23 May 2012

Au revoir, Paris: My best food memories of the City of Light

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for all of Paris is a moveable feast.
-- Ernest Hemingway, 1950 -- 

As most of you know by now, my husband Luis and I packed up our suitcases and moved from Paris to Bangkok...it was actually exactly four months ago today. It was a huge change for both of us, particularly for Luis who had been in the City of Light for 18 years! I clocked in almost six, and although I sometimes had a bit of a love-hate relationship with the city, it had most certainly become home. Paris gave me some of the most special years of my life (I turned 30 there!) as well as the man I love, some of the best friends ever, an incredible professional life and limitless opportunities to travel and discover the world. It was also in Paris that The Mistress of Spices was born and where I think my love of food took on new dimensions. I started writing up this top 10 list of my best food memories when we were still there, but the demands of packing and moving meant that I never got around to posting. But mieux vaut tard que jamais...so here I am posting it four months later from Bangkok where the list is even more poignant, with these undoubtedly being the top 10 food-related things that I now MISS about the City of Light.

10. Gourmet food stores

Fauchon (24-26-30, place de la Madeleine, 8e), Lafayette Gourmet (40, boulevard Haussmann, 9e)  and of course my favorite of all, La Grande Epicerie de Paris (38, rue de Sevrès, 7e). We usually did our grocery shopping at regular supermarkets and green markets, but I couldn't help but to sneak into one of these gourmet palaces every now and then. Gourmet oils and vinegars, pastries, spices, olives, fresh produce, cheeses, all kinds of prepared food from around the world - it was truly a feast for the eyes (and mouth, whenever I would succumb and buy something). And when it comes to specialty food shops, nothing can beat Paris (entire shops devoted to mustards, truffles, nuts, you name it). Check out Clotilde Dusolier (of Chocolate & Zucchini fame)'s Edible Adventures in Paris for a full rundown.

9. Moroccan and other North African food

Bricks, tajines, couscous, thé a la menthe (mint tea)...how I miss them all! While good and authentic international and "ethnic" food in general was hard to come by in Paris (the French do their own cuisine best after all), a notable exception can be found in the cuisine of the Maghreb (Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria). From fancy places like 404 (69 rue des Gravilliers, 3e) and Riad Nejma (141, rue Saint Martin, 4e) to our favorite neighborhood couscous joint in Montmartre/Chateau Rouge to the awesome Moroccan traiteur at the Marché des Enfants Rouges, I developed a deep love for food from this part of the world while in Paris. If anyone wants to mail me some feuilles de brick, ras-el-hanout or citrons confits...please do, by all means!

8. The cheese...and dairy products generally

This is probably a no-brainer, but yes, the cheese was indeed that good! From the classics like brie, camembert, roquefort, cantal and comté to the more exotic (and sometimes stinky) varieties like reblochonépoisses and fourme d'Ambert...I just couldn't get enough! Luis is a cheese hater, but I certainly didn't let that stop me.

Beyond just cheese, the quality of dairy products in general in France was just amazing. The milk, the butter, the crème fraîche, the yogurt...all wonderful, and I do miss them terribly here in Thailand! Speaking of yogurt, I highly recommend that you try some of my favorites if you're in France or visit - for a great breakfast, try Activia yogurt with éclats de noix céréale (cereal nuts) or with Muesli along with some fruit. If you're feeling indulgent, try anything from Mamie Nova (they do both yogurts and dairy desserts). My favorite is their noix de coco (coconut) flavor...it's decadently delicious!

8. Chèvre (Goat Cheese)

Of all the cheeses, a special mention has to be made for goat cheeses (chèvre). From the raw milk varieties to those which are aged for long periods of time to fresh goat cheese rolled in different kinds of herbs, spices or fruits...I just couldn't get enough! And of course without chèvre, there would be no salade de chèvre chaud (goat cheese salad), which was my lunch staple in Parisian bistros and cafés.

So much did I fall in love with salade de chèvre chaud while living in Paris that I would make my own versions of it all the time and will continue to do so here in Bangkok, despite having to pay a pretty penny for good chèvre here. Try this one with a little Indian twist!

