Culture · Food · Travel Philosophy · Travel Tips & Skills

Best of Europe: Tasting the Best of the Marais

Many travelers pride themselves on “discovering” up-and-coming, locals-only, or unsung places. Finding these gems, you feel like you’re in a secret club: the I Know Something You Don’t Know Club. But the pride is short-lived. What good’s a secret if you can’t tell anyone? So I share these places with fellow travelers, hoping they’ll have a delicious experience, make a connection with the people, and perhaps get a richer understanding of the local culture through its food. As an ever-evolving expression of a people, food is a gateway to the soul and values of a society.

Sometimes it’s better (and easier) to let a local teach you all about it. That’s why Rick and I signed up for Paris By Mouth‘s food tour of the Marais. Meg Zimbeck (blogger and food writer) started this company to share the great restos, bars, bakeries, food trucks (yes, food trucks), and wine bars of her adopted city. She recently branched out with food tours of various Parisian neighborhoods, led by her or one of her expert foodie-staffer-writers.

We had skipped breakfast and arrived fifteen minutes ahead of our tour, so we popped into the first bakery we saw and split a pain au chocolat. Was it the hunger pangs clouding my judgment or was this one of the most perfect pastries I’ve had in Paris? No time to think about that now: we had to meet our guide on that brisk, grey Parisian morning.

At 59 rue de Saintonge, you'll find some of the best breads and pastries in all of Paris.
At 59 rue de Saintonge, you’ll find some of the best breads and pastries in all of Paris.

Catherine Down, a U.S. ex-pat and food aficionado, planned on taking us to several places, explaining traditions, techniques, flavors, and history along the way. We’d sample bits and pieces, have a proper sit-down tasting (grazing?), and top it off with some sweets. And guess where our first stop was: the same bakery (59 rue de Saintonge) Rick and I had just patronized. Turns out that baker Benjamin Turquier had just won 3rd Place in Paris’s annual Meilleure Baguette (Best Baguette) contest–he’s placed a couple of times before. He also came in 10th in the Meilleure Croissant au Beurre (Best Butter Croissant) contest just last week–too recent to put up the announcement sticker on his boulangerie window.

Locals in the know come here for award-winning baguettes and croissants.
Locals in the know come here for award-winning baguettes and croissants.
Catherine teaches us how to look for a good baguette.
Catherine teaches us all about baguettes.

We headed to a nearby square, mouths drooling in anticipation of tasting these prize-winning concoctions. Catherine explained that a classic Parisian baguette (under the legally protected term of baguette de tradition française de la ville de Paris) must contain only flour, water, salt, and yeast. Quality boulangeries bake throughout the day, not once a day like most places. If you see a decal that says Artisan Boulanger (also a legally protected term), you know the dough is made, rises, and is baked on the premises. Bakers can start as early as 3am to get their baked goods ready for their hungry and discriminating consumers.

Ideally colored, with the right amount of irregular holes, the perfect density, this is a good baguette.
Ideally colored, with the right amount of irregular holes, the perfect density, this is how a good baguette should be.

How do you know it’s good? Look for an irregular oblong form and a smooth bottom; this means it was hand-shaped and proofed on fabric, not in a mold that makes itty bitty bumps. Listen to how the crust breaks, crrrrrrrrrrriiiiiik. The inside should be a light yellow/ivory and be pocketed with irregular-sized holes. But the real proof is in the taste. And with as much objectivity as I can muster, I can honestly say this baguette was magnifique!

Go for a "straight" croissant if you want yours made with butter instead of margarine.
Go for a “straight” croissant if you want yours made with butter instead of margarine.

The croissant–whose birth, legend has it, is owed to a 17th-century baker who made this crescent-shaped pastry to celebrate a French victory over the Ottoman Turks (whose flag featured a crescent moon)–should also be carefully selected. You want a croissant au beurre (made with real butter), not a croissant ordinaire (made with margarine). How can you tell if there’s no signage? By shape, like the bakers do. The straighter croissant has butter, the curvier one has margarine–a visual distinction so the clerks can quickly pick out the one you want.

