Wednesday, July 23, 2008

My Paris Apartment

How do they cook those strange-looking black shellfish? It's 8 am on a bright, sunny Spring morning, and I'm standing in my robe at the open window of my Paris apartment sipping fresh, black coffee. Across the rue du Bac, which is as narrow as a Medieval lane at this point, the hearty fishmongers at Duloube are going through their muscular morning ritual.

They shave fresh ice and set out all the day's fresh-from-the-sea offerings of gleaming silvery fish, mounds of blue and pearly shellfish from the coast of Brittany, lobsters and oysters, and tiny whelks, and sea snails, mussels and cockles.
Laid out proudly on their icy beds, the glassy-eyed mullet and ten kinds of oysters are wreathed in swirls of dark green briny seaweed. The stores on this street are all open to the sidewalk, as they have been for decades, so the dripping sealife can be seen and enjoyed without stepping into the tiled shop. Barely has the rubber-booted fishmonger completed his bravura display, when the first neatly-dressed housewife arrives, all business, with her market basket over her arm.

I watch as she glances over the palourdes, andtakes her pick of several different kinds of shellfish and I wonder, again, just exactly how she is going to turn them into her delicious lunch. I'm still perched there at the window, beside the toile de Jouy draperies, as she walks briskly next door to the open flower market, where she purchases two large bunches of white tulips. Then it's on to the the butcher (whose gilded horsehead sign announces that he also sells fresh horsemeat), where she buys a thick slab of pate. At the nearby grocery, I see her adding tangerines and fennel to her basket. And it's still barely 8.30 am!

This is how I start my day at "my" Chez Vous apartment in Paris--not reading the newspaper or making telephone calls but spying on my well-dressed neighbors and their culinary private lives. And all the while I'm desperate to know exactly what is their secret recipe for those fat little black shells and the lustrous mussels.

I have arranged for this apartment at 80 rue du Bac from Chez Vous for two weeks, so over time I learn a lot about the 6th and 7th arrondissement that I would never have seen if I'd been hidden away in a hotel. I do turn away from the window occasionally, and read French magazines on the cushy custom-designed daybed, or make tea in the neat little kitchen.

The apartment was newly decorated in ivory and black by Healdsburg designer, Myra Hoefer, and it's adorned with a dashing painted canvas portrait of Napoleon, thanks to her artist husband, Wade Hoefer. Crystal chandeliers gleam against the patissserie ceiling, and pewter-colored silk taffeta pillows sit, plump and pretty, on the natural linen mattresses of the daybed.

We all know that Parisians are obsessed with fresh seasonal food and farm-crafted cheeses. But it wasn't until I walked around the corner from the aprtment into Barthelemy on the rue de Grenelle (the best and perhaps smallest cheese shop in Paris), that I saw baskets of goose eggs for sale, along with the world of French farm-made cheeses.

I glanced over twenty different goat cheeses, all individually shaped, as the assistant asked me when I would be eating the cheese. Tonight. Did I want it creamy, runny, firm, dry, soft? I chose a St Marcellin coated in marc. The short, smiling, sweetly-perfumed French man ahead of me was leaving triumphantly with a basket full of cheeses, a few goose eggs. I had never before seen a man trembling in anticipation of eating cheese.

Now I knew why there were few restaurants in this quartier-- where could be better than dining at home?

At the nearby fruit and vegetable shop, I inquired about the raspberries and peaches. When would I be eating them? Were they for eating now, later in the evening, perhaps? Tomorrow? Now, definitely. The polite shop owner deftly selected the appropriately ripe fruit and wrapped it is tissue.(YOU MUSTN'T TOUCH.)

And at yet another produce store around the corner, the assistant chose a lettuce, still slightly muddy and wet, but crisp and full of promise.

I dashed back across the street, and up the stairs to my apartment, to begin an evening of depraved cheese, salad and fruit degustation.. I'd bought a loaf of walnut studded country bread at Poilane, on the rue du Cherche-Midi earlier.

During my stay, I walked to the rue Jacob to window shop at all the antiquaires and art galleries, and to step inside the decorators' shops. Christian Liagre, the hot stylist of the design world, is just along the rue due Bac. I made several excursions to the Palais-Royale, walked to the Louvre (Northern European paintings are now a favorite), and to Laduree and W.H. Smith's bookstore, and Hermes. But the food rituals of my Left Bank neighborhood, one of the chicest in Paris though not one of the grandest, drew me inside the true heart of this world. Living in this apartment, stepping out into the swirl of everyday shopping and cooking, made me equally passionate about my bread and butter, fruit, salads, Mariage Freres tea, and press coffee. It was a pleasure to return there with armfuls of fresh milk, a bottle of olive oil, a little box of chocolates from Dalloyau, tied with satin ribbon.

I ventured forth down the rue due Bac in the direction of the Bon Marche department store, which reminded me so much of the old I. Magnin. There, blazered French women wrapped in Hermes scarves inspect cashmere sweaters and silk cardigans, holding them up to the light, checking them just as carefully and skeptically as they cast their critical eye over a peach or a bottle of wine.

I walked back along the other side of the street, trying on gloves in the gloves-and-umbrellas boutique, looking in the stylish windows of Blanc d'Ivoire (white-on-white bed linens and table adornments), and stalking antiques in dark and dusty stores along the way.

I got to know the flower-seller's grey Shar-pei dog, discovered in a little courtyard an antique shop that opened only in the evening, and found a laundry that hand-ironed linen blouses. And I spend quiet hours at the Musee Maillol, admiring the sculptures of Dina Vierny, muse and now art patron.

I've stayed in Paris at the handsome Hotel Bristol, at the Lancaster, and at the Hotel Raphael, a traditional favorite with a rooftop overlooking the Arc de Triomphe, and romantic hotels near the Louvre. But I never befriended the cheese man, and dined on white peaches chosen to be bitten into at exactly 8pm on a Friday night.

So I'm flying back to Paris this week. This time I'm staying in a different Chez Vous apartment on the Place St Andre des Arts in the 6th arrondissement. The rue de Buci market with extraordinary traditional vegetable and fruit stands and arrays of shellfish and finny creatures is just down the street. Perhaps I will finally get that shellfish recipe.

Diane Dorrans Saeks stayed at the "Domino" apartment. Chez Vous, 1001 Bridgeway, Ste 245, Sausalito, 94965, CA. Phone 415-331-2535, or Fax 415-331-5296. Request the detailed brochure. Or visit Reservations may be made up to one year in advance. Apartments decorated by Myra Hoefer, include two handsome garden courtyard apartments at 12 rue Jacob, 69 rue du Bac, and the apartment at 80 rue du Bac where the author stayed.