Interestingly enough, chèvre has even made it to McDonald's in France, which had just started to do a "McWrap" with breaded chèvre, lettuce, tomatoes and a special sauce shortly before we left. I feel totally guilty admitting it, but I adored that stuff and had it for lunch on several an occasion...it was just delicious! Don't judge me :-)

7. Picnics

That glorious Parisian tradition, which starts as soon as the first mild days of spring appear and continues until it's too cold to do it any longer. It didn't take much...just a few friends, some bottles of wine, a baguette or two, some cheese, olives. Sometimes we would have massive gatherings with song and dance, football, full-fledged gourmet dishes, celebrating birthdays or national holidays ...while at other times times it was just Luis and I taking our dinner up to the grassy area in front of the Sacré Coeur. The Champ de Mars, Buttes de Chaumont, the Pont des Arts, on the quais of the Seine, Parc Montsouris...the options were endless. And here in Bangkok where there is not much green space and it's much too hot to be outside for more than a few minutes during most of the year, I am envious of my Parisian friends who are just at the start of picnic season!

6. Wine

Duh, I know...who wouldn't miss the fabulous wines of France that are so much a part of the country's culture and livelihood? Decent wine is very expensive here in Thailand (and in most part of Asia, I would guess)...and so I am dying for some icy cold, tangy Sancerre or Pouilly-Fuméa rich Cabernet Sauvignon or an earthy Cotes du Rhone. For as little as 2 or 3 Euros, you can get yourself a fabulous bottle of wine at just about any corner shop or caviste in Paris...where else in the world is that the case? Some of my favorite wine memories: the wonderful "Tour de France of Wine" tasting class that we took with O Chateau, our weekend in Beaune (the heart of the wine-making region of Bourgogne, or Burgundy), the annual  Fête des Vendanges de Montmartre (a delightful fall festival devoted to sub-par wine...but good times!) and of course the countless evenings spent with good friends discovering and sharing amazing bottles in some of my favorite bars à vins (wine bars) in Paris, such as Le Garde Robe (41, rue de l'Arbre Sec, 1er) and Frenchie (5-5, rue du Nil, 2e).

5. The French "gastronomic meal"

Back in 2010, UNESCO (the organization for which I work) added the French "gastronomic meal" (le repas gastronomique des Français) to the organization's list of humanity's intangible cultural heritage. Other practices on the list include quite a diverse bunch...Chinese acupunture, Colombian marimba music and traditional carpet weaving from Iran among others. The title means that the French gastronomic meal has been officially recognized as "a social custom aimed at celebrating the important moments in the lives of individuals and groups", in UNESCO speak. Now this doesn't mean that French cuisine has been recognized (and I don't think that it should be...it's not spicy or interesting enough for my taste...but that's a personal thing). Rather, the traditional way of eating a classic French meal...from the table setting to the sequence of the courses, the pairing of the wines with certain foods, lingering over coffee and the time taken to relish it all...has been. And three cheers to that, I say! Unlike in North America and other parts of the world where we scarf down meals in front of the TV or rush through lunch break with a sandwich at our desks, the French (and even most Parisians) take the time to eat, to savor, to converse and to love food. It took me a while to get used to it (a 1 1/2 hour lunch break? occasional wine with lunch?), but I sure did and miss it very much now, though I'm certainly not complaining in any way about the Thai food culture. That is equally amazing too!

4. Bread
Photo courtesy of Aliou Doumbouya
OK, I must be sounding trite by now...but you know that bread had to be on my list. Nobody does it like the French. Pain de campagne, pain Poilâne, fougasse...the list goes on and on. But in my book, nothing could beat a good old French baguette (my preferred being the baguette tradition). Warm, crusty on the outside, soft of the inside. Pure.and.simple.bliss. I took it for granted in Paris, but now miss good bread desperately! We've heard about a Japanese bakery here that does a good French baguette...must check it out ASAP so that our withdrawal symptoms can stop!

3. Champagne

OK I've already mentioned wine...but champagne gets a special shout out. Unlike many parts of the world where champagne is reserved for only the most special of occasions, it's a pretty common thing in France. As an apéritif  before a meal or at parties, there is nothing more spirited and lovely than champagne, which as a name can only be given to wines produced in the Champagne-Ardenne region of France using the méthode Champenoise. Made with a combination of Chardonny, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, there are infinite varieties of champagne, each with its own special character and taste. For a wonderful day trip outside of Paris, nothing beats a visit to Reims to visit the champagne caves, learn how champagne is made and taste away to your heart's content! I made the trip twice during my years in Paris.

