What’s your most cherished picnic memory? In my pantheon — food shared on the banks of Perdernales River in the hot Texas summer; by a canal in the South of France on my first trip to France when I was 15 (bread, cheese and the biggest, juiciest peaches I’d ever encountered); under a huge cedar tree in the churchyard at Bonnieux, a hilltop village in Provence — none stand out like my Paris picnics.
My picnics on the Seine were a treat for the many summer guests who streamed through my apartment over the 12 years I lived in Paris. I’d plan one for soon after their arrival, usually their second night, after they’d slept off their jet lag. There would be much eating in restaurants later, and I felt that it was my duty to introduce friends to my city in this dreamy way. I’d pack up a market caddy with bright red and yellow Provencal tablecloths, silverware, plates, wine (usually a nice crisp rose), water and plastic cups. My canvas bags and market baskets were loaded with food that was easy to carry and eat: pan bagnat (the Nicoise salad sandwich), ratatouille, tapenade, tomatoes with pesto, onion tart, fruit, cheese, bread.
Everyone would take a basket and we’d jump on the #87 or #63 bus that stopped on my street and journey down the Boulevard St. Germain to rue Cardinal Lemoine. From there it was a short walk to the river. I’d lead my crew across the bridge to Ile de la Cite, down the streets behind Notre Dame to the footbridge over to the Ile St. Louis, then down cobbled steps to my special spot, where we’d lay the tablecloths on the ground and spread out our repast.
A magical spot near Notre Dame Cathedral
I had a favorite spot on the cobbled banks underneath the Quai d’Orleans on the Ile-St.-Louis. From here Paris looks most like illuminated pages in a beautifully illustrated fairy tale, the buildings along the Seine glowing magically in the changing light, a dramatic view of the back of Notre Dame. When you see Notre Dame from the front, it looks massive, but viewed from the rounded back, its buttresses flying like soaring wings, it looks both majestic and delicate. The light in Paris is at its best in the late evening, as the summer sun sets behind the cathedral and the sky becomes pink and orange, sometimes streaked with gold. In the summer, the sun sets late — between 9:30 and 11:00, depending on the month — and then you get twilight, followed by the Paris city lights and the moon.
Once night falls, the spectacle of Notre Dame is highlighted regularly by ultra-bright pink-yellow lights from the Bateaux-Mouches, the Paris tour boats. Somehow I’m not rattled by these lights or by the sound of the heavily miked guides, who point out all of the monuments in good French and bad other languages as they go by. I’ve taken many a Bateaux-Mouche myself, and love to think of how many have made their tour, hour after hour, year after year, and how many people have seen Paris from the middle of the river.
Sometimes my picnics were spontaneous, and instead of preparing food I’d just pick up bread, cheese, tomatoes, crudites and fruit. Maybe I’d throw together a Salade Nicoise, or just stop at a charcuterie and get carottes rapees (grated carrot salad), cooked artichokes, a pate or two. I’d buy my tapenade instead of preparing it. It was always a feast; how can anything taste bad when you’re in Paris, eating on the banks of the Seine in the soft summer evening?
Makes about 1½ cups
Nowadays, it seems that any food that can be crushed or pureed is entitled to be called a tapenade, but this one is the authentic signature dish of Provence, made (if possible) with the rich, fleshy Nyons olives that grow in the northern part of the region. Nyons olives are hard to find here, but look for a dark black olive with a moist, not too salty flesh. Amphissa olives from Greece are the closest I’ve found in texture, though they are a light color, and don’t make as pretty a tapenade as the dark black olives. I find kalamatas a little too metallic tasting. If you can find cured olives from France or North Africa, those would be my recommendation.
- Pit the olives. I find the easiest way to do this is to lay a few at a time on my work surface and crush them with the flat side of a knife. Then pull out the pit. You can also use a cherry pitter, but I think this method is more efficient. Be sure to throw away the pits, and not to put them in with the olives.
- Turn on a food processor fitted with the steel blade and drop in the garlic. When it is chopped and adhering to the sides of the bowl, turn off the processor and scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the olives, anchovies, capers, thyme, rosemary and mustard, and puree until fairly smooth. Add the lemon juice, olive oil and pepper, and process until you have a smooth paste. Scrape into an attractive serving bowl (or pack for a picnic), garnish with herbs, and serve.
Tapenade-Stuffed Eggs and Vegetables
Serves 6 to 8
You can blend tapenade with hard-boiled egg yolks to make a marvelous filling not just for eggs, but for vegetables as well, such as blanched zucchini, cherry tomatoes and wide slices of red pepper. Pack the hard-cooked egg yolks and vegetables separately for a picnic and fill them when you get there.
- Peel the hard-boiled eggs, cut them in half lengthwise, and carefully remove the yolks. Combine the yolks and the tapenade in a food processor fitted with the steel blade, or in a mortar and pestle, and blend together until smooth. Taste and adjust seasoning.
- If using small tomatoes, cut them in half across the equator, scoop out the seeds, salt lightly and reverse on a rack over the sink or over a baking sheet to drain for 15 minutes. If using cherry tomatoes, carefully scoop out some of the pulp.
- Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil and drop in the zucchini. Par-boil for 3 minutes, and transfer to a bowl of ice-cold water. Carefully scoop out the seeds, using a spoon to create a channel down the middle of each piece.
- Using a spoon, fill or top the eggs and vegetables with tapenade. Arrange on a platter or on individual plates. Garnish with lemon wedges, rosemary sprigs and radishes.
Photo: The view from Martha Rose Shulman’s favorite picnic spot near Notre Dame. Credit: Daniel Breckwoldt