I had today what is becoming for me a fairly typical Paris experience.
I did my food shopping at a variety of stores: onions, leeks, spinach, and cherries (yes, really, more cherries-- they're not going to be available and good that much longer!) at one of the produce vendors; cereal, grapeseed oil, and sugar (to replace the bag that disappeared into the jam) at the supermarket; eggs at the fromagerie; mushrooms that we call chanterelles at home but are called girolles here at another produce place (chanterelle sure sounds like a French word, why isn't that used here?); and a guinea fowl (pintade) at the butcher that's the most accommodating about veal bones and chicken carcasses and such-- gotta keep on their good side.
But today I needed something I hadn't bought here before, caul fat. Caul fat is one of those wondrously useful things that comes from the insides of animals that people get all icked out about when they know it's there. It's basically the fatty lining of the body that surrounds the organs, and it's nature's perfect wrapper. Stuffing or rolling a cut of meat and need to tie it up with string? Fuggetaboudit-- wrap it with caul fat, instead, which will hold it together and baste it at the same time. Individual patés? Perfect. Though I can get it from my butcher at home with a day or two's advance warning, I figured that every butcher in Paris would have it, given the metric tons of terrines, patés, and other charcuterie in this city.
I asked my pintade butcher for crépine graisse (the term I cleverly found on Google translation), and he said yes, he had it fresh, and brought out a fancy paper-backed sheet, wrapped it, and sent me on my way. Score! When I got home and unwrapped it, though, it wasn't what I was expecting. Caul fat is a delicate webby/lacy thing, and this “graisse” that the butcher had given me was a solid sheet.
So I Googled “caul fat France” to see if I was asking for the right thing, and it seems the proper term is just crépine. OK, try again. I went to another butcher just around the corner, a friendly fellow who preps a mean roasting chicken, and asked him if he had crépine. Nope, only frozen. He even tried to think of where I could get it fresh, but couldn't. Uh-oh-- maybe this will be harder than I thought. But I think he was amused that the weird American guy who insists on keeping the chicken feet he cuts off my birds was asking for it. And it's none of your business what I do with all those chicken feet...
My last easy option was the butcher across the street from him, where I'd never been. I asked for crépine, and the guy behind the counter looked at me blankly. I asked again, same blank look. Oh man, was I really going to go home empty handed? But as I started to explain what it was, I saw in the display case a bunch of stuffed meats, all wrapped with, wouldn't you know it, caul fat. So I pointed to those, and said I wanted the exterior of those (I couldn't think of the word for wrap). He gave me another name, which I started to memorize, and then he started to pull out slices of veal. No, no, no. The other exterior, the sheet around them. Oh, he said, that's crépine.
Now it was my turn to look at him blankly. I swear that's what I said. There are only 2 vowel sounds in that word, and I think I made both of them reasonably well. That's what I heard when I said it, anyway. But it's not the first time this has happened. Before we came to Paris, I was relating to one of Karen's French colleagues the story about my the amusing French tutorials from my friend at work, starting with "jambon means ham," and she looked at me with the same blank face the butcher had. She hadn't understood my pronunciation of jambon. And I thought, oh boy-- this is going to be a lot harder than I thought. I'd be curious to know how many other words sound just a little different from crépine and mean things totally irrelevant to butchery that he was unable to recognize it.
In any event, he had it, and even though I apparently massacred his language, he seemed pleased I wanted crépine, and even more pleased that I was excited about it. But just look at it-- how could one not look forward to using that? It's beautiful.