It’s overwhelming to even start planning a trip to somewhere like Paris, when a quick Google will bring up fifty million ‘must-sees, must-dos and must-eats’. And when you’re including food into those considerations, it’s also a question of ‘I know I have to try this but where do I go to get the best/most authentic version?’
I’ve always been an advocate of using food tours as a way to get introduced to a city and Lisa Rankin, Canadian founder of Flavors of Paris, is the sort of person you want to take you around. She’s sunny, bubbly and has obvious rapport with all the shop owners, Lisa spent six weeks wandering around Paris crafting the tour itinerary and brings the perspective of someone who has lived eight years in Paris but still possesses a tourist’s curiosity.
The food tour takes place in St Germain in the 6th arrondissement, one of Paris’ most expensive districts but also the home to many of France’s finest arts academies. It’s a mix of ‘bobo’ (bourgeois and bohemian) – upscale boutiques and cafes nestled comfortably next to secondhand bookstores, jazz clubs and cinemas – where everyone is just a little chic-chi (chic chic), with a bit of that je nais se quoi quality to them. It’s also the home to Le Courdebousar, one of the best schools of fine arts in Paris.
We began at the St Germain church, the oldest in Paris, passing by Les Deux Margots, the cafe frequented by celebrities and famous writers and philosophers alike – it can count Jean-Paul Sartre and Ernest Hemingway among its visitors. The word ‘margots’ actually means merchants and the store name translates to ‘A Treasure Shop’. The legacy of the cafe’s origins as a fabric shop selling silk and lingerie lingers in the waiters, who were all dressed to the nines.
Les Deux Margots is right next to Cafe de Flore, another famous cafe with a star-studded regulars list: it was Picasso’s favourite spot where he invented cubism, Simone de Beauvoir’s headquarters and where Lisa spotted George Clooney (pre-marriage). Our journey through St Germain’s alleyways was dotted with such interesting tidbits.
Gérard Mulot boulangerie was founded in 1976 and seems to contain every single pastry and baked good Paris has to offer – including savoury sandwiches and salads. Of course we had to begin with how to identify a good croissant in Paris. By French Law, straight croissants must be made with real butter, so definitely go for those instead of the curved ones. The messier and crumblier the croissant, the better. We also learned that croissants were not actually from France – they actually came from Hungarians in Budapest to celebrate a victory over the Turks – the curved croissant, which resembled the moon on the Turkish flag, meant they literally devoured their enemies!
We were introduced to lightly sweet, densely compact financiers, made of almond flour which were made for French bankers who had little time for a lunch break and get their shape inspired by the gold bars the bankers used to deal with. We also tried cannelés from Bordeaux, which had a chewy texture and rum cream centre.
Marché Saint Germain
Our next stop took us precisely…across the road to Marché Saint Germain, a local high end food market. There’s a sense that all the store owners in this market work very closely with producers and Lisa interacted with all of them with the familiarity of old friends.
We were there to gather ingredients for Flavors of Paris’ most incredible draw: a custom cheese plate, provided by Twiggy from Fromagerie Sanders, a shop that specialises in rare and high end cheese. France makes over 400 different cheeses and constant new varieties which is overwhelming. This cheese plate, with a custom selection of 8 cheeses and exclusive to the food tour, is the best way to cut straight to the chase, so to speak, and go for the best providers too.
We also got to enjoy a rare type of cured ham, the Jambon noir de bigorre, sliced personally by owner Tito el Frances of Le J’Go. The ham originated from a breed of black pig in the Basque region in southern France, bought directly from a farmer who raised them himself, and is vividly flavoured with meaty umami. Le J’Go has a seated section with wines so you can definitely just pick this place as the destination of your meal if you’re more carnivore-inclined.
Au Bell Viandier
Our next stop was getting rillette d’oit (goose meat paté) from a (literally!) knighted butcher, Monsieur Serge Caillaud. The rillette – which we were going to enjoy with the cheese spread, wine and baguette, was incredible: soft, tender meat that spread like butter and the clean umami taste of goose meat without any residual aftertaste, with the perfect amount of fat and oil.
