Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Prosciutto Sandwich

The Rue de Joinville in the 19th arrondissement is officially open to traffic on Sunday mornings, but few motorists bother to turn onto the street:  these are the hours when pedestrians take over.  Singletons and families stroll down the middle of the lane, trailing trolley carts behind them, on their way to and from the open-air market at the Place de Joinville.

The marché is no place for anyone who’s in a hurry, or who likes their shopping uncluttered and compartmentalized.  Lines move at a snail’s pace here; shoppers squeeze between stalls and the trees that inconveniently interrupt the pavement. You try not to disturb the grapefruit stacked in pyramids on the edges of tables; you ignore the nearest vegetable vendor who’s trying to catch your eye to sell off his last bunches of mâche.  There is heckling at the market, in Arabic as often as in French; there are urchins who nimbly rush to you, hands outstretched, in the moment after you’ve paid for your fruit but before you’ve put your wallet away.  When it’s warm, like it is today, the heat only intensifies the claustrophobia and  the smell of fish.

I go to the marché around noon today on a mission from a friend who has told me that I need to make myself a prosciutto sandwich with a slathering of butter if I want to experience meat in all its glory.  I put The Decemberists on shuffle on my iPod—their desperate, messy exoticism seems appropriate for the market—and start working my way through a crowd of rotund older women in headscarves, Chinese men in polo shirts, Hasidic Jews in fedoras with their daughters in full-length skirts.   I sidle past arrangements of bumpy heirloom tomatoes, gaping fish as big as your thigh, baskets of ground yellow spices, pickles, logs of cheese.  I slink around incongruous stalls selling trinkets, batteries, watches; I pass the clothing booths with plastic-wrapped pairs of jeans and heaps of colorful, shoddily-made brassieres.  

Finally I find the charcuterie stall and see, behind some suspiciously gray boudins blancs nestled in a plastic container, a dried ham that’s already been cut into. 

“What you have there, is that prosciutto?” I ask the pretty girl behind the counter, trying to pronounce the Italian word with a French accent.

“We have Savoie and Parme,” she says, and I ask for the Parme, thinking that it’s close enough—I don’t find out until I get home to Wikipedia that jambon de Parme is the French term for prosciutto.  I ask for five thin slices, and the girl carefully operates the electric meat slicer, letting delicate pink shavings fall from the slab of meat onto a square of red and white paper, which she then folds into a small rectangle.

I stop at the bread stand on the way back home and get the baker’s last remaining half of a pain pavé—that long, flat loaf with a thick crust and chewy interior—then I return to my apartment.  I feel satisfied to have made my way successfully through the market.

I want my prosciutto sandwich to be perfect, and I have everything planned out.  Once home, I slice the bread in half lengthwise and smear it generously with Président butter.  I lovingly arrange the ham on top of the butter, squeeze the sandwich shut, and wrap it in the brown paper in which the bread came.  With my sandwich, a bottle of Puits St. Georges mineral water, a bed sheet and a novel, I walk to the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, spread the sheet on a grassy knoll, and sit back.

My surroundings are ideal—calm, quiet, unhurried—but the sandwich is not what I expected.  The prosciutto has a flavor that’s salty, sweet, musky; each bite hits me with a new kind of intensity.  The ham’s texture belies its delicate appearance.  It does not respond to my teeth in the way I would like it to.  I have to pull and gnaw and sometimes get my fingers involved to obtain reasonably sized mouthfuls.  The meat’s fat is hard and disturbingly inflexible, not soft and innocuous like fat from the plant kingdom. 

The sandwich is contentious, overwhelming, messily exotic. 

But I am satisfied once I have made my way through it.

1 comment:

Ann said...

Glad the pig was satisfying. I imagined you saying "Cinq tranches, s'il vous plaît." It would be interesting to see how the prosciutto of the Monoprix or Champion variety compares.