Bonjour, ma belle– Que tu m’as manqué! (Hello, beautiful– How I missed you!)
I studied abroad in Paris for a year in college, and I can safely say that that year changed my life. It was my first significant travel experience, and though it wasn’t necessarily an easy year, it instilled in me a profound love of Europe and an insatiable sense of wanderlust. Art History class at the Musée D’Orsay, walks along the Seine River, stunning architecture around every corner, the French language in my ear all day… I walked away with many wonderful memories, as well as plenty of frustrations! The people, the places, the food, the history… Paris is such a unique, magical, and fabled city for good reason. I had the opportunity to spend three days there over the holidays this year on the way back from visiting my family in Israel, and it all came flooding back. I have a love-hate relationship with Paris in some ways, particularly the food. I tend to classify French food into two categories: savory cuisine and pastries/crêpes/breads/cheeses. The heavy sauces, unsettling preparations of meat, and utter non-comprehension of vegetarianism that are the hallmarks of classical French cooking make it a nightmare for me to eat in France. (I am not a vegetarian, by the way… except in Europe, due to the aforementioned meat issue.) The latter category, on the other hand, is the ultimate dream of a baker/sugar addict, and I tend to subsist almost exclusively on these delicacies in Paris. And of course, that was the culinary focus of this recent trip!
Paris is a veritable wonderland of bakeries and pastry shops, often with several on the same city block. In fact, there are even laws regulating when bakeries are allowed to be closed, so that no neighborhood is ever without access to fresh bread. It is a very French custom to stop by the local bakery every day for the family’s bread, and one which I whole-heartedly embraced when I lived there. I first fell in love with French pastries during that fateful year, though I had not yet discovered the art of baking myself. I haven’t visited Paris since that time in my life, so I was beyond excited to visit now and explore the city through the lens of a baker!
I mapped out those bakeries that I couldn’t possibly leave the city without visiting, and then the “nice-to-have” spots; I only had two days in the city itself and a lot of ground to cover! (The third day would be spent at Mont Saint Michel.) In the end, I made it to just a fraction of the places on my list, but I was quite happy with my treasures. My #1 objective was to try French macarons from several shops, particularly: Ladurée, Fauchon, and Pierre Hermé. Beyond that, I sought croissants, pain au chocolat (chocolate croissants), brioche, caramel salé (salted caramel), and any other works of confectionary art that might cross my path. Other places on the list included La Grande Épicerie, the giant gourmet food emporium in the famed Le Bon Marché department store, Bread & Roses, Carl Marletti, and La Pâtisserie des Rêves. Many places tend to specialize in either pastry arts (pâtisseries) or bread-baking (boulangeries), but not often both, and I hoped to get a reasonable taste for the two disciplines. Then there are the chocolate makers (chocolatiers), such as Jeff de Bruges, who have a special place reserved in heaven.
I should also mention the range in terms of character and style of Parisian bakeries. They vary from small, quiet, humble neighborhood hole-in-the-wall, to elaborate showrooms of mind-blowing baking artistry, and everything in-between. Some are modern, some are very old-school; whatever a bakery’s specialty, Parisian bakers have truly elevated baking and decorating to unparalleled heights.
I arrived in Paris on New Year’s Eve Day, exhausted from a hectic week in Israel for a long-awaited visit with my family. (A separate upcoming blog post about Israeli food is in the works…) Since my year abroad, I had dreamt of being at the Eiffel Tower for New Year’s, and this dream finally came true. Why did I not partake of this amazingness thirteen years ago, you ask? Funny story… I was *supposed* to be there for the Millenium New Year’s celebration, when the Eiffel Tower would be lit up in sparkles beneath an awe-inspiring display of fireworks, but… I was at a party in the suburbs with friends and part of our group was late arriving, by which time it was too late to make it there before midnight, so we ended up watching it on TV… but I’m not bitter.
