Sunday, November 15, 2009

You Say Tomato, I Say What The Hell's That? 11/15/09

Will I ever taste a real tomato again?

Will I ever again taste a tomato that is distinguishable from a sprout?

These are some of the questions I find myself asking every week as I dive among the bruised supermarket pulp here and try, in vain, to find just one ripe, full, firm fruit that smells and tastes as a tomato should.

The smell that greets you in your greenhouse when those first tomato plants start to grow; the smell of summer when you pick the fruits for your first salad; the smell that comes upon you suddenly, after the fish, the freshly-baked bread and the mouldy cheese in a Paris market.

The smell that is unmistakably, gloriously, sweet, earthy and beckoningly, nothing but tomato.

Everyone warned me that Californian fruit and veg tastes of nothing, and they were right. And I never feel more homesick than on a Sunday morning, when I remember my weekend routine in Paris, where I lived for eight years before coming to LA: waking to the sun climbing between ancient rooftops, walking along the Seine to the Bastille, drinking coffee while listening to the debate in the philosophical café, and wandering the length of the market where sea salt, Indian spices, chicken cooking on a spit, wine and lettuce compete for attention.

And tomatoes. Yes, real tomatoes. Baby tomatoes. Plum tomatoes. Tomatoes on the vine. Tomatoes as big as pumpkins (okay: small pumpkins). Red, green, purple, yellow, white.

The only Sunday market in Beverly Hills features a few over-priced stalls next to the busy Santa Monica freeway, where you might as well buy a cabbage as a peach, for all the difference in taste.

So, last weekend, it was a joy to re-experience my old routine when I returned to the City of Light that is my favourite place on Earth.

Well, it is my favourite place on Earth for tomatoes, but, as I discovered this time round, there are ways in which California spoils you that make Europe, and in particular France, feel as if you have been sent to Coventry by entire nations – a bit like getting nul points in the Eurovision Song Contest.

When I lived in Paris, I was never someone who complained about the service, which I always found so much better than in the UK I felt blessed if a waiter so much as acknowledged me within the first ten minutes of sitting down. On Saturday afternoon, however, I left four restaurants after being seated and then ignored for well over ten minutes in each one.

I went to Orange to sort out a problem with my French phone, and despite speaking French throughout, could not have endured less communication than if I had tried to make a trunk call by holding an elephant to my ear.

The problem with France’s service industry is that wherever employees are on the ladder, they know that they are pretty much going to stay there; that’s why some restaurants have staff who have been there for decades.

In the States, the spirit of optimism that infects the nation makes service staff always feel as if they are en route to something bigger and better. That optimism might often be misplaced, but it is as if the whole country is in permanent audition mode, knowing that if they tread the boards just that little bit longer, they will hit the big time.

As a middle-aged woman who regularly dines alone, I am never made to feel like a second-class citizen in LA. I am not shunted off to a dark corner of the bar if I express a preference to sitting at a table, and the best staff also remember their customers, irrespective of how often those customers frequent the establishment.

Take Greg of the Beverly Hills Hotel Polo Lounge. Greg hasn’t seen me since last November, but still remembered that I had been there before. Greg is the happiest barman in the world and possibly the only one in LA who doesn’t want to be an actor.

The staff at the Beverly Wilshire, where I last stayed in March, continue to address me by my name and treat me as if I were a fully paid-up guest.

The British staff at the Taschen bookshop provide me with cups of PG Tips when I am out shopping, I feel practically related to the staff at the kitchen store Williams Sonoma and my Chinese foot masseuse (yes, I have one) at the Eden salon, and I join in with my fluent Italian in my favourite local restaurant Il Pastaio (Well: I can say “Excuse me, is there a bank in the vicinity?” but if it isn’t second on the left after the church, as the book says, I will be totally lost).

My heart leapt when I arrived in Paris on Friday, coming up the steps at St Germain des Pres Metro, and meeting the smell of the Nutella stall at the top.

When I woke to the sun shining above the Paris rooftops on Saturday, I felt again that this was where I belonged. Then it pissed down. And when it takes you two hours to get a damned mediocre crepe placed in front of you, it’s enough to set you off California Dreamin' again.

As for the tomatoes: heck, I’ll buy a tin.

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