Paris for Insiders: Foodie Tour of Saint Germain (part 1)
No other arrondissement in Paris has been painted, written about, featured in novels and movies, had music composed about it and philosophy debated in it’s cafes as much as Saint Germain Des Prés. Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir philosophized with the intelligentsia at Cafes Flore and Les Deux Magot, Oscar Wilde lived on 13, rue des Beaux-Arts, Picasso painted in his atelier on rue Saints Augustines, Hemingway stayed there and wrote about it, Charles Aznavour sang to it, the Da Vinci Code, both book and film, immortalized it for the modern audiences. To this day it is still a hub for art, literature, design, fashion and of course, food. Food artisan worth their salt all know that they have to establish presence in Saint Germain, and most do. Modern day food celebrities such as Ina Garten (the Barefoot Contessa) and Dori Greenspan, both have French residences in Saint Germain and can be spotted shopping at the markets or sitting at the sidewalk cafes.
As an aside: before moving into the Paris house on the weekend, we will be staying for a few days at 44 rue Jacob at the very same hotel that Hemingway stayed at with his first wife Hadley. It is now called Hotel Angleterre. This period of his life is beautifully described in the book The Paris Wife by Paula McLain.
Paris can be overwhelming if you don’t know it. There are so many areas to visit, restaurants, wine bars, cafes, patisseries, chocolatiers and bakeries to try. You can certainly benefit from seeking advice from people in the know. As a foodie and a blogger I needed an introduction to the insider places of Paris. Of course you can research and do everything on your own but why, if there are locals who are willing to show and tell? There are several Paris based blogs and websites that offer information and food tours for English speaking visitors and I like to rely on these resources when planning a trip like this. I will offer a few links to these blogs at the end of the post. One such blog is Paris by Mouth, a Paris based website built on the collaboration and contribution of an impressive group of food and wine professionals, including cookbook authors Patricia Wells and Dori Greenspan to mention a couple of the well known names. The site was launched in 2010 and the Wall Street Journal called it “the definitive blog on the city’s food and wine scene”. The website offers a guide to Paris, listing restaurants, wine bars, bakeries and more that can be very useful when you are in town looking to experience it like an insider. They also conduct culinary tours that cover markets, bakeries, patisseries, chocolatiers, wine shops, wine bars and more. Average price for a 3 hour tour with tastings is 95 Euros. You can register online to any of these excursions and my experience with them was very good. Response to registration and inquiries was prompt, information was precise, I received a reminder before the event and they even agreed to change my reservation for one of the tours I registered for once I was in Paris.
The first tour I took with Paris by Mouth was a food tour of Saint Germain. Saint Germain is an interesting arrondissement and is kind of a microcosm of the greater Paris. It has everything: large avenues, narrow side streets, high end shopping, small boutiques, famous cafes, artisanal foods, specialty wine shops and fabulous shoe stores (around rue Cherche Midi) and a lot of history (Saint Germaine church, the oldest in Paris, Saint Sulplice). You really get a sense of life in the city when you are in Saint Germain.
Our food tour guide was Sara Garcia, a beautiful, friendly and knowlegeable Californian living in Paris, who traveled the world developing a culinary career. She worked as a sushi chef in Japan (!) before deciding to abandon the back kitchen and pursue a career as a restaurant consultant and now a restauranteur in Paris. Together with a partner she opened Candalaria, a Mexican taqueria in the Marias, as well as a wine bar in the Pigall district. I have to try the taqueria for sure, being a fan of Mexican food myself. Sara was the ideal guide, friendly, knowlegeable, chatty and a great story teller. Ah, to be young again.
Our food tour meeting place was just at the right spot: in front of Poilăne, the world’s most famous boulangerie on 8 rue Cherche-Midi, where else? Poilâne is a landmark bakery in Paris, producing chewy traditional French sourdough bread since 1932. These beautiful, one of a kind breads are shipped all over the world and you can buy yours over the internet and have it shipped to your house. Holt Renfrew in Toronto used to sells Poilâne loaves at their bakery and at Holt’s Cafe upstairs they make wonderful tartines using long, thin slices of the imported bread. Urban Fare in Yaletown in Vancouver used to carry the bread as well. Needless to say I have had the bread shipped to me and I love making various tartines with it or just eat it with sweet butter.
