Yes, my two weeks of work in Paris warrant another blog entry. I’m starting to think that I should change the name of my blog to “An American Chef in London Who Really Wants to Live in Paris.” Alas, I had so many amazing culinary discoveries while I was cooking there that I had to share my findings and stories with you. Much of what I did was on the fly but I was able to find everything my little obsessive cook’s heart could desire and so much more. Nearly all of these shops were within walking distance of the house on the Ile Saint Louis, right in the heart of Paris. Food isn’t cheap but nor should it be when this much care has been put into these products. Just writing about them all has made me want to grab the next Eurostar and explore some more.
Butcher Jean Paul Gardil right on the main thoroughfare of the island is said to be the best in Paris. It looks like it’s been here for an age with lovely worn tiles on the floor and men wearing straw hats behind the enormous glass display case. These guys were nicer than some others I encountered in Paris and when I bought an enormous beef fillet, trussed beautifully and with a thin layer of fat encasing the entire thing to keep it juicy while it roasted, the butcher (as I’m finding is typical with these sort) gave me instructions on how to cook. “When you go home don’t put it in the refrigerator. Season it all over and put it in a very very hot oven and cook for 20 minutes. No more. Then turn off the oven, open the door and allow it to rest inside the oven for another 15 minutes.” I’d never thought about leaving the oven door ajar like that and letting the meat rest just there instead of under a foil tent on my cutting board. Let me tell you, it worked beautifully! I also bought my beautiful duck breasts here and lots and lots of their own cured ham. It’s not cheap but every time I walked by the butchers were carving at some huge carcass, doing it all themselves, and presenting the highest quality, delicious meat.
Also on the island’s namesake road is La Ferme St. Aubin. It’s obviously a hot spot with the tourist parade on this route. There is a sign in his front window, nestled among the domes of fresh goat cheese, that offers travellers the option of having their cheese vacuum packed for travel. I liked this guy, the cheerful cheese man who was constantly offering me tastes of cheeses off the end of his pronged knife. Again the prices are outrageous but if you’re in a pinch he’ll have what you need (and much of what you just want).
Berthillon is why all of those tourists flock to the Ile Saint Louis in the first place. Every little cafe has a walk-up window with their flavors of the day listed. Lines snake around the sidewalks and pictures are taken of friends eating their delicious confections. I don’t particularly like ice cream but even I fell prey to its charms, falling in love with the cherry flavor and the salted caramel (in spite of the heavy labor and hours on my feet I didn’t loose a pound this trip). If you head to the main Berthillon shop and excuse yourself through the lines, you enter a proper ice cream parlor with wood panelling, bags of madelines and macaroons, and a old ladies buying their ice cream to take home. Here you can purchase square blocks of all their ice cream flavors to take home. You’ll be asked whether you want small, medium or large and then offered a Styrofoam cooler to transport your precious package home in. I kept the freezer at the house stocked with a variety of flavors that seemed to satisfy the lady of the house’s sweet tooth: blood orange, pistachio, coffee, mango, lime, salted caramel. It’s worth a peep inside even if you’re not buying – like going back in time.
I’ve never encountered a French person in Premiere Provence Pression. Even the shopgirl speaks English with an American accent (Canadian, maybe?). But I love this place. It’s filled with olive oils, salts and vinegars from Provence. On earlier trips I have bought lemon flavored olive oil and a decadent truffled sea salt here. This time I bought a basil olive oil and a yuzu olive oil to bring home with me. They are subtle flavors but add a special little zing to dishes – use sparingly and only as a finishing touch. It’s a beautiful shop with lots of wood and chicly packaged products. The fact that the shopgirl speaks English was a relief to me after days of stuttering exchanges.
Les Vergers d’Ile Saint Louis, the green grocer, is serviced by possibly the rudest couple of people I’ve met in Paris, especially the woman. That said, there is always a line of regulars waiting to be served, and the staff have almost a religious fervor when handling their fruit and vegetables. Signs in English warn tourists to not touch! You are never to handle your produce until you’ve paid. I was shocked at how much people bought at one time and the seller always asked, “are you going to be eating this tonight?” Most often, the answer was yes. Based on this information the green grocers then prod and smell the fruits and vegetables to make certain they are at the peak of ripeness. There are no fancy baby vegetables here or microgreens, just the basics, but they are tasty, juicy, divine specimens. If you’re in a hurry this place will try your patience, but I as I found with most of my shopping in Paris, never try and hurry things along and always treat your salesperson with the utmost of respect.
