Holiday Travelogue – Part III: Paris Food, Cheese & Chocolate Delights

Alexandre III bridge, Paris. Source: wallpaperscraft.com

Alexandre III bridge, Paris. Source: wallpaperscraft.com

For all that the French are respected for their perfumes, they are perhaps even more known for their food. It is something that is an inherent part of their way of life, beyond just the rarefied, perhaps more sophisticated confines of Paris. Food permeates every part of the French life and cultural psyche, be it a truck driver in Normandie or a wealthy housewife in Cannes. It’s no different in Paris, though the breadth, nature and diversity of the offerings may be slightly greater.

As someone whose primary passion in life is food and gastronomy instead of perfume, Paris was a visual bonanza, as much as any actual one. From the beauty of the windows at the competing, rival houses of Ladurée and Pierre Hermé, to the bounty of an extremely small, ordinary food market, to elaborate haute cuisine menus from the “Chef of the Century, Joel Robuchon, or simple oyster displays at a local restaurant, Paris is truly “a moveable feast” for the eyes.

Luckily, I got to actually eat a few things, too, particularly my beloved French cheese. As regular readers of the blog will know, I have an incredible passion — nay, an obsession, in fact — with that particular French speciality. And I was utterly spoiled in Paris — a situation which was sharply borne home to me upon my return to America. A recent attempt to get 10 favorite French cheeses at a very high-end store here resulted in my being told that 8 of them were illegal in this country, and could not be imported in due to FDA rules. (My feelings on that subject are as bitter as my feelings on IFRA/EU restrictions.)

Ladurée via Wikicommons.

Ladurée. Photo via Wikicommons.

You know that famous, old saying, “We’ll always have Paris”? Well, I’ll always have my photos. So, without further ado, let’s have some food porn. (For non-Americans, the term refers to a visual feast of photos highlighting deliciously tempting food.) First up, chocolates. As some of you know, the two big rival houses are the very old, established Ladurée which dates back to 1862, and the newer star of the macaron scene, Pierre Hermé. Macarons (which are not the same as macaroons) consist of a double-decker of two thin, pastry (or cookie) shells which are stuffed in-between with a creamy ganache filling. According to Wikipedia‘s entry for the company, Ladurée is the one who first invented this structure in the 1930s.

While some swear that Ladurée makes the best macarons (and chocolates) in the world, others vehemently insist that it is really Pierre Hermé, who Vogue once called “the Picasso of pastry.” Wikipedia explains his significance and background much more succinctly than I could manage:

Pierre Hermé macarons are airy cookies of egg-white and almond chair, sandwiching a cream filling. Perhaps his most famous is the Ispahan, made with rose, lychee, and raspberry; he likened it as their “Chanel suit” — the one they sell the most.[1] [¶] Hermé’s chocolates are also renowned. His chocolate cake made it on The Observer‘s “50 best things to eat in the world” list in 2009.[2]

His cooking philosophy: He prefers discreet pastry decors and “uses sugar like salt, in other words, as a seasoning to heighten other shades of flavor.”[3] He often makes daring use of savory ingredients in his desserts: traces of balsamic vinegar, Parmesan or olives in his cakes and layered dessert creams; he has even used grilled corn in a cake. […]

Pierre Hermé began his career at the age of 14 as an apprentice in Paris with the acclaimed pâtissier Gaston Lenôtre, who Hermé says is his greatest influence. At age 24, he became the pastry chef at the fine food merchant Fauchon, where he remained for 11 years. […] Pierre Hermé was the youngest person ever to be named France’s Pastry Chef of the Year, and is also the only pastry chef to have been decorated as a Chevalier of Arts and Letters.