2. Markets

No surprise here...the markets in Paris, and of course in France in general, are amazing! There was nothing like rolling out of bed late morning on the weekends, grabbing my basket or bag and going off to find incredible produce, artisanal products and readymade specialties, all the while chatting with the friendly and knowledgeable vendors. In Paris, I was particularly fond of the Marché des Enfants Rouges in the Northern Marais (which is where I first lived in Paris), the Marché de la Bastille and Marché Barbes for the hustle and great prices. Outside of the capital, I loved the market in Beaune (Burgundy) as well as the Cours Saleya in Nice

1. Sharing our love of food and people through dinners & gatherings

The markets, the cheeses, the wine...all of that stuff about Paris was wonderful to experience. But my most cherished food memory of the City of Light is undoubtedly all of the good times spent cooking for and with friends and family, savoring meals and celebrating both everyday life and special occasions (Deepavali, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's, Cinco De Mayo, Bastille Day...we probably hosted a party for each of them) through good food and drink. At the end of the day, it is this spirit of sharing that underlies Luis and I's philosophy of cooking and which inspired us to host countless dinners and parties. We were unbelievably lucky to have built such a vibrant, international, smart and fun group of friends in Paris and each occasion - be it for 4 or 40 - was incredibly special. It's because of this that leaving Paris was so difficult and that it will remain etched in my heart forever. Ce n'est qu'un au revoir Paris, je t'oublierai jamais!

P.S. Several of the photos in this post and some of my best food-related memories of Paris are courtesy of my dear friend and fellow blogger, The Gastronomic Nomad. Check out her blog if you haven't already!


  1. I love it!! This makes me wish that I was back there now and not in Oct. Paris is just not as sweet there without you and Luis. Though I will happily have a baguette and some champagne on your behalf. ;) And no judgement on the McWrap, I still remember the time I was forced to grab KFC outside your apt bc nothing else was open one Sunday. It was delicious!!

  2. Perfect timing, I'm off to Paris next weekend - this post has got me really excited xx

  3. What a lovely look back on the city of love! Have a wonderful time getting to know Bangkok!

  4. Everything's is so lovely! Great!-Mom

  5. HI Ramya
    Chanced upon your blog while doing a search for bell pepper chutney. And started reading about your Paris days - we are heading to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam for 10 days before we head to India. I am getting edgy about getting vegetarian food there, 'cos it seems like its tough to get vegetarian food in any of these places. Also travelling with a 11 month old, I think I will get nightmares about it.
    SO wanted to ask you if you have any recommendations for places to eat - not the super pricey types - tough to do all that with a kid. I did see a list of restaurants in Paris in one of your write-ups- can you recommend any more of are they budget friendly?

    Will be nice to get feedback on the same.


  6. Hi Radhika,

    Thanks for visit and your comment. Sorry, I couldn't find an email address to reply you at. Of the restaurants listed on my site, Tien Hiang (Chinese/Pan-Asian place) and Saravana Bhavan are both totally vegetarian, budget-friendly and would be appropriate for bringing a small child. Le Petit Bleu (couscous place) would also fit the bill, though it's pretty small and cramped. Around Saravana Bhavan on Rue Faubourg St Denis in the Indian/Sri Lankan part of town, there are lots of other veggie options as well (if you want desi food). Otherwise all Lebanese places and most Moroccan ones are pretty veggie friendly as well. I don't have a favorite Lebanese per se but they're all over town. For something more casual, try the falafel places on Rue des Rossiers (3rd arrondissement - the Marais) or Maoz Falafel (locations in the 5th and 6th - Google for exact addresses). Hope that helps! Maoz is also all over Amsterdam, as well as a noodle chain called Wok to Walk which I also love. Amsterdam also has a big eatery/food bar kind of place called La Place that I really love - basically a giant salad bar, pizza bar, make your own noodle bar, juice bar, all rolled into one. Google for details (it's on the main shopping high street, name of which I don't remember now). Hope that helps!