Paris offers some of the world’s best-known opportunities for foodies. Michelin-starred dining and legendary food purveyors compete for the bon vivant’s attention on every corner.
But for the intrepid visitor, attractions under the radar beckon. On recent trips to Paris I’ve visited the world’s largest fresh food market, taken a behind-the-scenes tour of a nearly 200-year-old boulangerie, and dined on ten sumptuous courses at an underground restaurant.
Visit the Rungis Market
Wake up at 4 a.m. and save some euros for a splurge.
If your visit to Paris includes the second Friday of the month, plan to rise early and spend 65 euros to visit Rungis Market, the modern facility that supplies many of Paris’ restaurants — and 18 million European consumers — with food and flowers. Tours depart Place Denfert Rochereau in the 14th arrondissement at 5 a.m. On the short ride to the outskirts of the city under the cloak of darkness a guide will regale you with facts and figures about the vast market that replaced Les Halles, the original Parisian central market.
After carefully picking your way across the slippery floor of the seafood pavilion, avoiding the glassy eyes of the fish on ice, you’ll shiver your way through the sterile yet gruesome meat hall, then visit the cheese market. My appetite finally awoke when I inhaled the bouquet of a hall full of frommage — goat, blue, oozing and hard — many of France’s 400+ cheese varieties are available here (sadly, not to individual buyers).
Fruits and vegetables follow, and you’ll wrap up the tour with the immense flower hall — perfumed with an oh-so-French combination of florals and cigarette smoke — before a breakfast of pork, cheese and wine at around 8 a.m.
Making baguettes while ‘Meeting the French’
Having seen the heart of Paris food trade, on my next visit to the city I decided to learn the art of that quintessential Parisian staple — the baguette. “Meeting the French,” in association with the Paris Visitors and Convention Bureau, offers travelers the chance to see Parisians at work. For six euros you can play baker for the morning at Boulangerie Patisserie Au Grand Richelieu in the 1st arrondisement.
Proprietor Claude Esnault will demonstrate the process of crafting baguettes, allowing visitors to try their hand at slashing the dough before it bakes. As the racks of golden baguettes emerge from the oven you’ll get to savor an airy, crusty bite of heaven.
Good-natured Monsieur Esnault, who looks just like you think a French baker should, will also demonstrate croissant making and offer chocolate samples. The tour is conducted in French, with an English translator.
Check out the Hidden Kitchen for an amazing meal
Now that I’d observed so much of the Paris food culture behind the scenes, it was time to indulge in a splurge — a magnificent dinner. Months before my last trip I contacted Braden Perkins and Laura Adrian, the American couple that run Hidden Kitchen, an “underground restaurant” the cause of much buzz in the food blog world.
In the city synonymous with the best dining in the world, why would anyone pay the “suggested donation” of 70 euros to eat in a stranger’s apartment at a table full of more strangers?
Because our inner maverick thrills to the very idea of an illicit restaurant. The address is secret until the week before dinner, and emailed directions instruct diners to “just say you’re friends of Laura’s coming over for a dinner party” should anyone ask. The whole Hidden Kitchen experience smacks of the days of speakeasies and the secretive cool that came along with tracking down these clandestine dens of pleasure.
I nabbed reservations by email for me and my friend, Tracy, and waited impatiently for the day of the dinner to arrive. We were the first to arrive, and — welcome pomelo and ginger mimosa in hand — peeked into the apartment’s tiny kitchen to see where the magic happened.
Assisted by an intern from Le Cordon Bleu as their dog Tatie looked on, the young couple served twelve guests a succession of elegantly presented plates from a room the size of an American closet.
The candle-lit dining room grew increasingly boisterous as we progressed from the amuse of “Zucchini Fritter on Crème Fraiche with Cucumber Dill Lemonade Shot” to “Strawberry Shortcake with Black Peppercorn Semi-Freddo.”
Unruffled despite the high energy in the kitchen, Chef Braden emerged from the kitchen to explain every dish. Each interesting course pleased, though it peaked for me with the third — “Fava beans two ways with green goddess dressing and Arzak egg.”
Three consecutive fish courses disappointed a bit — though I was happy they accommodated my request for no pork, poultry or beef, I could wish for something a little more imaginative than mullet, bass and mackerel, however smartly presented.
Despite this minor discontent, the night was brilliant. Dining in a Parisian apartment allowed me to imagine that this was my life — supping on a luxuriously long dinner in my beloved city.
In the wee hours, sated and more than a little tipsy we polished off our petit-fours, finished our espresso, paid the “bill,” and headed out for a neighborhood bar recommended by Braden and Laura. It wasn’t quite time to call it quits on adventures in the Parisian food world.
If you go:
Second Friday of the month
Meeting the French
Starting at €6
Suggested donation: €70
Reserve well in advance for Saturday and Sunday night dinners
All photos by Dana McMahan
About the author
In the last few years Dana has eaten her way
from Inverness to Istanbul, along the way finding herself in such
improbable but brilliant circumstances as making fresh ravioli with
chef Joseph Sponzo in a cooking class in Florence and rising at 4 a.m.
to tour Rungis Market (the largest fresh food market in the world) in
Paris. She’s stumbled into Alba, Italy, during white truffle season,
and finagled an invitation to a three-hour outdoor lunch at the home of
newfound friends in Provence. Recent adventures include riding the Blue
Ridge Parkway on the back of her dad’s motorcycle and exploring snowy
Quebec City. Dana is a freelance food and
travel writer who lives in Louisville, Ky., with her husband and two
dogs, Alba and Truffle. Follow her travels at http://travelingmcmahans.wordpress.com/.