When I wrote that I'd be back "tomorrow", you knew that I meant "a future time or period", not "the day after today", right?
It was a busy couple of days this week with trying to get the new Schnibbles finished, stuff off to the website people, bindings attached and stitched, quilts cut out and so on. To make it a little more challenging, I've also been off-schedule with sleep. It isn't because of any delayed jetlag, I almost wish it was. My problem is that I've been on a reading spree the past few months and including the books I read on my various flights, I've read about fifteen books in the last two months. That wouldn't be a problem except that I get so wrapped up in my book that I stay up until the wee hours of the morning reading. Yes, it is a tad obsessive but I will tell you that I come by it naturally, my Dad was the same way. I know that the quiet time is part of the appeal but as every reader knows, you get involved in the story and you lose track of time. Sometimes it is the story and sometimes it is the beauty of the language and the magic of the writer's skill.
Written text aside... today is mostly about pictures. Which means I have a couple of "just so you knows..."
1. This post is calorie-free. The behavior it provokes might not be.
2. Not every place we went allowed pictures. The good news is that I took a lot of pictures when I could and even managed a few pictures at one place where I shouldn't have... but I didn't know that until after I had taken a few.)
3. There are a lot of pictures here simply because I couldn't decide which ones to leave out. It would be like having to choose between a fat quarter bundle of Ruby and a fat quarter bundle of American Banner Rose. As if!
Seriously. Choose? Between this...
... or this?
I don't remember where I first read about Context Tours, the company behind the walking tours I took in Paris. Billed as "walking tours for the intellectually curious", Context Travel conducts walking tours for small groups -- the group size is limited to six people -- in the United States and Europe, in cities like New York and Boston, Berlin and Barcelona. From food tours to museum tours, the walking tours are led by people with knowledge and expertise in the subject of the tour. As it states on the website, they "are a network of architects, historians, art historians, and specialists who organize over 300 different walks in 14 cities around the world."
I signed up for two tours -- From Baguette to Bistro: The Culinary Traditions of Paris and the Chocolate Walk. (I also signed up for two other tours -- for the Musee d'Orsay and the Marais part of Paris -- but they didn't have enough people to proceed. Funny how that wasn't a problem for the food-related tours.)
The "baguette" tour was Tuesday morning and we started at a cafe, Les Comptoir des Saint-Peres.
This cafe was less than five minutes from my hotel. While the cafe looks charming, I had been told that it wasn't very good. As there were a lot of empty seats outside and inside, I think the recommendation was a good one. We set out from here and walked right past my hotel to our first destination, also less than five minutes from my hotel.
Our group of six was led by Barbara Austin, a pastry chef who is now a freelance food writer living in Paris. She was -- is -- funny, informational, knowledgeable and an excellent tour guide. (Her blog is terrific too.)
This is Eric Kayser, a very prominent and respected boulangerie with several locations in Paris, and elsewhere in Europe and Africa.
If you want a sense of what the tours are like, this is a great place to start. Barbara started by explaining the difference between a boulangerie and a patisserie -- it is simply the focus, if bread is their main thing, they are a boulangerie. If pastries are the focus, then it is a patisserie... though both usually have have large selections of both. Easy, right? We learned about baguettes and pain levain, pain rustique and how to tell if a croissant is made with butter or margarine. Some croissants will be labeled "croissants au beurre", meaning that it is made with butter. If a shop has curved croissants and straight croissants, the straight croissants are made with butter and the curved croissants are made with margarine. If there is no "au beurre" and only curved croissants... ask. It's probably not butter.
Barbara bought a couple of baguettes monge -- fresh, classic baguettes -- from the shop for our taste-testing. (Exceptional... but then I'm an easy sell. I love bread.)
On a side note, Eric Kayser also has delicious salads, sandwiches and even pizza, making them a very popular destination for lunch. Take-out or eat-in, they were very busy. I know because I was there twice.
Across the street from Eric Kayser was Androuet.
Androuet is a cheese shop -- a fromagerie. But as we learned, there is more to being a great cheese shop than just selling cheese. With cheese, the aging process is what makes a cheese special, that is the "affinage". While some cheesemakers will handle the cheese until it is finished, in France, many send their fresh cheese to an affineur for the finishing process. The affineur will keep the ripening cheese in a "cave" or a climate-controlled building, adjusting the humidity and temperature as necessary. Affineurs are highly skilled, and it is a skill that takes years to master and perfect. As you can imagine, the best affineurs are considered artists and their skills are highly sought after.
