Paris Four-Star Gourmet Food

By: Phil Chavanne
Real French BreadIn France, almost anyone will tell you that Poilane bread is the pinnacle of Parisian baking. First established 75 years ago, Poilane is now run by Lionel Poilane, who took over the business from his father about 30 years ago and boomed it: the shop sells 15,000 loaves of bread each day, i.e. 2.5% of all bread sold in Paris, by weight.

The secret of Poilane bread is steeped in tradition. Lionel himself conducted an extensive research project on the 'ethnography', as he put it himself, of his craft. Poilane bread is made from wheat grown only on farms employing sustainable techniques with sea salt from the French Atlantic Coast. It's baked for over an hour in Poilane's specially designed wood-burning ovens, and will easily keep for a week in its original white and green paper bag. Poilane bread traces its heritage back to the genuine regional French bread, but the business is remarkably modern. Today, the family manages a new shop in London and a 'manufacture' on the outskirts of Paris producing the goods that are sold in more than 2,500 restaurants and shops in Paris alone, and about 20 countries around the world. Poilane is one of the few 'global bakers' today, taking advantage of the Internet and the large FedEx hub near the Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle airport to ship the bread worldwide. The goods land on dinner tables within 48 hours of their cooking. The bread itself is decidedly old school: thick, chewy, and rich with a dark, fire-tinged flavor. Traditional French bread is not the ubiquitous white bread used in baguettes. It used to be a dark, wholesome stuff eaten by poor people when they could not afford anything else. It almost disappeared from French tables because of its very history. So much so that the old saying "He ate his white bread..." means that he mused and fooled around instead of working diligently, and now he's in for hard times (and only dark bread).

After World War II, the height of chic was white bread, imported from Austria.

Poilane is very unique in that in a city where you can't walk two blocks without running into a baguette, he refuses to produce any! Poilane's bread has won him famous fans over the years: Frank Sinatra and Lauren Bacall used to enjoy a loaf from time to time, and Robert De Niro is a customer. There's one person in the shop who speaks English, who confirmed taking bread back to the US is no problem.

Poilane's famous bread can be found at 8, rue Cherche Midi, 75006 Paris. The closest metro station is Sevres-Babylone.

Go Organic Parisian StyleParis is renowned for its local street food markets, which can be found in nearly every one if its quartiers (districts). The Rue Cler market is a very famous one, the Rue de Levis is another one almost as famous. The wonderful symbiosis of 'traditional and parochial' with the 'grand and capital' undoubtedly lends Paris its unique character. Personally, Parisian street markets appeal to me because they offer a rare respite from the bland, cookie-cut supermarket retail experience and because, just like the proverbial box of chocolates in Forest Gump, 'you never know what you're gonna get'. Not only do I always seem to discover something I never even knew existed, but the quality and freshness of the produce is high and the whole experience in general is less clinical and more... well, fun.

Parisian open street markets usually operate off touristy alleys and are held either on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. The stalls get set up early in the morning, and the end-of-day sales begin in the early afternoon, although timing really does vary from one market to the other so I recommend doing your homework, and checking the schedules published by the city hall of the local district.

Of all of them, the organic Marché de Raspail is probably my favorite. It is held on Sunday mornings from 9:00 am to 1:30 pm on the center divider along Boulevard Raspail, between Rue de Rennes and Rue du Cherche Midi (stop off at the Sèvres Babylone metro station). The Sunday Marché de Raspail caters only to organic ('biologique' or 'bio') food, and many of its products are just a cut above the rest. Indeed, French fresh produce are renowned, and I must say that every time I come back to Paris, I'm quite baffled to find that I actually forgot what a real cucumber tastes like... The market's stalls number about 100 and are spread out over 200 yards, and they are run by anybody and everybody – from organic producers to various resellers, and some pretty interesting characters!They sell just about anything that's organic. I walked away smugly with some very rustic lavender honey, loads of cheese and a delicious organic chicken that was roasted before my very eyes...

The service is usually very friendly. You will appreciate the way French vendors actually bother to ask when you actually plan to eat their produce. They can select it for you accordingly (i.e. so that it ripens neither too early, nor too late). All in all, a healthy treasure trove, well worth getting up early for on a Sunday morning – even if only for an education in what fresh fruits and veggies are actually supposed to taste like...

The Raspail non-organic market runs on Tuesdays and Fridays, between 7:00 am and 2:30 pm.

Once again, the Marché Raspail can be found in the 6th quarter, on the corner of Boulevard Raspail and Rue de Rennes. Closest metro station: Sèvres Babylone.

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