Hello Paris, a city of cliches but where the cliches are true. It is a city with a passion for life founded on a love of food. Half of the day seems to be spent in specialist shops looking for fresh ingredients and the other half eating them. Perhaps its greatest gift to the world is a perfect window display of handmade chocolates. You have to love a city where the simplest things are done so well.
An eccentric-looking woman is walking her equally eccentric dog, a wire-haired dachshund. “No, no!” she scolds, shoving it off the pavement with her high-heeled foot. “We do that in the gutter.” From a small café an old man in a beret is watching the scene unfold. With a routine motion he tops up his Ricard with water. An orthodox jew with black beard and hat leaves a boulangerie with three baguettes under his arm, transforming the narrow city street into a rural scene for a moment with the smell of freshly baked bread. Crossing the road, he is nearly knocked over by a roller-skating boy with short blond hair.
At the corner, a young couple in love are intimately intertwined, marveling at the menu outside a Michelin-starred restaurant. The food is too expensive for them but looking costs nothing. The chef leans against a doorpost nearby, talking into his mobile phone. He gives them a quick, sympathetic look that says a thousand words. “Will you take a picture of us, please?” A young Parisian looks at the tourists, two attractive blondes, who bathe him in a radiant smile from the terrace where they have just ordered lunch. “But of course,” he says taking their camera with a blush.
Paris. Why do I love it as much as I do, why do all these cliched images seem so fresh every time? There are the museums, the history, the apartment buildings and the air of romance encouraged by countless books and films. But central to every Paris experience, both for visitors and the Parisians themselves, is food. Everywhere I look, in every arrondissement, there are cafés and restaurants, butchers and bakers, fruit sellers and chocolate shops. A fresh produce market is central to every district. The city has its grand buildings and monuments, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the Louvre, but the real contribution of Paris to the world may be an exquisitely perfect display of handmade chocolates in the window of an anonymous shop. This is a city that loves food and any city that loves food, loves life.
I feel I have the city to myself
Early mornings in Paris are wonderful. I feel I have the city to myself. It’s not true, of course. While the boulevards keep most of the traffic away from its back streets, there is plenty of life around. Their green overalls blend in but the street cleaners are at work, turning on streams of water to wash the gutters free of the remains of previous day, strips of rags and carpets acting as dams to send the flow where it is needed. A police siren hee-haws in the distance. The tires of a Citroen delivery van, its corrugated paneling so distinctly French, rumble down a cobbled street where the rounded stones gleam like tortoise shells in the wet. It pulls up to offload blood-rich carcasses for a butcher. And a pile of fruit and vegetables makes its way to a grocer as its roller blinds go up, boxes stacked on the two-wheeled carts called “un diable” – a devil. Where does all this produce come from to feed the stirring city?
“An army marches on its stomach,” said Napoleon, only he said it in French. What’s true of an army is surely true of a city, and the virtual stomach of Paris is Rungis, a wholesale market in the southern suburbs near Orly airport that is the world’s largest. The work starts here at a time when most of the rest of the city is going to sleep and is running down by 5am. A small city in itself, it covers an area larger than Monaco and has its own train station and highway exit, eight hotels and 21 restaurants, banks, a hairdresser and post office.
Some 12,000 people work here, supplying at least 20 million consumers with food. Massive pavilions are dedicated to each form of produce, from vegetables and fruit to meat and fish. Each is spotless, apart from the detritus of a busy morning: scattered ice and packaging. This is not a place to stand still in: forklift trucks, heavy lorries and impatient porters move around constantly. The energy and background buzz from thousands of neon lights and refrigerators, and the vast, clinical spaces give it the atmosphere of an efficient power station, sending a flow of energy out to power the citizens of Paris.
A corner café opens early and I sit inside to watch the city stirring through the window. The concierge in the block of apartments opposite me brushes off her doorstep. An impeccably suited man wearing loafers with no socks, cashmere scarf tied elegantly at his throat, dons a helmet and purrs off on his scooter. “Un express, bien serré, s’il vous plait,” comes the order at the counter, a time-short commuter wanting his morning caffeine shot quick and strong. Obviously not a regular if he has to ask. Another man sits with an espresso and the morning newspaper, paying more attention to the passing world than the headlines. People- watching is a Parisian obsession and there are few cities where outright staring is as acceptable as it is here.
