I lived in Paris in the late 70’s and early 80’s, so my experiences of the city would probably be more “iconic” than current. It is still a city of infinite charm and great elegance which makes it still one of the most seductive and alluring places in the world. These are some of my discoveries and meanderings from the 70’s to the present.
Staying in Paris can be as reasonable or luxurious as you like. I was fortunate enough to live at 94 Rue de Rennes, right bang in the middle of the Left bank glamour and glitz. The 6th has some beautiful little boutique hotels as well as some quite unique and desirable addresses near the Saint Sulpice church. Apartments are the best bet for stays of a week or more. I met Mike Baldridge and Tom Scheerer at Ananda in the Himalayas a few years ago and we became friends instantly. Architect and interior designer respectively, they mentioned that they had restored one of the oldest residential properties in the city. A 15th century town house in the Marais converted into four suites, a robust structure of thick stone walls, original fireplaces, wood beamed ceilings and well worn terracotta tiles floors (www.parischezvous.com). The Marais itself is one of the most dazzling quarters in Paris. It is arty with a lively buzz much like the Latin quarter used to be in the 60’s. Mariage Frères, in the thick of the Marais is the best tea shop in Paris to buy and drink teas from around the world. It is a Paris institution. You’ll find tea pots and tea accessories as well as some signature blends and the most dazzling variety of world teas.
I have never had a bad baguette in Paris. So when people ask me for recommendations of bakeries and patisseries, I am somewhat stumped. They are all good! However, Chez Poilane on the Rue du Cherche Midi in the 6th, brings back bucketfuls of memories. I once stood in a queue on Saturday morning with the actor Jean Paul Belmondo, chewing on a cigar, blond babe off one arm. At least we had the same taste in bread. At Poilane, they make big round loaves of country style sour dough bread, the way they used to in France before Louis XIV decided he liked bread made with white flour and beer yeast in long slender loaves (the baguette). Try the pain aux raisins secs (little rolls with raisins), chausson aux pommes (apple turnovers, pain au chocolat (chocolate rolls) and their famous round sour dough bread loaf. Nearby is one of the best food shops in the city (no, not Fauchon or Hediard, those outrageously expensive mausoleums of gastronomy). Started in the mid 19th century, Le Bon Marché on the Rue de Sevres in the 7th, is one of the oldest gourmet stores in the country and where all the chic Parisians of the neighborhood shop. Worth becoming addicted to are sel de guerande, sea salt from the northwest France, .You have fleur de sel (the most expensive and collected from the top of the salt flats), coarse sea salt for cooking and a great product of ground sea salt with herbs.
All old Parisian cafes have that ‘je ne sais quoi’. Whatever people say about Deux Magots (the Café at St Germain des Pres where Sartre used to sit) being touristy – it’s iconic and you have to do it…and you have to order a hot chocolate in winter. It’s still made with real melted chocolate, milk and cream.
On a recent trip, I indulge in a lunch at Allard. “Indulge” not because of the price but the quantity of butter I consume! Allard is an old fashioned Paris Bistro ideal if you’re looking for charm and a touch of the countryside right in the heart of the city. Fanny Herpin is the chef in charge here and the famous Alain Ducasse is the owner. Thankfully he has changed nothing in terms of décor or food. Marthe and Marcel Allard, salt of the earth folk from Burgundy came to Paris in 1932 and bought a bistro called La Halte de l’eperon serving simple, traditional home style cooking. Their daughter Fernande took over the family restaurant which by the 50’s had acquired a huge reputation. It was sold to a Claude Layrac. Specialities remain unchanged: shoulder of Limousin lamb, coq au vin, escargots (snails in their shells) stuffed with tons of herby butter, the garlicky frogs legs, the delicious paté en croûte, a rough pork and liver paté in a rich pastry crust and the canard de Challans aux olives. They say the duck is for two people but it could feed a family of four easily. Don’t forget the butter from Isigny which comes to the table served from a heaped mound. If you feel like a more modest lunch, Allard does a well balanced three course meal which could include an asparagus salad, or rabbit terrine, followed by knuckle of pork or ox cheek and end with a classic crème brûlée for 34 euros. Quite a steal for this level of cooking.
How do you get to Paris? Air France of course. The new revamped Business Class has been mindfully upgraded to include wider, more comfortable seats and superlative service (on a night flight, the stewardesses dim the lights and tip toe around with a small torch light. Very thoughtful). On the way back, I opted for Premium Economy – as comfortable as Business on other airlines. The seats are spanking new, everything is accessible and easy and the food really very good. Also very gratifying to see your own conserves being served on the flight!.
Almost 40 years on, Paris still thrills and enchants me and you don’t have to be a millionaire to enjoy what this city has to offer. Its beauty and its gastronomy is accessible to all.
Images by Radhika Dossa and Karen Anand