As I embarked upon India’s first study tour for professional translators to Paris, there were a few points that needed my focused attention. Rehearsing the guttural French “R” so I don’t look out of place, brushing up on French and European history so the city’s monuments don’t look out of place and, of course, some extensive research on Parisian and French cuisine to satiate gastronomic desires which are such an integral part of my travel experience.
Cuisine is arguably one of the most misunderstood and misconceived attributes of Paris. Most travellers believe that the city’s fine dining and haute cuisine options will cost them an arm and a leg, while the remaining lazily stereotype Parisian cuisine as bland and devoid of genuine flavour. This month’s article is an excellent opportunity to bust some myths and let you in on the diversity of options that Parisian cuisine has to offer. The flavours are a culmination of not just several centuries of tradition but also a deep-rooted Epicurean way of life that the locals have perfected. Read on for more.
What’s the brouhaha all about?
The beating heart of Paris is its unique soft power. And nothing represents this soft power better than the city’s cuisine. Being one of the most visited cities in the world, the city has to cater to a variety of palates without really compromising on its rich originality. Unlike most travellers who stand agape opposite the Eiffel Tower, I find myself mesmerised by the nonchalance of a local bistrot or a humble boulangerie rubbing shoulders with snazzy cafés and cosmetically attractive multinational chains serving standardised food.
Whether it is having a pain au chocolat seated on a chair with your back to the café – à la Parisien – under a canopy that extends right up to the cobbled street or biting into an oozy, scrumptious croque-monsieur with a hint of Béchamel sauce or even indulging in buttercream- or ganache-filled macarons, the city’s food tradition has a charm that is entirely its own. In keeping with the city’s changing demographics, contemporary Parisian cuisine has integrated flavours from all over the world to give travellers the ultimate food experience.
What to look out for?
It would be fair to say that Paris is the original abode of high-quality, artisanal baguettes. Head to the closest boulangerie to get your fresh-from-the-oven, hand-made, oddly-shaped, crusty baguette. The unassertive baguette is almost therapeutic for a Parisian and locals pride themselves on heading to the local boulangerie in the morning to grab their daily bite. And in true Parisian style, when you walk away, bite off an end of the baguette as it sticks out of the paper bag it is packed in.
Staying with baked delicacies, find a local patisserie – smaller the better – to satiate the sweet tooth in you. Although the options are never-ending, try the buttery, flaky pain au chocolat or the nougat-filled croissant or the lemon-filled pastry and complement it with a café noisette (espresso with a touch of cream) or a café crème (coffee with hot cream). Other staples on the French menu include the croque-monsieur (grilled ham and cheese usually served for lunch), steak-frites (grilled steak with various sauce options and fries) and jambon-beurre (local favourite for on-the-go meals).
For more wholesome meals, you can try the duck confit (duck thigh cooked in its own fat till fork-tender) or the escargot (tender snails cooked in butter, garlic and parsley). For some variety in terms of flavour and prices, head to a Turkish or Lebanese joint for incredibly succulent kebabs, delectable shawarma varieties and the irresistible baklava. Do not leave Paris without having macarons, the quintessential Parisian, two-bite delights. Go for those prepared in local pastry shops rather than the factory-made ones at popular joints close to tourist attractions.
The post-meal ‘cheese course’ is a French tradition. If you’re not having cheese after your meal, you’re not in Paris. Opt for artisanal cheeses to experience a myriad of mild to sharp flavours from every nook and corner of France. Try different varieties – cow, goat, sheep – and make sure the cheese is in season.
Anything else I need to know?
Most local cafés and bistrots are family-owned and manned by one person or at the most two. Strike up a conversation over breakfast with the café owner to know more about the city’s food tradition. Brush up on your French for that extra special treatment at restaurants. Menus are put up outside the café so it is perfectly alright to select or reject a place based on the menu.
While the city’s pride is its architectural prowess, somewhere around the corner or in the alley behind a 17th century museum is an artisan par excellence waiting to unleash centuries of tradition and culture in the form of flavours. Make sure you’re up for it.