December 16, 2010

Eating in Paris

Les jardins de Luxembourg

From Vienna, we went to Paris for ten days to stay with friends. Sylvie and her two daughters Adele and Louise lived in a suburb of Paris called Aubervilliers - but they were in the process of moving away during our visit. Aubervilliers, to the northeast of the city, is kind of the ghetto. It's the department of France with the most immigrants, many of them living cramped together in big apartment buildings. Sylvie lived in a beautiful house there for ___ years, and a few days after we left she moved to a different corner of the city.

But she told us it feels like Aubervilliers is getting more and more dangerous. This is where J lived for almost a year when he studied in France eight years ago, and we stayed with Sylvie three years ago on our honeymoon. The winding streets are narrow, with most buildings abutting the road with only about a foot of sidewalk and curb. There's only the odd tree here and there, and no sign of grass. Among the apartments are dirty-looking bars and corner stores. There are definitely some nice spots, including a great bookstore and some decent bakeries. And just being in a place so different from our home is fasinating - the African and Arab cultures are on display in peoples' clothing, the shops, and the markets. But the next time we visit Sylvie, things will be a lot different. She's moved to a ritzy suburb, more like what you imagine of a little French town: pretty brick walls, flowering trees and quaint shops.

In Aubervilliers we did most of our food shopping at a chain grocery store near Sylvie's house. It's called Monoprix, and it's actually a department store. The bottom floor is full of clothes, housewares, and drugstore items, and you have to go up the escalator to find the food. Usually one of us headed towards the back to grab a few bottles of the cheapest wine we could find. Yes, this holiday was all about cheap wine. In Paris it seemed outrageously expensive to our bargain-hunting minds - 3.50 euros intead of the 1.99 we drank in Vienna. 

Even in a boring, fluorescently-lit French grocery store, we could buy an amazing variety of cheeses, yogurts and meat products. Lots of goat cheese, thick Greek yogurt, and something I had never eaten before but fell in love with: rillettes.

Rillettes is a type of French meat pate, a mix of shredded or chopped meat and fat, and traditionally topped with a thick layer of fat. We ate pork, duck and chicken rillettes, which were all different and all delicious, spread on bread or crackers. Let me just say that a few years ago I'm pretty sure I would have found this food disgusting - for most of my life I've had a lot of disdain for animal fat. I think the combo of moving to meat-heavy Alberta and starting to add much more meat to my diet, plus reading Jennifer McLagan's wonderful book, Fat, have changed things for the better. I am now a huge proponent of natural animal fats. And so happy you can buy this stuff in the plastic tub at a French chain grocery store! I'm sure hand-made, locally-made rillettes are probably even more delicious, but this was good enough for us.

We also made a couple of special food excursions in Paris. I definitely missed the joy of French croissants and baguettes, but we went to Ladurée to buy macarons - naturally gluten-free! (made with ground almonds and egg whites). At David Lebovitz' suggestion, we tried the salted caramel and dark chocolate, as well as pistachio. At 13.50 euros for six tiny macarons, the things aren't cheap. But the salted caramel and pistachio were heavenly - rich flavours in a light package. And speaking of package, the box is the cutest!

Near Ladurée is a shop where we stopped on our honeymoon - La Maison du Miel. This translates as "house of honey" and that's exactly what it is. You can buy honey from all over the world and from almost any kind of tree or plant. It's really incredible to stare at all the jars and realize that you can get honey from rosemary plants and orange trees, and in colours ranging from almost transparent to caramel, with all the sunny, golden hues in between.

They also offer tastes so you can figure out what kinds you like. This time we bought tilleul, which is from a lime tree, and leatherwood, which comes from Tanzania. They both taste richer and more complex than any other honey I've had, and are best savoured by the small spoonful. The leatherwood is especially dark and dense, sweet but with a slightly bitter quality.

One of our favourite neighbourhoods in Paris is Le Marais. When Paris was founded it was the swampy area of the city - which is where the word Marais, meaning swamp, comes from. It's full of history, from the booming Jewish quarter in the rue des Rosiers to the elegant Place des Vosges. Before the French Revolution the neighbourhood was home to aristicrats and sumptuous architecture. The aristocrats are gone - replaced by an incredibly hip crowd of artists and fashion designers - but much of the architecture remains. A simple stroll through the Marais is enough to convince me that living in Paris would be incredible. The day we went to the Marais I forgot the camera, so you'll just have to imagine how charming it is.

We waited in line for the famous falafel on the rue des Rosiers. The better-known shop is L'As du Falafel, but according to some people the competitor just across the street is even better. I couldn't eat any of it, but J decided to sample the chicken shawarma instead of the famous falafel. He regretted it later when they brought samples of falafel through the line after he had already given his order. The small golden balls of crushed chickpeas looked and smelled fantastic. The atmosphere is wonderful too - hawkers for both shops call out to tourists and locals seeking a delicious, cheap lunch.

We lazed on the grass by the fountains in the Place des Vosges, among a crowd of sun-seekers. Then we went to visit another David Lebovitz recommendation, Dammann Freres tea shop, right on the square. This place is beautiful - high ceilings with tins of tea stacked to the top. When you make your order, the two young men working there climb up the ladders to fetch your request. There are gift and sample packages of tea wrapped up gorgeously in sleek black packaging, and plenty of loose teas to smell so you can make your choice more easily. We went home with a fragrant cardamom green tea.

Sylvie's three cats liked to help us out in the kitchen

One of my best food experiences of the entire trip was at a small gelato shop in the Marais. The famous Berthillon ice cream shop on the Ile St Louis is the most well-known in Paris, but many claim that Pozzetto actually makes the best ice cream. I ate a scoop of their pistachio gelato and have not felt the same about ice cream since. It was an earthy green, darker than any other pistachio ice cream I've seen, with flecks of pistachio mixed in. Imagine eating the freshest pistachios on earth, mixed with cream and sugar into cold, custardy goodness. I raved about that ice cream for weeks afterward, and it's now on my must-eat list of Paris. 
There are so many good things to eat in Paris, it can seem overwhelming. If I didn't have a gluten problem, I would be happy to subsist on baguettes, croissants, and rich hot chocolate for all ten days. But luckily, delicious cheeses and meat products also form a large part of a typical French diet, so I could indulge to my heart's content.   

1 comment:

Anne said...

Oh, mon dieu, I have to go back to Paris and visit all these places. The honey sounds like nectar of the gods! The cheeses, the tea, le Marais, wow. My childhood visits there obviously are not going to be sufficient. Thanks for making me drool :-)