From Androuet we went up the rue de Bac to a little boucherie -- a meat/butcher shop.
As with affineurs, the people who own and work in a boucherie or a charcuterie are skilled tradespeople. People work for many years as an apprentice, and many businesses are family-owned. One of the things that was most interesting was learning that the people who work in these shops actually know about their products -- where they come from, how they are raised, how to prepare them, etc. It was interesting to see the differences between a shop like this one and the "butchers" that many of us are familiar with at our big grocery stores. And to learn what the hot new trend in Paris is...
I thought they were potato chips too.
Our next stop was Ryst-Dupeyron, a wine shop that is more than just that. Under the name Chateau Ryst-Dupeyron, this is one of the oldest makers of Armagnac in France. Armagnac is a distilled wine usually made from armagnac grapes. What did I learn here? I don't like Armagnac, not even the really old stuff... the good stuff.
Then again, maybe I was saving myself...
It's a fact -- you cannot learn about the culinary traditions of Paris without addressing the subject of chocolate. I'm sorry about the scaffolding... though really, I didn't have anything to do with it. Then again, maybe it was being set up to protect people... to keep them away from Chapon, the chocolate shop owned by a famous Paris chocolatier, Patrice Chapon.
The back wall of the shop is entirely covered with vintage chocolate molds.
In Chapon, we sampled two different chocolates. The first were individual pieces of chocolate -- a praline-like filling that was firm, not gooey, covered in dark chocolate and sprinkled with gray sea salt. You should know that I love sea salt and dark chocolate so this could have been filled with sawdust and I still would have liked it. That said, it was incredible. The second item were two different bars of single-origin chocolate, the "new, big trend/fad in chocolate in Paris". As with coffee, "single origin" chocolate is made using beans from a single region, sometimes even from a single farm. The idea is that -- as with coffee and grapes grown for wine -- the cocoa beans from a single region take on a very specific flavor, one that can be lost when combined with other flavors. It was very good, and an interesting concept, but I think you have to be a lot more into "tastings" than I am. Given a choice, I would have had another piece of the praline thing with the salt.
So we've been to a bakery, a cheese shop, a wine shop, a chocolate shop, a butcher... what's missing?
Did you know that SmartCars were designed to be able to park two cars to a single parking space on the streets? Facing straight in, or backed in, the depth and width is such that two of these can fit in a single space. But that's not the point of this picture -- I thought it was funny how the car in back was so determined to be able to park here that they got really, really, really close.
The other point of this picture is that if you spent too much time at the following shop, there would be no way of fitting in one of those little cars.
La Patisserie des Reves. All of the pastries were displayed under a glass cloche with a spotlight shining on its beauty. If you were to actually purchase one of these lovelies, it would be brought out from the back room.
While we were in the shop, a woman bought a tarte that she was apparently bringing as a gift to the hostess who had invited her to dinner that evening. I'm told that a gift like this is very welcome, very appreciated and guaranteed to get you invited back. The tarte -- a Tarte Aux Fruites Noirs ~ Blackberry Tarte -- was placed in a beautiful box and wrapped. It was an exquisite gift -- and not an inexpensive one. Most of the large tartes and desserts were around 30 Euros or $42.00, with the invidual tartes and desserts costing around 5.5 Euros or $7.50.
Remember -- just looking at the pictures is calorie-free.
Oh, and while the names are on the signs, the descriptions are a combination of what I could remember and what I found in my favorite cooking reference book.
Le Chou Chou -- the two pastries on the side. "Chou" is a cream puff. The two white puffs are Fruitier de Saison, a mound of vanilla pastry cream on a base of pastry with a raspberry ~ the seasonal fruit.
Tarte Aux Fraises -- Strawberry Tarte.
Tarte Aux Fruits Noirs -- Blackberry Tarte.
St. Honore -- A traditional French cake named for Saint Honore, the patron saint of pastry bakers. It consists of a base of pate brisee topped with cream puffs that are dipped in caramel prior to being positioned on the base. The caramel coating glues the puffs together. The cream is traditionally Saint-Honore cream -- pastry cream lightened with beaten egg whites or whipped cream, also called a mousseline.
