"Chez Henri was so small that there was no room for tables inside—four tables were set up in the alley"by Wendell Steavenson / October 16, 2014 / Leave a comment
I went to Perpignan in the first week of September for the annual photojournalism festival. On the first morning I went to get eggs for breakfast. Perpignan is close to the Spanish border; Catalan and French, poor, ungentrified, overlapped with waves of exiles and immigrants—Jews escaping the Moors, gypsies settled since the Middle Ages, communists from the Spanish Civil War, Arabs from the Maghreb. They live in tiny rooms along mazy medieval alleys that are swept by the Tramontane wind that blows like a hairdryer.
Eggs. Bread. Newspapers. I was a little bleary. What did I see? Espadrilles, rag pickers market, Café Etoile de Tunis, halal butchers, sticky crusty palmiers on the other side of dusty window patisserie. I went to a fromagerie and asked: Eggs?
“Try the vegetable man across the way!” I passed a jamon shop with haunches of iberico swinging on hooks and a fishmonger who was opening oysters next to a box of small scuttling grey crabs.
“Eggs?” I asked the vegetable man. He shook his head and pointed past the spice shop. “Try the snail lady.” The snail lady around the corner had a trestle table set up on the street: three sizes of escargot, fat pink garlic, onions, lemons, bundles of bay and thyme and verveine and vine branches for making a barbecue. And eggs! In the middle of the alley was a bar and next to the bar was a shop front, with a hand painted sign that read “Chez Henri.”
The first day we went for lunch we were served a soft sludge of rice with cockles, shrimp, slivers of crunchy artichoke, asparagus, chunks of iberico ham. Why was it so good? Not quite paella, not quite risotto; unctuous, yummy; I sucked bitter funk out of the shrimp heads, discovered an unexpected hit of cardamom, wiped the plate clean with bread. Henri, big and ursine, sweating a little, beamed at us. “It is the cuisine between the sea and the mountain,” he said.
Chez Henri was so small that there was no room for tables inside—four tables were set up in the alley. Lunch was so good that we went back for dinner and brought two friends. We…