Ever since that disappointing evening, I had hoped to get back one day, and this was it! Though not as elaborate a spectacle as in 2000, the Eiffel Tower was a captivating, magnificent sight to behold in all its glittering glory. Every time I see that tower, it takes my breath away just a little—every time. Despite the rain that evening, being there at midnight was magical for me, and yes, tears of joy and gratitude were shed.
The next morning, coffee and breakfast were top priority, and the city was still rather sleepy on this New Year’s Day. The only thing open in the vicinity of my hotel was… Starbucks. At first, I was horrified and embarrassed at this notion—Did I come all the way to Paris for Starbucks?! But then I found it rather amusing. Starbucks carries different food items in different geographical regions, and it was interesting to see what they offered in France. My go-to Pike Place coffee was terrible, but the pain perdu (French toast), pancakes, and the mini chocolate-dulce de leche cakes were pretty tasty. Why don’t we have these sweet little cakes at American Starbucks??
Though this little “cultural” exploration was fun, I vowed to eat only at actual French places from that point on (though I did end up at Starbucks once more). Really, I had imagined myself roaming the streets all day with a baguette in one hand and a wedge of French cheese in the other, with an occasional break to shovel macarons into my piehole (not that they’re meant to be eaten so inelegantly), but this didn’t actually happen.
As it was New Year’s Day, many places in the city were closed, so it seemed logical to check out the touristy spots, which were more likely to be open. Off to the Champs-Élysées and the Arc de Triomphe!
But wait—along the way, I encountered a most lovely outdoor holiday market! (As it turned out, they were set up all over the city.) Christmas in Paris is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life. The city is decorated quite jovially, but never overdone… because it’s Paris and they know how to do it up right. The whole city had a warm, festive holiday feel, and the holiday market boasted copious mouth-watering treats, such as freshly made nougat, Bavarian pretzels, artisan chocolates and cheeses, and vin chaud (mulled wine), as well as many crafts like scarves, jewelry, and Christmas ornaments. The air smelled of roasted chestnuts and winter spice; it’s hard to put my glee into words. I have not been so delighted to be somewhere in a very long time—Paris on its own is amazing, but it is downright enchanting during the holidays.
Despite the plethora of delicious treats around me, the only thing I bought was a darling French hat, complete with flower on the side. Why? Because my sights were set on one thing: French macarons, the divine, colorful sandwich “cookies” composed of meringue-like shells around a tender filling. (I use the word ‘cookies’ for lack of a better English term. They are not cookies as we know them in American baking, and indeed, I’m sure any French person would recoil in horror at such a description! They are an entity unto themselves that should be experienced by everyone before they die. Seriously.) Part II of my Paris chronicles focuses solely on macarons, so I will not elaborate on them further in this post.
The Champs-Élysées was decorated beautifully, trees lining the wide boulevard all lit up; the Arc de Triomphe stood proudly at the top as I remembered it.
The first stop on my macaron quest was Ladurée, right on the Champs-Élysées. However, this location was so crowded that I decided to head to their shop near the Place de la Madeleine instead, also home to the chic of the chic when it comes to food art: Fauchon.
One thing I love about Paris is that you tend to constantly stumble upon lovely things you weren’t even looking for. Case in point, the Julien Boulangerie. Their pastries were not the prettiest, and the artistic cakes somewhat clumsy compared to others I’ve seen (except the adorable mini bûches de noël), but the viennoiserie (flaky pastry) was beautiful. I couldn’t help but grab a mini croissant, and the three bites practically melted in my mouth… *drool*
But onward… I giddily arrived at Ladurée, which is decorated in a very classic French style with pastel colors and gold accents. The holiday window displays were so utterly lovely; brown, gold, and green paisley holiday boxes adorned with gold ribbon, and little Christmas tree “cones” covered in gold-painted macarons! A host of resplendent pastries, tartlets, and miniature cakes glowed in the display case under the warm lights, and the macarons, well… I’m sure I looked like a kid in a candy store– so many flavors to choose from! Having visited their New York City location last summer, I knew that photos were prohibited inside… however, I fully planned to take as many photos as possible until someone stopped me. I managed to take at least a dozen stealthy shots before one of the clerks abruptly said, “No photo!” No matter, I happily ordered my macarons and surveyed the meticulously wrapped holiday treats before leaving the shop. Definitely worth waiting in line for 30 minutes!