Fraisier -- The base of this cake is probably a genoise (a rich, light cake that is similar in texture to a sponge cake). It is topped with strawberries and creme patisserie ~ pastry creme ~ or mousseline (any sauce to which whipped cream or beaten eggs have been added just prior to serving). The topping? Not sure.
Tarte Aux Citron -- Lemon Tart.
Paris Brest -- A French dessert said to have been created by a pastry chef in honor of a bicycle race between Paris and Brest. It consists of a baked almond-topped choux pastry ring (patterned after a bicycle tire) that is split and filled with a praline-flavored buttercream.
Tarte Aux Framboises de saison -- Raspberry Tarte.
Gran Cru -- This description comes from Paris Patisseries, a wonderful blog/website about patisseries in Paris. This Grand Cru came in 7th on their list of the Seventeen Best Pastries in Paris 2010.
There are desserts for people who love chocolate, and then there’s the Grand Cru, the dessert for people who wish it were legally possible to marry a mountain of it. This is perhaps the greatest pure chocolate dessert known to man. Successive layers of Venezuelan chocolate preparations (mousse, ganache and biscuit) rest above an ultra-thin layer of praliné croustillant, which adds just the right touch of character.
Eclair Au Chocolate -- the Chocolate Eclair. This is the chocolate eclair that you know and recognize, it has just been slid into a cylinder of milk or dark chocolate. It was very hard to actually push the knife and fork into this to break it into pieces for tasting, not because it was hard but because it was too beautiful to damage. But it was worth it as it was decadently, fabulously and memorably good.
The last stop on the Baguette tour was La Grande Epicerie at Le Bon Marche.
Le Bon Marche is a department store on the rue de Sevres and like Harrod's of London, they have a large food hall that sells very high-end foodstuffs. It is like the coolest gourmet food store you've ever been too, only done with a French flair. In addition to carrying everything we had seen on our walk -- wines, cheese, bread, chocolate, pastries and meat -- they also carry fancy teas from around the world, including the most famous tea-houses of Europe and Asia. Jams and jellies? There are aisles stacked high with beautiful jars containing delicious-looking and fabulous-sounding confitures. Mustards, sea salts, peppers and spices? If it's the best, La Grande Epicerie carries it.
They also have a very large and very busy fresh food market, making it a very popular lunch spot. Salads, sandwiches, fresh fruits and vegetables... okay, basically everything you could possibly consider appealing is there and at pretty reasonable prices. Having nibbled my way down the rue de Bac, sampling chocolate, bread, cheese and pastries, you won't be surprised to learn that I wasn't all that hungry. So I bought some strawberries, a roll of bread containing pieces of fig ~ Pain Figue, and a bottle of water. Lest you feel sorry for me, you should have tasted the strawberries -- fraise des bois. Heavenly. Lunch in tow, I headed off down the rue de Sevres to the Boulevard Saint-Germain and the Eglise Saint-Germain-des-Pres. (Remember my quota.)
Actually, it was the meeting point for the Chocolate Walk. It was led by Camille Labro, a food writer who has worked in Berkeley, Provence, New York and Paris. She's been a docent for this particular walk for several years -- and just so you know, she's a slim, beautiful young woman who clearly knows a whole lot more about chocolate than she eats.
First stop -- DeBauve & Gallais.
At DeBauve, we began by sampling chocolate wafers in various percentages of cocoa. The tasting is interesting because you start with a thin little wafer of chocolate -- no nuts, caramel, flavoring or sea salt. You place the wafer on your tongue and let it slowly soften while you inhale the aroma of the chocolate. The first wafer is ninety-nine percent cocoa bean... not very tasty. Crumbly, dry and almost a little bitter. A wafer that I think was seventy-two percent was next... now we're getting someplace! Actually, this was my favorite one as I love dark chocolate and I don't like chocolate that is too sweet. A wafer that was about sixty percent was next -- good, but not as good as the seventy percent, in my humble opinion. Finally, a wafer of fifty percent cocoa, -- it was easily the favorite of everyone else on the tour.
A few minutes away on the rue Bonaparte, Laduree.
And because I'm a colossal twit and forgot to get a picture of the macarons for which Laduree is famous...
