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Published: Tuesday, 3/20/2012

Postcard from France


SOMEWHERE OVER THE ATLANTIC OCEAN -- The latest fad in France on television? Shows depicting heavily overweight and obese people trying to change their habits and lose weight.

So much for the rumor that all French people are thin.

I can see how it happens. I have spent the last 10 days eating what seemed to be nothing but cream, butter, sugar, chocolate, and bread. It is entirely possible that I ate my weight in macarons, which is quite a feat considering they weigh next to nothing and I am not a small man.

A friend once went to Paris and sent back a postcard I remember to this day. He wrote, "Creme brulee every night for dinner, and sometimes lunch." Macarons -- two impossibly light and delicate almond-meringue shells surrounding a center of flavored sweet cream (they're like the world's best Oreos) -- have replaced creme brulee as the current fashionable treat, but the result was very nearly the same. Not every night for dinner, not quite, but often, and sometimes lunch.

As I write this, I am on a plane heading back to the United States after my first trip to France, but not my last. I have eaten my way across a vast swath of Paris and Normandy, endeavoring to sample the best that the food-crazed country has to offer. Actually, I'm a little surprised the plane got off the ground.

I decided to stick to the classics, the foods that have contributed to giving France its well-deserved reputation as having perhaps the best cuisine in the world. I had duck a l'Orange in a little arcade in Paris, and with it I had a salad made with duck gizzards, a concoction so exemplary I cannot understand why it has not caught on in this country.

Oh yeah. The gizzards. People don't like gizzards. But perhaps they should try them; this salad was divine.

I had the best steak tartare of my life -- the secret was a liberal amount of lemon juice -- and an astonishing dish of stewed scallops over risotto in a cream sauce. Other than the scallops, it tasted like stewed cream with cream.

I had foie gras and a cheese omelette and crepes Suzette, all in the same meal. I had a leg of lamb that had been cooked for seven hours and served in a building dating back to the 1400s (but it was the late 1400s, so it wasn't really old). I had a marvelously prepared seafood pot au feu, each flavor distinct but uniting in a harmonious blend. I sampled pureed vegetable soups and fish soups (pureed and not pureed, with and without cream). And I absolutely devoured what unquestionably rates as the best street food I have ever had, an enormous crepe cooked with a beaten egg, shredded Emmentaler cheese, and sauteed mushrooms.

And of course I had to have a glass of champagne before many meals. What could be more Parisian?

Clearly, the French know how to cook and eat. Even at a cheap and more than unusually ugly airport-area hotel, the 24-hour room service included an offering of salmon en papillote. I didn't order it, but I'm certain it would have been remarkable; at an equally cheap and perhaps even uglier chain restaurant next door, I thoroughly enjoyed a dinner of chicken en brochette with a terrine of salmon and frommage blanc.

Incredibly, other than the people shown nightly on TV, nearly all the French people I saw really were thin. I don't know how they do it. One obvious way is that their portions are smaller than ours, much smaller. And presumably they don't ravage the menus with quite the same gusto that I did.

And why did I subject myself to so much glorious food? Why did I selflessly gorge myself, night after night, with such delicacies?

I did it all for you, the readers. And that glass of champagne I just enjoyed on the plane while I was writing this? That was for you too.

You're welcome.

Contact Daniel Neman at dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.

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