in Paris, but exhausted or stressed out? Taking in too many museums and monuments all at once? You have a number of choices for flaking out.
Sitting in cafes and nursing an espresso (or expresse as they call it here) is what most people choose to do. Some stretch out or doze off in the beautiful parks all over Paris—at big and famous ones like the Tuilleries and the Luxembourg or the little parks adjacent to churches. The Square Saint Jean XXIII behind the Notre Dame, for instance. It invites you to benches shielded in the summer by long umbrellas of chestnut trees. These places are great for people watching, wolfing down your pain au chocolat, or simply contemplating the pleasure that is Paris.
If you’re a foodie, you could explore the food specialty shops that locals take for granted. Every Paris arrondissement boasts several fromageries (cheese shops), patisseries, boulangeries, boucheries (butcher shops), charcuteries, vergers (produce stands), etc. They exist for the use of Parisians with apartment-size refrigerators. But they also serve foodie tourists well.
If you’re curious enough to sample stinky cheeses, jambon cru (ham that’s not cooked but salted, air-dried, aged, sometimes smoked like prosciutto di Parma), and wines, with AOC (appellation d’origine controllée, a guarantee of quality) labels, you needn’t wander too far from your hotel. Patisseries are especially seductive— feasts for the eyes, nose, tongue, as well as the stomach.
Everyone nostalgic for Paris-as-it-was would tell you, however: Sadly, it’s not like it used to be. Supermarket chains have replaced many mom-and-pop style merchants. Food shopping, Parisian style, has come closer to how we do it on this side of the Atlantic.
We have our own nostalgic tale. We first came to stay in Paris, for months at a time, in 2001. That year, Rue Montorgueil in the 2eme arrondissement and rue Rambuteau in the 3eme had a lot more family-owned food shops. Ten years later, cafés have displaced food merchants on Montorgueil. You now find more tourists there than locals.
A few high-end shops still exist. The historic Stohrer, for instance. Food purveyors to royalty in the 1700s, eponymous Stohrer is the oldest patisserie in France. A Polish patissier — personal baker to Marie, the Polish wife of Louis XV — started it in 1730. It’s still thriving in the same location on 51 rue Montorgueil. Sans Monsieur Nicolas Stohrer, of course.
The patisserie still makes and sells the well-known baba au rhum, an invention of Monsieur Stohrer. We have never been connoisseurs of dry brioche soaked in as much syrupy rum as it can hold but, really, it’s not that bad. Particularly if you like rum. A fancier version dubbed Ali Baba by Marie’s father, King Stanislas of Poland, is a bit more interesting. It has pastry cream and raisins.
Our taste in desserts is for something more modern. Whenever we come to Paris, we go for macarons. (Please, not macaroon—entirely different though they have the same ingredients — ground almonds, sugar, and egg whites).
Until October 2008, only a few bakeries made them. Even then, quality varied. Ladurée, the bakery that might have started it all is good. So are Gerard Mulot, Dalloyau, and Pierre Hermé.
Now, macarons are ubiquitous — you’ll see them at several McDo’s; on rue de Rivoli, for instance. Some bakers are dressing them up. But we still prefer les macarons classiques — no icing, just a filling of naturally flavored buttercream.
Tourists flock to Ladurée’s on the Champs Elysées and often the line is out the door. Why this obsession for macaron?
The sensation of eating a good macaron is not easy to describe. It actually changes depending on the flavor (or parfum, in French). At its best, this confection offers, in its 2 to 4 bites, a few unique and sensuous moments of mindful eating.
First, there is that thin fragile crackly exterior that breaks in between your upper and lower incisors. That crunch eases you into a soft, fragrant layer, redolent with nuts. Then, your teeth sink into a soft, unctuous, creamy, and fragrant buttercream filling. You allow that mélange of textures, smells and tastes to linger on your tongue as you chew. To do justice to a macaron, you cannot just chomp on it.
Here’s a few more pastries to salivate to; or savor visually. Pastries, to me, are some of the most photogenic images. They can appeal to your most elemental senses .
And because Christmas is not far off, how about a buche de noel (Yule log), a French tradition for Christmas?