would have to queue at the 'mairie' for my 'fiche d'etat civile', a form that they have now done away with in this era of biometric data. It was a piece of paper which did nothing more that state that you exist. You needed this piece of paper for everything. It could not be more than three months old. So you had to renew it. You needed this to pay a bill, book a place at a nursery, go to school, apply for an evening class, get a flat, get a telephone, get medical treatment, everything...
The women at the 'mairie' were horrible harsh creatures.
'Ripailles' by chef Stephane Reynaud is a 'guinguette' in book form. A hefty piece of work, worthy of pride of place on the bookshelf, it has typical French brasserie recipes, witty drawings and evocative food photography presented on enamel plates, earthenware, cast iron pans, heavy spoons, the kind of French tableware I lust over in 'vide-greniers'. The memories of France this book evokes are textural, tangible.
Certainly there is a preponderance of meat dishes but we will forgive that. After all, France is a country where, if you announce that you don't eat meat, they say "just a little bit of chicken then?"
One page is very funny: drawings of different ways you can order your eggs. There is a drawing of two tiny flat eggs called 'Jane Birkin eggs' after the flat chested English singer who was married to Serge Gainsbourg, and who become a French institution. I remember her once on a French tv show talking about her breasts...
"Excuse me" she defended herself laughingly "when I had my children I had lots of milk from these tiny breasts. Gallons! Sophia Loren..."she holds her hands further away from her body, imitating large breasts "she had nothing, not a drop, pas une goutte!!!"