Paris Tragics: Learning the fundamentals of French fine foods

Our first port of call was to the boulangerie in place Franz Liszt. It was an essential rite of passage to

Our first port of call was to the boulangerie in place Franz Liszt. It was an essential rite of passage to be introduced to “la Formidable” (i.e. Madame Boulangère) and to be given her imprimatur while inspecting the delights on offer, chiefly the range of baguettes.

The baguette has a truly central place in French consciousness, with its price controlled, up until 1998, to equal a litre of milk and the daily newspaper. And it is certainly true and not at all a romantic fabrication that there is a steady stream of walkers and bikers in the streets of Paris with the daily baguette reverentially carried in-basket or under arm for lunch or dinner at home. Care needs to be taken in transport as those pointy ends can do serious damage to eye or groin of passers-by.
Alternatively, bite off the end as soon as you get out of the bakery – who can wait to get it home anyway?

In the shop Catherine instructed us to always order the baguette traditionelle as this was guaranteed to be handmade on the premises rather than trucked in from industrial-scale bakers off site. Then we would be assured of a crusty, mealy, melt-in-the-mouth experience rather than risking a stick-like “wand” (the word baguette is the French for wand). It seems that 1998 was a crucial year in the life of the baguette as it was also in that year that legislation was enacted that prevents bakeries from naming themselves boulangeries unless they make their own dough on the premises. That’s not to say that they can’t
import “industrial” products as well, but to be legitimately be called a boulangerie they must offer the traditionelle option.

Our purchase completed, we said our au revoirs to la Formidable and, I thought, we had passed our first test! The summit seemed to go well, Madame was polite, not too dismissive and she smiled once, I’m certain of it. She seemed to tolerate my and Ginny’s pitiable attempts at French and all in all appeared to regard us as human beings. A great achievement all round I thought… but there were more tests to come. Our next stop was one of the few remaining covered markets, this one under a cute green metal roof on boulevard de Magenta not far from Gare de l’Est. Somewhat like the Victoria Market in Melbourne and Central Market in Adelaide but on a much more intimate and suburban scale, this marché provides a range of fresh and pre-prepared foods in all the staple areas of meat, poultry, fruit, veg, smallgoods, bread, cheese and bottled and tinned specialities. Catherine was very helpful, if not a smidgin dogmatic: “Don’t go to that stall, always overpriced … and this one here is best for stone fruit … and the best chickens, Bresse of course (oh so yellow and plump you could eat them raw!), from here. And Gérard at that stall over there … well, he’s just a pig.”

August is prime season for cornichons, those mini gherkin-like pickled cucumbers which are mandated by national legislation to accompany ham, pâtés, rillettes and other charcuterie meats. As you drift into September there is an explosion of mushrooms on the market – cèpe, morel, trompet, pied de mouton, chantarelle, marasme and pleurote (a type of oyster mushroom) – and brie cheese, from the Brie region just 50 kilometres east of Paris, is at its best, delivering its smoky aromas and velvety texture to the palate. It’s a little early for the September moules (mussels) season, but scallops start to appear at the fishmongers and pears, plums, figs and quinces on the fruit stalls. It’s also a great time for root vegetables like radish, celeriac, sweet potato and parsnip.

On the return walk from boulevard de Magenta to the apartment we were to visit one of the little gems of French gastronomy, the supermarket chain Picard. You won’t find it mentioned in posh foodie books because, sacré bleu, it’s all frozen food! At ridiculously low prices, the average Picard store (some 700 of them all over Paris and France) has an astonishing range of soups, fish, vegetables and meat, all snap-frozen when at their freshest. While understandably not haute cuisine, the flavours are hearty, natural and of a standard way above the mass-product of the big food manufacturers. Best of all, there are many prepared and frozen meals which are ideal for the traveller who might be in a Paris apartment with a kitchen (or at least a microwave) for a week or more and wants an alternative to going out every night. With a menu of say coquilles Saint Jacques, poulet aux tomates confites et polenta, pintade farcie aux morilles and croquant chocolat you could even run a dinner party.

We dropped into the local Franprix supermarket for some essentials: butter, milk, cereal. It was also a good opportunity for a quick overview of the various sparkling waters available in the mini supermarkets that abound in Paris. Each of the brands has a characteristic constitution depending on its origins. Badoit, for example, has the barest hint of carbonation and tastes quite different to Chatildon which also is lightly bubbled and was once a favourite of Louis XIV. Perrier, in comparison, is strongly carbonated, and is therefore not an ideal accompaniment to food. But don’t just take my word for it: consult La Société Française des Eaux Minérales. (You might think I’m joking, but the sign is there on the sea-green ceramic tiles of 30 rue de Londres.)

Our last stop was back at place Franz Liszt where the once-weekly Atlantic oyster market was in full swing. Displayed in wooden crates, the oysters are shucked in front of you, awash in their brine, and there are many types to choose from in the categories of plates and creuses, the latter being the most common, with its crinkled and elongated shell. The oyster man knows his huîtres so follow his recommendations when you take a dozen home.

Have you been to France? What is your favourite French cuisine?

Read more stories of Oleh and Graham’s French adventures in their book Paris Tragics, available to purchase here