Paris for Insiders: Foodie Tour of Saint Germain (Part 2)
Continued from Part One here.
On we go on our walking food tour of Saint Germain with Sara Garcia from Paris by Mouth. After our last stop at Pierre Hermés shop on 72 Rue Bonaparte we crossed the square in front of the beautiful church of Saint Germain, the oldest church in Paris dating back to the 12th century. It is so interesting to be a Parisian and live among these old monuments. I think it makes you more aware of the passage of time and develops an appreciation for living in the moment.
On the way Sara was telling us about a very special chocolate artist, Patrick Roger. She was excited to share this find with us, especially since he has just opened a store here in Saint Germain. Roger was elected Meilleur Chocolate Ouvrier de France in 2000 when he was very young. This is quite an extraordinary achievement as the honour is mostly bestowed on chocolate artists that have a lifetime of work behind them. He is known for creating oversize chocolate sculptures of considerable artistic merit and in the window of his new store sat a huge sculpture of an Orangutan sitting on a rock, all made of chocolate. There is a photo of the chocolate orangutan sculpture in his book.
In 2000 he made a cocoa farmer, a sculpture weighing 62 kg that earned him the Meilleur Chocolate Ouvrier de France title. The shop is ultra slick and modern with clean uncluttered lines. The store’s dominant colours are chocolate brown and green, including the chocolate boxes, walls and even some of the chocolates. He is on the cutting edge in his flavour combinations as well and some of his non-tradtional flavours include basil and lime (heavenly) and lemon and thyme (to be tasted soon). His best seller is a rock praline with almonds and hazelnuts called instinct. It goes without saying that he is uncompromising about the quality of ingredients that go into his chocolates. His website says that “He has sought his ingredients throughout the world in order to obtain excellence. The oranges he uses come from Corsica, the chocolate truffles are a combination of cocoa beans from Vanuatu and Ecuador, the refined flavour of the marron glacés stems from Turin, the peat-scented whisky from Scotland…“. You get the picture. If you are not visiting Paris soon you can order his chocolates online here.
From the Chocolatier we walked through the center of Saint Germain until we arrived at a beautiful arcade in front of a covered market: Le Marche Couvert de Saint Germain. Sara said that during the middle ages this area was the site of an annual fair where merchants came from all over Europe to sell their goods. The fair was also one of the rare occassions when aristocracy would mix with the local and as fairs go, things would get a little rowdy. In 1811 in an attempt to stop the escalating violence and also to curb the cholera breakout in Paris, Napoleon I covered 16 of the local markets. This did nothing for the cholera but added permanency for the markets that Parisians continue to benefit from it to this day.
The market, on 4/6 rue Lobineau just off Boulevard Saint Germain is a smaller market situated in a beautifully restored historical building under an arcade. It felt like a secret that not many visitors know about. The market was smaller with about 20 permanent stalls offering high quality produce, sea food, charcuterie, fromagerie, boulangerie, ready made foods and more. It is situated in the heart of Saint Germain, a posh neighbourhood with discerning cliental who expect high quality products. Dori Greenspan is regularly seen shopping in the market and in fact lives close by. The Barefoot Contessa Ina Garten also has a home in Saint Germain not far from the market. Even Brad Pitt was seen getting his charcuts here. The vendors at the market are known for the quality of their products and procure their products directly from the farmers. These products are referred to as fermier, referring to artisanal products made entirely under the control of the artisans. Fermier eggs would be hatched by chickens that the farmer raises and fermier cheese made from milk of animals the farmer raises. You see a lot of fermier signs in this market.
