Paris 2007

Paris: woman with baguettes and small dog
[This is the third article about travel. Others: London/UK, chocolate in London.]

There are so many reasons to visit Paris; so many reasons to enjoy the city and – most pertinently – the food. Lacking the resources to hop from one name-restaurant to another (to be honest, places like L’Arpège, L’Atelier du Joël Robuchon, Alain Ducasse and so on aren’t likely to be my preferred eating experience anyway), it seemed much better to wander through markets, browse the shops, and pour money into chocolate, pâtisserie and macarons while staying in a 2-star establishment somewhere for EUR 50 (A$82) per night!

I’ve been to Paris more than a handful of times and have gradually become more careful in choosing the markets to visit, the restaurants I’ll eat at and the pâtisseries worth revisiting. What I haven’t achieved is regular access to a kitchen and the time to exploit that properly. In fact, staying in a simple apartment (EUR 65 (A$107) per night) with a basic kitchen (two hotplates, a fridge, a microwave, some useful pots and enough space to twirl a dishcloth) was only made possible this year.

Markets | Shops | Eating

I’d love to tell you that I cooked up a storm every night. I didn’t. But I did stuff the fridge fulllll of cheese, olives, cakes, charcuterie and butter! And mushrooms and cumquats. And Normandy cider.

I could wax lyrical about the olives…

But let me tell you about food and eating.

Food-related shops

The two most impressive épiceries (loosely: foodhalls, strictly: grocers) in Paris are at Bon Marché and Lafayette (click on the ‘Gourmet’ link in the French version). The former is a cavernous supermarket-like space (without the tacky supermarket feel), part of a department store. The latter is more like the foodhalls of Harrods or David Jones, with numerous delicatessen counters, ready-to-eat meals, café counters and more. Where Bon Marché feels relatively calm and stylish, Lafayette maintains some style whilst drowning in a novel mélange of old ladies who do all their grocery shopping there, Japanese tourists and German schoolgirls. (Both the Japanese and Germans – and presumably numerous other groups – descend like wasps on the impressive chocolate aisles.)

At last I made it to Dehillerin and Mora, the two most renowned cookware shops in Paris. Dehillerin is particularly famous because it’s, well, rather reminiscent of an old, old hardware shop with poky aisles of bits and bobs and men in sensible coats (the people who serve you, not flashers). It was all a little overwhelming, and you can hear hordes of American tourists salivating over the copper pots. Me, I just salivated over the copper bordelais (canelés bordelaises, sometimes spelt cannelé) moulds. As delish as canelés are (and there are long long discussions over at eGullet), I don’t feel quite the same foolish enthusiasm for them as I do for other pâtisserie items, so I decided not to splurge EUR 8 (A$14) per little mould (consider that one mould doesn’t get you far, and four moulds is still a little meagre) and will just leave it for when I’m rich (assuming mortality doesn’t intervene). By the way, if it’s good chocolate moulds you’re after, Mora seems to be the place to go.

The Librairie Gourmande moved to a new location (90 rue Montmartre) near métro Sentier in the 2nd arrondissement earlier this year. It is now on two floors, so has considerably more space than the old location in the 6th. It felt a little chaotic when I was there, hopefully as a result of the recent move. It’s hard to find a really good selection of gastronomic literature in Paris and I hope this shop picks up. I’ve written previously about Librairie Badiane in Lyon, where the shop and their website were a good deal more with-it than Librairie Gourmande when I visited. (Note that the second best shop in Paris for gastronomic literature (primarily cookbooks) is probably Gilbert Joseph on Bd. Saint Michel, followed by Gilbert Jeune on Place Saint Michel.)


This year I made it to the markets on Boulevard Richard Lenoir (Oberkampf, 11th arrondissement), sometimes called the Marché Popincourt, which is my ‘local’ if I dare be so pretentious. A long way further down Bd. Richard Lenoir is the Marché Bastille. And a little to the east is the market at Place d’Aligre. The first of these three has changed from being strongly local to increasingly having tourists in the mix and merchants who know it. The Bastille market is a bit larger, but apart from some nicknacks and a Portuguese bloke selling (primarily) Italian wares (but real chouriço too!), it didn’t feel that much better than the first. The Marché d’Aligre, including the fixed covered market known as Marché Beauvau, is a much more down-to-earth affair. Some of the produce is crap. There’s a bit of a flea market. The covered market is small but has a range of meat and other produce stalls – I almost bought some horse fillet to try, but chickened out (so to speak) for fear of the opprobrium which certain Parisian friends might have directed at me. Nay, it was to be cumquats and comté rather than cheval and chèvre.

