38 Rue de Sèvres, 75007 Paris
Métro: Sèvres-Babylone, Vaneau
Yesterday A and I met at the Musée Maillol to take in their much-hyped show “C’est la vie: Vanités de Caravage à Damien Hirst.” The Maillol is a beautiful space and the exhibition showcases a rather spectacular roster of artists, all of whom are engaging the memento mori in their works. It’s a great idea for an exhibition, but A and I both agreed that the way that it was handled at the Maillol was far too literal. My understanding of vanitas (again, Art History 101 talking here) was that it meant emptiness, and that art in the vanitas style symbolically represented the ephemerality or transience of human life through a variety of symbols, including timepieces, rotting fruit, smoke, musical instruments, and skulls. The Maillol collapsed this larger concept into a single trope and exhibited only works that contained skulls. The result was uncomfortably gimmicky. I feel like a first-class snob saying that an exhibition that contained exquisite works by Caravaggio, Zurbaran, Basquiat, Ernst, and Braque was underwhelming. But I wish that the curators hadn’t taken the skull-as-memento-mori-par-excellence so seriously and had instead put together an exhibition that allowed for a more nuanced take on the human contemplation of mortality. Instead, the show felt like a visit to an Alexander McQueen boutique (an entirely inappropriate reference to make this week, but there you go). There were a few unexpected knockouts, including two small sculptures, one ceramic and one bronze, by the British brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman. I’d only ever heard of their work in sensationalist articles about the how contemporary art is the decline of Western morality, but in person the craftsmanship of their pieces is really staggering. Also worth the price of admission are three large cases of jewelry from the Venetian jewelers Les Codognato. Drawn from private collections–including those of the duchess of Windsor, Lucchino Visconti, and Elton John–this is the skull jewelry that all other skull jewelry aspires to be. We spent a good long time gaping.
We left the museum and decided that the best way to combat our own being-towards-death was to eat something ridiculous. Despite knowing Paris much better than I do, A had surprisingly never visited La Grande Epicerie, the food market of the veritable Parisian shopping institution Le Bon Marché. If you don’t know this already, my friends, La Grande Epicerie is the mother of all gourmet grocery stores. Yes, you can perhaps get greater diversity of international food items at one of the biggest Whole Foods. Yes, you can perhaps get certain artisanal products of a comparable quality at the Dean and Deluca store in SoHo. But seriously, I challenge you to tell me another store in the world where you can get the kind of cheese, foie gras, charcuterie, candies, pastries, vegetables, fish, meat, and wine under the same roof that you can at La Grande Epicerie. I get physically discombobulated from excitement when I enter this store. I lose the ability to speak. La Grande Epicerie is a thing of beauty and it is at the top of the list of things I would recommend anyone do if they find themselves in Paris.
A was the best possible companion to have in this shopping adventure. After an initial investigatory lap of the store, we got to work purchasing a truffle-infused foie gras, paper-thin slices of San Daniele prosciutto and aged Milano salami, five gorgeous cheeses (Tomme de Savoie, Roquefort Papillon, Brillat-Savarin brie, Morbier, and Parmigiano-Reggiano), a cold seafood salad of squid, mussels, and crab meat with roasted peppers, octopus with green olives and giant capers, semi-sechées tomatoes, a sublime pesto, spicy Moroccan olives, a big bag of super-sweet clementines, and two traditional baguettes. For wine, we picked out a lovely Sancerre and an even lovelier Gigondas. Oh, and two perfect tartes aux citrons for dessert.
While La Grande Epicerie is very expensive, I was actually quite surprised at the reasonable cost of our cheeses and charcuterie. You will save a lot of money if you order at the counters rather than picking up the pre-packaged cheeses and pre-sliced charcuterie. You will also get the delightful experience of watching how they handle the food. I’ve had revelatory experiences in the past at the foie gras counter, where they are generous with the samples and the advice. Last night, we marveled at the way the guy at the Italian section of the charcuterie area handled the prosciutto and salami, executing perfectly transparent slices and expertly layering them with plastic so that they wouldn’t stick together, as if to say “This isn’t a lump of reconstituted deli meat, it’s San Daniele prosciutto!” When A went into typical-French-grocery-store mode and attempted to help the checkout guy with bagging our groceries, he was quickly reprimanded. There is a science to bagging all of this beautiful food properly and we were not to disrespect that process with some foolish stab at efficiency. It would be nice if everything in life were treated as gracefully as the food is handled at La Grande Epicerie.
We returned to my apartment, giddy with anticipation. We tried to set things up as nicely as we could for photographs before commencing the feast. That A restrained himself from full-out hedonism for the sake of documentation on this here blargh gets him some serious bonus points. You might just say that he is the San Daniele of friends.
Details: Um, go?! Open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. An excellent place to pick up all the fixings for a picnic in the Jardin du Luxembourg, which is only a short walk away. I guess they also have a private lot for your chauffeured Mercedes. Ours was in the shop, so we took the métro instead.