I was disappointed to see that Fauchon was closed that day, as were many other bakeries and restaurants—good thing I had a second day! In lieu of this stop, lunch was obtained (French brasserie = meh), followed by a delicious Nutella crêpe from what *I think* is the same street vendor at Saint-Germain-des-Prés that I often patronized when I lived there. This was a nice treat, as it brought back fuzzy, crêpe-y memories. Food for the rest of the day was rather unremarkable, due to the limited choices of open restaurants on the holiday. Dinner consisted of a mini pretzel baguette with a thick slab of Muenster cheese in the middle from the holiday market, which in theory should be excellent, but the stale bread rendered it rather uninspiring. More exciting was the wonderful classical music holiday concert at the Église de la Madeleine that I had the opportunity to attend that evening!
On the second day, I had a trip planned to Mont Saint Michel, a stunning abbey built in the 11th Century upon a tiny, rocky island in a coastal salt marsh in Normandy, about four hours from Paris. This is one of the most spectacular sights in all of France, and I was thrilled to revisit it after so many years.
The Normandy and Brittany regions are known for a couple of my favorite French foods: crêpes and salted caramel. After exploring the abbey and its tiny village, I popped into one of the charming crêperies that lined the cobbled, winding street, Crêperie du Chapeau Rouge (Crêperie of the Red Hat), where I dined on a savory buckwheat crêpe filled with chèvre (goat cheese) and topped with toasted almonds and a drizzle of honey.
I had never had one quite like this, and it was rather lovely with its sweet and salty flavors! I was delighted to see another item on the menu that I had nearly forgotten about: kir. Kir is a combination of cassis (currant) liqueur and some other type of alcohol, typically champagne. In northwestern France, they make kir breton, in which the champagne is substituted with hard cider, yet another regional specialty. What a pleasant surprise, this kir breton, and a perfect accompaniment to my crêpe! The meal was crowned with a sweet crêpe of caramel au beurre salé (caramel made with salted butter). I generally dread savory French meals because almost everything contains some form of pork, which I don’t eat; but crêpes, being completely customizable, made for an ideal Normandy lunch.
The other culinary highlight of Mont Saint Michel is the famed galettes (butter cookies) from La Mère Poulard, a restaurant and inn established in the village in 1888, once the abbey was reopened to the public after serving as a prison during the French Revolution.
I purchased two pretty tins of these biscuits on my first visit in 1999, and to this day, I use them to store cake decorating supplies—a fond reminder. They make a great French gift, so I found myself carrying home several boxes this time too, including one box of salted caramel cookies… which I may or may not be hoarding greedily.
Oh, and why don’t we have THIS (procured at a French rest stop on the way back to Paris) in the States??
Back to Paris for my third and final day in France. I had a full day of sightseeing and bakery-hunting planned, the first stop of which was at Fauchon, back in the Place de la Madeleine. In stark contrast to Ladurée, its decor is modern and glossy, with lots of black-and-white accented by hot pink– no classical pastels here. I expected Fauchon to be rather pretentious, but no one admonished me for taking photos, and every staff member that I talked to was friendly and helpful. This is a comprehensive gourmet market, not exclusively a bakery, and I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the stunning miniature cakes, artisan breads, perfectly wrapped cheeses, and the deli, where every item is a carefully crafted work of art.
