Paris: A Taste of the Marais

When you are an American in Paris, traversing the city in search of the best food, it is cliché – but perhaps inevitable – to invoke Julia Child, she of the unbounded enthusiasm for France’s culinary pleasures. Winding through the city’s charming streets and eating in its delicious restaurants, I kept thinking about her – and one specific piece of Julia Child wisdom in particular continued to pop into my mind:

“People who love to eat are always the best people.”

It’s true, isn’t it, though? Everywhere I went this semester, from Budapest to Stockholm to Lisbon and beyond, I made a point to search for the local delicacies. Along the way, I met plenty of people who were passionate about food: cheesemakers with an encyclopedic knowledge about how fromage is aged, chocolatiers who take pride in infusing their treats with unexpected flavors, shop owners who are passionate about sourcing their ingredients from local suppliers, and, of course, fellow traveling foodies, searching, like me, for their next great bite. And all of these folks, all of these culinary enthusiasts from every corner of Europe (and beyond), were pretty wonderful people, just as good old Julia promised they would be.

I met up with one such group of awesome foodies in Paris, where I took the Taste of the Marais food tour with Paris by Mouth. Led by our excellent guide, Jennifer, we began at 134 RdT Bakery. Just how good is this place? In 2013, it won 2nd place for the best croissant in Paris, and in 2009, it took home 2nd for the best baguette – a pretty notable feat in a town jam-packed with world class bakeries.

We stocked up on goodies and headed to a nearby park to snack. There, our guide explained exactly what to look for when shopping for your daily croissant or baguette. When picking a croissant, make sure to buy the croissant au beurre, made with real butter (stay away from the croissant ordinaire, baked with margarine).

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When it comes to baguettes, look for bakeries labeled “Artisan Boulanger” – this means that everything is mixed and baked right on site. As for the baguette itself, when you cut into it, its interior shouldn’t be too white – think more of a beige or light brown – and it should have large, irregular holes (note: if you’re interested in learning more about what makes a baguette great, this video from Paris By Mouth is pretty handy).

Fortified by our delicious croissant and baguettes, we headed around the corner to Jacques Genin, purveyor of gourmet chocolate, caramels, and pâtes de fruits. Genin himself, we were told, has a bit of reputation for being eccentric and mercurial – in other words, he’s pretty much what you would expect any artistic genius to be.

Genius, by the way, is not a word I use lightly; the confections at Jacques Genin were incredible. We were lucky enough to sample several treats. First, we tried spearmint chocolates. Genin grows his own herbs on his rooftop, and the mint flavor he gets in his chocolates is incredibly pure. In my iPhone notes, I excitedly typed, “like eating a sprig of mint!!” (which, indeed, it was.)

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We also tried the famous Jacques Genin caramels, which people affectionately – and not without good reason – dub “butter bombs.” These were unlike any caramel I have ever tried before, as they weren’t chewy at all; they simply melted in your mouth. I sampled a mango flavored caramel and a regular one and, after leaving the tour, those two morsels seemed inadequate – I regretted not buying more to take home with me!

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When it comes to sweets, I’m definitely a chocolate kind of gal – so it was a surprise to me that my highlight at Jacques Genin was not chocolate at all, but rather the brightly-colored pâtes de fruits. These come in a variety of flavors, including raspberry, mango, banana, and blood orange (the flavor I chose). The genius of these treats was much like the spearmint chocolate: the fruit flavor that comes through is concentrated and strong; there’s no excessive, sickly-sweet sugariness, just pure fruit.

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Next, we walked to Thiercelin Épicerie Fine, a spice shop frequented by the likes of Jacques Genin and Alain Ducasse. The point here was not necessarily to eat – though we did sample a truly delicious honey (said as someone who doesn’t even like honey) – but rather to get a glimpse into the place where some of Paris’s best chefs purchase their wares. It was fascinating to browse through the shop and note the unique spices for sale, some of which I had never heard of before.

