Grimod de la Reynière unreservedly deemed Paris the best city in the world for veal and I cannot but concur with him. Although raised on meat from a high-quality butcher in Brooklyn and having indulged in some rather splendid veal-based meals in Italy and other parts of the world, I confess that it wasn’t until I’d eaten veal in Paris that I became a fanatic.
In Grimod’s view, the explanation for the French capital’s superior veal lay in the dual facts that Parisians willingly paid premium prices for their veal (and they still do), which ensured that calves destined for the capital received the best care; and the fact that the city’s officials more rigorously enforced rules governing this tender meat. He especially singled out the prohibition on the sale of meat from calves younger than six weeks old. Younger calves, Grimod explained, have “insipid and watery flesh.”
In his day, Pontoise, about 35 km outside of the city (20 miles), had become the leading center for calve-rearing for the “white veal,” especially beloved by Parisians. He ranked it top on his list of sources for the best veal, followed by Rouen, Caen and Montargis.
Strangely enough, in earlier centuries the veal had come to Paris from even further away. However, the seemingly insatiable demand for it that developed there through the course of the eighteenth century led to the rapid expansion of rearing in Pontoise. By 1837, Pontoise provided roughly 70% of the city’s veal. However, according to agricultural historian Olivier Fanica, as early as 1844 the new railway lines had already virtually eradicated production there in favor of Gâtinais and Brie, then subsequently Champagne, which remains a large producer.
Today, the region of Corrèze, 480 km south of Paris (300 miles), provides the city’s most prized veal, with the best coming with a “label rouge” guaranteeing that the calf has been nourished exclusively on its mother’s milk. The most sought after of all are delivered straight from the farm. If the origin of Parisian veal has changed, the city’s gourmands remain devotees of the palest veal possible, a factor determined largely by diet.
Grimod’s audience of Parisians in 1803 had a near obsession with the stuff. Over a century-and-a-half later France stood as the world’s largest producer and consumer of veal, with Paris topping the list in the latter category. Now, another forty years on, although overall consumption has fallen, as it has with all red meats, CRÉDOC estimates that the average French adult eats this luxury meat 1.5 times a week — and that statistic again includes the vegetarians who bring down the curve.
Grimod de la Reynière favored the kidney as the most “elegant” portion and that best suited to sophisticated tables. If that organ has lost its highbrow status, it remains an iconic classic of French cuisine, frequently found on the menus of old-guard restaurants. It’s the sort of hearty dish that merits a nod of approval from bloated old gourmands.
Tête de veau (calve’s head) hold’s an equally mythic status in French cultural identity. Grimod conjectured, “but who has not eaten an unembellished calves’ head, simply boiled in its skin and eaten with a sharp sauce?” That would be something of an exaggeration in the current generation; nevertheless, Jacques Chirac not many years ago milked the dish’s symbolic potency to great political effect. The former French president pointedly and repeatedly cited the dish as his personal favorite (in fact, he’s still doing so in retirement). Although he was born in Paris, his grandparents hailed from Corrèze. By explaining that a taste for it was in his blood, he connected himself to agrarian France. Beyond that, calf’s head resonated with voters as solid, working-class fare of a distinctly Gallic bent. Indeed, during the Chirac era a chatty Parisian taxi driver, upon learning that I was interested in French gastronomy, assured me that he placed great confidence in France’s leader because he was a man who loved tête de veau.
In addition to calf’s kidneys, head and liver — items that remain readily available at local cafés and restaurants — Grimod de la Reynière lauded that one could make much with the caul, ears, feet, tongue and even the eyeballs and innards. Of these latter parts, only the tongue remains commonplace at markets and butchers although the rest can be found with a bit of looking.
On the other hand, the sweetbreads that Grimod felt appropriate for numerous entrées continue to hold a high status in Paris’s more elevated dining establishments (and a commensurately steep price of about 50 € a kilo from vendors at the outdoor markets). I’m especially fond of bouchées à la reine, purportedly named for queen Marie Leczszynska (1703—1768), wife of Louis XV and daughter of Stanislas, the exiled King of Poland, who employed several notable pastry makers. Bite-sized pieces of sweetbreads together with chicken breast and Paris mushrooms are blanketed in a rich cream sauce and stuffed into individual puff-pastry shells.
For a simpler yet no less delicious standby, any decent Parisian butcher would be happy to cut you a piece of veal roast, which comes expertly tied up with a bit of extra fat around it and ready to pop into the oven. Last winter I prepared one for a then ten-year-old friend, who sat down somewhat skeptically before this unfamiliar dish. One bite converted him. “It melts in your mouth like butter,” he declared. Being the true Parisian that he is, he now rates it just below foie gras on his list of all-time favorite foods. Grimod would very much approve.
(c) Carolin C. Young, 2013.