For an easy, ready-made, gourmet meal, stop by a charcuterie.
For a ready-made, gourmet meal, stop by a charcuterie.

At Ramella Charcutier-Traiteur (a gourmet deli), everything here is made to be served cold or at room temp. The French 35-hour work week can wear a Parisian out. So rather than cooking up an elaborate meal, a local might prefer to pick up a few things at their local charcuterie or traiteur and complement them with one hot dish they’ll prepare at home. Here they have cured meats, terrines (smoked/cooked meats or seafood in aspics of wine and spices), and rillettes (roasted/cooked meats blended with fat–looks like tuna salad but tastes infinitely better). We grab a monkfish terrine and some duck rillettes, which will go perfectly with our fresh-baked bread.

Trust an affineur to help you pick the best cheese for your needs.
Trust an affineur to help you pick the best cheese for your needs.

To forget the cheese would be a mortal sin in France. We pass by Fromagerie Jounnault. This family of affineurs are expert cheese mongers with caves on sight to properly continue aging the fromage. France has between 500-1000 different cheeses, depending on the season, respecting the natural breeding cycles of the goats, sheep, and cows. Clients rely on their resident cheese experts to help them pair the right cheeses to match the flavors of their wine and the rest of their meal.

Lactose intolerance? Not a problem for me here in France.
Lactose intolerance? Not a problem for me here in France.

I mention to her that although in the States, I have lactose intolerance issues. In France, it almost never happens. “That’s a common remark I get on these tours,” she says. Pasteurization (required in the U.S.) does destroy certain bacteria, but it can also destroy the enzymes that would help a person to digest the cheese properly. In France, only some cheeses are pasteurized–not because they don’t care about health and safety but because that process also kills the natural flavors, shaped by the animals’ diet and the fat content, giving the cheese its distinctive profile.

Even cheese imported to the U.S. from France doesn’t quite taste like the real French cheese. Having to conform to U.S. regulations and restrictions prevents it from coming to full flavor. “That’s why I always remind people that sometimes one must travel for authenticity. Whether it’s food, art, history, or architecture, replicas and imitations just aren’t good enough.”

Each region has their own specialty.
Each region has their own specialty cheeses with unique character and flavor.

Catherine’s selections featured goat, sheep, and cow’s milk cheeses from Normandy, Roquefort, Melun, Comté, and the Côte d’Or–each with their own particular taste and texture, based on where and how they were produced. Terroir and traceability are essential concepts in France and throughout Europe. Sun, wind, rain, altitude, and minerals in the soil shape the character of meats, wines, and chesses, giving them distinct regional flavors. They are as unique to a place as the people are, with their own degrees of spiciness, sweetness, dryness, and boldness. Just as you wouldn’t confuse Texas barbecue with Kansas City barbecue knowing what region a product comes from can inform you about its character, preparation, and flavor. And in France, terroir is a matter of tradition, respect, quality, and pride.

Catherine picks up some thinly slice bigorre for our group to sample.
Catherine picks up some thinly slice bigorre for our group to sample.

And what’s a French picnic lunch without cured meat? At Caractère de Cochon, we try bigorre, the Pyrenees black pig. Like Spain’s succulent counterpart, the black Iberian pig, biggore are acorn-fed and have a silky, salty rich flavor that makes you want to lick your lips for hours.

Matching the right cheese with the right wine just makes sense.
Matching the right cheese with the right wine just makes sense.

When it comes to wine, I don’t know much, but I know what I like. Thankfully, Catherine selected just the right whites, reds, and rosés to complement the French feast we assembled during our tour. At a communal table inside Bibo Vino wine shop at the Marché des Enfants Rouges, we relished our pungent spread of fine cheeses, savory cured meats, deli spreads, and fresh baked baguettes. Working from mildest to heartiest–and repeating the cycle until we cleaned our plates–we were able to appreciate foods with their appropriate wine pairing and better understand how matching regional flavors can enhance any meal.