Bacchus et Ariane
Our final stop and where we sat down to eat all we gathered was Bacchus et Ariane, where the sommelier picked a white Sancerre 2016 for us to try. It was fruity and light, good for summer. Lisa educated us on French drinking etiquette as we waited for the baguette to cool (straight from the oven baguettes are apparently bad for the stomach). Key tip: remember to look into the other person’s eyes when saying santé (cheers). Also don’t cross arms when clinking glasses.
A deep dive into the cheese plate, numbered from 1 to 8 and from mildest to strongest flavours
- Petit Basque – sheep’s cheese from the Basque region. This had a light cheesy flavour and pleasing, clean-cut texture, a little harder than cow cheese and not as strong, but more flavoursome than goat’s cheese
- Bûche Cendrée – Goat cheese coated in ash that’s been aged to become hard and vividly flavoured, with a soft cheesy texture in the centre.
- Comté fuité – Originally from Switzerland, it’s a light emmemental, which is light and very tasty – I definitely wanted this melted over some toast
- Brie de Meoux – Probably my absolute favourite from the plate, this is a very famous brie from the Meoux region in France that has a distinctly stronger, richer and deeper taste than most brie I’ve tried – slightly more pungent and slightly smoky – and was absolutely divine over the baguette.
- Fourme D’ambert – This was the ‘blue cheese for people who don’t like blue cheese’ according to Lisa and – as someone who is generally ambivalent-bordering-on-dislike about blue cheese, I saw the light. There was just something about this one – paired with black cherry jam – that worked (for the record, I still don’t like blue cheese but this one I’d eat again)
- Mimolette francaise – The vivid orange colour of the crust comes from anatoli – a poor man’s saffron – but should not be eaten. This was a strong, hard, dense cheese with a strong, salty flavour. It wasn’t my favourite
- Brygue de brebis espelette – Flavoured with chilli flakes (though you can barely taste it really), this was quite aged, dense cheese with a rich flavour
Epicerie Fine 1830
This épicerie has 8 shops in Paris which creates the beautiful packaging for the goods, sends them to Provence to be filled with product and sent back. Only 1-4% of olive oil made is from Provence.
There are three ‘families’ of olive oils in France (called ‘fruity’): green, ripe (green olive beginning to ripen) and black (where the olive has begun to ferment), each with a distinctive taste. The green fruity has a fresh, grassy, herbal taste with a slightly bitter kick at the end, the ripe fruity has the mildest taste and can be used in place of butter. whereas the black fruity – only made in France – has the most vivid olive taste, good for dipping.
I also highly recommend the spreads and preserves – the black olive tapenade with capers and anchovies had a very vivid olive and umami taste which was great, but I preferred the eggplant with black olive, which had a milder, creamier taste. My favourite sweet preserve was definitely the apricot and lavender, which works startlingly well together. It’s just a huge shame we couldn’t buy any to take back because of carry-on luggage restrictions (something to keep in mind!). Little molecular gastronomy flavour pearls of balsamic vinegar were the perfect palate refresher and can also be bought in jars, like sweet fish roe and perfect as a garnish.
Un Dimanche À Paris
Translated to ‘A Sunday in Paris’, this gourmet chocolate store is owned and run by Pierre Cluizel, who hails from one of the world’s most famous chocolate making families, so he isn’t short on credentials. The store is not just a boutique selling chocolate and beautiful pastries (made by a pastry chef voted Number 2 in France), but is also a restaurant and cooking school, with a large commercial kitchen upstairs for classes.
We wrapped up the food tour with a cup of Ecuadorian hot chocolate with spices, which was the most indulgent, rich hot chocolate I’ve tasted – a must-try. Un Dimanche À Paris is soon to open in Dubai, as well as in Doha and Qatar so even if you don’t make it to Paris, it may be possible to visit during a stopover or trip there!
The Paris Food Tour really takes you through French cuisine with depth and understanding and Lisa’s depth of knowledge was wonderful, her energy as a guide is both sweet, cheerful and genuine. We talked about everything from French and English styles of butchery to Hungarian bakers who actually invented the croissant (look it up!) to anecdotes about her experiences living and working in Paris. If you’ve a spare day of the week to enjoy an unconventional section of Paris, this tour is certainly a good way to spend part of it.
I Ate My Way Through dined as guests of Flavors of Paris