Monday, May 14, 2012

American in Paris, Part I: A Carb Lover's Paradise

Let's get a couple of things out of the way up front: I didn't see the Mona Lisa. I didn't even go to the Louvre. I didn't walk the Champs-Elysees, or see the Arc de Triomphe. And I didn't go to Versailles. 

I did, however, have a fabulous time.

I did the things I wanted to do. I saw the sights that interested me, but I mostly wandered and ate (a lot). I soaked the place in, exploring neighborhoods and shops, people-watching in cafes and reading on park benches. I got a little lost, and more than a little confused a few times. Even then, it was wonderful.

I've struggled with how to write about my trip. A day-by-day account? Something more thematic? Or just excerpt straight from my journal? I'm thinking that I'll probably combine the approaches. There are some days I want to recount in full, from beginning to end, and other things, like museum visits, that can be lumped together in one category. And sometimes, when it isn't too embarrassingly saccharine, I'll excerpt from my journal. Good luck following all that.

I wanted an immersive experience, so I rented a flat in a real neighborhood, away from the major museums and tourist hotels. I stayed in the 6th arrondissement, located on the Left Bank (south of the river) between the Eiffel Tower and the Latin Quarter. Artists and ex-pat Americans loved the area in the 1920s (Hemingway frequented a cafe I walked past often), and I stumbled upon Gertrude Stein's former apartment just around the corner (literally) from my own.


It was also the perfect neighborhood for an aspiring foodie. Farmer's markets several days a week were just steps from my door, and some of the best patisseries and chocolate shops in the city were only a few blocks away. Every day I passed windows filled with glazed tarts and candied fruits, tender-looking cakes and crumbles, and fresh-baked cheesecakes and pastries filled with praline cream.

 

One day I stopped at La Patisserie Viennoise for their Cake Chocolat Vanile - a tender cake shaped like a mini loaf, with chocolate and vanilla cakes marbled together. I spotted it in the window and it called to me; I just couldn't resist. I didn't know it at the time, but La Patisserie Viennoise is one of the best in town, and pastry chef David Lebovitz sings the praises of their hot chocolate. If the cake is any indication, I imagine everything there is excellent.


As if all that wasn't enough, I walked by two of the best chocolate shops in the city every day. One of them, Christian Constant, was directly across the intersection from my flat. The other, Patrick Roger, was a couple blocks away. I sampled the chocolates from both (I mean, really, how could I not?), and they were both delicious. But the most impressive thing I saw was at Patrick Roger: a chocolate sculpture of hippos, partially submerged in a river, sculpted from chocolate. It was gorgeous. And strangely delicious-looking. I've never wanted to eat a hippo before, but this could change my mind.

This hippo's head was easily two feet long, and there were two of them displayed in the shop, plus the partial bodies you see in background.
I settled into a routine while I was in Paris. I didn't sleep very well, so I was usually wide awake by the time the patisserie down the block opened at 7am. From my journal:
"It's first thing in the morning and I'm deep in the midst of my newly-minted morning ritual, rushing the half block to the patisserie soon after they open at 7 a.m. Some days there is no wait, but today there is a line a few people deep. Regardless, I'm never the first one there. I peer through the shop window from the sidewalk first, staring at the fruit tarts, shiny with a sugary glaze on top. There are cheesecakes and crumbles, too, but the fruit tarts are always front and center: berry, pear, apricot, all delectable looking. And as I'm staring through the glass, practically salivating already, it hits me: waves of warm air drift up from the grate below the window, carrying all the smells from the basement kitchen: sugar, butter, caramelized pastry. It drives me into the store.
"What I'm after is toward the back of the shop. On the counter is a case of breakfast pastries: croissants of various kinds (plain, almond, chocolate), sugary breads (pain de sucre), pistachio rolls, chocolate rolls, and what have become my two favorites: pain au chocolat and pain aux raisins. They call to me, so much so that I virtually ignore the golden brown baguettes and many loaves of sandwich bread lining the back wall.


"The pastries are cheap: only 1,20 euro for the pain aux raisins, and 1,10 euro for the pain au chocolat. They're still warm when the woman behind the counter hands them to me. I race back to the apartment, riding the elevator up to the sixth floor, willing myself not to nibble at the pastries' edges before I get home. I put on the water for tea, silently pleading with the kettle to hurry up! and boil faster. The water finally boils and the tea is steeping, but I can't resist any longer: I tear away a bit of the pain aux raisins, and the pastry uncoils as I pull and reveals the fluffy, flaky interior. The plump, sweet raisins burst in my mouth, intense pops of fruit surrounded by melting pastry with only the slightest bit of chew to it. The golden brown top and bottom give a bit more resistance, but ultimately yield a caramelized sweetness that enhances the fruitiness of the raisins. I unfurl the pastry until I reach the dense center, full of raisins and a small dollop of pastry cream. I pop the last bite in my mouth and savor it - the raisins, cream, and pastry all balanced in a perfect mouthful - then wash it down with a sip of tea.
"Next I turn my attention to the pain au chocolat. While the pain aux raisins wears all its bling on the outside, the top studded with raisins and the pastry wound into a beautiful coil, the pain au chocolat is more modest at first glance. It's shaped like a rectangular bun, golden brown on top and rolled like a croissant. There's only the slightest hint of what's inside: small bits of dark brown chocolate visible at either end. But this pastry is a sleeper - at first bite it tastes like a plain croissant, all butter and air, but then the rich chocolate flavor surges forward. The rich, slightly bitter dark chocolate cream takes over and fills my mouth, but lingers only briefly after I swallow. The intense flavor of the chocolate is perfectly balanced by the lightness of the pastry. I repeat the process over and over until it's gone. I imagine that explosion of chocolate is the reason pain au chocolat is a breakfast staple here.
"When the pastries are nestled safely in my belly, I turn back to my tea. I wonder briefly whether I should have picked up a third pastry - croissant aux amandes, maybe? - but then I feel it: the growing fullness, followed by an intense desire to return to bed. I call it the pastry coma. I cannot even finish my tea before I succumb."
And that's how I began every day. No wonder I fell in love with Paris.

Next time: more of the daily routine, and my wanderings.


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