Before we started, Sara informed us about French market etiquette. Rule number one: never touch the product yourself. She knows this first hand as she had her hand slapped once trying to touch a produce on the stand. The custom here is that you let the vendor know what you want and you have to trust them to pick the right product for you. However, you can trust them and can rely on their expertise, they know their stuff. They may ask if you want it more ripe, less ripe, or ask when you want to serve it, to assess whether to give you a fully ripe item or one that will ripen by the time you plan to serve it. This goes for cheese as well. At some markets you are allowed to pick your products yourself and the indication for that is whether the bags or baskets are on the customer’s side. If you see bags or baskets in front of the stall you may assume that it’s okay to gather the products yourself.
Sara is well known and liked around the market and was greeted by name and a French style kiss on each cheek by the various vendors. She knew her stuff and I was glad to be walking through the market with her to explain, point out and interpret. It wouldn’t have been the same experience without her.
We walked through the stalls amazed by the variety and quality of everything. We didn’t stop to discuss the produce (only 2 vegetarians in our group) but my head was spinning from the varieties and quality of produce. Pears, apples, mandarines, salad greens, radishes, potatoes of every shape and size, zucchini, peppers, a vegetarian’s heaven.
At the seafood stall oysters were in season. The French eat oysters only in season, lasting through the months that have an “R” in them (September through April). They do not eat oysters in their spawning season which lasts May, June, July and August. Evidently they are not good to eat when they are spawning. Oysters are organized by numbers (0-6) indicating their sizes, with 6 being the smallest and 0 the largest, sometimes even coming in double zero, “the size of a baby shoe” says Sara. If you are looking for best places for trying oysters in Paris you can find a list on the Paris by Mouth website here. As you can see from the images below there was much more than just oysters at this stand. Scallops, prawns from Madagaskar, lobsters, crabs, sardines, sea urchins, sea snails, octopus, squid, and several kinds of fish. Not a sight for a vegetarian, but still, interesting. The scallops by the way are fully edible, including the corail, a part that in North America usually gets discarded. According to Sara it is sweet and delicious and served at some of the best restaurants.
At the Boucherie Au Belle Viander we met Monsieur Serg Caillaud, a famous viandier and a local celebrity appearing in the media and even seen on TV news about his craft. Monsiur Caillaud is a larger than life figure, literally, with handsome big frame and even bigger , balanced, facial features. I could swear he had the classic, strong, intelligent face we saw on sculptures in the several monument we visited around Paris. Very much like a seasoned politician he offered himself for photo-op with our tour participants and even my husband took him up on that. The wall behind him was covered with medals, indicating a level of excellence affirming that here you buy quality meats. Monsieur Caillaus gets all his beef directly from the producers and makes all his own terrines, charcuteries and saucissons. Of course we were offered a tasting of several of the products and Sara bought some for the tasting at the end of the tour.
The chickens at Boucherie Au Belle Viander are a science as well. The French buy their chickens according to the cooking style they plan to use and distinguish between the chickens by the colour of their feet. There were 7 different chicken types in the glass cooler, all with feet attached. Black (noir) feet chickens are used for roasting, yellow (jaune) feet chickens for frying. I can’t remember all of them but it was interesting to see, even for a vegetarian. The most expensive chickens are of course the poulet de Bresse chickens which I have heard of but haven’t seen before. Bresse chickens are raised according to specific standards and are protected by the French appellation system, much like wines and cheeses. These are sold with head, feather and feet still attached and the purpose of that is to confirm to the customer that indeed you are buying the real thing. These chickens are aged to double the age of the regular hens and develop stronger gamy flavours. According to Sara if you dine at a three starred Micheline restaurants you would be served Bresse chicken. They are considered expensive to purchase, at about 25 Euros per kg. Needless to say all the products are free range. I forgot to ask Sara about Marans eggs, produced by Marans chickens. I remember James Bond asking for eggs from Marans chickens for his breakfast, in one of the memorable James Bond movies. I wonder where I can find them here in Paris. Marans chicken come from Marans, France, and produce eggs with unusual reddish brown shells. You can learn something about food from the Bond movies, if you pay attention.
