Ah, Paris, a city of gourmet sights where baguettes travel the streets in the hands, baskets and bags of almost everyone. Where markets spill out onto the sidewalks, tempting those who walk by, and pastry shops seem to never put inches on hips.
The French capital is awash with the red and white stuff — bottles are sold in plenty at every grocery store, corner store and farmers market. Yes, unlabelled wines stand naked at markets in baskets in the hot sun, their hand-written tags flapping in the breeze. Bottles of wine can be found for two euros in the grocery store and eight euros on wine lists. It is cheaper than water, gasoline and Coke.
Restaurant wine lists are endless lists of names of chateaus and varietals. As I worked my way through Paris, I asked everyone I got close to what they drank. I needed a reference point from which to begin my vinous journey, something that wouldn’t make me stand out — but no consensus. It seemed as if Parisians like to drink all wine. The only commonality was that it was all French.
Rue Suffren was my base camp. A beautiful two-bedroom apartment on the second floor of a four-storey building in the city. Rue Suffren runs parallel to the Eiffel Tower and the massive park, Parc du Champ de Mars, that lies beneath it. It’s the street where high-ranking government officials and the wealthy have their city homes, or so I was told at the café on the corner where breakfast became a common occurrence.
Of course my apartment was advertised as having a view of the Eiffel Tower, and yes, if I leaned over the balcony I could see the top of it. But what more could I ask for; the street was stunning, and I was in Paris.
A walk across the park and down Avenue de la Motte-Picquet and I was in Rue Cler, the cobblestone pedestrian street filled with shops run by people who all have a love of good food. For Parisians, shopping for food is a daily occurrence, partly because their kitchens and refrigerators are so small, and partly because of their obsession for fresh produce, but most of all because Parisians love to socialize over dinner.
The shops spill out onto the streets with all the essential gourmet ingredients: wine, cheese, chocolate, pastry and bread. I’m amazed that some can survive by selling only one item. There is a macaron shop with nothing but brilliantly coloured, small, cream-filled macarons. The tiny storefront is jam packed full of these tempting disks of deliciousness, and customers wander in and out all day buying tiny boxes. I must admit, so did I.As usual, it’s best to go hungry and buy the wine last, because the right bottle is most important. I picked up some cheese and bread, and the clerk helped me with a Burgundian Chardonnay for the hot midday sun. It was a Corsin; I paid only five euros and headed back to the park at the base of the Eiffel Tower for a beautiful picnic.
There, at any time of the day, are hundreds of people sprawled out on blankets, nibbling on food, sipping on wine or just lying together in love. I spread out my blanket and pulled the food from my bag, only to realize I had no corkscrew or glass. No problem: the couple next to me took over like mother hens. They held out a glass of wine to keep my spirits up while they removed the cork from mine. They shared their charcuterie and I shared my cheese — life was good.
Two blocks behind the apartment, next to the metro station, was the Grenelle Market. The sights and smells came alive on Saturday and Wednesday mornings in this narrow market that stretches four, maybe five city blocks long. Here you can get anything you can imagine, from copious amounts of the very best and freshest produce to wine and gourmet foods, from hardware to shoes and stylish clothing.
There was a frenzy around some of the vendors, so I pushed my way to the front of the crowd to find the biggest pile of absolutely irresistible cherries. It was cherry season, and I’d never seen a pile so big before; it made me just want to lean into it and begin eating. Leo, as the customers called him, scoped out a large bag for me and I began to eat as I shopped.
I picked up some escargot stuffed with garlic butter and a fresh baguette. I looked at the wine, tired from the heat of the day, and remembered a little shop on the way home that had a fine selection and thought perhaps that was the wisest course of action.It took me a while to walk the entire market, and it was almost closing time as I walked past the pile of cherries again. The farmer was taking down his chalkboard sign and scratching a new price for the cherries. They were now half price — only 1.99 euros per kilo. It was too bad I wasn’t staying longer, now that I’d picked up some market wisdom.
Once back at the apartment I threw the wine in the refrigerator, the bread on the table and spilled the escargot into a baking pan. All I had to do was make sure they were all facing upwards so I wouldn’t lose any of the sweet juices as they cooked.
