Monday, August 25, 2014

Missing Portland Food

The draft of this post dates back to September 2013, when I was just starting my second year in France, getting the runaround from various school administrators, and missing my friends and family. I happened to pick up a copy of that month's Saveurs magazine, where there was an article titled "Portland: Capital of Cool and Fresh [Food]" and it made me really miss Portland suddenly, and the food scene there. I'm still subscribed to the Portland Monthly e-mails, and usually check out the news of new restaurants, new chefs, new dishes, and all of the various exciting options that a diner has in that city. Tours was less than exciting. There were a lot of French restaurants that mostly served things I couldn't eat, or things I could perfectly well make for myself for much less money. There were ethnic restaurants that were okay, but not exciting, as most of the cuisine was modified to suit the French tastebuds - as it is in the United States, generally, I have to admit. Japanese restaurants were really pretty bad in the Tours region, with no-flavor rice and fromage frais or cream cheese in most rolls, or everything tempura-fried - well, that's the same as in the States, I suppose. And eating out is so expensive, even though prices for meat and produce can sometimes be surprisingly low. I cooked for myself all year in Tours, and though I was a regular client of the magic meat truck that came by every Friday, indulging myself with rillettes and rabbit in aspic, I rarely went out to eat.

The Portland Monthly newsletter has tempted me with memories of Portland Dining Month, and new restaurants where I could feast on gluten-free pies and pastries and gluten-free sandwiches and all of the things that are hard to find in France, though Paris has more and more places that serve them, as well as non-French restaurants that stay true to their original flavors. But in general, in my experience, while the ingredients are good, restaurant food is not all that great, and there is not a lot of variation in the dishes offered, even regionally. Of course there are specialties that are highlighted - crêpes and galettes in Brittany, duck confit in the southwest, things made with melted mountain cheese in the Jura and the Alps, seafood and rosé in Provence. But even then, finding a restaurant where you can get those specialties, done well and for a reasonable price, isn't always easy.

Home cooking in France is still good if you're lucky enough to live with a family, as I was this last year, chez Bergeras. A family who cooks, that is - it's a dying art in a way, as families scatter and people move from farm to city and parents get too busy to cook for their children, who then don't grow up with a tradition of cooking at home, and fall into the fast food and frozen entrée routine. Again, as has happened in the United States, speaking in general terms. Where people still cook, it's usually very traditional, although new cuisines and flavors are popular with the younger generation, who seem to be more willing to experiment. Tradition is the strength of French cooking as well as its weakness, and for many people if something isn't made like their mother makes it, it's not right, and people are sometimes reluctant to try new things. I noticed this 25 years ago when I lived with Lilian and tried to introduce him and his family to things like gnocchi and hamburgers and clam chowder, none of which were well known at the time. I doubt clam chowder is on any menu in France today, in fact, though le hamburger is everywhere these days, with a few restaurants in Paris that only serve gourmet burgers, and even a food truck that circles the Paris streets serving burgers and fries. Kristin Frederick came from California to go to cooking school in Paris, and ending up opening Paris' first food truck a few years ago. Others have followed, and I just read about a taco truck called Cantine California which recently opened a brick-and-mortar location.

I miss the food trucks in Portland, and my almost-weekly treat of a takeout lunch from the pod at 10th and Washington. Thai this week? How about Cuban (gluten-free!) or Ethiopian or Greek Brazilian Japanese Szechuan Indian Russian Paleo Grilled Cheese Only? I ate once or twice at Nong’s Khao Man Gai, and was interested to see the recipe for her famous poulet et riz à la Nong in the magazine article. I heard that she opened up a restaurant as well, last year I think? and that she just won $10,000 on Food Network's "Chopped." It was odd to read the recipe for her iconic dish, while sitting on a train in France.

I don't know how long I'll be in Portland when I go back next year - yes, I do plan on returning now! Look for me in early July - but I do know that I will enjoy exploring old favorites and new arrivals around town, food trucks and restaurants alike. I will of course need money to pay for my meals, so if anyone knows of short-term contract work that needs to be done next summer, do keep me in mind, please. Six months, I think, maybe? I might look for a technical writing gig; I can deal with day-long computer sessions (I've spent my last 10 days like that in fact) if it gets me the funds I will need to take off on another global adventure afterwards. But I will - and I do - miss things I could find in France, food-related and otherwise.

I miss being able to go into almost any corner store and find duck confit in plastic pouches ready to heat and serve, fresh quail eggs, jars of peeled and roasted chestnuts, and miles and miles of cheeses that I cannot eat. I miss walking by bakeries and yearning after the marvelous breads and pastries, and I miss the coffee - or at least the experience of drinking coffee in a Paris café. I miss the mobile meat truck in Tours, and I miss Jeannette's roast chicken with fried piper béarnais and plenty of salt. I miss the cheap wine, though it's probably quite a good thing that I do.

There were a few amazing meals in France, and the eternal fun of going to the farmers' markets and following the seasons through the produce for sale. And there are so many regions whose specialties I haven't yet tried, wines I haven't tasted, cheeses I haven't nibbled the very tiniest portions of, people I haven't met or worked with or interviewed, places I haven't walked or hiked or taken pictures. I will definitely be going back to France some day, but I am enjoying being in England now (though it is really NOT August weather, even for this latitude) and sampling its delights: fish and chips, oatcakes, cider, and of course food from every place that Britain once colonized. I am happy being where I am, remembering where I've been, and looking forward to the next adventure!

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