I went to both Ladurée and Pierre Hermé, at various different locations, and my vote goes to the latter. Pierre Hermé’s macaron shells were truly like air, while Ladurée’s were thick, chewy, and incredibly dense. The ganache filling inside also was more intensely flavourful at Pierre Hermé, though only by a hair. However, Ladurée wins hands down for the chic-est shops, all across Paris, inside and out, and with the best displays. The Pierre Hermé location near the l’Opera was dark like a cave, and I didn’t think much of the latticed tea boxes in the window. It was better at the St. Gérmain location where the window had cocoa beans presented as lollipops, but it still couldn’t quite compare to the elegance of the Ladurée displays. Speaking of that cocoa bean display, I got to stare at it quite a bit, as I had to consistently stand in long queues streaming out the door and onto the sidewalk merely in order to get into the store which is tiny, narrow, and smaller than some walk-in closets. Still, it was worth it for the sheer delight of his macarons! A photo comparison of the two brands:

Ladurée:

The window of the Ladurée store near the Place Vendome.

The window of the Ladurée store near the Place Vendome.

More of the full window.

More of the full window.

Ladurée chocolate cake.

Ladurée chocolate cake.

Inside the store.

Inside the store.

Some of the Ladurée macarons, with the green ones being pistachio if I remember properly and the light ones to the left having a passion fruit center.

Some of the Ladurée macarons, with the green ones being pistachio if I remember properly and the light ones to the left having a passion fruit center.

A Ladurée macaron cake.

A Ladurée macaron cake.

Ladurée chocolate boxes.

Ladurée chocolate boxes.

Now for Pierre Hermé:

Pierre Hermé window in St. Gérmain.

Pierre Hermé window in St. Gérmain.

Pierre H's Opera store window with teas, for which he is quite well-known.

Pierre H’s Opera store window with teas, for which he is quite well-known.

Inside Pierre Hermé's Opera location.

Inside Pierre Hermé’s Opera location.

Caramels and nougats in boxes and lightly chilled in a refridgerated section.

Caramels and nougats in boxes and lightly chilled in a refrigerated section.

Pierre Hermé chocolates at the St. Germain location.

Pierre Hermé chocolates at the St. Germain location.

While both stores feature plenty of “eye candy,” there were numerous shop windows or restaurant displays that also caught my eye. From street sweets on a cart near the Pompidou center, to a shop filled with things like violet candies, to the gorgeous sea food and the oyster menu of one restaurant which offered the high-end Gillardeau Especiales oysters that Neela Vermeire once mentioned in her interview as being her absolute favorite. My eye was also caught by the menu on the exterior wall of one bistro which featured quite a few of my favorite things, from rognons de veau (veal kidneys that are usually done in a red wine sauce) to tarte tatin (a thick, twice baked, hot, caramelized apple pie that is cooked upside down). Then, there was the adorable Jewish deli and bakery in Le Marais, the old Jewish quarter of Paris that is also home to a lot of Russians and Poles. Some of the photos in small thumbnails that you can click on to expand:

As some of you may remember from another holiday post, I spent most of my time in Paris staying with a friend from high school. She is one of my oldest friends, knows me and my tastes extremely well, and was an incredible host who practically greeted me with a large platter of cheese. It is hyperbole, but not all that far off the mark.

In addition to replenishing the cheese stock each and every day, she also made what was the single most delicious quiche I’ve ever had in my life. And that part is not hyperbole at all. As we stood talking in her kitchen, she casually whipped up — from scratch and with nary a look at a recipe — a cheese and ham quiche that was something so glistening, so huge, so bursting with flavour, and with such an enormously high, buttery, golden crust, that I’m actually swallowing my saliva as I write.

Emmanuelle's Cheese & Ham Quiche.

Emmanuelle’s Cheese & Ham Quiche.

I have decided that her savory delight was so remarkable that I have officially christened it as Emmanuelle’s Quiche, or Emma’s Ultimate Quiche. The photos do its magnificence no justice at all. The airy, smooth, fluffiness of the creamy egg mixture was infused with the somewhat sweet, incredibly nutty, aromatic, lightly salted flavours of Comté cheese. It’s a bit like really aged Emmenthal or Gruyère cheese, only stronger, nuttier, a bit sharper, and more distinctive. Mixed in were bits of salty, smoky ham from off the bone, and even more cream — all of which was then poured onto a flaky crust that was I suspect was laden with butter.