I was probably most impressed with the cakes here than at any other place I visited– they were simply exquisite. Every single one is perfectly lined up in the display case, and the meticulous attention to detail in the decoration is astounding. (This level of confectionary OCD far surpasses my own, which I’ve been told is a force to be reckoned with…) For some reason that I cannot quite wrap my head around, it did not remotely occur to me to *purchase* one of these gorgeous tiny cakes, called entremets. I guess I think of them as art pieces to admire visually, rather than something to destroy with a fork! However, in going through my photos later, I noticed the description of this white cake on its label…
Caramel, vanilla, and… freaking speculoos. So now I cry myself to sleep silently every night because I had the opportunity to eat that glorious little cake, but I didn’t realize what sweet splendor lay before me until it was too late… *sniff*
Despite the epic tragedy to which I was completely oblivious at the time, I was thrilled to pick out a colorful variety of beautiful macarons, in addition to which, I couldn’t resist purchasing a couple of mini baguettes and a sesame-cheese roll, along with a small wedge of Saint Nectaire farm cheese to snack on later that day.
With the Fauchon treats securely in my possession, I headed to one of my all-time favorite spots: Montmartre and the Sacré-Cœur Basilica, which overlook the whole of Paris from a hill in the north of the city. This area was the heart of the debaucherous, bohemian lifestyle of the French post-Impressionist art movement of the late 1800s, including Vincent van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec; it is the home of the infamous Moulin Rouge. This is one of the quaint neighborhoods that were not bulldozed in the mid-1800s to make way for the modern wide boulevards that one sees in much of the city today. Although the seedy neighborhood was eventually cleaned up, it retains its narrow, winding, cobble-stoned streets, charming cafés, and a certain romantic air. The Sacré-Cœur at the top is one of the most stunning architectural displays that I’ve ever seen in my life; its iconic Romano-Byzantine domes can be seen from below, perched above the city. (In fact, you have to either take a funicular cable car or walk up several steep stairways to get there!)
Its interior is unexpectedly colorful, even featuring an ornately painted ceiling reminiscent of the Sistine Chapel (though not as elaborate). I then moved on to the Place du Tertre, the neighborhood square juste à côté (right next to), where local artists paint and sell beautiful Paris souvenir paintings, often in the Impressionist style—the history lives!
Avoiding the dreaded French cuisine, I decided on pizza for lunch at a tiny place called Florenza Pizzeria. There are many delicious little Italian pizzerias throughout the city, and the ones that I’ve patronized have been generally quite good. However, I came to a troubling realization that afternoon: I hadn’t had nearly enough French cheese, and my time in Paris was rapidly approaching its end. Therefore, there was only one thing to be done… I ordered a pizza topped with camembert and chèvre, as well as tomatoes, olives, and bell peppers. I don’t think I’ve had anything like it, and it was most tasty!
I was so very content looking out the window at the charming street with its French cafés and French street signs and French people strolling by. Everything about that moment was just so… French. *sigh* Spending this slightly rainy, holiday afternoon in Montmartre made me want to curl up with Amélie and Moulin Rouge on a rainy weekend at home in the near future and make crêpes!
From there, I headed back to the chic 6th arrondissement (district) to check out a few more bakeries. I made a beeline for Pierre Hermé, completing the macaron trifecta. Then I remembered that around the corner was the beautiful Église St. Sulpice, with its uneven towers and extravagant fountain out front, so I stopped by quickly to take in the lovely sight before procuring my coveted macarons.
Pierre Hermé was the most contemporary of the three macaron shops with its sleek black and gray glass and minimalist décor.
This provided a striking visual contrast with the colorful cakes and macarons in the display case and the holiday packages on the shelves. Here too, the diligently crafted pastries are truly works of art. I was not initially thrilled with the macaron flavor offerings, but I had to sample them nonetheless!
