Picnicking on Bastille Day

When asked to come up with a typical Bastille Day picnic, presumably to parallel the 4th of July American picnic, I had visions of oeufs en gelée, (poached eggs in aspic), saumon en croute, and foie gras. But in conversations with my history mentor in Paris, I was soon reminded that Bastille Day is a day to celebrate the lower class bringing down the royalty, aristocracy, and everything they represent. One does not clink champagne glasses and eat caviar on a day like this! Typically one doesn’t go on a picnic either. Instead, you hit the streets. First to attend the military parade – full of red, white and blue – then to walk along and settle at one of the local wine bars. Tables are set out on the pavement and everyone ambles the afternoon and evening away, drinking seasonal wine and noshing on tasty bits and pieces. I spent every 14 Juillet that I lived in Paris at a local bar on rue Montorgueil behind the St. Eustache Church. A couple friends and I would venture through the city cheered by the exhilarating energy of the crowds. We found this bar by chance just across the street from a fabulous fruit and vegetable shop, Les Vergers St. Eustache, which specializes in exceptional produce and supplies the Grand Hotels, and a spice shop that has every exotic fragrance you can imagine. We would squeeze through the minuscule bar overflowing with people, make our way back out to the street and the long wooden tables already occupied by whole families. The men would gallantly get up and offer a seat. Small jelly jars and a brown pitcher of the house red were brought to us. All around, people were chatting, singing and eating. A plate of saucisson, rillette and pâté navigated its way to our end of the table with chunks of fresh baguette. Here I first learned about how the baguette came to be. It seems that Napoleon I, who—besides becoming Emperor of France—spent years in the artillery leading many an army through the foothills of France and elsewhere, had a major concern: Too much room in his soldiers’ haversacks was being taken up by their provisions. He realized that the round loaf of country bread that they each put at the bottom of their bags was much to blame. So, he approached the army baker and commanded him to come up with a solution in order to make room for ammunition. This is when the baguette was born. With the bread now slim enough to be placed in each leg of their trousers, the sack was left empty for more necessary equipment. The baguette is the first item for our picnic. Look for a long, airy one with a crisp, flaky crust. Already makes you feel like you’re in France, doesn’t it? Next, we need to find some tasty meats that are easy to carry. A hard saucisson, or sausage, spiced with fennel and peppercorns; some sliced ham that had been baked with rosemary; a country duck or rabbit pâté; and rillettes. Rillettes is a fabulous specialty made from either pork or duck meat that has been cooked for hours in its own fat and then shredded. It sounds quite excessive but once you taste it with a crunchy cornichon and a dab of mustard on a hunk of baguette, you’ll be a convert. Because it’s summer, you should pick up some radishes, cucumbers, carrots, cherry tomatoes and any other vegetable in season. Simply wash, peel, and cut them, and serve with some sea salt to accompany the other food. Next there is cheese. We’re talking working classes here so the selection should be basic: A perfectly ripened Camembert, some Brie, a sliver of Roquefort and a fresh Chèvre (goat cheese). Perfect. With this, I would serve some grapes and crackers. Finally, you should be a bit more flamboyant with dessert. Cherries are in season so a cherry Clafouti* sounds like a winner, or a more sophisticated Tarte Tatin made with peaches, or simply a tart made with whatever fruit tempts you. A good Beaujolais should be served slightly chilled on these warm days and a typical French drink for children is eau a la menthe, which is water with mint syrup. Generally the syrup is available at specialty food stores but you can make your own by bringing a cup of water to a boil with a cup of sugar until it melts, then adding a cup of fresh mint leaves, simmering for 3 minutes before straining. It doesn’t have the color but it has the pizzazz. Back in Paris, once the sun goes down and all are satiated, it is time to go to Les Bals des Pompiers, a yearly tradition hosted by the fire brigades in every arrondissement (also held the night before Bastille Day). This is every girl’s opportunity to dance with a fireman at the stations around the city. But if there is no fire brigade in your area, just pick the first volunteer who comes your way and do the cancan.
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