Cafe society as a way of life

by Brian Clarey

Ah, to be a memberof café society again… to sit at a sidewalk table as I did at lePastis in the seaside warrens of Cannes and sip an exquisite cup ofcoffee as the people wash past… to light a slow smoke and contemplatethe afternoon. Shall I take in the shops along Rue d’Antibe? Or perhapsa stroll along the Croisette? Or, you know, I could sit right here and get something to eat. Thefood in France – and Cannes in particular – is wonderful. And while itmay not be true, as some would say, that all cuisine originated inFrance, French recipes and techniques are used in just about everyprofessional kitchen everywhere. Pizzas with poached eggs at thecenter. Charcuteries filled with whole-hog meats and boutique sausages.Rich, flaky pastries and magnificent bread. Whole roasted fish. Platespiled high with raw red meat. During the festival, when therestaurants stay open all day, many menus are tweaked to accommodate amore international palate. But I went looking for something local,something more traditional. I wanted some freakin’ pâté. Ihaunted the streets for a joint that wasn’t hawking steak et frites andsettled on le Pastis, where my server was kind enough to put steamedmilk in my coffee, a cup so good I had trouble not slamming the wholething 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." Whenyou 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 wouldforce-feed ducks or geese until their livers distended, grinding theseabnormally huge organs and combining the puree with spices to produce auniquely flavored mousse. They take its production seriously in France:Each region has its own variation, and French law dictates that theliver content must exceed 80 percent. My server brings me a foisgras terrine maison, a specialty of the house: the pâté cooked in aterrine mold with a crust of yellow fat, with a small salad of mixedgreens and vinaigrette on the side, accompanied by a basket of crustybaguettes and pistolettes. The dish was smooth, with subtle spicing,and it paired well with the bread and the red vinegar, and I would haveimmediately ordered another one except I knew it would make me looklike a fat American pig. Also, it likely would have given me the gout. Ah, to be a member of café society once again! Forsomething a bit more substantial I ordered the rosbeef et puree maison.Rosbeef is, of course, roast beef. But my server couldn’t adequatelyexplain what the puree maison was. Something about milk and butter.Sounded good to me. Puree maison, as it turned out, is prettymuch mashed potatoes. Except where I always prepare them, you know,mashed, these were pureed. I made a mental note to start making minewith my Cuisinart in the future. With a well of thin gravy atop andfour slices of roast beef alongside, the dish was a hearty one. Andunderneath the pile of potatoes: another slice of beef. Afterthat, I’m afraid, dessert was just not going to happen. But I motionedfor another cup of that fantastic coffee, lit another cigarette andlanguished in my place in café society for another hour.