Emma's Ultimate Quiche.

Emma’s Ultimate Quiche.

That’s it. Nothing more. Incredibly simple, uncomplicated, and yet so bursting with flavour that I barely controlled myself from eating the entire, enormous pie. I tasted a lot of really good food on this trip, but Emma’s Ultimate Quiche remains one of my favorite dishes. It’s all about the quality of the ingredients, and while that is a clichéd mantra that every chef says, it’s very true. You also can’t beat the sheer intensity of genuine French cheeses, made and served in France itself. Their hardcore, heavy, intensely flavourful characteristics somehow get completely lost in translation, because I’m telling you, I had Port Salut cheese in Paris, and Port Salut last night for dinner here — and my version was like bland cardboard in comparison. Whatever they’re feeding those cows, goats, or sheep in France, I only wish they would do it here!

Joel R AtelierAt the other end of the culinary spectrum is Joel Robuchon, one of the most influential chefs in the 20th-century, and a god of High Gastronomy. He has 28 Michelin stars, the most of any chef in the world, and has mentored other famous culinary talents like Eric Ripert of the Michelin three-star Le Bernadin in New York, Gordon Ramsey (also three stars), and many others. His influence is enormous, his name legendary, and his chic Atelier de Joel Robuchon restaurants all around the world reflect an obsessive perfectionism over the smallest detail.

So, when I accidentally passed his Paris Atelier one afternoon, I stopped dead in my tracks. I certainly couldn’t just pop in for a bite to eat, not because it was 3:30 in the afternoon, but because one needs to make a reservation far in advance and, more significantly, a rather large wallet. So, I contented myself with photos of his menus, including his tasting menu. The €175 (or $250) price for the latter actually wasn’t bad at all (on the wonky relative scale of luxury restaurants), but my eyes did pop a little at a $100+ dish! Thumbnails below:

Though I didn’t manage to eat at Joel Robuchon, I did have haute Lebanese food one day. Neela Vermeire of Neela Vermeire Créations learnt that I would be in town, and kindly invited me to lunch at Rimal in the 17th arrondissement. From hummus, whipped into the airiest fluff and served with bits of schwarma meat, to livers cooked in a deliciously tangy, sweet, garlicky sauce, eggplant baba ghanooj, and more, it was enormously tasty. The thing is, the very stylish Ms. Vermeire is such incredibly fun, engaging, witty company, it was hard to really care much about the food.

She is not only as passionate, exuberant, outgoing, intense, and direct as she seems in person, she is actually a thousand time more so! I found myself laughing enormously at her refreshingly blunt opinions on various things, while also learning a lot from her astute insights into more serious matters as the state of affairs in France today, the political situation, and the people’s mood. She also had great sensitivity towards the current difficulties faced by people on all sides of the socio-economic equation, and I was genuinely impressed by her depth. What struck me, though, was that Ms. Vermeire seems to be the sort of person who would treat a street-sweeper and a king in precisely the same warm, forthright, candid, and genuinely sincere, interested manner. It’s a gift that not many people possess. But this is a post about food, and not about one of the coolest people in the perfume world, so here’s a little of the mezze-style delights that we had. Please excuse the impact of the shadows and sunlight hitting the plates through the restaurant window, as well as the occasional blurriness:

On a purely visual level, my favorite thing — hands down — was a tiny food market that I stumbled upon in Le Marais. From an artisanal producer of ciders, jams, and nutty treats, to bright glowing jewels of fresh fruit and berries, to a bounty of seasonal vegetables, and the slightly slimy denizens of the sea at the fishmonger — it was unbelievable fun! And that was before I got to the cheese stall! I’m afraid it deserves its own spotlight, without the limitations of expandable thumbnails, because…. Good God above! You really can’t imagine the range of offerings at this one, completely ordinary, market stall.

