Friday, March 25, 2011

Spatulas, cigarette butts, and hygiene

I went to E. Dehillerin a few days ago, the Parisian Mecca of professional food equipment, and got a spatula. I used to have a big wooden spoon that I used to stir rice, but one day it fell out of the dish rack and behind the refrigerator, where I couldn't get to it without moving the washing machine. So I bought another one at the supermarket, a cheapie. Unfortunately, it started to deteriorate after a while, so a couple of days ago, while I was in the neighborhood, I stopped at this fascinating store and got myself a wooden spatula of very nice quality for €4.97 (about $4,278,991 at the current exchange rate). As (lack of) luck would have it, a day after bringing it home, while it was still in the bag, I banged against the dish rack and the other spoon fell behind the refrigerator, inaccessible. I suppose that one day there will be a small hill of trapped wooden cooking implements piled behind the fridge. But since I had my smooth new spatula, it was okay, and I could still make rice.

Anyway, this store is very cool, apart from the apparent lack of a second fire exit as required by city ordinance (I have a thing about proper fire exits, as my trillions of readers may have noted from previous posts). It has been around for a very long time, and it has just about anything a professional cook or chef de cuisine might want. One occasionally sees chefs shopping while still in uniform, presumably because they've discovered that they need something urgently. The shop is open to all, however, and on the day I went, it was crowded mostly with tourists—and I suppose these were tourists who like to cook.

Since E. Dehillerin caters to the professional, some of the things it carries aren't very practical for home cooking enthusiasts. You can buy stainless steel pots the size of a water heater that can hold soup enough for a hundred of your closest friends, with giant spoons to match. But there are also many things that are useful to anyone, even someone with no cooking skill such as myself (the spatula I bought is an example). Some of the stuff is pretty cool, like silicone muffin molds that will stay flexible even at subfreezing temperatures and remain unaffected by even the hottest oven temperatures. They also have lots of tools that I can't identify, like sharp things, and things with holes and hinges. One of the mystery tools in the latter category turned out to be a garlic press, which I learned after a friend who went with me to the store identified it for me (she was vastly more competent at cooking than I am).

The items they sell are just piled in boxes. There are no fancy displays. You're expected to know what you want when you walk in. If you know what you want, chances are that they have it. The ground floor is crowded with shelves that hold all sorts of implements, like knives and spoons and things, and then the basement features really large items, like the aforementioned stainless gigapot.

The store also sells attractive and expensive items like huge copper pans for cooking fish. They're beautiful to look at, although I don't have a need to cook four-foot fish in my own pseudo-kitchen. They carry high-quality cast-iron stuff like Le Creuset as well. The emphasis is on functionality, though, not on things that look pretty when hanging unused on a hook.

For someone who likes to cook, this store is probably a bit like Disneyland. It has a lot of atmosphere, too, with its creaky wooden stairway down into the basement and all. The staff obviously specializes in dealing with professionals, but they are nice to everyone, and if you know approximately what you want and can describe it, they can often quickly isolate the utensil that you're looking for.

They do have a small selection of cheesy kitchen items, presumably to please the tourists. I think a lot of people come in and look around even though they don't really cook much, and the cute salt shakers and what-not are probably intended for them.

Moving right along … someone pointed out to me not long ago that French people have a tremendous tendency to throw cigarette butts all over the place, and while I was walking around yesterday, I realized that this is true. In front of every building of any size, and in front of bars and restaurants, there are metric tons of cigarette butts littering the ground. This is true even when no other litter is in evidence, which implies that for every piece of paper or candy wrapper that French people toss on the ground, they toss a dozen or so cigarette butts. Given how addicted many French people are to tobacco, plus the fact that they cannot legally smoke indoors, I guess this is understandable. The French are not prone to pick up after themselves, anyway. Fortunately, Paris has an army of street cleaners that struggle to clean up the mess early every morning—otherwise Parisians would be buried in their own garbage in 24 hours.

I was also reminded yesterday of the fact that France still lags a bit in hygiene practices with respect to the rest of Europe. I went to the food court at the Louvre to buy some pizza and a cannolo, and felt very irritated by the fact that there are no restrooms or lavatories there. No way to wash your hands before eating, and no way to wash them after. If you want to wash your hands or use the toilet, you have to go to a different floor and pay money. I guess the idea is to give gastroenteritis as a free gift to as many Louvre visitors as possible.

And, by the way, the prices have skyrocketed at the Louvre since the coming of the Apple Store. The highway-restaurant chain that operates almost all the restaurants in the food court today charges caviar prices for extremely mediocre food. Each slice of dry, hard, old pepperoni pizza was €6. Pizza, a cannolo, and some mineral water came to €16.90, which is almost 90 minutes of salary for me. Maybe I should have just bought a cannolo and nothing else, which was expensive enough. Or I could have gone to the McDonald's there, which sells hamburgers for €1 each.

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