Life beyond the croissant
THERE IS a saying in Sebwana, a language native to Botswana, ‘go tsomaya ke go bona’, which translates as, ‘to travel is to really discover and experience’. This would seem particularly apt for Paris, one of my favourites of all cities, where I always delight in something new, refreshing and inviting.
Bearing that in mind, how could I possibly resist an invitation from ATOUT FRANCE – the France Tourism Development Agency – to attend a ‘Delicious Paris’ trip in celebration of all things gastronomic! This was to prove a true celebration of creative cuisine, as Paris continues to be a hotbed of new talent, with new restaurants popping up with regularity. Take, for example, Eric Frechon at the Gare Saint-Lazare, Yannick Alleno at the Bourse, or Guy Savoy at the Monnaie de Paris with his metal cafe, a now completed metamorphosis. Authentic flavours and regional products are showcased in cooking workshops and gourmet tours, whilst re-invented street food continues to have great appeal. With three days in Paris to look forward to, I would have the opportunity to sample much of this alternative cuisine.
On board the 0755 Eurostar out of St Pancras International, I relax with a coffee and somewhat selfishly want, if not expect, life to feel easy in the city. For there is a certain level of expectation to find bliss here, in Arrondissements with their own texture and way of life, experienced every time one enjoys a coffee in a street-side café, or sits down to a meal. This is possibly the only city where I bring with me a hedonistic desire to share the things that only the privileged few take for granted… that of fine dining, superb wine, great company, and good times in a city primed for indulgence.
We roll through the northern suburbs under a pale, blue sky, the promise of a cold, crisp day ahead. I wonder how much things have changed here. Yes, the public are bound to be more focussed, but then is not the whole world? A Parisian resident would later comment that three days after the most recent terrorist attacks, and suitably bolstered by the worldwide outrage at the atrocities, Paris was pretty much back to normal. Granted, during those three days you could have walked into any high-end restaurant and sat at a table. A week later, and you were having to once again book in advance. Such is the marvellous resilience of the people.
I check into the 5-star Hotel Molitor (www.mltr.fr), located in a pleasant residential area in the 16th Arrondissement and minutes from the shopping districts of Auteuil and Passy, adjoining Roland Garros, the Parc des Princes and the Bois de Boulogne. Built in 1929, this elegant hotel has gone through various metamorphoses, and still lies close to the heart of Parisians.
Closed for many years, it was then listed as a historical monument before re-opening in its current guise. It is an extraordinary place with its two huge swimming pools and its spa colours. One of its most famous visitors was the actor Johnny Weissmuller, the American Olympic swimmer and actor best known for playing Tarzan in films of the 1930s and 1940s, who would train here.
My fellow international bloggers and I are booked for lunch at the trendy Pierre Sang in Oberkampf (www.pierresangboyer.com) in the heart of Paris. Opened in June 2012 by the charismatic, convivial and ever-attentive chef Pierre Sang Boyer, the upstairs comprises a long counter behind which sits the open kitchen with high stools where diners sit and chat and eat and drink.
Here, Pierre Sang (pictured above) keeps a large stock of wine, from the vintage to the prestigious. Pierre is a ‘Top Chef’ television finalist, and insists: “I want people to come for my cuisine.” Clearly they do on a daily basis.
Of Korean origin, Pierre Sang has introduced to Paris an intricate and clever mix of Franco-Korean flavours, the popularity of which saw him open a second restaurant nearby in 2014.
After lunch, we enjoy a city tour by 2CV with 4 roues sous un parapluie (www.4roues-sous-1parapluie.com). This innovative concept was launched in 2003, offering visitors a range of services around the original and iconic 2CV vehicle. Criss-crossing the Seine, all the while veering through heavy traffic, sights include the Eiffel Tower, before we are dropped off outside the Alain Ducasse School of Cooking (www.eclosecuisine-alainducasse.com) located on rue du Ranelagh in the heart of the 16th Arrondissement.
Owned by world-renowned chef Alain Ducasse, we are treated to a masterclass by chef Julian Mercier (pictured below, left) in the preparation of John Dory and artichokes three ways – glazed, marinated and fried, all finished with a mouth-watering jus.
The school was opened by Alain Ducasse in May 2009, and visitors can experience a range of dishes, from a hearty bistro-style dish, to vegetable casserole, chicken stir-fry, turbot matelote and raspberry financier.