Rick loves stinky cheese.
Rick loves stinky cheese.
Jacques Genin's chocolate are tiny works of art and decadence.
Jacques Genin’s chocolate are tiny works of art and decadence.

To properly balance our savory lunch, we coated our palettes with artful pieces of chocolate, butter-bomb caramels and tastes-like-the-real-thing fruit confections by Jacques Genin. Although he is not a qualified maître chocolatier by official French standards, he is a self-taught chocolate master and has become the most sought-after chocolate maker, supplying more than 200 of Frances top hotels and restaurants. And if it’s good enough for them, it’s certainly good enough for me.

18 thoughts on “Best of Europe: Tasting the Best of the Marais

  1. Thanks for sharing your secrets Trish! I love the Marias and am always looking for new hidden gems. I will add these to my list of new places to try and recommend.

  2. Loved reading this “article” I learned some new things as well. Gotta go get my breakfast, it made me hungry. I would love to do this Paris tour.

  3. After reading this, I can almost taste the croissant au beurre, pain au chocolat and fresh baked baguette!! There’s just nothing like fresh crusty bread and buttery croissants. Practically every establishment we’ve visited in Paris makes these really well, but there are still some artisan bakers who just make them even better. We like the ones from Boulangerie Julien, but I think now we’ll have to try something from this award winning bakery on rue de Saintonge. Thanks for the tip! (y)

    1. You’ll love RdS. His original location is also in the Marais at 134 Rue de Temple (locals just call the boulangerie 134 RdT). I’ll check out Julien when I’m back in Paris (that’s just a week away!).

  4. Trish, I just discovered your blog, and am enjoying it thoroughly! We were on the Paris & the Heart of France tour with you & Julie in 2012, and have many fond memories of the trip. We’re hoping to take a Rick Steves tour to Spain next summer (France for the daughter who speaks French, and Spain for the son who speaks Spanish). Thanks for the great blog, so we can travel with you again, even though it is vicariously!

    1. Hi, Kristin! I loved that tour! How are the kids doing? Which Spain tour are you doing? I did the Basque tour last year and just updated the Basque chapter for the RS Spain guide book this spring. The other itineraries are great, too, so you’ll have a wonderful time no matter which you choose. Thanks for following the blog, enjoying your travels!

      1. We’ll probably go for Best of Spain in 14 Days. I wish you & Julie could be our guides but, from what I read, they’re all great. The kids are doing very well. Erin is a junior in college & Alex will be a senior in high school.

  5. I was just in Paris in April, and I took this same tour with Paris by Mouth! Really enjoyed re-living it through your write-up. I’m still dreaming about those Jacques Genin caramels – total melt-in-your-mouth goodness!

    1. Thanks, Laura! That means a lot, coming from someone like you who knows that tour from personal experience. I’m aching for a butter croissant. One more week until I can have another one in Paris! I think I might have to hit up JG for those caramels again, too 😀

  6. OMG, my family and I were just in Paris last month and we stayed in Le Marais! Although we didn’t explore its cuisine systematically with a tour such as this (we have school-aged kids whose patience runs thin!), we most definitely indulged in the patisseries and boulangeries on rue Rambuteau and rue du Bretagne. Thanks for the backstory re: authentic Parisian baguettes! We also made it to Jacques Genin where we confirmed once more that French chocolate is incomparably smoother and tastier than American chocolate. I tell my kids it’s because France has happier cows who make way better milk! And I too had no gastrointestinal issues with French dairy. Thank God for that because the day couldn’t start without my cafe au lait. Le Marais was just fabulous– it offered endless options of gastronomical joy. This post leaves me feeling nostalgic (and hungry?) as I think about our recent trip. I will definitely keep this tour in mind on our next visit to Paris. (P.S. I think our families knew each other in San Diego)

    1. Guiding and writing are not natural friends. It’s been really hard to find free hours to write and sort through photos these last few months. Hopefully, now that my season is done, I’ll be more active and pro-active about getting some articles cones. Thanks for checking on me! I really do miss blogging.

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