New Yorker journalist A.J. Liebling remarked that “there would come a time, when, if I had compared my life to cake, the sojourns in Paris would have presented the chocolate filling. The intervening layers were plain sponge”. Fifty-three days into lockdown in my teeny flat in the troisième, I finally understood what he meant. Being an Erasmus student, Paris was a new locus for me to resume my studies. But like Liebling, what I really came for was the food.
The virus has all but ruined my plans of an epicurean adventure but, as I yearn for the many meals now lost, I’m still comforted by the resplendent food and drink discoveries I’ve had in the French capital.
It’s the simple stuff. The bread. La boulangerie. Maison Landemaine, on a corner of Boulevard Beaumarchais, has served my starch needs for the best part of a year. Every Sunday morning has seen me standing outside (socially distancing, but dressed to the nines in the way Paris seems to demand) ready to make a purchase. Tiny chouquettes, studded with nuggets of pearled sugar line up saucily on the glass shelves. Golden cages house pointy baguettes and skinny ficelles. Art-deco mirrors, speckled with copper tarnish, line the walls, reflecting the sparkling patisserie that fill each counter, creating a gorgeous mirror-maze, a celebration of gluten.
For all its beauty and floury fumes, the Parisian boulangerie does present certain challenges, and visits are always an anxious time. Parisians don’t queue. They also don’t like you spending more than thirty seconds choosing your selection. Following an assortment of passive-aggressive exchanges, I’m at the front, grinning like an eejit at the unimpressed server. “Une baguette et un croissant s’il vous plait,” I enunciate, proud of my deft wielding of the language. Without fail, the woman responds in English and sends me on my way with a pursed lip. No matter. My hands clasp the prize. The warm, golden stick, bundled into a brown paper sleeve, is now pressed closely to my chest. I’ve learnt that Parisians always bite the end of a baguette before they get home (from a Google search, ‘how to be an authentic and chic Parisian woman’, which must mean it’s true) and always do just that. A good baguette should be smooth and brown, sides even and straight. The crumb should be moist and the top crispy and cracked. A Landemaine’s baguette has it all. I tuck in to its carby goodness and, bread-tipsy, head home.
This boulangerie knows its worth. Immersed in opulence, chandeliers, ça va sans dire.
Landemaine is not afraid to show off. And rightly so. Head baker Rodolphe’s approach is simple and effective – focusing on seasonal produce, sustainable agriculture and ancestral labour skills. A must-visit near République.
Then there’s the omelette. Ubiquitous yellow stalwart of French cuisine. Midday on my first day of classes finds me scouring the sixième for a student-friendly meal, tricky in upscale Saint-Germain. Le Rouquet sits on the boulevard. Unlike the other natty establishments that line the pavement, all preened and glossy, it has a certain chaotic energy. The entrance is clownish, swathed in red and white. A flickering neon sign half-heartedly illuminates gallus waiters clustered at the entrance. Having awkwardly declined a three course spread for fifty-five euros, I nevertheless bravely ask for a table. Escorted towards an unstable rattan chair and choosing not to be peeved that the waiter hadn’t seated me in the actual restaurant but in the glass extension jutting onto the street, I turn to the menu. Yes, an omelette au fromage will do (with frites, évidemment). The waiter begins his dance – more cha cha than waltz – and a thick white tablecloth is brandished and thumped down. Cutlery jingles and condiments wobble and, most important of all, the ashtray is plonked in the centre for the finale. I want to smirk at the gratuitous display, but secretly I’m enamoured. Accustomed to Tesco meal deals scoffed outside lecture halls, this splendour (all in honour of egg and chips!) rather thrills me.
The omelette arrives gorgeously. The cheese is molten, sharp and sealed between three neat creases. I plunge into the frites, piping hot and freshly salted. What really gets me is the green side-salad perched seductively at the side of my plate. A round of applause for the detailed, careful attention the French pay to veg. Delicate slivers of tomato and red onion nestle amongst crisp, sweet iceberg lettuce, all bound together by just a dash of fabulous dressing. Feeling flushed, I order a one-euro-seventy noisette (thimble of espresso; tiny drop of milk) as my chaser, knowing I’m well up for whatever the afternoon brings.
Omelette-frites thus has become something more than mere sustenance. For me, it represents the pride the French take in cooking, however humble the ingredients. Something I won’t forget when I think about these simple lunches at Le Roquet.
And finally, to ‘l’apéro’. A nifty pre-dinner affair, it embodies Parisian food and drink culture in all its sensual and sophisticated glory. It has taken me the better half of a year to master its etiquette. Natives will have you think that l’apéro is an easy drink with friends after work, but such feigned nonchalance is part of the game.
An early lesson takes place in La Belle Hortense. Part bookshop, part bar – bang in the middle of the Marais – it’s surprisingly unpretentious. The books that line the walls appear uncontrived and the staff are never too cool for school. Keen to have a ‘go-to’ tipple, I shamelessly gawp at my fellow punters. Few are drinking wine, certainly not red. Crémant and champagne, ever the exhibitionists, stand tall and proud. Pastis lies cloudily at the bottom of long tumblers. A woman next to me has a blushing kir and I order the same, smiling winningly at the waiter before remembering what my Parisian friend advised about grinning so much you can see your gums, and clamp my mouth shut. Lesson one: l’apéro should never be too heavy, lest it ruin your appetite. This kir is just so. Crème de cassis swirled delightfully through a cool (not glacial) glass of white. A soupçon of sweetness.
Delightfully, l’apéro isn’t all about the drinks. Snacks (usually a firm non-non for Parisian adults) are a must. My flatmate and I order a petite planche. A perfect quintet of salty delights arrives alongside the ubiquitous breadbasket. Thin strips of Comté lie delicately next to triangles of soft and blue flecked Fourme d’Ambert, smatterings of walnuts and cornichons settled between them. Morsels of herbed saucisson and salt-buttered baguette tie it all together and we show ourselves to be the gauche Brits we are by powering greedily through it all while the French pick and nibble. Lesson two: apéro food should not require any great exertion. It should be savoured, and the time spent consciously trying to slow down. Never mind. Our waitress regales us in hesitant English about her tenuous connection to Brigitte Bardot’s ex-lover and we have another kir. I relax into my chair and think, yes, je suis Parisienne.
Image: Annalise Batista via pixabay