Café society as a way of life

by Brian Clarey

Ah, to be a member of café society again… to sit at a sidewalk table as I did at le Pastis in the seaside warrens of Cannes and sip an exquisite cup of coffee as the people wash past… to light a slow smoke and contemplate the afternoon. Shall I take in the shops along Rue d’Antibe? Or perhaps a stroll along the Croisette?

Or, you know, I could sit right here and get something to eat.

The food in France – and Cannes in particular – is wonderful. And while it may not be true, as some would say, that all cuisine originated in France, French recipes and techniques are used in just about every professional kitchen everywhere.

Pizzas with poached eggs at the center. Charcuteries filled with whole-hog meats and boutique sausages. Rich, flaky pastries and magnificent bread. Whole roasted fish. Plates piled high with raw red meat.

During the festival, when the restaurants stay open all day, many menus are tweaked to accommodate a more international palate. But I went looking for something local, something more traditional.

I wanted some freakin’ pâté.

I haunted the streets for a joint that wasn’t hawking steak et frites and settled on le Pastis, where my server was kind enough to put steamed milk in my coffee, a cup so good I had trouble not slamming the whole thing in a single draught.

A language barrier existed between my server and me, but not one that couldn’t be bridged by our mutual love of pureed liver.

“Pâté?” I say.

For a moment, I believe, she thinks I mean to order pasta. Then I point to an item on the menu.

“Fois gras,” I say.

“Ah,” she says. “Fois gras.”

When you eat fois gras, you are truly sitting at the top of the food chain. In the old days – okay, sometimes they still do -pâté makers would force-feed ducks or geese until their livers distended, grinding these abnormally huge organs and combining the puree with spices to produce a uniquely flavored mousse. They take its production seriously in France: Each region has its own variation, and French law dictates that the liver content must exceed 80 percent.

My server brings me a fois gras terrine maison, a specialty of the house: the pâté cooked in a terrine mold with a crust of yellow fat, with a small salad of mixed greens and vinaigrette on the side, accompanied by a basket of crusty baguettes and pistolettes. The dish was smooth, with subtle spicing, and it paired well with the bread and the red vinegar, and I would have immediately ordered another one except I knew it would make me look like a fat American pig. Also, it likely would have given me the gout.

Ah, to be a member of café society once again!

For something a bit more substantial I ordered the rosbeef et puree maison. Rosbeef is, of course, roast beef. But my server couldn’t adequately explain what the puree maison was. Something about milk and butter. Sounded good to me.

Puree maison, as it turned out, is pretty much mashed potatoes. Except where I always prepare them, you know, mashed, these were pureed. I made a mental note to start making mine with my Cuisinart in the future. With a well of thin gravy atop and four slices of roast beef alongside, the dish was a hearty one. And underneath the pile of potatoes: another slice of beef.

After that, I’m afraid, dessert was just not going to happen. But I motioned for another cup of that fantastic coffee, lit another cigarette and languished in my place in café society for another hour.

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