Marché Bastille bread
Marché Bastille chicken

I bought lots of cumquats. Well, I asked for not so many. I got a lot. And paid for a lot. But it gave me an excuse to practise making cumquat tea. Cumquat tea? Yep. It’s quite delicious, and I had converted quite a few Parisians to it by the time I left. I would include a recipe here, but that would be a little distracting, so I shall post again once the weather is warmer in Melbourne and someone deigns to donate a bushell of cumquats to the cause.


Multilingual menu

Bon Marché (see beginning) has one more attraction: a café called Delicabar, nestled in the women’s fashion department on the first floor. Not my usual place to tarry, but well worth the exception. I first visited Delicabar after reading early mentions of it on eGullet back in 2004. The novelty? An interesting approach to desserts and pastry, and a blurring of lines between sweet and savoury. Jellies, mousses, fine pastry, vegetables, fresh flavours all find expression in ways which were, at first, novel and unexpected: a glass of spiced fruits in a jelly; a ‘bubble’ (dome) of carrot mousse; sablés (shortbreads) flavoured with olive oil or rosemary; chocolate soup; green tea tartelettes… you get the picture.

Delicabar bar
Delicabar seating

The setting was cool and bright – natural light, white walls, and curvaceous bright pink or yellow banquettes, stools and islands. Staff dressed in black. Delicabar lived up to its tagline: snack chic.

A year or two after opening, Delicabar was extended to include an open-air courtyard that is delightful in warmer weather, successfully extending the simple, naturally lit ambience of the venue.

Alas, the experience has begun to undermine the style. Last year and this, we found staff less and less engaging (they were never effusive, but stylish hauteur seems to have become unmotivated and a little tatty). Last year I found my millefeuille pastry was overcooked. This year, the previously stunning sablés tasted less fresh than usual. And the coffee had declined.

Five visits in four years might not be enough to give an accurate reflection of change – maybe I was unlucky on my last two visits – but my bar chic companions shared my view. Nonetheless, the food at Delicabar can still be special and, more interestingly, you should come back to syrupandtang in about a month’s time for more detail about the food and the chef.

After pigging out on cakes and croques monsieurs (if you feel tempted to pronounce that Crock Mon-Sewers, then please use ‘French toasted ham and cheese sandwich thingo’ instead!), cumquat tea and chouriço, tomme de brebis (a ewe’s milk version of Tomme de Savoie, I believe) and cidre, it was necessary to dine a little more upmarket. Two lovely discoveries were Le P’tit Manger (11th) on Rue Richard Lenoir, near Rue Parmentier (métro Voltaire), serving pretty good Liègeois cuisine at quite reasonable prices. Excellent confit de canard and good chips! Another place was the Corsican Restaurant Alivi at 27, Rue du Roi de Sicile in the Marais (4th). Can’t remember my main dish (veal?) but did have a delightful honey cake, a recipe for which I must go a-searching.


Métro Sèvres-Babylone

I’m going to separate the account of cakes and chocolate into a separate post, so stay tuned for that one.

– DM
[This is the third article about travel. Others: London/UK, chocolate in London.]

Ratatouille – lovable rodents and fantastic animation

Rémy overlooking Paris

Just back from seeing the newish Pixar/Disney animated film Ratatouille. Quite a fun ride. The animation is fabulous – Pixar just do it better and better. The attention to detail in recreating Parisian street- and cityscapes is stunning.

You are meant to find the rats pleasant, even adorable perhaps, and the dissonance of rats doing positive things in a kitchen is played with well. There are visual moments when the rats are hilariously electrifying, not to mention redefining the grating of cheese. The humans, on the other hand, are a distinctly less agreeable bunch.

Unlike many recent animated films, the story here isn’t quite as awash in Big Moral as you might fear and the constant theme of ‘do what you want to do’ works well most of the time.

Perhaps the most surprising thing for me was that, although the rats talk to each other and can understand the humans, the humans can’t understand the rats. A nice anti-Dr-Dolittle touch. This permits a range of comic elements to be introduced to good effect.

Greatly worth seeing, but by no means perfect. I found the Hollywood touches a little tiring towards the end (but it’s so standard in animated movies and the kids lap it up), and came away not feeling like it had really been in Paris (despite the compliments above about appearances). It needed a dose of real Frenchness to get it over the line. 🙂 Nonetheless, as a food fanatic, a scene close to the end involving the über-scary food critic Anton Ego captured the essence of why we obsess, write and think about food, and of course cook and eat it! I won’t spoil things, but I hope those who’ve seen it recognise what I’m referring to.

Did anyone else find the rats’ noses a little spooky?
How many of you wanted to cook ratatouille after seeing the movie?

