One of the attractions of Paris is food – be it in a bistro, at someone’s home or as part of a picnic. So how do French cooks manage to turn out such exquisite meals? To find out, we spend a couple of days on a Parisian Food Safari with a long-time resident, cookbook author, and chef, Alisa Morov.
We meet Alisa on the corner of Rue du Bac and Rue de Verneuil in St. Germain on the legendary Left Bank of the city. Over the next three hours, we stroll the streets stopping in different stores – the butcher, the baker, the pastry maker, the fishmonger, the cheesemonger and much more. At each stop, Alisa explains something about the shop we are about to visit before we go inside to sample the wares. We emerge with a bit of this and a bit of that, the makings of a delicious picnic lunch.
As we walk, Alisa talks about the basic concepts of French cuisine, the French obsession with food and what it means to cook in Paris. We discuss the great French chefs like Escoffier as well as the “cool” Paris restaurants such as Chateaubriand (see the previous blog).
It starts with the “simple” baguette. Bread is a staple of the French diet. During the French Revolution of 1789 and the Paris Commune of 1871, mass shortages led to uprisings (remember Marie Antoinette’s purported comment of “let them eat brioche?”), prompting the government to severely regulate what constitutes acceptable bread. The baguette itself (the name means stick) only came into existence in the 1920s. According to legend, with the government legislating what hours a bakery could function, the bakers resorted to making an elongated shape that takes less time to rise and cook, thereby allowing them to have a finished product when the first customers come in early in the morning.
The basic baguette must be 27 inches long, 2.5 inches wide and weigh about 9 ounces. It has a thick, golden crust and is light and fluffy on the inside. Laws regulate the price. Although it is quite good, there are other more luxurious types of baguette that are exquisite. Alisa purchases one when we stop at the boulangerie (bakery) and pops it into her ample shopping bag. She points out that only an establishment that makes the bread on site, from scratch, from start to finish can be called a boulangerie.
Down the street, we stop at Maison Guyard, a tiny Charcuterie (delicatessen) which specializes in foie gras as well as other prepared foods. Under the guidance of Colette, who explains the origin of the dishes, we sample different types of foie gras as well as pâté de maison, terrine and numerous other cured meats.
Foie Gras is French for “Fat liver”, a rich, buttery, paté made from the liver of a duck or a goose that has been fattened for the purpose. It is the ultimate French culinary treat. Needless to say, we purchased several tins to bring home with us.
We try to stay out of the way as regular customers squeeze by to purchase their dinner. As we leave Colette hands Alisa a package of foie gras and other treats to add to our picnic lunch.
Cheese is a French culinary passion. Our Food Safari continues a few shops away at Androuet, the Maître Fromager Affineur (Master Cheese Refiner) since 1909. There are hundreds of cheese shops in Paris but only those that are certified in the art of cheesemaking and age the cheeses themselves can be called Affineurs. Our cheese master explains that each region of France has its own cheese; he describes the process of making it, including how the place where the animal lives and the season of the year affect the taste and quality. Depending on the time of year, there are over 200 varieties in the shop ranging from Brie to Goat’s Milk cheese to Roquefort.
We sample many interesting types, some of which end up in Alisa’s big bag. One of our favorites is Mimolette, a round, orange ball whose crust turns grey as it ages, the work of cheese mites deliberately introduced to flavor the cheese.
The visit completed, Alisa pulls out a plank of wood from behind the door of the shop, places it on top of the barrel outside the door and sets up an impromptu picnic right on the sidewalk outside Androuet. We gorge on bread, foie gras, cheeses, washed down by a glass of red wine. It is one of the more convivial meals we have during our stay.
As we walk towards our next destination, we pass a butcher shop where several varieties of chicken (with heads and feet still attached) are displayed in the window together with different types of meats, including the season’s wild game. Alisa explains that since many Parisians do not have ovens in their apartments, they order their meat and have the butcher cook it, picking it up in the evening to serve.
