Guards at the Louvre pop hand-dipped chocolates; students eat croissants casually on the Metro; sidewalk lovers eat brie with one hand and hug with the other. Paris may be the gourmet capital of the world, but the heart of the city doesn't lie in its three-star restaurants. From one perspective, Paris can be seen as 41 square miles of carry-out.
The City of Light is filled with little food boutiques that can be found roughly four times in a one-block area, like perfumes placed at neighborhood pulse points, luring tourists and natives alike. You can smell the bakeries and pastry shops at 40 paces. You can see the cheese shops, delis and candy shops, which open often onto the streets, spilling their handmade wares out onto sidewalk displays. Diet doctors call these foods external cues.
I call them gastronomic sirens--edibles so beautiful they make you pant and salivate on sight. Foodshops so irresistible that once within their auras, you walk dreamlike toward the counters and buy One of Each.
It is the complicated tastes, smells and elaborate beauty of Parisian food that cause all the in-public eating. (I even saw an attendant at the Catacombs-of- Paris tour alternate ticket selling with bites of quiche lorraine.) And it is the excellence of the carry-out that has forced French food-shop owners to an understanding of the dark side of the human gastronomic soul.
Witness pastry shops like Le No tre, with its stand-up tables for on-the-spot eating. You don't have to walk to your car, Lutz Bakery cookies in hand, pretending you are not going to have your hand in the bag before you turn the key. In Paris, you gluttonize at point of purchase.
The Parisians don't just appreciate good food. They appreciate your appreciating it and beam at fressers the way they smile at lovers. Nowhere in Paris, amidst the defense de fumer (no smoking) and defense de cracher (no spitting), did I find a defense de manger (no eating) directive. At the top of the Arc de Triomphe, on the surface of the Seine in a boat, at the bottom of the Sewers of Paris, tout mange, tout mange, all are eating, all are eating.
Parisians, who spend about 40 percent of their income on food, are so delighted to have you like it, too, they'll encourage your hungers to the detriment of their own enterprise. Cafes, for example, serve sandwiches, but many times I stopped at a fromagerie to buy a hunk of chevre (goat cheese) or some Roquefort, then brought my lunch to a nearby cafe, ordered a glass of wine, and got, along with the wine and for no charge, some French bread, a knife and approving smiles from the waiter.
So great is the civic pride in its gastronomy that even a tour of the Paris sewer system includes a reference to food in the form of an art film that uses old-fashioned French film techniques--like recurrent mouths opening for bread, for fish, for fruit.
Of all the wonderful French food boutiques, there are a few that stand out even in this crowd of excellence. I spent several days doing heavy research at a goodly number of these food boutiques to come up with the best, the most representative, the most interesting. Voila! A full day's worth of sightseeing follows, so that you can go on une bouffe by foot and Metro (see accompanying story), sampling what Parisians eat but spending less than restaurants charge and also getting a look at the city.
Some of the food can be bought almost without breaking stride, then eaten on foot as you go toward the next course. Or you can eat in the park, in your hotel room, in the Metro or in almost any famous monument or museum except churches. Don't forget plastic knives and forks, a wine opener and a couple of napkins. Buy a $1 shopping bag made of string such as French housewives carry, sold at department and housewares shops. For the serious, heavy-duty eater new to Paris and still suffering jet lag, culture shock, airline food and the 40-yard suitcase dash, what better way to recover?
Begin your big eat at Millet, 103, Rue St. Dominique (Metro stop Invalides, then walk south to St. Dominique, then east toward the Eiffel Tower). Millet, which many think contains Paris' best pastries, opens at 9 a.m., looks like any small Parisian pastry shops, not like one whose owner won two of France's biggest culinary awards in '81: the Meilleur Ouvrier de France (best culinary crafts-man), and La Legion d'Honneur for making a gastronomical contribution to France. Order a cafe au lait and a pain au chocolate--a warm, buttery, flaky rectangle filled with a thin layer of not-too-sweet dark chocolate.
Once finished, you will be faced with the agony of choice. If you choose pastries A and B, you'll be too full to eat D and E. There are fruit tarts and little cakes and intricate, layered pastries, and tiny, tempting eclairs small as a baby's fingers, filled with caramel cream and topped with caramel fondant or chocolate cream and chocolate fondant. There are complicated specialties like the pear charlotte, which has five tastes and textures going on at once: raspberry puree, thick vanilla cream, ladyfingers, crushed raspberries and chopped fresh, poached pears. There's even a passion fruit cake (passion fruit is a tropical fruit) for which the shop is famous.
Rebecca Marshall, who won the Julia Child fellowship last year, and who spent much time learning pastry backstage in Millet's kitchen, says to buy a sable au citron--a big, flat cookie "whose crisp butteriness contrasts beautifully with its tart lemon glaze," and a financier, a small, rich cake made with "real almonds at Millet's, instead of the usual almond paste that the rest of Paris uses, which gives it an elegance and a lightness even for Paris." If you take the 10-minute walk to the Eiffel Tower from Millet's, I suggest eating the financier as you ride up and the sable, with its palate-cleansing icing, as you ride down. If you're planning to walk the 1,652 steps to the top, buy more.