Escargot are sold intact throughout Paris, but they are already cooked. First they’re washed, then removed from their shells and cooked while the shells have another washing; then they’re stuffed back with a generous amount of garlic butter. It’s so easy to pop them in the oven for a few minutes.
The day was hot so I chose a sparkling rosé from the shop’s cooler. The clerk there knows his wine and recommends bottles based on what you’re going to eat. In fact, he recommends you call ahead with a dinner menu, and he’ll put a bottle in the refrigerator for you. With the heat, however, I was in the mood for something light, refreshing and playful. I chose a Cremant de Loire from Langlois for the bargain price of nine euros. The clerk grunted his disapproval as I shoved the cold bottle into my bag.
Dry and pink with a soft fruity character, the bitter edge of the bubbles worked well with the sweetness of the garlic butter. It was perfect, the most beautiful wine for the balcony of Rue Suffren overlooking the top of the Eiffel Tower.
I read hundreds of restaurant menus during my daily Paris walks, and I recognized an evolution in French cuisine. The cream sauces and complicated culinary methods of French haute cuisine are losing favour to nouvelle cuisine: simpler cooking methods that showcase the food rather than the chef. Pity, for anyone who knows true haute cuisine understands the cream sauces are not the North American rendition of thick, heavy, cloying sauces, but light and immensely flavourful sauces that add pizzazz and distinction to every dish. Although, I didn’t have much time for restaurant meals, as I had no will power over the abundance of Paris’ seductive food shops.
I was in Paris for a particular reason and the special night soon arrived. I found a stunning red dress in a little French boutique that cost a large fortune. For the event we were told to dress in our country’s costume. Red was the best I was willing to do.I made my way to the Comédie-Française Theatre across from the Louvre, at the end of the Champs Elysee. On the second floor I was greeted with a refreshing glass of Gosset Champagne expertly poured by a sommelier while juggling four more glasses — how classy. Champagne and wines from Baron Philippe de Rothschild were flowing freely in the heat of a Paris July afternoon.
There were hundreds of people at the theatre that night from all over the world, brought together by Edouard Cointreau, the founder and master of ceremonies for the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, and of course, part of the famous liqueurs family. Besides the triple sec orange liqueur, Cointreau claims he owes his love of books to his grandparents, whose careers began at a publishing house that ran out of the Comédie-Française in the early 1900s.
The food was prepared by the students of the Paris Cordon Bleu Culinary School. The students walked around stunning everyone with plates of shrimp and pate appetizers, crab and cool cucumber finger foods. Desserts were innovatively served on the ends of sticks. There was lemon meringue tart on the end of a stick, tiny cream puffs filled with Valrhona chocolate mousse, and rows upon rows of brilliantly-coloured macarons in flavours of cognac, champagne and cassis.
Andre Cointreau is President of the Cordon Bleu, which offers more than 29 international schools, one of which is Ottawa. In 1994 Edouard Cointreau launched Le Cordon Bleu Book of Cookbooks at the Frankfurt Book fair, and that experience inspired him to found the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards the following year. Each year Edouard (along with his son Edouard Cointreau the fourth) gathers close the most influential people around him to produce a gala evening beyond imagination.
Gosset Champagne was included, not surprisingly, since Jean Pierre Cointreau is president of the champagne house. I couldn’t find any connection to the Rothschild family other than friendship; it seems Baronesses Nadine and Ariane de Rothschild have been patrons of the gala for a number of years. Everything in France appears to be connected through hundreds of years of tradition, and it doesn’t get any better than when it all comes together in the name of a party.
I stole another glass of champagne and walked through the ancient double doors of the theatre to lean on the balcony. I watched the hundreds of people scurrying below, wondering what kinds of lives they led in the gourmet capital of the world. I nibbled on another macaron — cognac, I think.
Lynn Ogryzlo is a food and wine writer and author of Niagara Cooks, from Farm to Table Cookbook. Niagara Cooks is the recipient of the Best Local Food Cookbook in the World – Second Place by the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. Lynn can be reached for questions or comments at www.LynnOgryzlo.com