Incidentally, one of the best treats I purchased on the entire trip was this darling box of Sablés Diamant à la Vanille (vanilla sablé cookies rolled in sparkling “diamond” sugar). They are tiny, buttery gems that draw you in with their pretty sparkle and vanilla bean flecks, crumbling delicately on your tongue as the butter and vanilla melt in sweet, sweet harmony. I confess that… I didn’t share these with anyone. Not one single cookie. Even with people I really love. I even reluctantly shared my precious macarons, but not these. ALL MINE!
On my way to La Grande Épicerie, I took a detour to Bread & Roses, which is a pleasant, homey boulangerie with a variety of breads and both sweet and savory baked goods. It would be a great place for a casual lunch of sandwiches or tarts, or a nice spot to hang out with a laptop for a couple of hours in the afternoon. I wasn’t overwhelmed by anything that I saw there, but I found it to be a warm place that I would likely frequent on a regular basis. You know, if I lived in Paris.
When I arrived at Le Bon Marché department store, I quickly spotted La Grande Épicerie, all dressed up for Christmas. I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen anything like this vast culinary wonderland– aisles upon aisles upon aisles of the most beautifully packaged foods of every variety. I could easily spend hours exploring every nook and cranny: the pastries, the bakery, the cheese cases, the international foods, the pastas, snacks, sauces, and of course the chocolate section! No Hershey’s on these shelves; I’ve never seen so much Valrhona and Cluizel, in addition to countless other artisan chocolatiers. Too bad I couldn’t take home a suitcase full of chocolate!
Another aisle that I found very impressive was the sugar aisle. Not surprisingly, the French have turned sugar into an art form, but in a different way than I’ve seen before– sugar cubes! There were shaped sugar cubes and even artistic displays of them, which I’ve definitely never seen before. I would have loved to purchase all sorts of treasures, but I ended up choosing two small, darling trays (perfect for displaying and serving baked goods!) and a brochette, which is basically a bread kabob. How cool is that– six different tiny loaves of bread on a skewer! Oh, and I grabbed a delectable mini croissant… for the road.
Although I had many more places on my bakery wish-list, the sky was growing dark and evening plans beckoned– I couldn’t leave the next morning without seeing the stunning Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris. Another iconic Paris landmark, it was breath-taking all lit up at night! The Gothic arches, perched gargoyles, and intricate details of the church’s stonework appeared haunting in the light and shadows of that holiday evening. I could have gazed at it for hours. Except it was freezing, and fondue was waiting for dinner!
I always think of fondue as Swiss, but in the French Alps region of Savoie, fondue (literally meaning ‘melted’ in French) is a traditional element of the local cuisine. I can definitely get onboard with that kind of French food! At Le Chalet Savoyard, my first course was a “salad”… if by ‘salad’ one means a few greens and some smoked salmon topped with a thick layer of melted cheese and potatoes! (In retrospect, this course was totally unnecessary, given the forthcoming pot of cheese…) A fondue aux quatre fromages (four cheeses: Comté, Emmental de Savoie, Beaufort, Abondance) with garlic and herbs was then heartily enjoyed with dipping accompaniments of garlic-olive oil toasted bread and potatoes. Needless to say, “full” is a staggering understatement to describe how I left the restaurant. If you can believe this… I had no room for dessert!!
Sadly, my time in Paris had to come to a hasty end. It was a joy to explore Paris through the eyes of a baker for the first time, and a delight to revisit the city that opened up my world to European culture as a college student. I wish I could have spent another week leisurely meandering the Parisian streets in search of their sweetest treats and most beautiful architecture– there is really no other place like it, no matter the season. Paris’ storied history, breath-taking sights, and especially the (sweet) food… It all holds a special place in my heart. It was also lovely to hear that French language all around me again, and I have to say that my rusty French wasn’t half-bad, considering that I haven’t spoken in a decade! I flew home the next morning after twelve very full days of travel with lots of new memories and renewed fondness for favorite old places… and plenty of French snackies for the long plane journey!
Check out Part II (macarons!) of my Paris chronicles, as well as the forthcoming post about the Israel portion of my trip!
© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2013.