Reading the cookery writer David Lebovitz’ description of cooking in his minute ‘cuisine americaine’ in his Paris apartment reminds me of the tiny little kitchen in my Parisian flat, not much bigger than a chambre de bonne (maid’s room) in the 20th arrondissement where I lived for 6 years.
Sloping roof, a chipped sink, barely enough room for a fridge. I only had a two ring camping gaz stove and a combination microwave. Desperate for a garden or some outside space, my teenager’s father and I used to barbeque on the little fireplace. I remember on a hot July day, grilling fresh sardines with mint leaves and swigging vino verde, hovering by the rather grand marble mantelpiece.
We grew herbs in the box perched outside the window overshadowed by the terrible ‘vis à vis’ view. ‘Overlooked’ would be an understated English term for it. I knew everything about my neighbour opposite: when he was alone, the joyful moment when he found a girlfriend, the sadness when she left, his routine, the time he got up, when he shaved or bathed, when he got home from work. The veritable metro/boulot/dodo. Life in Paris is not all romance. And yet we never exchanged a word.
One night, the floor below us, we heard some screaming. Looking down, we saw with alarm that a lady was trying to jump out of her kitchen window. Her husband was holding her back. She was five floors up. (1)
Later that year, while squeezed into the two person lift, we met the husband. (It’s hard to avoid someones glance in that close proximity). He informed us that his wife had jumped in front of a metro at Porte de Lilas, scene of Serge Gainsbourg’s classic song of the dreary quotidienne ‘Le Poinçonneur de lilas’.
I cooked some pretty good meals in that kitchen nonetheless. We dazzled our Parisian friends with home-made pasta, gratins, cassoulets (without meat) and something they knew nothing about: Indian food. We did discover some authentic Tamil Nadu restaurants down the street to the right hand side of Gard du Nord, on the Rue du Faubourg St-Denis, but in general Indian food in France is just wrong. The French try to turn it into a formal, course by course, meal.
- the Arabic cafés on Avenue de Ménilmontant, where they served sweet fresh mint leaf tea with a sprinkling of pine nuts, now a favourite drink at home
- Chartier; the food is not great but very cheap. The Art Nouveau room is glorious and the waiters are delightfully rude, scrawling your bill on the paper tablecloths.
- Au pied de cochon, in Les Halles, another beautiful interior, but being mid-range in price, I only went there when my mother took me.
Most of my friends were French but I had one American girl friend who taught me, in addition, how to cook Mexican food with a measure of accuracy.