The best meal I ever ate was in the Basque countryside near the Alps, at Cidrerie Ttipia in Bayonne. My best friend had gone off and married a Frenchman and moved to Paris– I was in France to pay her and her new husband a visit. Before I got the first stamp on my passport and wrestled my luggage from the armpit that is Charles de Gaulle, I told her to scratch the Eiffel Tower, Champs–Élysées and Versailles— we’d get to that if there was time. Top on my list (in fact, the only thing on it) was to eat good food.
So she took me out of the city, and as we stumbled 10 deep through the streets of Bayonne one night, I had no idea her newly acquired French friends were leading me toward the gates of heaven. At one of Cidrerie Ttipia’s family style tables, we sat for six hours gorging on courses of salad, cheeses, whole fish, hand-made pasta with fresh tomatoes, and a rare beef brisket with the perfect char. We washed it down with hard cider that spewed in long streams from oversized barrels set in the wall. It became a sticky spectacle as we all tried, in vain, to catch the jets mid-flight.
Two years later and 3,500 miles away, I set out to recreate the spirit of the meal with my fiancé in our Brooklyn apartment, using mainly ingredients from Eataly, where he works in Manhattan. We decided there would be four courses: salad, pasta, fish and meat, and that we would use the ingredients that looked best when we shopped. We planned to prepare the meal over the course of a long evening and several bottles of cheap wine.
The orchestra of foods available at Eataly is overwhelming. The IKEA of food, it covers 42,000 square feet with an irresistible selection— most of it not from Italy, its namesake. Just getting in the door can feel like you’re trying to get the last 42″ plasma on Black Friday. But you won’t find any Blue Light Specials here, and if it weren’t for my fiancé and his generous employee discount, I’d have to do some serious budget recalibration to shop here.
We walked in near the produce section and charged by a plate of freshly cut blood oranges—in one foul swoop I snatched a slice off the plate while avoiding both a stroller and someone yakking on his cell phone mid-aisle. The citrus tasted as sweet as candy. I yelled back to my fiancé, “I’m coming back for those!” There was no stopping now. I was on a trajectory toward the seafood. I hooked a small steak of wild caught Atlantic swordfish at $20 a pound—perfect excuse to go back for those blood oranges.
We descended upon the pasta counter, where our dreams of gnocchi were almost dashed on the scale weighing out what appeared to be the last half-pound for the customer ahead of us. When a fresh tray was heaved into the case we looked at each other with relief. I don’t want to know what I might have done to the person who got the last gnocchi.
The next stop was the meat, where my fiancé spent a good 10 minutes deliberating between cuts before deciding on the Frenched veal chops—“the filet mignon of all chops”—from Amish and Mennonite Farms in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. At a hefty $28 a pound, it was the most expensive cut in the case and I immediately had a premonition of it in flames, alarm detector blaring, dollar bills going up in smoke.
Next, to the cheese and charcuterie counter—where all our selections hailed from Italy. We picked up a small amount of 24 month aged prosciutto di Parma, to go with the gnocchi. We collected a block of Vacche Rosse Parmigiano named after the rare red cow used to make it, and a round of Caprino goat cheese imported from the Alta Langa region.
At this point I was tired and hungry—a bad combination. But I was dedicated to circling back for the blood oranges and a few fresh items to cook with the veal chop. We secured the blood oranges and a single Meyer lemon, both from California, both tipping the scales at $5 a pound. We picked up a bundle of tarragon from a farm in upstate New York for $3 to go with the swordfish, and few sprigs of asparagus also from New York, that looked like they belonged on set at a culinary shoot— $8 a pound. $8? For asparagus? I dared not look a head of lettuce in the eye for fear of what it might cost, so I decided we’d pick it up from our local grocer, and make use of a few other items I knew we had waiting in the cupboard.
The cramped shopping experience at Eataly was replicated when I got home and struggled to place my bags onto three square feet of counter space. When the re-constructors of this fine brick edifice were hard at work, it’s clear they did not have the meals we were plotting in mind.
By now, I would have eaten glue. In agreement, we decided to skip the salad course (for now) and go straight to the gnocchi. We minced the asparagus and sautéed it with the gnocchi in olive oil until the pasta was crispy, golden-brown and delicious. In the oven we let pieces of thinly sliced prosciutto crisp up at 450 degrees before adding them to the mix. Even with visions of veal and swordfish up ahead– it was so good we had a hard time making ourselves stop.
We drank while we mixed up the salad, a mix of spinach and spring mix greens labeled “Made in USA”. I added packaged walnuts from Northern California and cranberries that were boxed up in Brooklyn, but who knows where from before that. Crumbles of the Caprino goat cheese were placed on top with a salad dressing of balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper. It was a simple go-to salad we’d made for years living in California (where both walnuts and cranberries—OK all produce, is cheaper).
We settled in a bit before it was time for swordfish, my favorite fish. I checked the internet for a cooking time and temperature, setting the oven to 400 degrees. I squeezed the oranges for their blood, letting the deep red color stain my fingertips before adding juice from the Meyer lemon and a few sprigs of tarragon diced into tiny bits. Inspired, I threw in a dash of Worcestershire sauce—but more likely this is because I’ll put it on almost anything. I let the sauce reduce for about 20 minutes. I plopped the white fish-steak onto a bed of olive oil in a glass pie pan, adding some chopped walnuts as an afterthought. At this point, why not? When the fish came out of the oven 20 minutes later, I added the blood orange reduction and scooped the toasted walnuts on top. It disappeared in three minutes.
I had to lie down. The swordfish, salad, and pasta were pulling me into a prone position, and the coup de grâce was upon us. It was time for veal. Reeling in bed, wine in hand, my fiancé brought in the bone-in chop. Seared on both sides and broiled to a tender perfection with mushrooms, caramelized onions and white wine butter, it was laid to its final rest on a cloud of garlic mashed potatoes. The meat dissolved in my mouth. Baby cow, why must you taste so good? Undoubtedly, it was the best meal we’d ever made with our own hands, both a personal feat and a triumph.
Then a different feeling crept over me. The blood drained from my face and beads of cold sweat pooled on the back of my neck like a Christmas ham left out too long. When I stood up, I cramped— a food cramp.
That feeling triggered a memory from that night in Bayonne I’m now certain had been blocked by the overwhelming desire to orchestrate a heavenly meal. I was full. Not just, ‘no dessert, please’ full, this was a different beast. I recalled in flash of horror—the aftermath of that fateful meal, when one of our hosts, Pierro, was so full of food and sweet hard cider, he was unable to speak. My friend and I had to hoist his limp mumbling carcass into the backseat of his tiny blue Bic car— a company I had previously entrusted (only somewhat reliably) to make my ballpoint pens and lighters back in the states. As we sputtered through the winding country road, I remember thinking I wouldn’t have the strength to crawl out of a ditch were I to end up in one.
But my goal had been met. We had recreated the feeling of that night and we hadn’t burnt a thing—but we may have overdone it.