The aim of the school is to offer a wide variety of courses as a means of social interaction and self-fulfillment. As Alain explains:” Cooking is not just learned from books, it is experienced in practice.” So practice it is, tenderly filleting the fish without trying to cut our fingers, before we move on to the artichokes. It was important to follow instructions to the letter, as we were expected to eat the product of our afternoon’s work.
After a refreshing shower back at the Molitor, it is time to head out once again for yet another bib and tucker engagement, this time ‘Dinner with Parisians‘ at the private residence of Diane, who hosts meals at her charming fifth floor apartment as a member of VizEat (www.vizeat.com), a European social network which connects people in the context of food culture.
The VizEat platform was essentially created to bring travellers and hosts together around the table. Without doubt, locals are often the best ambassadors of their city, a point that inspired VizEat co-founders Jean-Michel Petit and Camille Rumani. We take the spiral staircase upwards to Diane’s apartment, walking around one of those wonderfully traditional Parisian metal cage lifts. We are royally greeted with a glass of champagne. It is a tad too chilly outside, although we do make it to the rooftop to cast our eyes over a magnificent skyline, taking in sweeping views of this magical city by night.
We are joined at table by Diane and Jean-Michel Petit, a man clearly passionate both about travelling snd gastronomy. His VizEat moment was apparently borne on the shores of Lake Titicaca in Peru, whilst sharing a traditional meal with local Indians.
With the table at the heart of the home, it is nice to think that the ritual of a meal is the most shared experience in the world. Eating authentic, home-made food with equally authentic people proves a delightful experience, and Diane went to great lengths to make us feel welcome under her roof.
Next morning, after a splendid breakfast at the Molitor, we head to the Hotel de Ville (City Hall) to attend a reception and cocktail buffet hosted by the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo. The occasion is a celebration of the Michelin-starred chefs of the city, who were being awarded the Grand Vermeil medal, the City of Paris’s highest distinction, to formally express gratitude to those who have made Paris the world capital of gastronomy.
Paris currently boasts no fewer than 84 Michelin-starred restaurants, transforming a great culinary heritage into an exciting form of pop culture, with imaginative cooking that blurs the boundaries between haute cuisine and traditional, regional, everyday home cooking. The reception is part hosted by Alain Ducasse (pictured above, centre), whose three-star Plaza Athénée is on the tick-list of most gourmet foodies. It is a glittering occasion in this most beautiful of buildings, with chefs lining the stage to receive their medals, followed by champagne, wine and canapés.
I ask Anne Hidalgo her thoughts on Paris being a city synonymous with good food. “Our culinary tradition embodies our art of living. It is the envy of the world. Sitting down together to share a good meal with fine wine is an essential part of the Parisian lifestyle. Paris is a free and fun-loving city, whose open-minded, outward-looking people enjoy life and all its pleasures.
“Some extraordinarily talented chefs have taken up residence in the French capital. These chefs do not only offer all Parisians, and Paris lovers, a wonderful dining experience. They embody the very spirit of Paris – enlightened, self-respecting, hardworking, inventive, culturally diverse and tolerant: a city that delights the senses and the mind, and provides total freedom to create, to share and to experiment.
“They keep the flag of French gastronomy flying high, giving form and substance to a unique and universal dream: a cuisine that is refined but affordable, both substantial and beautifully presented, focused on flavour and artistry. They take the art of cooking to new heights, boldly experimenting with seemingly impossible combinations to provide a perpetually fresh perspective.
“It is for this reason that I wish to pay them tribute, as I did last autumn to the fashion trade. Our chefs and fashion designers share a love of Paris and a determination to enhance its attractiveness. They communicate and transmit their know-how to future generations with similar zeal. I also wish to let them know that Paris will support their commitment to creating high-quality cuisine. It is to recognise their artistry, and to uphold a fine tradition, that this event is being held at the Hotel de Ville.”
After that you would think it is time for a lie down, but no, we next head off on an afternoon gourmet food tour with our guide Carole Fouque from ‘Meeting the French’ (www.meetingthefrench.com) in Les Halles-Montorgueil quarter, also known as ‘The Belly of Paris’ (according to a novel by Emile Zola in 1873).
The weather is not on our side, with heavy bouts of rain, but it hardly dampens our spirits as Carole pops into several shops, emerging with pastries, bread, cheese, foie gras and wine, which we offer no hesitation in sampling.
