Merging cultures
A tale of food and wine pairing in Paris


- Susanna Danieli

Paris can be many things. Most of all, Paris is a combination of polar opposites.
On the one hand, the slow-paced way of life of parisiens, spent between lazy mornings and late- afternoon apéros at the perpetually packed bistrots; on the other hand, the very fast, very organized métro, which carries you virtually everywhere. Of course the romance, almost an intrinsic feature of Paris, especially experienced when strolling around, enjoying the many and breathtaking views while an inevitable accordion plays in the background: a kind of “la vie en rose” approach, dramatically opposed to the violence of the riots, most notably the Gilets jaunes movement, occasionally bursting and blocking the city centre (and the whole nation). Finally, the history and ostentation of a city symbol of style, fashion, joie de vivre, versus the disturbing poverty and danger of the banlieues.

All these elements and many others I didn’t mention make Paris what it is nowadays, to me a unique city I can’t help falling in love with every single time I visit. As a gastronome, perhaps the most striking difference is the one existing between the authority of French cuisine, an authority acquired since the 17th century, and the vibrant contamination of local cuisines from all over the world, brought by the impressive melting pot of ethnic groups living in Paris. Sometimes the influence is mutual, since many of the populations immigrating to France have been colonized by the French in the 19th and 20th century, borrowing language, customs and culture.

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Hence, on the one hand we have a strictly structured haute cuisine, with specific products and recipes; on the other hand, a profusion of culturally defined foods, each of them expressing the legacy of traditions coming from far away. Differences sometimes are hard to overcome: in this sense, food can be an immediate means of reciprocal understanding, a language that needs no words, expressing itself and its message merely by gustative pleasure.

So why can’t elements of diversity come together to create something new?

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Take two of them: French wine, a must (double meanings here are inevitable) for every wine lover, and Western African cuisine, coming from an area of great French influence. Waly Fay, a restaurant in Bastille (11th arrondissement), represents the cuisine of previous French and British colonies such as Senegal, Nigeria, Camerun, Côte d’Ivoire, serving hearty and lip-smacking dishes mainly based on seafood and chicken. To mention some: Pepe soupe, a seafood soup from Camerun, Yassa, a chicken-based recipe with carrots, onions and potatoes from Senegal, Thiep bou dien, rice with dried fish native to Senegal and Mali.

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The surprising feature of this modern and cozy restaurant? The wine list: it features small, independent and organic French vignerons, “qui aime la vie, la terre et la vigne” (who love life, soil and the vine). The wine producers are all récoltant-manipulants, meaning that they grow their own grapes and make their wine: the list is rather essential but it represents quite well the whole panorama of wine regions in France, with labels from Haute Savoie, Alsace, Bordeaux, Bourgogne, Champagne.
The match of French wine with Western African cuisine seems quite interesting, considering that dinner itself is a kind of compromise between a vegan-pescatarian (that would be me) and a meat-enthusiast (boyfriend likes challenges when it comes to food and wine pairing).

Our agreement on top of two main courses of chicken and maffé de légumes, a vegetable ragout served with rice, is on Famille Hebinger Alsace rouge 2016, a Pinot noir from Eguisheim, a lovely village near Colmar. The Hebingers have a biodynamic approach with bare minimum treatment of soil and plants,  the vineyard consisting of 11 hectares and four Grand Crus; the musts then turn to wine with the help of indigenous yeasts and spontaneous fermentation. Nature has the first and last word in this family-run domaine and the wine is as honest and authentic as the fulfilling dishes in front of us.

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Having experienced countless compromise-dinners like this, I know Pinot Noir is always a good deal to satisfy different tastes. Especially in this case, it represents the perfect bridge to merge not just our personal preferences but also the many flavors given by this incredible mélange of cultures. It is fresh, perfect to balance the greasiness of the chicken, and light, a delicate touch for the simple-structured yet scrumptious and juicy maffé; it is fruity and spicy, smoothing the zingy sensations given in particular by the apparently innocuous sauce on the table, the one we keep adding to our rice, notwithstanding its fire-chili effect on our tongues. Most importantly, this wine tastes good and it represents a culinary and cultural match to a truly pleasant dinner.

As I said before, food is perhaps the best communication device to understand the other, be it a person, a tribe, a nation. Still, this communication works even more effectively when we are able to share it, giving something to each other: when le Vin de France, THE wine by definition, meets nourishing ingredients such as these, cooked with passion and respectful towards their roots… can you imagine a better conversation?