Paris… the city that embodies beauty and romance is truly a feast for the senses. It is especially a city to taste; an espresso and croissant at a sidewalk café, a simple picnic of fresh bread, cheese and local wine, exploring the fruit and vegetable markets and perhaps a sweet indulgence at one of the city’s legendary chocolate shops…
In the introduction to A Moveable Feast, his book of recollections of 1920s Paris, Ernest Hemingway wrote:
‘If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.’
For the French, eating is as much a way of life as keeping alive and the purchase of the varied and abundant regional produce is all part of the “art de vivre.” Unlike many cities, Paris doesn’t really have a shopping centre and whenever they can, locals prefer not to stock up at the supermarket for the week, but to shop carefully at various food shops for the next meal or two.
Almost every neighbourhood has its own market streets that usually contain a boulangerie (bakery), a charcuterie (cold and smoked meats), a fromagerie (cheese shop), a cave a vins (wine shop), an epicerie (grocer’s shop) a patisserie (pastry shop) and usually at least one confiserie (chocolate/sweet shop). It may seem a less efficient way to do the grocery shopping but there are benefits.
These are social occasions, which allow Parisians to bump into someone they know, share stories and catch up on the latest gossip. The food merchants also take a loving interest in their produce. The fruit and vegetable merchant knows which potato variety is best suited to a gratin or the cheesemonger will let you taste the cheeses first so that you can decide before you buy.
Fancy restaurants are fine, but you can’t beat the epicurean delights of a Paris gourmet picnic (pique-nique) enjoyed in one of the city’s many beautiful parks, squares or open spaces. Follow in the Parisian tradition and shop like the locals for the foods you need while exploring and discovering hidden parts of the city.
The first essential is bread, and the French should know, they consume 10 billion baguettes annually. Bread shops are ten a penny in Paris but for something special visit Poilâne to buy the other French bread.
Inside the most famous boulangerie in Paris, founded in 1932 by Pierre Poilâne, bread making is a passion and a tradition. The baguette may look “oh-so-François” tucked under the arm, but the large, round sourdough loaf of the Poilane bakery is historically the bread of the people, the very same bread that fed centuries of French peasants.
It’s mid-morning inside the bakery’s hot basement and dressed in shorts and slippers, master baker Jean-Luc is hard at work. With deft fingers, he instinctively measures and shapes a 2.2-kilo piece of dough. Flour, water, sea salt and the remains of the previous batch of dough, known as ‘starter’, are the only ingredients. One batch has been produced one after another, in an unbroken chain linked by the starter, for nearly 80 years.
The unbaked loaves are scarified-their tops cut with the initial “P” and placed into linen-lined straw baskets, where they’ll sit until they’re put into a wood-fired oven adapted from Roman designs. The result is probably the best bread you will ever taste; a mammoth crust protects a tangy-sour centre that you can tear into long filaments. Poilâne has many famous devotees of its product including Lauren Bacal, Robert de Niro and Steven Spielberg.
A chandelier made of dough inspired by Salvador Dali can be seen behind the shop counter, in a room that is adorned with still life paintings of bread that Pierre Poilâne received in payment for the bread he gave to hungry artists during the Second World War. Upstairs is a library, which houses 2,500 books devoted to the subject of bread -the richest source of its kind in the world. For some of Paris’s best baguettes, queue with the other patient customers outside the boulangerie Au Levain du Marais.
CHEESE AND WINE
Next on the shopping list is cheese – one of the crowning glories of France. “Cheese is a demanding pleasure, it follows the seasons, it works, it lives,” says Philippe Alléosse inside Fromagerie Alléosse, one of the best cheese shops in Paris. Down in the cellars, various cheeses mature according to their traditional method.
From cheeses rind-washed in beer, creamy camembert, Roquefort, blue-veined champions to piquant disks of goat’s cheese the regional repertoire of cheeses available in fromageries is formidable, and most can supply you with cheese that is ripe to the exact degree you request. You will be spoilt for choice, as there’s at least one type of cheese for every day of the year. Try the brandy-soaked epoisses, the king of Burgundian cheeses; it partners full-bodied red Burgundy beautifully.
What would a Paris picnic be without a bottle of fine wine? If it’s local wine you’re after then you can’t get more local than the ones produced by La Commanderie Du Clos Montmartre vineyard, created in 1933 as a reminder of the one, which used to cover Montmatre. Bottles of wine are available from the Syndicat d’Initiative.
Other picnic foods worth seeking out include; saucisson (air-dried sausage) and macedoine de fruits de mer (mixed seafood salad). If you’ve always wanted to sample fine truffles and can afford it – French black from late October to March, Italian white from mid-October to December visit La Maison de la Truffe and expect to pay around 300€ per 100g.
Why not indulge in something sweet to finish off your gourmet picnic, and judging from the eye-catching and saliva-inducing window displays at confiseries and patisseries Parisians can’t get enough of sweet and sugary things.
Some of the best patisseries include Jean Millet, whose speciality is delice au chocolat praline (an exquisite mix of almonds and chocolate) and Gerard Mulot, where you can purchase tarte normande (apple tart) and mabillon (caramel mousse with apricot conserves). For heavenly handmade chocolates in every conceivable form try La Maison du Chocolat.
On our last afternoon in springtime Paris, we find ourselves in a small park near Montmartre’s Place de Abbesses laying out picnic ingredients bought from shops along nearby Rue Lepic. “Bon appetit,” says the gardener as he walks past. Crunching into some fresh baguettes and cheese we couldn’t agree more. Food market streets of Paris:
• Rue Lepic (Metro-Abbesses) – the original Montmartre street market and one of Paris’ most authentic.
• Rue Montorgueil (Metro-Les Halles) – one of the most beautiful market streets with a fine selection of foods.
• Blvd Richard Lenoir/Marche Bastille (Metro-Bastille) – arguably the best market in Paris.
• Blvd de Magenta/Marche St-Quentin (Metro-Gare de l’Est) – this iron and glass-covered market built-in 1866 is a maze of corridors lined mostly with gourmet food stalls.
PICNICS IN PARIS
Bois de Boulogne – A romantic place on the western edge of the city, these huge woods feature lawns, forests, flower gardens and meandering paths.
• Jardin des Plantes – Founded in 1626 as a medicinal herb garden for Louis XIII, Paris’ botanical gardens are pleasantly informal.
• Places des Vosges – Set in one of Paris’ most charming neighbourhoods, the Marais quarter, this lovely park is surrounded by a quadrangle of 36 symmetrical houses with ground-floor arcades.
• Parc des Buttes Chaumont – A lush hilly landscape with forested slopes, waterfalls and views of Montmartre.
• Square du Vert Galant – This lovely spot is perfect for a summer picnic.
• Jardin des Tuileries – A relaxing place by the river Seine away from the crowds. Children can hire boats to float on the pond.
8 Rue de Cherche Midi
(Metro – Saint Sulpice)
Au Levain du Marais
32 Rue de Turenne
(Metro – St Paul)
13 Rue Poncelet (Metro – Termes)
21 Place du Tertre
(Metro – Abbesses)
La Maison de la Truffe
19 Place De Madelaine
(Metro – Madelaine)
103 Rue Saint-Dominique
(Metro – Ecole Militaire)
76 Rue de Seine (Metro – Odeon)
La Maison du Chocolat
52 Rue François 1er
(Metro – George V)