So, it ends here, right? Wrong. Showered and changed, we are booked for dinner at La Grande Cascade (www.restaurantsparisiens.com), located in the heart of the Bois de Boulogne.
The gourmet restaurant was originally a lodge where Napoleon III, who came to the Bois de Boulogne to hunt, could take a rest. Over the years, La Grande Cascade has changed with the times, whilst maintaining its uniquely retro-modern style.
Early start the next morning. Five o’clock, in fact. The city clearly never sleeps, because even at this unearthly time, traffic slipstreams into the heart of Paris as we make our way to the southern suburbs and Le Marché International de Rungis, the largest wholesale fresh produce market in the world. Believe me, it is enormous, covering 234 hectares.
Before dawn breaks, and with our guide Carole Metayer from La Routes des Gourmets (www.laroutedesgourmets.fr), countless articulated lorries trundle around the maze of roads to the different halls housing meat, fish, cheese, bio products, fruit and veg, and horticulture.
The central market of Paris was originally located in the city centre, in a 10-hectare area named Les Halles. However, demand outstripped its size and in 1969 the market was transferred to the Rungis area where we find ourselves today, with its easy access to road, rail and air links. Interestingly, the market waste is recycled and the energy generated by the incinerator is used to heat up the market and nearby Orly Airport. The facts are impressive. Around 26,000 vehicles enter every day, with over one-and-a-half million tonnes of products being brought in annually.
After a couple of hours we head for breakfast, before making our way back to the hotel. Then it is out once more, this time to meet with Guillaume Le Roux (www.levraiparis.com), who takes us on an exotic street food tour in the 18th Arrondissement. I use the term ‘exotic’ loosely, because this is not a particularly salubrious area.
We meet outside Barbes-Rochechouart station, at a point where the 9th, 10th and 18th Arrondissements all share a single point. You could almost split the 18th Arrondissement in two, to the left being the touristic area around the district of Montmartre, which contains a hill dominated by the Sacré Cœur basilica, and to the right the multicultural area where you will find a distinct lack of chic restaurants and hotels. Rough and ready it may be, but here you will find vendors and cafés serving delicious traditional cuisine, such as at Delices de Paris, run by an Algerian who serves up spicy mashed chick peas prepared in an oven and served in a crusty bun – delicious.
We then venture into Restaurant Djerba Cacher, a Jewish establishment renowned for the way its meat is prepared. This is a particular favourite of our guide, who explains that although the area has seen better times, things are slowly changing for the better, and predicts that within the next five years it will once again be on the tourist trail. Should you find yourself in Paris and fancy some authentic, wholesome cuisine at extremely reasonable prices, then do not be put off by what you see.
At Restaurant Djerba Cacher, our table groans under the weight of plated food which continues to arrive with spectacular efficiency. There is little time to savour the moment, though, because with time pressing, we head off to our next stopping point.
And here we are taking sugary, mint tea and cake at the patisserie Delices D’Elksour, housed behind metal shutters underneath a car park. Ducking my head under the part-open door, once again I am slightly bemused and not a little intimidated as to what I may expect inside.Rest assured, I can only admit to being pleasantly surprised by the bonhomie from the two staff members behind the counter, who bring out trays of cake and tea. So, as the saying goes, never judge a book by its colour because, believe me, street food and takeaways that spill over on to the street are becoming a favourite lunchtime option in many parts of Paris, with many office workers enjoy an hour’s foodie quest.
Our final port of call is a micro brewery which has slowly been making positive waves in this part of Paris, as original beers are few and far between. We have too little time to tickle our tastebuds before we have to leave.
So, in summary, I have seen how food trends in the capital are wide ranging and ever-changing, from street food to multi-disciplinary restaurants. With so many inspiring options available, it begs the question: What would a kitchen be without chefs? Ah, but what would those chefs be without diners? And what would those diners be without creative restaurants? And, bien entendu, what would those restaurants be without Paris? I leave you with that thought.
All images © Essential Journeys/Michael Cowton
The public website at france.fr provides visitors with access to information on the latest news and apps, upcoming events and practical information about France.
The Paris Convention and Visitors bureau, its local partners and Atout France kindly sponsored my trip.
Hotel Molitor – https://www.essentialjourneys.co.uk/8444-2/