If you want to stay on la grande bougge and not stray into public monuments, walk up Rue St. Dominique for approximately three minutes to Rue Cler, which intersects it. Rue Cler consists of four blocks of food shops all opening onto the street, and each with an awning-covered sidewalk display. Buy some fraise des bois--tiny wild strawberries, sweet with a faint wild, totally unexpected taste. And visit Rue Cler's Chevaline--one of Paris' many butcher shops specializing in horsemeat, which you can spot by the mandatory golden horse heads on the outside of the shop.
At the end of Rue Cler turn right (southwest) on Avenue de la Motte Picquet and walk one block to Metro Ecole Militaire. Go in the direction Balard, and ride one stop to La Motte Picquet-Grenelle. Change to direction Gare d'Austerlitz and ride four stops to Sevres-Babylone. You are on your way to Poilane, the most famous bread shop in Paris.
There are three Poilanes, but the 51-year-old shop at 8, Rue du Cherche-Midi is the most famous. Line up, and once inside this tiny shop buy a hot apple tart (a puff pastry/fresh apple specialty) and eat it on the spot even if you are full, or you will kick yourself for missed possibilities once you're home. Ask to see the 18th-century, wood-burning brick oven, always shown to interested visitors. Take the steep, winding stone steps down to a tiny, hot (usually 100-degree) basement room where two young men, wearing only shorts and sandals, knead loaf after loaf of bread by hand.
Poilane is also famous for two breads--a gorgeous 7 1/2 pound, $5.50 loaf of white bread covered with glazed bas reliefs of sheaves of wheat, flowers and leaves, each made of yeast dough, each different, each too beautiful to eat. Canny bread sculptors here make similar, but less beautiful breads, then turn them into art with several coats of shellac and sell them at a big profit. You can do the same with some spray shellac in your hotel room, and then send the bread home when the shellac dries (see accompanying story).
Poilane is most famous for its whole wheat country bread, which "tastes different from other breads because the volatile material in the wood and brick impart to it a delicious flavor and fragrance," according to owner Lionel Poilane. Buy a whole one; you'll eat it at lunch and again at dinner. It goes beautifully with the cheese you'll buy at La Ferme St. Hubert, 21, Rue Vignon.
Get on Metro at Sevres-Babylone; go in the direction Porte de la Chapelle for five stops to Madeleine. (Who else but the French would have a subway stop with the same name as a little French cake?) At Madeleine, go up the stairs, walk down Boulevard de la Madeleine on the left side of the boulevard, and the first street you come to will be Rue Vignon. Turn left, walk one short block, crossing one street and continue to number 21.
Le Ferme St. Hubert stands out among the 60 cheesemongers in Paris because of its open-to-the-public presentation and its two cheesekeeping rooms (caves) maintained by owner Henry Voy--one for cheese needing warm, moist environments, the other for thosewhich like it cooler and drier. Voy doesn't speak English, but he will take you down to see his caves if you are a serious cheese lover. If not, just stand in the shop and look at the 180 different kinds piled in tiny mountains, or set on platters: flat cheeses, round cheeses, cheeses on sticks, cylindrical cheeses, checker-shaped cheeses, cheeses in pyramid shapes. Some are mold colored: white, beige, caramel, pink brown, orange. Cheese baskets hang from the ceiling like pinatas in Mexican restaurants.
American-In-Paris Robert Noah, who conducts gastronomic tours of Paris, recommends four kinds, all delicious: "The rich, buttery St. Hubert--a triple-cream cheese named for the previous shop owner; the Camembert, with its unctuous texture and flavor, which is made on a farm in Normandy from unpasteurized milk, and one of the few real farmers' Camemberts left in Paris; a Fourne d'Ambert--a blue from Central France, less dry than many blues and with a pronounced putrescence; a Beaufort--aged more than two years, with a firm texture, a floral, grassy aroma and a nutty flavor." Buy a little extra; you'll eat it again at dinner and later in the middle of the night.
Stop at any nearby outdoor cafe, show the waiter the cheese and bread and ask him for wine to go with it. Most cafes let you bring your own food, provided you order something to drink.
Walk south on Vignon toward the river; cross the Boulevard de la Madeleine and continue south on Rue St. Florentin-Richepanse (Vignon becomes Florentin) to the Metro stop Concorde on the Rue de Rivoli. Go in the direction Pont de Neuilly for four stops and get off at Etoile (Charles de Gaulle). Take the escalator up Wagram (away from Arc de Triomphe) for about five minutes to the Place des Ternes. Turn right until you reach Rue du Faubourg-St. Honore, and continue until you come to La Maison du Chocolat, 225 Rue du Faubourg-St. Honore.
