One of the many benefits of living in a "socialist" (horror!) country like France is that workers are genuinely well looked after. Admittedly, this is less of a bonus from an employer's point of view, especially when coupled with that nasty tendency to strike and the near impossibility of firing an incompetent employee. However, if you are an employee - competent or not - the benefits are obvious. A minimum of five weeks of holiday every year, in addition to a slew of public holidays. Great unemployment benefits should the impossible occur and you find yourself out of work. A government agency whose sole purpose is to help you find a job, for free. And in addition, companies are obliged to either provide a cafeteria which supplies cheap, healthy food or give their employees tickets restos, lunch vouchers that can be exchanged for food in nearly every restaurant in the city and many supermarkets too. Who says there's no such thing as a free lunch? I was woefully unaware of this issue for the first ten years I lived in Paris for the simple reason that the international organisation where I worked had a snack bar, a cafeteria and a restaurant on site. When I went to work for a French law firm near the Champs-Elysées, I was surprised and delighted to find that in addition to my salary, I would benefit from just under nine euros for lunch every day, rain or shine. Admittedly, food around the Champs is not cheap and several of my colleagues complained that it simply wasn't enough for a "proper" meal. But for an American who was happy with a nice salad or sandwich, it was plenty. I generally ended up with a dozen or more of them left at the end of the year, which I happily distributed to the homeless population of Paris. They were happy to have such a generous donation; I was happy knowing that they would have to use it to buy food. Win-Win.
I spent the first few weeks exploring the neighborhood around my office, scoping out the cafés with the best service and cheapest good food. And I found my local - complete with a nice grumpy waiter who looked out for regulars like a trouper - on the avenue FDR. I won't bother giving the address here, because the last time I was there it had changed beyond recognition and my favorite grumpy waiter was gone. But for the two years I worked in the neighborhood, I was there at least a couple of times a week. And at least once a week - until I got pregnant* - I had the World's Best Salad: la Salade des Landes. Seriously, my mouth is watering just thinking about it. Imagine a mixture of tender lettuce leaves tenderly dressed with a tangy, very mustardy vinaigrette. Add sweet tomatoes. Then add meaty gésiers confits (preserved gizzards - trust me, they are heaven on a plate and not at all gamey) and magret de canard (smoked duck breast). Then add two thick slabs of foie gras and hot toast. All for just under nine euros. Is it any wonder I loved that place? I don't miss Paris often, but I do feel a pang when I remember those tranquil (one hour) lunches with no children pulling on my sleeve or running wild, just a good book and a delicious salad for company. Sigh. Not that I don't love my harum-scarum boys, mind you, but I'd love a tranquil lunch break sometimes.
And on that note, this lovely salad was consumed to the sound of Tom and Jerry on the computer, two year old shrieks and mayhem. But it was still delicious. No foie gras, mind you, but then again I'm on a diet nowadays. Weight watchers points: 2. Win-win.
*A note for any pregnant visitors to France: French people, including restaurant workers, have what many Americans would consider a somewhat cavalier attitude about food safety issues. Eggs are not refrigerated in supermarkets and salads are - frequently - cut with the same knife that just finished filleting a chicken breast. On the same unwashed chopping board. For this reason, doctors in France advise pregnant women not to eat salads in restaurants, for fear of toxoplasmosis or salmonella. At home, you can ensure that the lettuce is well washed and my doctor even advised soaking it for 15 minutes in a water to which a tablespoon of vinegar had been added.
Salade des Landes Anglaises
mixed lettuce leaves (in France, you can buy a mix usually referred to as "mesclun")
a handful of cherry tomatoes
50 g chicken livers
2 small cooked beets
For the dressing:
1 heaped teaspoon of French mustard (Maille for preference)
1 generous tablespoon of red wine vinegar
1 tsp olive oil
salt, to taste
a dash of tarragon
In a non-stick pan, melt a pat of butter (for WW purposes, I only used half a teaspoon, but a little more would never go amiss). When it is good and frothing, but not brown, add the livers. Sear them quickly and then turn over. I follow the advice of an old French grandmother who told me how she cooked foie de veau and tend to cook over a very high heat, turning frequently so that the meat does not burn. Remove from the pan when the meat is just barely pink in the center and tender.
Wash the lettuce leaves and dry them. Mix all the dressing ingredients in a small jar. Toss the lettuce in the vinaigrette, reserve a little. Dress the salad with the tomatoes, beets and chicken livers, the latter cut into smaller pieces. Drizzle the remaining vinaigrette over the meat, tomatoes and beets. Consume with enthusiasm and dream of tranquil Parisian lunches and grumpy waiters.