The signature round country loaf is made of 4 ingredients: sourdough, stoneground wheat flour, water and sea salt from Guérande. It has a thick, golden crust formed in a wood-burning oven and beautiful off white crumb. These loaves are decorated with the letter P for Poilâne and during the holidays they decorate the loaves with various holiday themes, all made from dough. These loaves are serious bread, not for the uninitiated, and Parisians make the pilgrimage from all over the city to buy them. Each loaf weighs about 4 lbs and each is handcrafted by the bread artisans working at Poilăne. Don’t despair though, you don’t have to buy a whole loaf. In fact you can even buy it by the slice as it is sold by the weight. It is not uncommon to see customers buying one slice for their lunch tartine.
Everything that is made in the bakery is made by hand. The only machine they use is a mixer to mix the dough, and the breads are baked in a 300 year old wood burning oven situated in the basement below street level. The sourdough starter is more than 90 years old and gives the bread its unique wonderful je ne sais quoi flavour. The Poilăne story has a sad twist though. Lionel Poilăne who ran the bakery after his father Pierre and developed it into the international enterprise it is today, died, together with his wife in a helicopter crash a few years ago. Their daughter Apollonia took over the business while she was in graduate school at Harvard, with bread flown over to her weekly for quality control. Thankfully the boulangerie seems to thrive under her management. Our guide Sara pointed out that many restaurants in Paris proudly display a sign “Ici pain Poilane” (Poilane bread here) , indicating that they sell or use Poilane bread at their shops or restaurants. If I was allowed only one thing in Paris it would be a Poilane loaf.
While at the boulangerie they put up with us taking pictures of everything in sight and oooing and aaahing (is that a word?) over everything. I guess they are used to it and were very gracious about it. They offered us a taste of their signature butter cookies (I have two dozens sitting in my kitchen right now) and these were buttery soft yet crisp and delicious. Sara picked up long slices of Poilane breads as well as a few of the just baked gorgeous apple tarts sitting on the shelves. These tarts are baked throughout the day so you will never get a soggy one here. She cut them into quarters and we devoured them standing on the small rue Cherche-Midi street in front of the busy bakery. Delish. I could go on about Poilane but I think it deserves its own post at some point.
Another stop was the Pierre Hermes patisserie. Hermes was a child protege working under Lenotre in the 60′ and 70’s and was appointed head of pastry at Fauchon by the age of 25. He was then hired by Laduree to expand their macaroon line and was the one responsible for all the wonderful rainbow of colours and flavours of the macaroons at Laduree. He left Laduree in the mid 90’s but because of a non-compete clause in his contract was forced to leave the country and started a pastry line in Japan. He came back in 2002 and opened this location and then a few others around Paris. Hermes is particularly known for his unusual flavour combinations in the macaroons. White asparagus with white truffle, fig and Fois Gras, you get the picture.
One of his most famous macaroons is the Ispahan, made with rose, lychee and raspberries and still one of the most popular macaroons in his shop. “He has endless imagination” says Sara, “and he comes up with pastries like a fashion line, new styles all the time.” You can find the recipe for the Ispahan macaroon here. Walking into the small pastry shop takes your breath away. The gorgeous Christmas logs and beautifully constructed pastries made me think he could have been an architect. There were dozen of macaroon to choose from and Sara picked a couple of flavours: white truffle and hazelnut, chocolate and foie gras. Both were crunchy-creamy, not overly sweet and the flavours of the truffle and the fois gras were recognizable without overwhelming the macaroon. Hermes is also a prolific author and published several cookbooks (some together with Dori Greenspan). I must buy some of his books.
We had a few more stops before settling at La Dernière Goutte, (the last drop) wine shop to taste our loot with some very good wines. I am leaving those for the second instalment of this post or I will never get it posted. We visited a covered farmers market where we picked up wonderful pates and cheeses, stopped at an amazing new chocolatier that makes wonderful chocolates with most unexpected flavour combinations (how about basil and lime?) and ended with a freshly made cream puff filled with fromage blanc flavoured with vanilla, made in a small shop that makes only two kinds of cream puffs. Only in Paris. The tour was interesting, informative and fun. I am booked on another one this week, this one visiting small wine bars serving vin natural in Saint Germain. Will sip and tell later.
Here are some websites to consult when visiting Paris, more on that later:
David Leibovitz: http://www.davidlebovitz.com/paris/
Paris by Mouth: http://parisbymouth.com
Clotilde Dusoulier: http://chocolateandzucchini.com/archives/cat_paris_city_guide.php
Edible Paris: http://www.edible-paris.com
Lost in Cheese land: http://www.lostincheeseland.com/p/about-me.html
The Secrets of Paris: http://www.secretsofparis.com/paris-food-markets/