– DM

Some disappointments don’t need naming

Today I visited a place-that-serves-fancy-cakes. It will not be named. To name it might encourage people to visit it. That would put money in coffers which don’t seem to deserve it.

Sometimes you want to read an honest review to help make a decision (visit/not-visit) or to know how to approach an establishment. But occasionally I just don’t want to so much as plant the seed of curiosity.

I was recently tipped off about a new fancy-cake-place in Melbourne. Allegedly popular and probably good. It was the sort of tip you might embrace with exuberant expectation, but which history has taught you to approach circumspectly for fear of desperate disappointment.

It’s très très chic. It’s got the look. These cakes are under glass, not behind glass (no tacky cake-shop cabinets here). You might think yourself transported to a Pierre Hermé or Jean-Paul Hévin boutique, given all the straight lines and shiny surfaces.

My real focus was the food, but my darting eyes almost darted over the sweet things. Honey, they’ve shrunk the cakes! I had found myself in a fancy-cake-boutique. The diminutive items are labelled with small squares of card, printed rather than written. There are no prices.

No prices. That really annoys me. It’s rare to see such an exquisitely arrogant conceit in Australia. I would normally turn on my heel and leave, but I had set my mind to tasting their fancy-cake-boutique wares. The très petits wares were attractive and, given their blushingly modest dimensions, seemed to promise (1) quality, and (2) sticker-shock (except they were, after all, sans stickers).

A little lemon tart (perhaps 7 cm diameter, sloped sides) was $5. A modest hazelnut and chocolate millefeuille (perhaps 8 cm long, 3 cm wide) was $6.50. Not so shocking, to be fair (all is relative: I’m taking into account target clientele, visuals and snobbery).

Lemon tart: the undistinguished pastry was too thick; the lemon curd lacked zing and clarity of aroma, despite tasting of decent ingredients. We’re not in France, Toto.

Hazelnut-chocolate millefeuille: a bit of a mish mash of chocolate, gianduja, hazelnuts in caramel and more. The gianduja was a little too soft and sweet under a layer of chocolate to permit a clean bite. The hazelnuts were soft (How old was the cake? How long had the nuts been sitting in caramel?) and tasted less than fresh. An unfortunate final touch was one bad hazelnut — not the pastry chef’s fault.

You encounter places like this all over the world. Usually with a premium or a decent dose of snob. The concept looks like the genuine article, the presentation is excellent and any lover of the real thing will be beguiled for a moment. If my sampling is representative of the gamut of their wares, the seduction should be short-lived. A pity. There are other (too few) places in Melbourne doing better for both higher and lower prices (visible) and without quite the same pretence.

As the establishment is, I believe, a corporate vehicle rather than a pastry chef’s project, I don’t know if the chef has been forced to create and pitch the wares in a regrettable direction — there’s clearly talent in the kitchen, despite my misgivings about the product and setting. I’m sure the place will be a hit. Dommage.

– DM

7 food facts about me

Fruit and veg at a Sicilian grocer

A few weeks ago I was ‘tagged’ by Amelita at Squishyness to list seven food facts about me. Here, at last, is a list of tidbits. In turn, I tag Lemonpi, eatingwithjack, and xocolate (a delicious Portuguese blog, though a little quiet this year). I hope you find some entertainment value in this offering:

  1. I approach some raw fruits and veg with mild trepidation because I’m allergic to many of them in their raw state. I have to weigh up 15 minutes of intense itching in the mouth against the delight of a ripe nectarine or cherry, or a bite of a tomato straight from the garden. Thankfully, there’s no danger of fatality.
  2. I detest fish and seafood — sometimes a severe impediment for a food-writer and for a traveller who loves Portugal and Japan! It’s not an allergy, but I’ve had a primal revulsion to the smell/taste of most seafood since the earliest tastings.
  3. I hoard chocolate. It comes from having lived in poor-chocolate countries like Sweden and the UK. I would visit friends in Germany and fill a suitcase with blocks of chocolate to keep me going back in Sweden.
  4. In my twenties I ate an average of 100g of chocolate a day (especially when I lived in Germany).
  5. Turpentine is not beer — a lesson I learnt when I was two years old. A hard lesson for a young Australian! Thankfully I have no memory of the stomach pump.
  6. When in France I endeavour to eat at least two items of patisserie per day. This came about as compensatory behaviour from living in London, where good cakes/pastries were very very hard to find at reasonable prices.
  7. I wish more people, men in particular, viewed cooking as a potentially rewarding (relaxing, even!) everyday activity, rather than another chore best avoided. No matter how enthusiastic guys might be about food, the all-too-frequent incredulous comment ‘you mean you cook for yourself most nights?!’ is depressing.

– DM