Saturday, November 06, 2010

Your Friend in Paris

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live like a Parisian? Unless you’re prepared to travel with a dog or take up smoking, I think the easiest and most enjoyable way to experience la belle vie while visiting France is by shopping and eating.

I’ve been living in Paris for five years now. While I’d like to pretend that I spend my days strolling along selecting cheeses and chocolates from small shops, I’d be exaggerating. Sometimes I’m forced to go to the supermarket due to time constraints, hours of operation, or the simple fact that I need to buy toilet paper.

On the weekend, however, I really do try to frequent the farmer’s market and small shops in my quartier. Little by little, you start to develop a relationship with the vendors and they remember you. With my accent, it usually doesn’t take all that long.  My second visit to the produce shop on rue Mouffetard, I was greeted with “Bonjour, Miss California.” I’m still smiling. And a few weeks later, after I’d paid for all my fruits and vegetables, I realized that I’d forgotten a lime. When I told him it was for my vodka tonic, he placed it in my hand with a wink and refused my money.

My cheese lady will slice off a piece of brie and let me taste it to make sure it meets my expectations regarding ripeness. She’ll also select a seasonal cheese for me – assuming she can understand what I’m saying. Some months ago, we performed an Abbott & Costello routine for those in line. I asked for a cheese “en saison” (in season). She kindly responded, with a straight face, that she did not have a cheese of “six ans” (six years old). The pronunciation is identical to my ears – and apparently to hers. Luckily, my French husband was there to clarify “Who’s On First,” but only after he enjoyed the show.

For me, these little interactions make food shopping in Paris fun. I admit, when I first moved here I was uncomfortable approaching vendors and asking questions – partly because of the language barrier and partly because I was afraid of encountering the infamous “rude” French person (which often can be chalked up to cultural difference and not actual rudeness). It was easier for me to go to the supermarket, throw things in a cart, hand over the cash and walk out.

The French may be spoiled with le marché, but there are days when I miss Safeway more than my parents. My supermarket was recently out of Q-tips for two weeks. When they finally arrived, the employee recognized me and my waxy ears by this point (the fact that I could never remember how to say cotton swabs in French and had to mime it out by sticking my finger in my ear each time probably helped as well) and suggested that I stock up and buy three boxes to last me through winter. I never imagined that care packages sent from California would not only include taco seasoning and Cheez-its, but Q-tips too!

Living like a Parisian is not always perfect, but it certainly can be if you go about it the right way. The beauty of being on vacation is that you can choose what you’d like to do with your time and plan accordingly. For example, I recently took part in Context Travel’s “Baguette to Bistro: Culinary Traditions of Paris” walking seminar. The fact is there is always something new to see and, more importantly, taste here and I was curious to find out what Context Travel had on its plate. Plus, I’m often asked by friends and friends of friends for travel tips, I thought it would be a good experience and one I could recommend if I enjoyed myself, which I did – immensely!

The tour started at 10:00 a.m. I met my docent, Meg Zimbeck, in front of a café where rue du Bac hits the Seine. I was pleased to find that there were only three other participants joining us that day. Meg referred to us as "visitors" not tourists, which I thought was a nice touch and appropriate as it really felt like we were just a group of friends meeting up for a little shopping. It was immediately obvious that this was not going to be an ordinary tour. There would be no red umbrella to follow, no "bus leaves in 10 minutes" shouted through the end of a bullhorn, and no herding, corralling or waiting in long lines at the souvenir shop.

After introductions and a little small talk, the official tour began. Meg offered us some interesting historical information about the 7th arrondissement, the setting for our tasting tour, and we were off!

Picture yourself walking down a narrow street lined with boutiques and shops then popping into la boulangerie to buy some freshly baked bread.
Meg explaining what to look for in a good baguette regarding texture and taste at La Maison Kayser
After that, you visit la fromagerie across the street to taste a few cheeses that you selected with the aid of a master. You'll need something to spread all over the crusty baguette you just bought - although it really is so delicious you could eat it solo.
Window of Androuet - Master Cheesemaker
Partial view of cheeses at Androuet
You’re back on the tiny sidewalk again, but seeing all those delicious pastries at the boulangerie has awoken your sweet tooth (he’s small but demanding!). You could return to the boulangerie to pick up a pain aux raisins, but why look back when straight ahead there is a shop specifically dedicated to sweet things: la pâtisserie! You go inside and peruse the decadent offerings and have one boxed up for later.

Le Saint-Honoré at
La Pâtisserie des Rêves
(The Pastry Shop of Dreams)
by Philippe Conticini
Le Frutier de Saison (lemon, white chocolate, and dates)
After admiring creations that so closely resemble artwork they are kept under glass, you cannot be expected to wait until “later” to get your sugar fix so you take une petite pause at your local chocolatier for some instant gratification. 
Chapon Chocolatier

Like jewelry!

Several flavors of chocolate mousse
to choose from!
Ooh là là! It's already half past noon, but you have one last stop. La cave, of course.  You enter and admire the beautiful bottles of fine Bordeaux wines, while doing so the lovely caviste offers you a sampling of an hors d’age Armagnac which you gladly accept.  I guess it really is good to be French!
Armagnac tasting at Ryst-Dupeyron

There were three things that I particularly enjoyed about the tour.  The first, and probably the most obvious, was getting to learn about the products and having the opportunity to taste them on the spot and ask follow-up questions about ingredients, the process, etc.  Secondly, I liked that our group was small which meant there was enough time to stray off topic and discuss questions about culture, customs, and favorite restaurants (which is why I would recommend taking the tour early in your trip so you'll have time to put this wealth of knowledge to work).  Finally, going back to the relationship aspect I mentioned above, Meg (or Context Travel docents, in general) has a relationship with the shop owners/employees because she is a regular customer.  Thus, as her "visitor" you get a real French shopping experience. 

If you'd like to do some "window shopping" or as the French call it "window licking" (lèche-vitrine, because they just can't keep their tongues in their mouths), to hold you over til your trip to Paris, here are the places we visited:

La Maison Kayser
La Pâtisserie des Rêves
Chapon Chocolatier

And, of course:
Context Travel's "Baguette to Bistro: Culinary Traditions of Paris"
Duration: 2.5 hours (minimum, my tour went over)
Price: €70, plus €10 tasting fee

Thursday, November 04, 2010

I feel sick

My friends with children often joke about how they eat their kids' Halloween candy or sneak licks of their ice cream cones.  They call it joking but I view it as bragging, especially since I always struggle to narrow down my ice cream selections to just two flavors.  Of course, triple scoops exist here but I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to order as many French people consider drinking a third glass of wine as unladylike behavior.  One of my lucky girlfriends has three boys all under the age of four, which means they're still young enough for her to order for them (i.e., select the flavors she wants) and she simply looks like an attentive mother as she eats junks of dried cookie dough off their little cheeks.  Needless to say, I'm jealous. 

This past weekend, Fred and I played parents to his thirteen year old second cousin.  At the restaurant, I tried to steer her towards a hamburger.  I was excited by the idea that I might get to help her with her leftover french fries.  But to my dismay and disgust, she ordered rognons de veau (veal kidneys).  She might be the only person I know who eats them by choice.  The only other person I've ever heard of eating them did so on accident because he forgot his dictionary while traveling in Montpellier and he still gags when speaking of the incident.  To put things in perspective, he considers pigs' feet a delicacy so his repugnant food threshold is pretty high. 

In the end, my experiment completely backfired.  Not only was I unable to eat her food, but I could barely finish mine.
Bobbing for internal organs!
So disgusting even the camera was weeping.
It refused to focus.