Paris Market Cheese and Cremerie

Paris Market Cheeses 1 Paris Market Cheeses 2 Paris Market Cheeses 3 Paris Market Cheeses 4 Paris Market Cheeses 5 Paris Market Cheese 2 Paris Market Cheese 3 Paris Market Cheese 4

Visual delights abounded at other stalls, too. At one stall, crimson groseilles or red currants gleamed in the light like Dorothy’s ruby slippers. At another, an incredibly tempting line-up of artisanal jams, alongside fresh nuts. Some expandable thumbnail photos below:

The fishmonger’s stall was much less appetizing to look at, though definitely eye-catching with his platters of octopus tentacles, slimy squid, expensive turbot fish, and the like.

I have quite a few more photos — of food I cooked myself, to dessert tartlets that made my mouth water — but I fear I’ve quite outstayed my welcome on this subject, and don’t want to bore you further. Thank you for all your patience with this exhaustive photo essay, and with the detour away from perfumery with the travelogue series as a whole. Lastly, if anything caught your eye, made you drool, or piqued your curiosity, do let me know. Food is always best when shared!

63 thoughts on “Holiday Travelogue – Part III: Paris Food, Cheese & Chocolate Delights

  1. OK! So I skipped the entire cheese part (I’m not a cheese person, I rarely eat cheese) but I couldn’t stop looking at the sweets.
    I’ve heard so much about the macaroons and never eaten one, they’re not popular in Poland because we have many other confectioneries that are native to Poland. I guess we’re just trying to promote our products instead of selling something that has its origins in a different country.

    • Macarons seem to have expanded beyond France as a really big, super hot, trendy thing only in the last 5 years or so. It’s not super huge where I live either, and has yet to really get here. But it is big in cities like NY, San Francisco, DC, etc.

      Which one of the photos on the sweets caught your eye in particular, Lucas? 🙂

    • Lucas, you do not like cheese?! Amazing… I knownothing about Poland in this respect, so don’t be offended by my question but do you have good cheeses? I’m asking becase during my last trip to Ukraine I wasn’t able to find any cheese I’d like to eat.

      • I don’t know why but no, I don’t like cheese really.
        There are a few kinds that are more traditionally Polish (like Edam Rycki) but the only Polish cheese that I’m fond of is Oscypek – it’s a regional cheese made only at the Tatra Mountains region. It’s slightly hard and crispy, and it does some “squeaky” tones as you munch it!

  2. I think I may have gained 10 pounds just *looking* at the photos! I have to say, I’m in total agreement that Laduree is not as good as Pierre Herme as far as macarons go. Now, I’ve not tasted them in Paris, but I have had them in NYC and I found Laduree’s shell to be way too thick and chewy, whereas Pierre Herme’s, IMO, was the exact right combination of airiness/delicate crispiness/a slight chewiness of the inside. Mmmm, maybe I need to make some macarons. Are macarons really popular in your parts, Kafka? They have caught on somewhat in DC (I myself can’t bear the thought of paying ($3-$5 for a single small cookie), and are quite popular in NYC, though perhaps they’ve already moved onto the Cronut. 😀

    • Macarons are hardly a common or huge trend over here, alas. As for Ladurée, I think you NAILED my problem with its shell. So dense and chewy! You also describe Pierre Hermé’s macarons perfectly, though I would underscore the airiness even more than you have! I know you’ve cooked from his macaron book, and I wish I had your baking skills to be able to make them for myself. Baking, alas, is not my forte in the least. BTW, the price for a single macaron gave me pause as well, but so totally worth it!

      Have you tried either brand’s actual chocolates? If so, what are your thoughts?

      • The next time we see one another, I’ll give a lesson. Well, you don’t have to watch – you can always just eat the results! 😛 I agree the price is worth it, but the reality is I never want just one. Such restraint is unknown to me. LOL.

        I’ve never tried their chocolates, I don’t think. Although my friend brought me back beautiful chocolates from Paris, and if they were from either, they were from Laduree. But I think they were from elsewhere. At any rate, they were wonderful. I’m actually not a huge chocolate person in that I don’t typically crave it and if I had my choice, I’d almost always choose pastry over chocolate. That said, I’d happily do a taste test between the two, because they look absolutely decadent and amazing.

