Eating your way through a crisp Christmas in Paris
French capital is not renowned for vegetarian fare, but in the Marais neighbourhood vegetables have been causing a stir
I spent Christmas in Paris, five food-fuelled days when my inner gourmet turned gourmande as the train drew into Gare du Nord. A regular visitor to the city, I have museum visits interspersed with three good meals a day down to a fine art. Not to mention afternoon pauses for hot chocolate and patisserie.
Yet the dish that most excited me on this recent trip was a cauliflower. It sounds more romantic in French — choux fleur — even though this offering was brazenly unadorned. Not served en croute, truffled or even gratiné.
Paris is not renowned for its vegetarian fare — menus can be rather sparse for those who eschew meat — but in the Marais neighbourhood vegetables have been causing a stir. Long lines form outside a tiny, street food eatery called Miznon, where cauliflower and broccoli fly off the grill and are delivered onto wooden tables on sheets of grease-proof paper. It is noisy, crazy and very hip. I am not vegan nor even vegetarian but would happily swap my cote de boeuf for another cauliflower pita.
I spent a lot of time queuing in Paris. It is one of the most visited cities and even worldwide coverage of the recent protests did not reduce the number of tourists waiting to have tea at Angelina on Christmas Day. This Belle Epoque tearoom opened in 1903. It is situated on the Rue de Rivoli over the road from the Jardin de Tuileries, once attached to the palace where Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were imprisoned during the French Revolution.
The inequalities in French society remain stark today. While the gilets jaunes activities took place just a few minutes away on the Champs-Élysées, those of us who do not feel the pinch of fuel tax rises indulged in exquisite cakes and the richest chocolat chaud imaginable. Called L’Africain — the cocoa is sourced from Niger, Ghana and Ivory Coast — it is dark, velvety and served with a jug of whipped cream. The famous Mont-Blanc pastry (meringue topped with Chantilly cream and vermicelli of chestnut cream) is as popular now as it was in the days when Angelina was frequented by Marcel Proust and Coco Chanel.
Paris has some of the best couscous restaurants I’ve eaten in outside Morocco. When I first visited the city decades ago, I knew no better than to eat at one of the touristy places off Boulevard Saint-Michel. I learned later to look for places where locals eat. Le Mechoui du Prince is a family-run restaurant where the food was so delicious that I ate there two nights in a row. The pastilla was the best I have eaten, the pastry crackling open to reveal an aromatic filling of chicken, fragrant with orange blossom and cinnamon. Huge bowls of fluffy couscous were accompanied by bubbling tagines of lamb, chicken or fish. The platters of merguez sausage and lamb chops were rather good too. Sweet mint tea took the chill off a winter’s night while the ambience was cosy and welcoming.
The best way to enjoy Paris is on foot. Walking along the Seine is a joy whether on a crisp winter’s day or in summer when the Paris Plages turns the right bank of the river into a beach. Take along an al fresco lunch and find a bench in view of the mascarons, the grimacing, sculptural faces that line the Pont Neuf.
While Paris is brimming with neighbourhood food markets and delis stuffed with delicacies, my preferred haunts for filling my basket are the shops on Rue Montorgueil. La Fermette thrills cheese lovers with an astounding array, including a 36-month Comté that is my favourite. Boxes of Mont D’Or — only available in the winter months — get taken home where I bake them with slivers of garlic and white wine.
The bakeries on this street are almost too plentiful to choose from. Eric Kayser bakes a lovely baguette and the lightest financiers. Don’t deliberate too long about whether you want raspberry, pistachio, chocolate or vanilla, just buy one of each. Further down the road is the historic Storher. Founded in 1730 by Louis XV’s baker, it is the oldest patisserie in Paris. A light and boozy baba au rhum (which is said to have been invented here) or a custardy pain aux raisins were both irresistible, while the Opera cake scattered with gold leaf was simply gorgeous. At Terroir D’Auvergne delicatessen I chose paté de lapin (rabbit paté), olives and saucisson (dried sausage) plus a bottle of red wine from Marcillac. Picnic basket complete.
A walk in the Jardins du Luxembourg is always on my to-do list in Paris. Treize au Jardin has recently taken up residence overlooking the gardens. An organic bakery and restaurant, it was established by an American woman, a long-time resident of Paris. Her culinary heritage showcased fried buttermilk chicken and a delicious artichoke tart. The interior was Instagram heaven, with botanical décor and quirky table settings.
If in the Bastille area on a Sunday morning, head for the market running up Boulevard Richard Lenoir, where more than 100 stalls sell everything from superb roast chicken to African crafts. On a cold winter’s day, I found elbow room at a shellfish stall where I ordered a platter of oysters and my first sea urchins. A gentleman alongside instructed me to eat only the coral, which tasted sweet and delicate. The stallholder was celebrating his birthday and opened a bottle of champagne to share with friends who gathered to share his joie de vivre. No city does it better.
From the chic, red lights illuminating hundreds of trees lining the Champs-Élysées to the jewel-like chocolates packed into designer gift bags in the city’s favourite chocolatiers, Christmas in Paris is a colourful and elegant affair that leaves a good taste in the mouth.