In Paris, it’s hard to separate literature from food
It’s hard to separate literature from food when you’re thinking of Paris. The City of Light is renowned for inspiration of the culinary and literary variety, and they’re often intertwined. As Hemingway wrote, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” Taking Hemingway’s cue, I spent three days creating my own tour through Parisian literary and culinary history.
It begins by sitting in the very spot where Oscar Wilde expired, drinking a glass of Gascogne, which I’m almost certain is the best glass of wine I’ve ever had. There’s something special about being in the space once inhabited by a great writer. The sofa is in Wilde’s former ground-floor hotel room, now known as Le Bar, in L’Hotel, on Rue des Beaux-Arts in Paris’s trendy Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighbourhood. It’s purported that moments before his last breath Wilde uttered, “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.”
Later, during a visit to Wilde’s grave in the 20th arrondissement on the Right Bank of the Seine River at Père Lachaise Cemetery, we find gastronomic essayist Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the father of culinary writing, resting nearby. A prior visitor had left a small whisk beneath Brillat-Savarin’s headstone. A passerby helped me locate the grave. As he walked away, the stranger smirked and asked if I was a glutton.
Was Savarin a glutton? I’ll leave that to the reader. But, his The Physiology of Taste is undoubtedly the most famous book about food. And it was Brillat-Savarin who left us with such memorable food quotes as: “The discovery of a new dish confers more happiness on humanity than the discovery of a new star.” To that, he added many other culinary gems, including “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are”; “To receive guests is to take charge of their happiness during the entire time they are under your roof” and “The pleasure of the table belongs to all ages, to all conditions, to all countries, and to all areas; it mingles with all other pleasures, and remains at last to console us for their departure.”
A few rows over in Père Lachaise is the final resting place of Marcel Proust, whose book In Search of Lost Time introduces readers to the quintessential Proustian moment, after the narrator tastes a madeleine dipped in tea and embarks on a journey of memory.
Back in Saint-Germain-des-Prés for Sunday lunch at a Paris classic, Le Relais de l’Entrecôte, the only menu choice is steak frites and a starter salad dressed with Dijon vinaigrette and walnuts. The waitresses are all in tasteful French maid “uniforms” (there’s not a man working in the joint, at least not in the front of house). What tops the steak, and also helps to make the meal unique, is a “secret” sauce. In 2007, however, French newspaper Le Monde, reported that the sauce is made from fresh thyme, chicken livers, full cream, white Dijon, butter, salt and pepper. The desired doneness preferred by each customer is written next to their place on the paper covering the table “cloth,” and second helpings are offered on silver platters — even the frites. Don’t bother asking for ketchup — only mustard is served here, in a petit pot with a matching spoon. In fact, this is the case in most eateries in the city.
In his day, Ernest Hemingway had a raft of favourite culinary spots — from the now-heavily-touristed Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots (perhaps the most well known) to the newly renovated (and insanely overpriced) Bar Hemingway at The Ritz. But the most preserved of Hemingway’s haunts may be the mis-advertised Brasserie Lipp (featured in his A Moveable Feast memoir), which has been a Paris institution for more than 135 years. Don’t let the cheap neon sign featuring a beer stein mislead you: Brasserie Lipp could easily be mistaken for a tacky tourist pub. But after passing through the revolving wood door, you will return to a decor unchanged since the 1930s, with an array of ceramic tiles and Art Deco design. And, unlike many other Paris establishments, you’d best dust off your French as there are no English menus.
Boulangerie Poilâne is just down the street, where the famous round loaves have been made since 1932, when Pierre Poilâne started a bakery with the intent of making just one thing, and making it very well: bread made using stone-ground flour, a natural fermentation process and baked in a wood-fired oven. The bakery has expanded to make cookies, pastries and other types of bread, including rye and spelt. In 1970, Pierre’s son Lionel took over the business and, since 2002, when he and his wife were tragically killed in a helicopter accident, his daughters run it. Lionel’s brother, Max Poilâne, also has a chain of Parisian bakeries and if you’re in the mood you can try both and decide for yourself which is the best.