        Sigh. So much food I want to eat. And so little of it in front me of when I want it most! And I forgot to comment on the quiche – but yes, it looks phenomenal. I’m not typically huge on egg dishes, but I have always loved quiche ever since I was a child. Something about a perfectly flaky crust and the richness of the eggs and cheese (and with ham too…droooooooooool!) is incredibly appealing. It sounds like it divine, and probably all the more so knowing she had made it for you. Truly a friend worth keeping!

  3. That quiche. I probably would have wound up eating it all even though I’ve been cutting way back on portions. The cheese though, yum. I have finally wised up in middle age and opting for real cheese and crackers instead of cheese puffs. Mmmmm.

  4. During my studies in Europe, I was a Paul Bocuse Fan. I loved their wine tips I read in the Savoir Club magazine. In March 30, 2010 Paul Bocuse was named Chef of the Century by the Culinary Institute of America, the largest culinary school in the United States. But I never were in the Restaurante ‘L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges’, near Lyon.

    • Not many people know this but there is another Bocuse restaurant in the French pavilion at Epcot in Disney World, directed by his son.

      • Oh, I definitely know about it!! The American Bocuse d’Or team is usually announced at that Epcot location, and Bocuse’s son is involved with Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud in helping organize the American qualifying rounds before that point. Bocuse’s son (also called Paul? Or, actually, I think it’s Jerome?) is quite involved in Bocuse d’Or events in the U.S.

        Er… sorry…. I have a slight obsession with the Bocuse d’Or competition. *grin*

  5. drool! I love comte cheese so I can imagine how delicious that quiche must have been..Nothing can quite beat a good quiche.Which are your ten favorite French cheeses? 🙂

    • Oh gosh, all time top 10 favorite cheeses? I’m not sure I could decide or choose between them all, though I’ve always enjoyed Livarot, Rocamadour, Pont l’Eveque, Comté, St. Albray, St. Nectaire, Emmenthal, Morbier, and Reblochon. Some of those would probably be on the list. Maybe L’Edel de Cleron, too, but I’d have to think about it more.

      This time, though, I was really, really drawn primarily to goat/chevre cheeses, but NOT the usual, soft Montrachet or Bucheron log type. No, instead, more the semi-firm kind with a rind. Some on my list that I couldn’t get a hold of in the U.S: Banon, Rocamadour, Pelardon, Tarentais, and Époisses de Bourgogne. *sigh* Stupid FDA.

  6. That quiche looks amazing! There’s no way I could pick a favorite photo. Everything looks delicious in this post. I’m heading to the kitchen to see what cheeses I have to quell my sudden craving.

  7. Wow, that is quite the food tour of Paris, Kafka. The photo (and description) that grabbed me most was actually the one for your friend’s quiche. That looks soooo good!

    • I’m so glad. It was the perfect balance of salty, sweet, nutty, and creamy, with just a light tinge of smokiness from the ham. I dream about that quiche. I know my friend doesn’t get the fuss over it, but she takes these sorts of things for granted. Lucky devil.

  8. Food overload, particularly those Laduree and Pierre Herme chocolates, pastries and sweets, this two are a must visit (and eat) while in Paris. I also loved all the gorgeous cheese photos you gave us and I know I will taste some of the famous french chesses, though not in Joel Robuchon, that would be too much. But I´m so jealous of that spectacular quiche! And even more jealous because I know I canot taste it, and it looks awesome 😛 . One positive though is that when I´m on holiday I always lose weight, invariably these always happens since I walk alot, and I know I will need alot of walking to burn off those Ladurees, Pierre Hermes and cheeses, (and duck and Pomes frites, and sandwiches) but that quiche!!! Pure heaven for the eyes,wish I coul eat it too 😛

    • Honey, I walked for hours and hours at a time, really just ate once a day, and I still gained weight! Trust me, you won’t be immune. Not in Paris, and not with true French food. It’s on a whole other scale of deliciousness, caloric highs, butter, and sheer irrestistible temptation. LOL! Pommes frites…. mmmm. Duck….. mmmm. When you go, you have to have a Tarte Tatin for me! I didn’t have one this time around, but it really is divine.

