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


Kalee said...

England was very similar, and I miss having a butcher to go to (not to mention that I've been hunting for over a year for Brit style bacon to no avail). I'm not sure why these specialty stores are no longer popular here in the U.S. You get such better quality on things like meat, cheese, and bread from a store that deals with a specific item than a huge grocery store.

Dish&Dirt said...

Can't wait to include this in D&D, Amy. Looks like a fun tour.

Nina said...

Hi, inspiring blog-post! :-)
I live in Paris 7ème actually. I wonder what is the address to the store with the chocolate mousse?

Amy75 said...

Kalee, I bought some great cheddar cheese from England at Androuet a few weeks ago. It ate it in nearly one sitting. Nearly made myself sick, but it was worth it. I know what you mean re the small shops in the US. It's weird bc when I was younger we had a butcher - but he eventually retired and wasn't replaced.

D, It was super fun. They do ones in Rome too. Italian vacation, anyone?!

Nina, Thank you! And lucky you for being in the neighborhood. The address of Chapon in the 7th is 69 rue du Bac. I need to go back to taste the remainding 15 flavors or so :)

Nina said...

Thanks for such a quick answer! :-) Seriously, I'm going there this upcoming week, I love chocolate mousse! I also relate a bit to what you wrote about being "afraid" to be misunderstood in stores, even after 3+ years in Paris, that happens weekly to me. But, at least we are able to smile about it. I recently found your blog, and now you are bookmarked on my Bloglovin'. :-) Bonne journée!

Lily said...

Thanks for the great post Amy! You're making me hungry just reading it!! Glad you enjoyed it and you're welcome to try a different walk in the future!

fred said...

Next time I'll come and enjoy the walk. It looks really good.

Lost In Cheeseland said...

Looks amazing, I really need to do one of those tours!

Amy75 said...

Nina, They had a white chocolate one that looked interesting. Going to try that next time. I too still have that awkward feeling interacting sometimes and it’s been 5 yrs. I think it’s bc I work in English so it still hasn’t really become natural, which seems weird. It’s hard being an adult starting over with a language and having to put yourself out there. Nice to know there are others who can relate. Btw, I clicked on your link, the photos of you are so cute. Looks like you’re up to fun things in Paris.

Lily, It was so much fun and Meg was awesome, as I’m sure you know. Thanks for the opportunity.

Fred, I know, I wish you were there with me. Next time someone visits us, we’ll go w/them.

Lindsey, It was and you should totally do one. I’d love to read your write-up after.

Caroline said...

Great post, Meg, and I loved your photos! This tour was definitely a highlight of our week and I would highly recommend it to anyone.

Amy75 said...

Thanks, Caroline! I know, it was so much fun. Glad you and Alice had as much fun as I did.

Andi said...

Amy that tour looks amazing, Lily of Context Travel offered my husband and I a tour while we were there, but we had to pass. I will make sure we don't pass twice. I love Meg Z.'s blog she must be amazing in person. Fabulous post - I love it!

Amy75 said...

Andi, Yes, it was awesome. Looks like you did a lot of amazing things while you were here based on your posts, but you should definitely fit this into your schedule next visit. Another thing I can thank you and your Happy Hour for is meeting Lily. I follow Meg's blog too so it was a very pleasant surprise to learn she'd be my docent. And yes she is amazing in person - obvious passion for food and so kind and willing to share it. I noticed there's no CT in SF. We need to talk to Lily about that!

Karin (an alien parisienne) said...

Amy -- this is a fantastic post! Everything in it from the writing (love the part about the lime! :D), to the descriptions of the sites on the tour, to the photos: great stuff, thoroughly engaging. I was window licking the screen. :) (And I learned a new expression today: lèche-vitrine. Cool. I will try to remember to use that one soon.)

I'm glad you got to try out the Context Travel tour, and see those wonderful places I had read about before, but enjoyed hearing about from your perspective. :)

Still, I think my favorite part of this post was this sentence here:" The French may be spoiled with le marché, but there are days when I miss Safeway more than my parents." NO KIDDING. That's one thing that I bet would surprise a lot of folks who read about living in Paris but have not yet done it: sometimes there is nothing better than the overstocked, one-stop shop, like a good ole Safeway (or for me, a Super Target *siiiiiggggh*). Some days I really miss shopping there, too.

Karin (an alien parisienne) said...

P.S. The "Who's On First" saison/six ans thing really got me, too. Hee hee hee!!

Amy75 said...

Hi Karin, Thank you so much for your wonderful compliments - since you're quickly becoming my "go to" gal for writing and blog info, I really appreciate them. And Target, oh how I miss Target. One of my other American girlfriends and I are always wondering why the U.S. doesn't have Picard and France doesn't have Target. That would solve all the world's problems, right?! :)

Anonymous said...

Fabulous post Amy! The pictures had me salivating and I think I gained 10 lbs. Do you think the chocolatier & la fromagerie would fedex to the middle of the pacific?? Seriously, let me know : )

Amy75 said...

GiP, Thank you! I promise if I could, I would. The more they export, the less here for me to eat (and yes gain 10 pounds)! You'll just have to come back to Paris, I guess. Just like I'll have to go to Hawaii for some good weather I think. Rainy, rainy , rainy here :(

Anonymous said...

Je m'ennuie de Paris! Pardon, my french is a little rusty. I might have to do that if you keep posting pics of delectable treats. Come find the sunshine here in beautiful hawaii!!

vicki archer said...

That is my kind of a tour! Delicious...xv

Amy75 said...

Hi Vicki, It was wonderful. I'd like to do it once a week, at least!

The Fashionable Traveler said...

Thanks for the advice on Context Travel! I love getting the local experience everywhere I go, and something I will have to put on my list for my next trip

Amy75 said...

@TFT, I agree getting the local experience really makes a trip. I was in Rome a few months ago (before I knew of Context Travel) and had a good time, but felt like I just scratched the surface. Next trip, I think I'm going to do a CT guided tour - need to check if they have a Italian food one, otherwise maybe a architecture one or something.

Cathy Sweeney said...

Hi Amy - really like your blog. I'm reading my way back to your first post and enjoying your style, with and photos. I'll be checking in often for more about you and wonderful Paris!

Amy75 said...

Thank you, Cathy! I really appreciate your comment. Glad you're enjoying the older posts too. When I read them now, it seems so long ago on one hand, but just like yesterday on the other :)

Armagnac 1977 said...

Viva Armagnac !