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We also stopped by Ramella Charcuterie to stock up on more goodies. Much like Thiercelin, Ramella was a fascinating place just to browse to get a sense of what ordinary Parisians eat. After work, rather than cooking a meal, Parisians will often stop by their local traiteur (a take-out deli) or charcuterie for provisions. As for us, we nabbed a Rosette de Lyon (a French pork sausage) and a duck rillette to spread atop our bread (both of which we sat down and enjoyed later, at the last stop of our tour).

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Just across the street, we found Fromagerie Jouannault, home to some seriously stinky (and tasty, of course) cheeses. The sign out front has the word affineur on it, signalling that Jounnault has its own affineur, or expert in the fine art of aging cheese. Jennifer purchased several cheeses for our group, which we would sample later (if you can handle the cheesy suspense…)

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(Just a little duck-face fromage selfie, as one does in Paris)

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We also made a quick detour to Caractère de Cochon, an épicerie specializing in ham (the only shop of its kind in Paris, Jennifer told us). There, we sampled a few bites: a ham from Umbria, aged two years in wine (called Umbria ubriaco – meaning drunk!); a ham from Spanish pigs who had been fed only acorns, aged four years; and pickled garlic. I liked it all – even the pickled garlic! – and have sworn to myself that the next time I’m in France, I’ll stop by to pick up one of their ham sandwiches for a cheap but gourmet lunch.

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The Umbrian ham, aged in wine:

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The Spanish ham, with a hint of acorn:

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The pickled garlic:

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We ended our afternoon at Bibo Vino, a wine shop dedicated to ecological and sustainable practices. In addition to sampling three of Bibo Vino’s tasty wines (a Côtes du Rhône, a Sauvignon blanc from the Loire, and a wine from Corbières), we also ate the bread, cheese, and meat we had collected from earlier stops. I adore cheese, so this just may have been my favorite part of the day, as we got to eat five cheeses, each of them delicious:

  • Mothias sur Feuille: A goat cheese from the Poitou-Charentes region of western France, aged 2-4 weeks at 100% humidity. The cheese is aged with a chestnut leaf (to help it retain moisture) and has a slightly nutty flavor.
  • Rouelle du Tarn: Another goat cheese, this time from the Tarn region (near Toulouse). These cheese is also aged 2-4 weeks, and I found that it had a nice, herby taste.
  • Camembert de Normandie: This cheese is made with unpasteurized milk from a Normandy cow, aged about four weeks, and has a hint of mushroom in its flavor. It’s also nicknamed les pieds de Dieu – or “the feet of God” – so you know it must be good.
  • Comté AOC: Coming from cows in the Jura region, this cheese is aged for 30 months and is the most popular in France. Jennifer told us that it can contain notes of “melted butter, milk chocolate, hazelnuts, toast, leather, pepper, butterscotch, and sweet orange.” While I won’t go as far as claiming that I could taste all that in the cheese, I will say this: it was my absolute favorite of the day, hands down (iPhone notes, verbatim: “so so so so good!”). I wish I could buy this stuff in the US.
  • Roquefort AOC: Made from sheep’s milk from the Languedoc-Roussillon region, this cheese is generally aged three months (though it can be aged for as long as ten). While blue cheeses aren’t generally my favorites, I was glad I tried this one – I wound up enjoying it quite a bit.

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The sausage and duck rillette, purchased earlier at Ramella but eaten (and enjoyed!) at Bibo Vino:

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As is probably clear, I ended the day in a glorious cheese coma (and, since we still had leftover cheese after the tour ended, I was sent home with a generous bag of it for dinner – not that I complained). I also ended the day certain that the Taste of the Marais tour is a pretty stellar way to spend an afternoon in Paris. Not only was the food top-notch, but the experience itself was so memorable – learning about what makes certain products great and how the French eat was endlessly fascinating to me. With all the enthusiasm of my gal Julia, there’s only one thing left to say, a most hearty “Bon Appétit!”

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