  9. Food porn indeed. That quiche really takes the cake…ermmm, did I just insult it? As to the macarons (and I haven’t met one I didn’t like, yet), I guess it was worth it to queue up for it! Thanks for sharing your photos and no thanks for giving me a craving for macarons.

    • You live a subway ride away from Macaron Heaven in NYC, so I don’t feel too bad that I gave you a craving. 🙂 Have an extra one for me if you go to Pierre Hermé! 😀

  10. Call an ambulance (a French one that goes waa waa waa) and take me to the hospital. I am floored and overcome by this post. Speechless in fact… And very hungry.

    But I think if I try really hard I can just manage to say,

    “Ilsa: But what about us?
    Rick: We’ll always have Paris. We didn’t have, we, we lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.
    Ilsa: When I said I would never leave you.
    Rick: And you never will. But I’ve got a job to do, too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.
    [Ilsa lowers her head and begins to cry]
    Rick: Now, now…
    [Rick gently places his hand under her chin and raises it so their eyes meet]
    Rick: Here’s looking at you kid.”
    CASABLANCA 1942

  11. It’s tough being a vegetarian in Paris. Went there three years ago with my family, we’re all vegetarians, but my parents are very rigid in that it has to be Indian vegetarian food. Needless to say, I didn’t get to indulge in much of anything while there.

    • Oh dear, that does seem to be incredibly limiting in terms of your options. I don’t recall seeing a lot of Indian restaurants in general. Definitely none in a number of the areas I visited, with the exception of the Bastille. I’m sorry that the particular circumstances of your visit didn’t permit you to fully indulge, but hopefully next time, if you go on your own.

  12. Our visit to Paris was too short to experience this side of it but the next time… Right after I spend a day at Jovoy… And visit Serge Lutens store… And maybe Guerlain… And… But then – definitely cheese and macarons (BTW, they are everywhere here! Not all are good but really popular)

    Great pictures! I’m glad I’m not hungry. I think… 🙂

    • LOL at your list for future visits. As for macarons, you’re lucky because you live close to very civilised, very foodie, sophisticated San Francisco. Me…. er…. I’m not quite in the same sort of town. 😉

      I didn’t know that you were a fellow cheese fan! That makes me very happy to hear.

  13. If you came to the delicatessen where I work, I could provide for you so much amazing cheese that your head would fall off 😀 we do a really amazing selection of French cheeses, including those lovely charcoal coated goats cheeses that I noticed in your photo. The British do cheese extremely well too, but it’s hard to experience it outside of it’s particular region. We stock amazing Devon cheeses that you simply cannot get anywhere else because the farms they come from have such small distribution. You’d really be in for a treat I think 🙂

  14. I like Laduree’s macarons a lot more than the Pierre Herme ones. Admittedly I only tried the local Pierre Herme macarons and not the Parisian ones, but I felt Paris and Dubai Laduree macarons were far better.
    Macarons were quite the trend a few years back, and some local shops introduced macarons in local flavours and fillings (Omani halwa for example) and they are pretty delicious and different.
    Have you tried anything else by laduree? Their french toast is divine and the petite fours are such little delights!

    ps.
    A pet peeve of mine is when people use macaroons for macarons. I know its silly but I wish people would just learn the difference! I like both but they are entirely different!

    • Oh, Macarons with Middle Eastern-flavoured ganaches….. yum! I don’t like Halwa generally, but I do like other sorts of Middle Eastern pastries and desserts, so to marry those flavours would be very interesting. As for other things by Ladurée, I’ve only tried the petit fours, but not recently, and far back in the past. I remember them as being very tasty. 🙂

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