From there we proceeded to the crèmerie/fromagerie. OMG the cheeses they have. The cheese vendors (a couple) travel once a year around France looking for special and hard to find cheeses. They buy from small producers (one of their cheeses comes from a producer who produces only two rounds per day). They have a wonderful selection of cheeses, representative of the regions of France. Sara is very knowledgeable and gave us a crash course about how to understand cheese. To take out the intimidation factor when trying to choose cheese out of the 100 or so cheeses staring at you from the cooler she suggested to think cheese in categories that tend to be constant in every selection: hard (pressed), bloomy rind, stinky, goat and blue cheeses. You can also categorize them by the milk they are produced from: cow, sheep and goat. We talked about the following categories of French cheeses:
Hard cheeses: these are mountain cheeses from cows milk made in the Swiss Alps or the Pyreneese mountains. They are pressed as they age to remove as much of the moisture as possible. Some of these cheeses are “cooked” meaning that after the pressing, the whey is heated and then left to continue to age. In the uncooked cheeses the whey if simply left for the aging process unheated. Hard cheeses come in rather large wheels and you will be buying a wedge off the wheel. Examples are Comte (cooked) or Napoleon (pressed uncooked).
Velvety Bloomy rind : These cheeses have a white, velvelty “bloomy” rind achieved with the addition of mould to the rind during aging to help firm it up. The mould breaks down the paste (inside of the cheese) making it soft and creamy. Examples of these cheeses are brie and camembert.
Orange rind cheese: If you like stinky cheeses these are the ones to choose. They are washed rind cheeses, washed as they are aged with solution that attracts bacteria and it is the bacteria that produces the odour. More often they are stronger on the nose than on the palate. Examples of these cheeses are the livarot and marois, some of the most celebrated and loved cheeses in France
Goat cheeses: goat cheese is a seasonal product in France, in season from April to November. The reason for that is that goats give birth only once year in late winter so in the spring their milk is rich in fat and high in protein, producing richer, creamier, more flavourful cheeses. In the spring the goats are also out grazing, which helps increase the quality of milk compared to the winter months when they are kept indoors. Good French goat cheese comes from Provence and the Loire valley. Some goat cheese varieties are aged for a few weeks, while others “were in the goat four days ago” says Sara. Sara picked a special goat cheese from the Loir, Selles-sur-Cher, that would probably be hard to find outside France so it was a treat. The cheese is made from whole goat’s milk, aged (matured) for 3 weeks and has a natural rind covered in a thin layer of ash. The cheese is rolled in a light coating of ash (cedar or birch mixed with salt) to help it dry and mature faster as well as keep bacteria away from the ripening cheese. The cheese was traditionally produced for consumption by family of the cheese maker only, but good things tend to spread and over the years the cheese became available through local markets. It is one of the first cheeses to be awarded an AOC designation in 1975. The cheese needless to say was beautiful. The texture was more firm, the flavour rich, sweet and slightly nutty.
Blue cheeses: The French call them persilé or parsleyed cheese, because of their blue veins. These cheeses have a long history, having been made since 2nd century BC. Roquefort cheese is probably the most famous of the blues (except maybe gorgonzola). It is made in the Cambalou caves below the town of Roquefort-Sur-Soulzon from sheep’s milk. It gets its blue veins from ambient bacteria Penicillium Roquefortii that penetrates the air pockets in the cheese and creates the famous blue mould. The cheese was the first to be granted an AOC status in 1926 and no cheese may be called Roquefort unless it has been made in the Cambalou caves in the specified method. We tasted a special, strong but balanced roquefort from the producer Carles who according to Sara is “generally appreciated as the top producer, based on the criteria of balance (no over-salting) and complex raw milk flavor, bite without harshness, and soft buttery texture”. Carles is one of a handful of small producers that strictly adhere to traditional artisanal cheese making methods. The cheese had a pronounced flavour and soft and creamy texture.
