1 year ago
Monday, June 13, 2011
A few decades ago, back when I was but a callow youth, I often thought about traveling to France.
My knowledge of the language then was -- 'ow you say? -- rudimentary. (Later I was to work in France and live in France and I became reasonably fluent, though I still manage to make my share of grammatical errors, I assure you.)
Anyway, in those days one of the things that fascinated me about that country was its cuisine. For example, I was especially interested in the dish the French called “Coquilles St. Jacques.” For some reason, the local restaurant in my American home town, although it had such gourmet specialties as cheeseburgers, didn’t have this particular item on their menu so I could only imagine what it must be like.
I began to read up on it. (Many years before Google, of course.)
“St. Jacques” is the way the French spell “St. James.” (They always had trouble with spelling. :-))
For centuries, it seems that pilgrims would make their way to the shrine of St. James in Spain, and they’d usually have a scallop shell symbol on their hat or clothes. Note the shell on St. Jim’s chest, above. There’s a legend that he had rescued a knight who had fallen into the water and who emerged covered with scallop shells.
From this came a classic French dish: St. Jim’s Shells, or Coquilles St. Jacques.
I read about this dish with great interest. I decided that when I finally got to make my trip to France I’d order it as my first authentic French meal. I learned that in its classic version some sea scallops would squat in their own half-shell, added and abetted by mushrooms and shallots and of course some white wine, all swimming in a delicious bechamel sauce and topped with bread crumbs that would brown in the oven.
I couldn’t of course be sure, but it seemed to me it might almost taste as good as a cheeseburger.
Anyway, I finally arrived in Paris: on the very first day, knowing very little French, I went to a restaurant. I was starving. I was ready to say to the waiter: “Coquilles St. Jacques – lay it on me!” I stared at the menu. I was surprised to see that it appeared nowhere on the sheet. That place offered fifty different dishes, but my favorite was definitely not there. Disappointed, I then didn’t know what to order. I wanted something typically French but I had literally no idea what any of the dishes were that were listed on that menu.
I decided to go with one of the items that seemed to be perhaps more French than anything else listed. It was "choucroute." It had such a Gallic feel to it. I could pronounce it okay, even if I didn't know what it was. I was sure it was a classic example of gourmet cuisine, a piece, as they say over there, of resistance.
When the waiter brought it to me I nearly fell off my chair. My first day in France, my first meal in a fine, expensive French restaurant, and I had not only not been able to have my St. Jim’s Shells, I had ordered -- SAUERKRAUT!
Took a few days to get over that experience. :-)