I was walking down Broadway in the historic rain that threatened my birthday celebrations last weekend, when I was suddenly filled with an urge for mushrooms on toast. Enjoyed sometime in my past, the taste of this dish was strong in my mouth, dense, savory and pungent, but the memory itself evaded me. Baffled but undaunted, at the Union Square Greenmarket I filled a paper bag with light, smooth shitakes, fat, brown criminis and a single, leathery maitake mushroom. Carrying them home, avoiding puddles and wayward splashes from speeding taxis, I tried to recall what had driven me to them. Was it because mushrooms pop up after a rain? Was the loamy scent of the passing storm, hanging over the city like a mist, responsible for my cravings?
Mushrooms, like leeks or artichokes, require patience to prepare. Gently wiping the soil off each one with a dampened towel, I had time to examine their fleshy shapes, their variously flattened or bulbous heads, short and elongated stems and feathery ribs. The maitake stood alone like a dark geode, intricately crinkled, that when cut in half revealed a gray trunk.
Along with the others, I finely chopped the maitake and sautéed my shrooms in clarified butter. After toasting small rounds of baguette, I rubbed each with a clove of garlic and a sprinkling of gray sea salt, then topped alternating pieces with a warm pile of mushrooms or a soft slab of fresh mozzarella cheese.
It wasn’t until I bit into the first piece that it hit me. Mushrooms, bruschetta, rain…Paris. One afternoon, several years ago, I’d had the most delicious bruschetta avec mushrooms in a little bistro in Les Halles.
It was an awful day. By my second afternoon in Paris, I was already bruised, battered and horrifically hung-over. The day before had been spent ducking in and out of various cafes; an omelette aux chanterelles here, a croque monsieur there, and always, always, a bottle of red wine. With the rain pouring down as wetly and impolitely as it could, there was really nothing to do but eat and drink, and so we did.
My experience of springtime in Paris was not exactly Billie Holiday’s ode to love and longing, but it certainly did inspire, “a feeling that no one can ever reprise.” Sometime around 2am, after far too many gin and tonics had been consumed at what I can only dimly recall as a “very expensive hotel,” we ended up at the base of the Eiffel Tower. I don’t remember how we got there—probably just a mad dash toward a glow in the distance—but I can tell you that, if you want to see the tower without the stampeding hordes of tourists, 2am is the way to go.
After spinning around underneath and dizzying myself with the whirling lights, I finally collapsed in a taxi, giving my driver the unpronounceable address of my hotel, located on a one-way street a single block long in the heart of Montparnasse. It was a long drive home.
The next morning I was hurting. My companion and I gamely roused ourselves around 11, ate a petit déjeuner of bread and jam, and took off for a rigorous walking tour. After dragging him across the Seine, down the Champs-Elysées, all along the Rue de Rivoli (stopping for a mesmerizing cup of hot chocolate at Angélique), through the Jardin des Tuileries, and past the Louvre, all in the pouring rain, he was exhausted and hungry. I was still queasy, high on adrenaline, and too mesmerized by the diamonds in the Dior shop windows to think of food. I was feeling Parisian, and marvelously thin.
We had ended up near Les Halles, the former marketplace of Paris. In nearly every book about Paris or Parisian food pre-1970, Les Halles makes an appearance; not always in the kindest of lights, but my brain whitewashes mentions of rats, dirt and other unsanitary conditions and replaces them with bucolic visions of Frenchmen bustling to and fro with baguettes, heaps of radishes and potatoes spilling onto the sidewalks, butchers wrapping up fresh meat and everywhere the song and dance of Parisian restaurant life. You’d think I’d never read George Orwell!
Nevertheless, the market was razed and replaced with a shopping mall. It was into this general area that we had wandered, and in front of a nondescript Italian bistro my companion finally put his foot down. Food, rest and drinks were imperative. I was not impressed. Italian food in Paris! Quelle horreur! But after walking and window-shopping for hours, fueled by nothing but jam, bread and chocolate, I relented. I then proceeded to order the lightest thing on the menu: bruschetta with mushrooms.
The mushrooms were extraordinary. Despite being only 24 hours in Paris, I’d already discovered that mushrooms, chanterelles in particular, could be found on nearly every menu. I can’t imagine what Paris must be like in the fall when mushroom season truly begins. The French, quite unlike Americans, consider mushroom picking in the country to be a delightful family foraging excursion. Me, I’d probably pick the amanitas and spend the rest of my country vacation in the hospital. For the rest of the trip, I saw mushrooms everywhere—on pastas, in omelets, with salads and on pizzas. I ate the marvelous champignons every day, and washed them all down with vin de table.
This was what I remembered last weekend. The rain may have done it, recalling somewhere in the depths of my memory that warm rain in Paris so many Aprils ago. Or it could have been the window shopping; looking into the stores on Broadway, perhaps I remembered Hermès on the Rue Saint-Honoré, watching the women at the counter as they unfolded a rainbow of scarves by throwing them into the air. Perhaps it was the French wine I’d uncorked the night before, washing my nose in notes of Burgundy on Paris afternoons.
The next morning I folded the leftover mushrooms and some truffle oil into beaten eggs for a musky omelet, and channeled Coco Chanel over toast. I’m thinking a return to Paris may be très nécessaire.