The baker has been at work since 5am
A waiter is putting out chairs, carefully arranging them so they all face the road, rather than each other, so customers can all enjoy the show. The theater continues as I walk the street. The French even have a name for the aimless stroller like me: flâneur. From a boulangerie comes the smell of croissants, the breakfast of Paris. The baker has been at work since 5am, rolling out dough made the night before and allowed to rest overnight. Triangles are rolled into shape, the trailing end carefully tucked over so it won’t lift, before baking until it reaches the perfect golden brown color, helping by a sugar glazing. The mandatory sign in the window saying “au beurre” tells me they use real butter, not margarine, so I stop in to buy one, joining a line of well-dressed customers. No one would think of going out, even to buy breakfast, without looking smart. Everyone knows they are on stage in this city.
“Bonjour, madame. Baguette, pas trop cuite, s’il vous plait,” comes an order. It is essential to say hello. The slightly undercooked baguette will cut down on crumbs at home for the house-proud or busy customer. The baguette is a distinctly Parisian tradition, delicious fresh, when they can be eaten without butter, but stale by the next morning, when they are eaten with butter and jam for breakfast. Outside Paris, where people live further from bakeries, “pain de campagne”, country bread, takes precedence, although Lionel Poilâne made a name for himself with his artisan version of this round loaf.
The baguette is taken so seriously in Paris that an annual competition gives the winner the right to supply the presidential Elysée Palace for a year, as well as a small cash prize and bragging rights. By law, it has to be made only with flour, yeast, salt and water. No preservative, which is why it goes stale so quickly. How do you know you have a good one? By the instant quality control that every Parisian uses as they exit the boulangerie: twisting off one end and popping it into their mouth. This crusty heel or “le quignon” is the only thing you can eat on the street in Paris, unless you want to look like a tourist.
The simplest things are done with passion
I watch a fruit and vegetable shop laying out its stall. Each piece of fruit looks perfect, each vegetable shines with good health. Signs written in a distinctive French cursive style are also a work of art in themselves. This is a city where the simplest things are done with passion. Next door is a fromagerie, its door sending out a blast of ripe smells each time it opens.
The fruit and vegetable section at Rungis is also a riot of color. This is the largest part, with eight different halls, so big that bicycles are used to move around it. Boxes of strawberries, apples, carrots, garlic, melons, cherries and lots of lovely Breton blackberries are stacked everywhere, as well as many more exotic varieties.
A massive area is devoted to mushrooms and herbs, particularly thyme and parsley, reflecting the French preference for them over spices. Even the tomatoes are an eye-opener. A wholesaler pulls out a pen-knife to slice open a perfectly-formed, bright red one. “See how thick the skin is?” he asks me. “This makes it easier to pack and transport but the inside is just water and has no flavor. It is cheap, however, so this is what you will find in most super-markets and many restaurants.” He shows me dozens of other varieties, in all shapes and colors including yellow. He cuts one of these: it is firm all the way through and the skin is thinner than the razor-edge of his knife. The taste is rich and full. Rungis encourages the preservation of as wide a variety of these and other endangered foods as possible.
A country that produces 246 different cheeses
“How can you govern a country that produces 246 different cheeses?” said former President Charles de Gaulle during the student riots of 1968. Nowadays, despite laments the industry is in decline, its Ministry of Agriculture lists more than 400 cheese varieties in France. At first sight, the cheese hall at Rungis seems to have most of them. The pungent smell is intoxicating for a cheese-lover and the hall is lined with vast rounds of Comté and boxes of Roquefort and Camembert, alongside tubs of yoghurt and fromage frais, the soft cream cheese that is a French staple.
A few buyers are plunging skewers into rounds of cheese to extract a sample for a smell and taste test. There are cheeses here made from cow, goat and sheep’s milk, with ewe’s milk making the strongest and most artery-clogging. The choice and variety is bewildering for the non-expert like me but no French shopper seems to suffer from a similar lack of confidence.
Of course, they have spent their lives being been trained by experts. The specialism of French shops comes as a surprise to those visitors used to one-stop shopping in supermarkets. While supermarkets are making their inroads into French life, a preference remains for buying produce from knowledgeable specialists, fruit from a fruit shop, cheese from a fromagerie, bread from a boulangerie and doing so every day. A butcher will sell beef and lamb, but not always pork – for that you need a charcuterie – while chicken is at the volailler. Shopping for the best ingredients is still a central part of everyday life for many, something few cities can claim. The basis of French cuisine is not rich, complex flavors but fresh, high-quality ingredients that are cooked simply, with herbs that complement the taste.
