I am staying on the left bank, and stroll along Boulevard St Germain to the meeting point for our gourmet walking tour, at the market outside the cheese shop near Metro Maubert Mutualite. This is an area of Paris that I haven’t visited previously, so I’m looking forward to the chance to learn more about the Latin Quarter with a local guide.
Tours are kept to a small number, so there is always enough time to go deeper into the particular interests for each person along the way.
Our guide, Marie, is a wonderful woman who shares her passion for the architecture and history of the area, in addition to the tour which focuses on ingredients and preparation of fresh seasonal produce. After gathering all of the group, she takes us on a short detour down a side street, to a spot where there is a magnificent view of Notre Dame cathedral from across the river, at an angle where you can see the flying buttresses and magnificent gargoyles from a new perspective. Marie’s natural enthusiasm for the different styles of buildings along the narrow streets is infectious, and I find myself viewing the city through this new understanding for the rest of my stay.
Gathering supplies at the local markets
The market is now open for business, and we spend time at the seafood stall, talking about the myriad varieties of fish, with Marie sharing her favourite recipes for preparing them. I am reminded that traditional French cuisine is not always a richly flavoured and complex affair, it also consists of taking very high-quality ingredients and cooking them simply, with herbs and methods to bring out the natural richness and taste.
We meander through the market, examining the fresh herbs, haricot beans, impossibly colourful tomatoes and other vegetables, discussing soups and noting down the recipes for specific regional dishes. The French joi de vivre is never so in evidence as when talking about food, which I find that everyone does for hours, with gusto and strongly held opinions on the best way to prepare various delicacies, leaving me wondering how everyone stays so trim. Maybe it’s walking up all those stairs, or the philosophy of truly enjoying just a little of the things you really love – for instance, cheese with every meal, but only a taste that is truly savoured, never gorging or eating mindlessly.
Heaven is a cheese shop
Next we step into heaven, or the fromagerie. The cheese shop is another world, and this one is owned by a winner of the ‘Best worker in France’ (‘Un des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France’), a prize that is awarded every three years to the best craftsman in fields ranging from chocolate making to building. Winning this is an extraordinary honour, indicating an extraordinary dedication and passion to their masterpiece: not only skills based, the technical excellence must be combined with artistic flair.
The cheeses are handmade and aged, each one using a slightly different method and resulting in their extraordinary flavour. The range is absolutely astounding, with hundreds of regional varieties including Chevre (goat cheese), Tomme (produced in the French Alps), Brie, Beaufort, Roquefort (sheep-milk blue cheese from the south of France), Raclette (heated then scraped to eat with gherkins, pickled onions and prosciutto), and accompaniments from quince paste to green tomato jam. Looking at them all is mouthwatering, and we get the chance later to taste one of the chevres selected by Marie, along with a crusty fresh bread.
We cross the road to the bakery, where I select a divine rhubarb tart as my pastry of choice, and am incredibly happy as we set of up the hill towards the heart of the Latin Quarter. The walk takes us past the first Russian bookshop in Paris, and on a detour into the sumptuous Church of St-Etienne-du-Mont, resting place of the relics from the tomb of St. Geneviève, patron saint of Paris. There is an extraordinary sense of peace inside the vibrantly coloured walls and windows, which also holds the tombs of Racien and Pascal, along with unique carved spiral staircases on either side the nave, and some truly incredible paintings. Directly across the square is the Pantheon, so although this part of the tour is at the discretion of the guide and the rest of the group, make sure to visit it yourself if the gourmet food walking tour doesn’t pass by the day you go.
This area was once the student quarter, and although the Ecole Polytechnique has moved to larger premises and Latin is no longer spoken, the historical echoes remain. The streets are packed with colourful historic shops and restaurants, the painted mural advertising the first chocolate store remains above an awning, along with the older style sculptural reliefs showing the business inside, that were ordered to replace the hanging shop signs on royal decree, as these apparently used to scare the horses. Around the corner from the narrow Rue Mouffetard, (one of the oldest streets in the city, which, as all good roads do, leads to Rome), is the former home of writer Ernest Hemingway. A plaque celebrating this famous residence quotes from his ode to Paris in the 1920s, A Moveable Feast, with the inscription “This is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.”
Poor, happy & stuffed with good food
Some of us may still be poor but happy, one of the women on the tour with me mentioned that a magazine had recently published an article extolling the joys of revisiting Paris on a struggling writers budget, with the author taking a deliciously perverse pleasure in living on almost nothing. That’s another story…
Finishing our walk at the paté de foie gras speciality shop, where we indulge ourselves in the cheese, bread, and wine along with a decadent tasting of this very intense delicacy. The force-fed liver of a duck or goose may not be to everyone’s taste, however the accompanying wine from the south is delicate and sweet, and we enjoy chatting and swapping final recipes before heading down the hill into the daily market and out into the rest of Paris. The gourmet food tour has definitely given me a new insight into the tastes, history and flavour of this magnificent city and culture.
Editor’s Note: We recently sent Jodi on a Paris gourmet food walking tour, to get a first-hand look at one of Viator’s most popular walking tours in Paris. The fact that Jodi was broke and in need of a good gourmet meal, well, Jodi, we’re always glad to help a fellow traveler out.