Place Maubert, just over the bridge to the Left Bank and the Boulevard St. Germain, is a small square filled with permanent food shops and on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays there is an open air market. Some say this is the oldest market in Paris, having originated in 1547. This is where I came for my many rotisserie chickens and was practically escorted off the premises for asking for scallops in July. Luckily for me there’s a little Asian food market nestled between a Vietnamese restaurant on the Rue Lagrange that has everything you could ever imagine needing for an Asian-style feast. My clients love Asian food and it was a relief to find a place to buy all of the sauces and concoctions I needed along with huge bunches of Thai basil and mint.
Of special note at the Place Maubert is cheese shop Laurent Dubois. It’s a clean modern space that reeks of cheese (smelly feet to some). The staff bypassed me a couple of times for who I can only presume were more regular clients and when I was helped it seemed to be begrudgingly. However, the lady of the house had been here with a friend and saw a few cheeses that she had to have, so I persevered. As I was the one who ate the leftovers, I must say, it was worth it. Sadly I don’t have the names of the cheeses (please forgive me, but I was in a state!) but their housemade goat cheese pyramid covered in a layer of chopped bright green pistachios was beautiful and delicious and one particular flat bar of goat cheese, sold in a silver cardboard tray, was out of this world.
I was uncertain what was expected of me during my first days at the house. Breakfast was easy and always needed but often my lady was off to see a Chanel haute couture show or get her hair done or have a dress fitting. Friends of hers popped in on my second afternoon in residence and I loitered in the kitchen awaiting my marching orders. At noon she sauntered in and announced that she was just starving and could I rustle up something for her and her guests in the next few minutes? I absolutely panicked. There was nothing in the house suitable for this kind of meal and I told her I needed an hour to shop and prepare something. I ran up to St. Paul a five minute sprint while my mental recipe Rolodex fluttered through my brain. A big salad, I thought, perhaps Asian style with sesame seared tuna? I bought all of the salad ingredients and asked everyone I found if there was a fishmonger nearby. No. No. No. Then I remembered a place just up the road, Aux Ducs de Gascogne. I’ve been here to buy foie grois before…and I thought about the delicious duck confit salad I made a few months ago after my trip to Maltby Street Market. Bags banging around my hips I burst into this elegant little shop hoping they would have a few duck legs ready to eat. Packed in their own fat in enormous cans, duck confit, ready for warming in the oven. I was saved, the salad took just a few minutes to throw together, and the guests raved.
Why, oh why don’t I have La Grand Epicerie at Bon Marche around the corner from my flat?? Why?? I would happily set up a little tent in one corner of this vast food emporium just to be near it’s goodness. It’s the only place I couldn’t walk to from the island, my only metro trip of the entire two weeks I was there. It was a very happy morning. Really, I didn’t need to buy anything much, but I knew about this place and wanted to come back ad see if there was anything I just couldn’t live without. I wandered in and out of the rows of jars and cans and packages – the groceries arranged by country of origin in some cases. But it’s really the deli counters offering cured meats, cheeses, smoked fish, fresh pastas, olives, spices, coffees, teas, and on and on that are the marvel here. Their fish counter sold scallops, probably previously frozen, but there they were. The meat counter smelled like fresh meat – not that bloody smell that they so often have. I wandered without picking up a thing for the longest time and then decided on some smoked salmon for appetizers, some cured ham slices, I picked up two packages of mini-spoons made out of edible crackers on which to serve an amuse bouche, a champagne vinegar (for some reason I can’t find this in London), and agar-agar from their, yes, wait for it, their molecular gastronomy section. When people tell you to think about your happy place, most of you likely imagine a childhood home or a white sand beach. I think about La Grand Epicerie. Sick, I know.
Finally, Caviar Kaspia, which I never darkened the doors of, but was instead presented with a package to prepare as an accompaniment to a little early evening champagne aperitif. The lady of the house came bursting into the kitchen with a tiny package full of blinis from this Parisian caviar house. “They don’t usually sell these on their own to go,” she explained. “But they know me there so I called ahead and asked them to make me a few.” As one does. Anyway, I had lovely smoked salmon from La Grand Epicerie, creme fraiche and, as I explained yesterday, dill procured from a drawing on my hand. Not the most original of bites, but when you have the right ingredients, even this old standard is lifted to tasty morsel status. I would have perhaps purchased a small jar of caviar to accompany these little blinis, but as my dear lady has said in the past when caviar is suggested for one of her parties, “I don’t like the way caviar makes my breath smell.” That’s that then.