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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.