Yes, I ate the one I bought. But I have a reason -- I had embarked on a very official, very important comparison of macarons in Paris. To validate, justify and verify my findings, I limited myself to just one flavor -- the Caramel a la Fleur de Sel. The Caramel with Salted Butter. I will tell you my findings in a moment.
From Laduree, we went to a newer and very trendy chocolate shop, Un Dimanche a Paris. The name means "A Sunday in Paris" and it is owned by Pierre Cluizel, the son of Michel Cluizel, one of the most well-known chocolatiers in France. Wouldn't you love to be part of that family?
Pink Peppercorns in White Chocolate. Rosemary in Milk Chocolate. Cilantro in Dark Chocolate. Those were some of the more interesting offerings at Un Dimanche. They had samples of these tiny little bits of chocolate -- about the size of rice -- and while I can't say that I was tempted to bring bundles of it home, I think it shows that this is a shop willing to take a risk and try something new. But they did have plenty of traditional pastries and chocolates as well.
If this was super-cool, then Maison Georges Larnicol is a little more of an over-the-top sort of place.
These are made entirely of chocolate.
I will tell you that I much preferred the elegant, understated shops. Not because I'm an elegant or understated kind of girl but because of the simplicity of the presentation and packaging. This next shop looked and felt like Tiffany's in all its calm, quiet, wood-paneled glory. The next shop on the tour was one of the Paris locations of Pierre Marcolini, a chocolatier based out of Brussels. By the way, he's kind of cute.
This picture doesn't do the black packaging justice. It was stunning -- to the point where I don't know that it would have been possible to actually eat the chocolates.
But we managed just the same. The Earl Grey and The Citron are -- were -- very good. When in Paris... right?
After a trip through the Marche Saint Germain -- an open market that is sort of like a grocery store with individual vendors for cheese, vegetables, olives, bread, etc. -- and because I just hadn't been to enough patisseries in one day, we went into Gerard Mulot.
Finally, I knew from my reading about Paris that any kind of food expedition or exploration that didn't include Pierre Herme was incomplete. Even though Laduree invented the macaron, Pierre Herme is the one who made it famous. At least that's what all the books, magazines and blogs write.
This is the place where I wasn't supposed to be taking pictures. I didn't know that and Camille warned me to be careful when she saw me with my camera. But when I started putting it away, she said that since they were so busy, I could probably take a few more... just be ready to put the camera away if I am seen. Didn't I tell you she was great?
The shop is small -- it can't be much more than 15 feet wide and 30 feet long. This counter runs the length of one side, and the opposite wall has shelves with boxes of macarons, chocolates, teas and other products. The shop is sleek and modern with dark wood and minimalist sorts of fixtures. The pastries and macarons are the attention-getters here.
After leaving Pierre Herme, it was almost 5:00 pm and everyone was exhausted. Maybe not Camille, but the five us on the tour were done for the day. Or crashing from the sugar... it was one of those. So after bidding Camille goodbye, I walked down the rue Bonaparte to the Boulevard Saint-Germain, and then toward my hotel. I shopped along the way... funny how that sort of thing happens.
Now about my macaron tasting... I bought the same Caramel with Salted Butter from Laduree, Un Dimanche a Paris, Pierre Marcolini and Pierre Herme. As with most things, we all have a different preference when it comes to the texture of the meringue cookie part of the macaron, the filling, the flavor, etc. When it was all said and done, my favorite macaron was the one from Un Dimanche a Paris. I liked everything about it -- mostly that it wasn't too sweet. The caramel flavor was terrific and there was just a tiny hint of the salt -- like the best sea salt caramels. The Laduree was in second, followed by the macaron from Pierre Marcolini. The macaron from Pierre Herme was my least favorite. Don't get me wrong, it was terrific and I know that for most people, this is their favorite. The caramel flavor was excellent but I found the macaron to be too sweet for me, probably because it had the most buttercream filling of the four macarons. That also meant that the texture and flavor of each bite was more buttercream than macaron meringue part, whereas the other macarons had a better balance of that. In my opinion.
But if you want to send me a box of Pierre Herme macarons, it isn't like I'm going to send them back.
Just so you know, macarons from Laduree and Pierre Marcolini are available in the United States, in New York City.
And that's it for now.
Aren't you glad?
Until tomorrow next time.