Now it is time for dessert and “une petite digestive.” Further down Rue du Bac, a wooden façade beckons, home to the delightful Ryst-Dupeyron shop that has been selling Armagnac for over five generations. Armagnac is France’s oldest and finest brandy, made from distilled white wine and produced in the region of Gascony. Entering is like walking into a time machine. There is an aroma of wine, fruit, vanilla, and wood. Rows of glasses sit at the ready.
We are offered several tastings of Armagnac, part of the 80 different vintages that date back to 1868. The color is different, depending on the year it was produced. The younger Armagnac is a pale gold while the older vintages gradually deepen in color until the liquid is the color of shimmering, dark amber.
The Armagnac is stored in original casks in the cellars and bottled as required. Vintage Port, dating back to 1937, can also be purchased. Some years are sold out but there is still plenty available. We purchase a bottle of each, sealed with red wax and a stamped ribbon, the labels personalized with our names. They are from years that have some significance for us.
In Paris, fancy pastry is bought in a Patisserie whilst croissants and other concoctions (known as Viennoiseries) are bought in the Boulangerie. Alisa explains that, according to some legends, it was the Austrian-born queen, Marie Antoinette who introduced them to France, thus immortalizing her place of birth.
Alisa’s choice is the Patisserie des Reves (The Pastry Shop of Dreams) where light, airy concoctions sit under glass domes, titillating your senses – Gateau St. Honorée with spun sugar that melts in your mouth, éclairs filled with light coffee mousse, chestnut cream on top of a meringue. It is hard to know what to choose.
We take our purchases into the nearby park for a second impromptu picnic before heading to Pierre Marcolini, shop of the Belgian master Chocolatier of the same name. The chocolates are made from seven different types of cacao from Madagascar, Venezuela, Ecuador, Java, Ghana, and Trinidad. The choice is overwhelming – chocolates with pears, melon, blackcurrants, chestnuts, sandalwood, oak to mention just a few. Besides Paris, Pierre Marcolini has stores across Belgium, in London, Tokyo, and Kuwait.
Our Food Safari with Alisa is so much fun that we immediately book another one for the following day. This time, after a breakfast of coffee and croissants, she takes us to the Marché d’Aligré, a neighborhood farmers market not far from Place de La Bastille. It is one of the many farmers markets that pop up all over Paris on different days of the week. This one is off the beaten track, open six days a week, and frequented mostly by Parisian locavores.
The atmosphere is bustling. Fruit and vegetable stalls line the sides of the street. Mounds of strawberries…mushrooms….cantaloupes and much more look like intricate works of art.
Add to it the cacophony of the vendors calling out to shoppers, trying to entice them to check out their products and you have an authentic slice of Paris.
Unlike other places in the world, you are strongly discouraged from touching or poking the produce unless invited to do so by the predominantly Moroccan and Algerian vendors. If you express an interest, they will slice a juicy nectarine or hand you a plump red raspberry to taste. Some of the vendors prefer that you not photograph their produce so ask first.
Several stalls have a riotous display of flowers; some are already arranged in bouquets but you can ask the merchant to make one up using your own preferences.
Behind the stalls, Cafes and shops line the street. Nearby is the Marché Beauvan, a covered market filled with stalls. Each has its own specialty and unique advertising. For horse meat, look for the giant golden horse head above the butcher shop; for wild game, look for a set of antlers.
Just outside the building is Le Baron Rouge (The Red Baron), a popular wine bar where you can bring your own bottle and fill up directly from the barrel. Alisa pulls a green glass container from her bag and does just that.
We have already bought some Lebanese pastries as well as an Alsatian pizza (known as flammekueche), cheese and strawberries. Together with a fresh baguette, charcuterie and a bottle of red wine, this will be today’s picnic lunch.
Even though it is raining, Alisa steers us to a small park nearby to a chess table under the trees sheltered enough to picnic. She spreads a tablecloth, pulls out some plastic glasses and pours the wine. “Santé!” It is the perfect ending to a Parisian food safari.
IF YOU GO
You can contact Alisa either direct through her website (www.sweet-pea-paris.com) or through Context Travel (www.contexttravel.com/city/paris/walking-tour-details; Tel. 33 97-51-80-415). The two walks we went on were “Baguette to Bistro” and “The Paris Market Walk.” Be sure to specify that you want Alisa as your guide.