From the market we headed to La Derniere Goutte (the last drop) to taste the products Sara picked up along the way together with wines especially selected for them. The small wine shop is owned by Juan Sanchez and specializes in “terroir-driven, estate-bottled, organic and biodynamic wines from small producers” according to Paris by Mouth. The space was cramped but charming and somehow they hold informal “wine down” tasting there on Friday nights as well as tasting with the producers on Saturdays. We settled in a small room at the back of the store and had a small feast with the food we gathered along the way.
If I remember correctly we tasted the Seller-sur-Cher and Mont d’Or cheeses with a 2010 Clos du Tue-Boef, Cheverny made from Sauvignon Blanc/Chardonnay. It was full bodied white wine that compliment the cheeses nicely, cutting through the richness of the cheeses with its fresh, crisp acidity. The Mont d’Or is a cow’s milk cheese protected by AOC designation. It is a washed rind, mild and creamy cheese wrapped with a band of spruce that binds it and helps it keep its flavour while maturing. If you have a developed capacity for smell and taste you may notice a hint of spruce in the cheese. Sara “stirred” it with a spoon in the centre to show us how soft and creamy it was inside. This is also a seasonal cheese, produced only from November to January.
We tasted the St Marcellin and Comté cheeses with 2011, Domaine Saint Clair, Crozes- Hermitage, Denis Basset, a syrah from the Loire valley with a nice balance between fruits and tannins. Often products that are made in the same region go together and here the wine and cheeses are from the same region. The St Marcellin is a Rhone cheese, very creamy with noticeable lemony acidity and a nutty, floral aroma. The comte is a mountain cheese from the Jura mountains above the Rhone river between France and Switzerland. It is one of my personal favourites. We tasted a beautiful 30 months old comté with a buttery, nutty, orangey flavour and a caramel aftertaste. The cheese is aged 18, 24, 30 and 36 months but some can be aged as long as 5 years. Comté comes with a wonderful story. Apparently, each spring the cows who produce the milk destined for making comté are decorated with ribbons and bells and are ceremoniously marched up the Jura mountains. Over the next few month they graze their way back to the valley, all the while providing beautiful musical sound from the different sounding bells they are wearing. I have of heard hikers in the area wonder about the music as they hike, only to find the cows to be the source. Now I know the full story behind it.
The last tasting was of the strong Carles roquefort cheese that I mentioned above. It was paired with a Domain de la Tour Vieille Banyules Reserva. The wine is a VDF (vin doux naturel) made from grenache and carignan grapes. It is similar to port and madeira. For my palate the two were competing for dominance. The strong cheese needed somewhat sweeter wine but it’s a matter of personal taste. I plan to go back and buy it and taste it again with something else. Will report my progress.
Sara had one more gem in her culinary apron. She took us to a tiny pastry shop, La Maison du Chou, serving only one thing: cream puffs filled with fresh ricotta flavoured with either vanilla, coffee or chocolate. The “chou” in the name comes from paté a chou, the French name of the pastry for the cream puffs. We each had a chou and a few grabbed a small cup of espresso to have by the counter or at one of the small tables inside. These are practically baked and filled to order and were so good that I don’t see the point in making any yourself when you can stop by and pick them up fresh and delicious like that. The chef is no ordinary chef either. He is Manuel Martinez, Meilleur Ouvrier de France, a two star Chef of Le Relais Louis XIII restaurant in Saint Germain in Paris. La Maison du chou is located right near Place de Furstemberg at 7 rue de Furstemburg, in the heart of Saint Germain.
This ended the tour and my head was crammed full with new and revisited information. It was an interesting view on Parisian life, how they shop, where they buy, what they eat and what they drink. Sara was knowledgeable and informative and clearly loves conducting these tours. We are scheduled for a wine-bar tour through Paris by Mouth with Aaron Ayscough who also has a blog called Not Drinking Poison in Paris and hope to catch another one with Sara before we leave. I am amazed at these young French speaking Americans living in Paris. I wish I had done that when I was young.