As I mentioned, living in Italy for three years made me captain of Team Olive Oil, not Team Butter, so I wanted to seek out some experts to give me a crash course on Parisian food 101. Enter Context Travel, a collection of specialists in food, architecture, history, and culture who lead groups on walking tours throughout Europe (and a few U.S. cities, too). We were paired up with local food writer Barbra Austin, who had cooked at NYC’s Prune, among other places, and made the move to Paris to pursue pastry studies. From the Seine, we traveled south on the posh Rue du Bac toward edible temptation.
Our first stop was Boulangerie Eric Kayser, where we learned the difference between commercial and artisan (or de tradition) baguettes.
Barbra’s tips for spotting an artisan (de tradition) baguette versus a commercial baguette:
- Commercial bread will have a bumpy pattern on the bottom; this indicates it was baked on industrial trays. Kayser breads are “baked on a linen cloth in an open hearth” (swoon) and have a flat bottom.
- Artisan bread is made with liquid leaven, not chemical yeast.
- The shape of artisan bread will not be symmetrical; it will be irregular because it is handmade.
- The inside of the bread will have holes; it will not have a uniform solid texture.
- If you hold an artisan baguette on one end and extend it horizontally it should not bend.
I began to think about all the commercial bread I’ve bought and consumed in my life. Luckily, there was cheese to distract me.
Barbra (with bread) surveys the goods at Fromagerie Androuet.
Options to consider (like what’s the best cheese to get past a U.S. customs dog?) as we eventually try a chevre, a Comté, and a Munster, and chat with the affable store owners, who clearly love what they do (as do we).
Walking toward our next stop, we peer into the window of the local butcher. Shortly afterward, one of them starts burning the hairs off of a duck over an open flame.
I couldn’t get over how adorable these shops were, with the lighting of high-end fashion dressing rooms, no less. The poissonnerie, or fish shop, had chandeliers hanging from its awnings! I half-expected it to smell of perfume over there.
But wait, we see chocolate.
Barbra said she likes Chocolat Chapon because many chocolate shops have become exclusive and cold, and Chapon is still warm and inviting with customers. While the dessert lovers (not I) palpitated, I waited out the visit… and then someone handed me two types of chocolate mousse that they dollop out like ice cream. Holy mother of… yah, you need to visit and try this.
Yet another adorable store as we walk to sample some Armagnac.
A nook of the Ryst-Dupeyron shop, known for its variety of Armagnac, or a type of brandy made in the region of the same name. They say they have 80 different vintages dating back to 1868. Yes, we should definitely make sure that it’s good.
Pouring an Armagnac blend. Armagnac is very similar to Cognac (which is made in a town of the same name north of Armagnac), though Armagnac is distilled only once while Cognac is distilled twice. It’s a little raw for my taste, and has the bite of Italian grappa (not that I’m complaining), but I see the appeal.
I just had to get a shot of these two. Furs, scarves, hats, and cigarettes: welcome to Europe.
Final stop: La Pâtisserie des Rêves (also pictured at top). What a presentation of riches. By now, we can’t eat another thing but we split a piece of shortbread for good measure.
We end up at La Grand Epicerie, an international collection of food items on the ground level of the famous department store, Le Bon Marché. Barbra puts it well when she says it’s like all the food we just saw put together under one roof, but without the care and attention that each shop owner we met gives his/her product (she was right; I stopped by later to buy some cheese and bread).
Of course, I had to take a look at the USA section, and I thought you’d like to see what I found:
God bless the U-S-of-A.
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