Most of the produce here is French
I have a lesson in freshness at the fish hall in Rungis, where white polystyrene boxes of seafood are stacked from one end of the hall to the other. “Most of the produce here is French,” says Philippe, a chef who comes here regularly to source new produce for recipe ideas and maintain links with his suppliers. “Oysters from Île d’Oléron, lobster from Brittany, trout from the Pays-Basque, line-fished bass and turbot from the Atlantic coastline.” The turbot he is buying was caught the previous morning and shipped overnight; eaten for lunch in his restaurant in central Paris, it will have been out of the water little more than 24 hours.
There are buyers here from all over Europe and produce is exported as far at the US. I do spot some foreign imports, though: Spanish mussels, prawns from Madagascar. Is French produce better? “Well, I am French, so I think so,” says Philippe, laughing. “But it’s certainly fresher, because it has not traveled so far, and it’s seasonal. You should eat food that is in season and that recognizes the weather is different.” Picking up some lobster, Philippe demonstrates its freshness: it is still lively and its tail springs back into a curve when straightened out.
At lunchtime, I stop into a bistro, its tables again spilling out onto the pavement. Bistros open from 11.30am to 2pm for lunch and again in the evening for dinner. Although the modern world is introducing change, many Parisians still take an hour-long lunch-break for a proper two- course meal, perhaps with a glass of wine. A similar routine applies in the evening, when sitting together for a family meal, or enjoying a leisurely dinner with friends, encourages conversation and an appreciation of good food. I order a “croque-monsieur” – a toasted ham and cheese sandwich – although in Paris the whole is fried in a pan rather than toasted. With a fried egg on top, said to resemble a lady’s hat, it becomes a “croque-madame”.
Makers Ladurée and Pierre Hermé are superstars
Traditionalists lament that the average length of a French meal has dropped by almost an hour in the past decade and is now down to a mere 30 minutes. “Le snacking”, driven by the faster pace of business and the financial crisis hitting wallets, is now a recognized growth industry. Popping into a café for a quick drink and snack has long been a custom – the morning “casse- croûte” (“break the crust”) and afternoon “goûter” – but the difference is that this short break is now seen as a proper meal.
For my afternoon goûter, I have an eye on some macarons, the petit round cookie made from two crisp meringue half-shells around a creamy center that are a Parisian obsession. They come in all kinds of colors and flavors, from coffee and chocolate and to pistachio and plain vanilla. Makers Ladurée and Pierre Hermé are superstars in the French food firmament.
France’s cuisine traces the reasons for its world dominance to the Revolution of 1798, which broke up the power of trade guilds and dispersed the court chefs when their aristocratic employers lost their heads. Free to work where they wanted and needing to make a living, these cooks led the way in a ten-fold increase in the number of restaurants in Paris inside a few years. This new class of professional chefs also adopted a professional, scientific approach to cooking, in contrast to Italy and Japan, where food are still dominated by family recipes, handed down for generations.
Where meat had always been boiled before roasting, for example, they discovered it tasted better when it was only roasted. Then came Escoffier, chef at the Ritz, who developed the brigade system at the turn of the 20th century. The skills in the kitchen were broken down, just as Henry Ford broke down car production, making it a professional, repeatable operation capable of turning out perfect meals on any scale required. Every major hotel, every serious restaurant, now uses this French system, the foundation of haute cuisine.
My waiter has worked here for six years
I see this professionalism in action in a large brasserie where I have booked a table for dinner. You can walk around Paris and hope to stumble on a good restaurant but it’s not as easy as it once was. From the moment I walk in the door, I know I am in good hands. Even my waiter Eric has worked here for six years. He is a professional waiter, having spent the first year after leaving school in the kitchen washing dishes, then two years clearing tables and serving coffees before he was allowed to graduate to taking orders. He takes pride in his work but has a lot of tables to look after, so has no time for those who don’t know what they want. What you want, of course, is what is on the menu. This is not America, where people take pride in being individuals in their ordering, turning the chef into a workman whose job it is to do what they ask. A French chef knows what he is doing. It’s still rare, though changing, for chef to be a she.
As I eat my steak frite, the steak bloody, the French fries thin and crisp, I look around. There is a buzz in the air, one that shows a good restaurant at the top of its form, where food is only one part in another act where we all have our parts to play. While a couple in the corner gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes, the rest of the clientele wave their arms histrionically, having deep, often passionate conversations. The French make much of a well-rounded education and admire those with strong opinions and the ability to express them. Philosophy is part of the school curriculum.
“No one comes to Paris just for the food,” says my Parisian friend Élise, with a twinkle in her eye. “You can eat a Michelin-starred meal anywhere in the world now. A steak can only taste so good. But what Paris offers is unique: the historic roots of its cuisine, and its culture of restaurants and cafes in a city of food and wine lovers. That creates a special atmosphere you cannot find anywhere else in the world.”