A perfect base to explore all that Saint-Germain-des-Prés has to offer is Hôtel Le Saint — a newly reimagined combination of three old buildings, one of which was once the Hotel Lenox, where James Joyce first arrived in Paris with his two children and partner (and later wife), Nora Barnacle. Paris was, after all, where he finished writing Ulysses, the novel that takes place entirely on one day, June 16, 1904 — the date of his first, real-life outing with Barnacle.
Le Saint is all about attention to detail, beginning with the extra-hot basement hammam, or steam room. Above ground, there are delicious handmade caramels in every room, fresh flowers throughout and a cozy fireplace off the main lobby. Afternoon tea, with macarons and all manner of pastries, is served daily. If your heart desires, management will even hire a classic car to take you to the metro station, train station or l’aéroport.
To top off the experience, owner and manager Bertrand Plasmans seems to always be on hand, watering plants, fluffing lobby pillows and answering questions. A fount of knowledge and excitement about the area, Plasmans recounts that this street, which is now home to independent fashion and shoe stores, was historically filled with book binders and porcelain repair shops. He shows me one of the upper-floor suites in Le Saint that has a wonderful view of the Eiffel Tower. Was this Joyce’s room? He doesn’t know. In fact, no one seems to know where the Joyces stayed. As a result, my hope of visiting the actual space inhabited by this great writer was stymied.
Le Saint also offers a complimentary bicycle service for guests to explore the area, and there’s much to see nearby. This is the area where American food writer and TV host Julia Child shopped and dined in the 1940s and ’50s, and many of the same establishments still remain. Down the road on adjacent Rue de l’Université, a ten-minute walk or quick cycle from Le Saint, is where Child and her husband lived. The simple blue door of their apartment building has become a mecca for fans of the book and film Julia and Me.
A few blocks in the opposite direction is Shakespeare and Company, famous for hosting writers like Joyce, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound in the 1920s. Founder Sylvia Beach was the first to publish Ulysses in 1922. Today, in its modern incarnation, the bookstore also has a connected cafe serving some of the best coffee to be found in Paris, along with house-made granola and treats whose names are literary puns, such as “The Bun Also Rises.” It’s in view of Notre-Dame, and next to Saint-Julian-le-Pauvre, one of Paris’ oldest churches.
If Hôtel Le Saint is beyond your budget (though it’s indisputably excellent value, considering the location, amenities and service), you can’t do better than the Hôtel Eiffel Blomet, which, at least for the time being, may be Paris’s best kept secret. A newly renovated hotel in the 15th arrondissement, it’s now a paean to the Art Deco age with 78 rooms, eight suites and a spacious basement pool, gym and hammam. The coveted rooms are those on the rooftop — five in total, with views across the city, and most importantly, wicker chairs and tables where you can have your own private breakfast, lunch or dinner party.
Wander along Rue Blomet and you’ll find the famed Bal Blomet jazz club. You can also find plentiful cheese, pastries, roast chickens and Norman and Breton cider for your own moveable feast, to be gathered and eaten back on your rooftop terrace. This is not a tourist spot but a true Paris neighbourhood, where you’ll get a taste of being a local, with a choice of excellent French bistros to boot.
Le Wallace, with a patio in full view of the pleasant Général Beuret Square, is a people-watching hotspot for the comings-and-goings of the neighbourhood. The restaurant is named for Wallace fountains, one of which is the centrepiece of the aforementioned square. During a water supply crisis in the French capital following the 1870 siege, British philanthropist Richard Wallace gifted Parisians 50 fountains with drinkable water – hence the English-sounding name. If you’re looking to drink something other than water, the sommelier at Le Wallace is particularly fond of wines from the Languedoc region.
From this neighbourhood, you can always walk the 20 or 30 minutes to the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighbourhood, and en route pass Gertrude Stein’s former apartment at 27 Rue de Fleurus, where Pablo Picasso visited, and Hemingway returned many times for friendship and mentoring. Or, you can turn in the opposite direction and walk the same distance to the Eiffel Tower.
There ends my tour, but it’s clear that there’s so much more to see and experience, so I leave you with Hemingway’s invitation to create your own moveable feast.