The Most Expensive Blanquette de Veau in Paris


What follows is a simple account of how hard it is the for French to acknowledge a mistake and apologize.  I love them in spite of this!

Near our apartment in Paris is one of the city's most colorful and authentic outdoor food markets, Marché d'Aligre, located in the 11th Arrondissement. At the heart of the market is an enclosed yellow brick building with the finest and most expensive purveyors in the hood. You'll find fruits, vegetables, fish, meat, poultry, cheese, flowers, and that is just the beginning of its riches.  Encircling the building is a lively flea market in addition to stand after stand of outdoor vendors creating a ruckus hawking their fruits and vegetables at much lower prices than inside. Despite the allure of these vendors with their rich ethnic mix, the quality of their products can sometimes be suspect.  And, frequently a merchant's thumb is added to the scale. This is why I tend to shop in the market’s main building.

By contrast, inside the closed market there's a sense of gentility and calm plus a feeling that customers will be well cared for. Here each shop has a specialty—only one or two vendors per category—run by people of long standing integrity and expertise, or so I thought.  As my favorite butcher was on vacation, I found the one remaining Boucherie for purchasing my ingredients for a Blanquette de Veau.  

My fetish for Blanquette de Veau

As my favorite dish, I religiously prepare Blanquette de Veau when in Paris as I think French veal has more flavor than ours.  Simple, easy to prepare and deliciously welcoming, I love this dish.  My recipe is adapted from a 1976 edition of Sunset Magazine's “French Cook Book.” The recipe calls for two pounds of boneless veal stew meat.  So, I asked the young butcher for un kilo and explained how I wanted it prepared in the best French I could muster.  “Keep some of the fat and please cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces.”   

The butcher snickered and gave me the look as if to say "Don't tell me how to cut the veal for a Blanquette. I could do this with my eyes closed."  However, what he actually delivered were oddly-sized pieces, some big, some little, which he weighed, wrapped in butcher paper and handed over to me.  "Payez à la caisse, Madame."  That was when my troubles started.

Paying à La Caisse

In France, often there is someone who minds the till at a stand, taking your money or credit card.  Normally, it is someone from the owner's family who can be trusted with managing the daily profit.  I handed my facture and credit card to an elderly gentleman with a kind face lined with the wrinkles of life.  No doubt, the owner's father, I said to myself.  I told him he had the best job in the world collecting the money.  He nodded and smiled broadly in agreement.  He slowly went through the motions of ringing up the charge laboriously entering in the amount onto his credit card machine, or TPE, as it is called in France.  

Furrowing his brow, as if he had just completed a very complicated transaction, he handed back my card and the receipt.  Scaré bleu!  I had just been charged 424 Euros for 2.2 pounds of veal stew meat.  (Well, I exaggerate a bit as I also had a 20-Euro glass jar of foie gras amongst my purchases.)

When I brought the mistake to the gentleman's attention, his kind expression quickly melted away.  He looked flummoxed by the transaction and suddenly his grandfatherly demeanor turned stormy.   His eyes nervously darted from side to side as confusion set in. He then got up and walked away as if nothing had happened.  Clearly, he was not going to resolve the problem.  Suddenly, an officious-looking woman of sizable girth and a straight line for a mouth replaced him in the booth.  I explained what had happened.  Instead of an apology of some sort—any sort would have done at that point—she called over to the owner in an exasperated tone.  “Your father screwed up again,” she barked. I assumed this lady was the owner’s wife who normally handled the money transactions and that Papa was lending her a hand.

A family spat

Suddenly, a combination of finger pointing, mild insults and "Boffing" began.  When the French want to express some level of indifference, invariably the aspirated expression "Bof" comes out of their mouth. Think “whatever” as the closest translation.   As I was on vacation and had no pressing appointments, I rather enjoyed watching this familial interplay wondering how the problem would eventually be resolved. Plus, I wanted to see if my French could keep up with their animated exchanges.

I offered to the assembled trio that perhaps the easiest solution would be to cancel the transaction, credit back my money, and then start again.  Madame agreed and quickly charged me the corrected 42.40 Euro amount. I signed my name and then anxiously asked what about the credit.  This was met with a blank stare and a "Bof."  Immediately, she got up, as if to say, "I'm not fixing my father-in-law's mess," and briskly walked away from la caisse leaving me with my mouth wide open in disbelief.

Finally, the head butcher and owner came over, pulled his wife aside and repeated to her exactly what I had just proposed as the solution. But, his wife was still not having any part of it.  To her credit, at least she did sit down again and started processing payment from the growing line of other customers patiently waiting behind me.  The owner then picked up his mobile and called the credit card company. I had to admit, this is when I began to have empathy for him, but certainly not because of his clearly being hen-pecked!

 We’ve all been there.  The endless automated voice messaging assaulting you with an avalanche of choices, none of which fit your situation.  Finally, the owner reached a human being and asked how to cancel the transaction.  Seeing his mind’s wheels turning, I began to have hope.  He gets it, I thought with some level of confidence. He followed the steps as they were explained to him over the phone, finally carefully inserting his stand's company card into the TPE but nothing registered.  Malheureusement, he had the wrong card.  

 A disappearing act

In the blink of an eye, the owner flew out to the stand to go God knows where yet again leaving me dumb struck. Had I been completely abandoned?  Had the only person who appeared to have known what he was doing gone to lunch?  After a fifteen-minute wait, I dared to ask Chère Madame how much longer it might take.  She nonchalantly raised her shoulders to her ears and said "Bof," then explained the owner had left to find his new card. What he used was a card which had just expired. 

Le dénouement  (The outcome)

Red-faced and panting, the owner finally returned.  He told me how lucky I was that he lived close by.  "En plus, Madame, notre asceneur était en panne” explaining that he had to race up and down four flights of stairs because the elevator in his apartment building was broken.  That explained the red face.  To make light of the situation—as I was feeling more confident that the problem might soon be resolved—I told him at least he was able to "faire de la gymnastique."  A tentative and slightly sad smile crossed his face, one tinged with thank you for being so patient and understanding of my father's blunder.

The owner didn't need to verbalize an apology for the error as well as for his wife.  His expression of resignation mixed with gratitude said it all.