La Maison du Chocolat is a candy shop with small, hand-dipped chocolates of extraordinary smoothness and refinement, arranged like jewelry with care in glass cases. Gregory Usher, director of Paris's famous La Varenne cooking school, calls this the finest Parisian chocolate shop because of the refinement of the finished product. Lang works the chocolate to uncanny smoothness, then uses it to cover many unusual, comparably smooth centers. The centers and coating are in almost unbelievable sync. Put one on your tongue, close your lips and sit, silent and unmoving; you'll have to taste fast or miss the experience. They disappear in about 10 seconds.
An All-American Candy Eater will need at least 200 grams (7 ounces, about $6.50) to get satisfied. Lang himself eats 15 candies a day. His favorite: a guayaquil with a dark chocolate coating in perfect tune with its raspberry filling. Also not to be missed are Lang's Parisian jellies, which do not come in Chuckles-like cherry, lemon and licorice tastes but in subtle and unusual flavors like cassis, passion fruit, marmalade. Eat the chocolates on the way to the wine shop, but store the gumdrops in your string shopping bag in case you go to the Louvre so you won't be caught empty-handed in front of the Mona Lisa.
Return to Etoile, get on the Metro in direction Chateau de Vincennes and ride six stops to Palais Royal. Change to direction Marie d' Ivry and ride one stop to Pont-Neuf. Walk upstairs (look at all the calories you're using climbing stairs), and you'll find yourself at the foot of the bridge. Walk on the bridge until you locate a statue of Henry IV on horse back. Opposite at Place du Pont-Neuf is Taverne Henri IV.
At this lovely, authentic wine shop/bar you can taste certain bottles by the glass before you buy the product. English speaking owner Robert Cointepas goes to, among others, Beaujolais, Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Loire regions, to buy his wine in casks direct from the winemaker. He supervises it during shipping, wanting to be sure that what he bought is what he gets. Then he bottles it himself--a practice that is getting rarer in Paris.
Since you are looking for a wine to go with the charcuterie you are going to buy at your next stop, buy a Beaujolais, which is what wine expert Peter Vezan, who teaches at Paris' Academy du Vin, suggests as an excellent accompaniment to the French sausages, terrines and pates known as charcuterie. And, if you convince Cointepas of your serious wine interest, and if the Taverne is not busy, he may take you down to see his two cellars, one underneath the other. (Facilitate this by bringing him a good quality bottle of California Zinfindel from the Central Coast.)
Return to the Metro, go in the direction Fort d'Aubervilliers for two stops to Pyramides. Go up the stairs, walk up Avenue de l'Opera (toward the Opera) for one block to Rue Gomboust. Turn left, walk a short distance to the Place du Marche St. Honore, then walk around the Place to the Rue du Marche St. Honore.
Les Rubis at 10, Rue du Marche St. Honore, is a Parisian wine bar more than 50 years old, with a typically Parisian zinc bar, the kind that needs constant cleaning. Like Cointepas, owner Yves Jense also buys his wine from different winemakers, has the casks shipped to Paris, then bottles it himself.
"Buy a glass of Chiroubles," suggests Peter Vezan. "It comes from a village in Beaujolais which makes the lightest, fruitiest, smoothest, least tannic wines, but Chiroubles is not apt to age well, which is one reason it is not sent to the U.S." Stand outside the bar like the Parisians do, using the empty casks to set your wine glasses down. Rubis is one of the Academy du Vin's favorite wine bars. And don't be surprised to see teen-agers drinking. Minimum age is 16. And that's old. Before De Gaulle, you could drink it at any age.
Walk a few doors up the street to Chedeville, 12, Rue du Marche St. Honore, the charcuterie that Parisians say "feeds all of Paris." In fact, Chedeville does sell things like four kinds of pate and five kinds of terrine, as well as foie gras (whole, fresh goose liver) presentations, ham with parsley in aspic, and several sausages, to dozens of resturants and brasseries in Paris. At Chedeville or any of Paris' 450 or so charcuteries, the preparations are so elegant and so unusual, the jaded fresser may very well find the one taste he has been searching for all his life.
Chedeville specialties include a rabbit terrine with prunes (lapin pruneaux) that absolutely should not be missed, a duck terrine with green peppercorns (canard poivre vert) that has a delicate, delicious sting, and a pork pate with a decorated crust. Don't worry if it looks almost burned. Parisians like their bread and pastries bien cuit, well cooked, and if the French bread you're served in a restaurant has a dark crust, the waiter is giving you a compliment. Buy everything that looks interesting by the slice--this is going to be your dinner. Buy dijon mustard and little French sour pickles called cornichons to accompany. Put it in the shopping bag and then kill a few minutes in the Louvre before dinner.
Walk toward the river on the Rue du Marche St. Honore, crossing the Rue St. Honore, and continue one block to the Rue de Rivoli. Turn left, and walk toward the Louvre along the arcade.
After the Louvre, go outside to the Tuilleries for dinner. Most parks don't allow eating on the grass, so sit on the benches or the loose metal chairs. When finished, take the bread, the cheese, the wine and the cornichons back to your hotel; the bread will keep in its paper bag at room temperature for days, and the cheese will last at least one night--excellent for 2 a.m. munchies.