So the trick turns out to be to go to the corner boulanger just at 6PM, right when the fresh batch of baguette tradition is put out. The nice woman will apologize that the bread is still warm and it is necessary to shrug and look just a little sad. Because secretly you both know that you're going to run home and immediately eat half of it stuffed with delicious cold salted butter from Brittany.
I haven't been blogging much from Paris lately because I've reached that point where everything isn't new and exciting anymore. Part of the point of living here for weeks at a time is to integrate and enjoy things slowly rather than being a mad tourist every day. But I've been busy, here are some of the things I've done in the last few days. Le Petit Zinc. Sunday was the flea market (nice lunch there at Le Paul Bert), followed by a walk around the Ile de Cite and Ile St. Louis and Berthillon ice cream. For dinner I picked up some terrible pizza and was 5 minutes' walk from the post-election tear gas festivities at Bastille, which I missed entirely. Monday was mostly quiet except for a lost laundry ticket garbage picking adventure and some epic drinking at Le Petit Prince. And yesterday I went to Etoile for the parade, got a fantastic photo of the Arc de Triomphe, took a walk around the Place de Mexico looking for a Space Invader self-portrait, photographed the Eiffel Tower, then dinner with friends at the Ambassade d'Auvergne.
So that's what occupies my time. Some touristy stuff, a lot of dining, and in the spaces inbetween bouts of photo editing, blogging, and video games. I feel like I actually live in Paris with enough time to not need to cram exciting events into every hour, yet with easy access to do interesting things that present themselves. Sadly, we return to the States in a week.
In the middle of the Marais in Paris there is a Jewish quarter with a complicated 800 year history. These days it's mostly home to recent Jewish immigrants from the Middle East. It's a great neighbourhood to find a quick cheap lunch, something different from the usual French food. Felafel, schwarma, bagels, etc.
One of the best known places there is Chez Marianne. It's an overgrown traiteur; their primary business is selling premade salads, deli foods, etc. But over time it's evolved into a restaurant with table service and is now quite popular at lunch. My assortment plate had hummus, tzatziki, roasted peppers in oil, feta, and a meatball. And some excellent pita bread. Way too much food, but good.
Bread is serious business in France, but not all bread here is good. Even the simple baguette has huge variation. Now thanks to my friend Marc I know how to articulate the difference between the good and the bad.
A good baguette starts with an open crumb, an airy interior texture with different sized holes. This structure is the result of careful handling and longer proofing and is one of the visible marks of a good baguette. Of course what really matters is the taste and texture, but the easily-visible crumb structure (miette) is a good indicator.
I've been buying baguettes all over town as an experiment. And almost every shop has mediocre baguettes, including the fancy gourmet store (1.05€), the place with fabulous croissants (0.90€), and the permanent boulanger in Place Maubert (0.90€). But the best bread I've had so far comes from just around the corner on the tourist-swamped streets of Ile St. Louis (0.80€). It has enough flavour you can enjoy it plain, good chewy bite, and yes, the open crumb.
See also this sinister explanation for lousy Parisian bread
Shopping for groceries is a lot of fun in Paris. The ingredients here are fresh,and there's such variety of fruit and cheese and meats and bread and pastry. The produce quality is better than in San Francisco, too; it's shameful how bad lettuce is in California.
The trick in Paris is to buy things from specialists, not supermarkets. This means going to several different stores on a shopping trip and figuring out which boulanger has the best bread, which cheese shops are better at mountain cheeses vs. soft cow cheeses, and careful produce inspection.
My favourite place to shop is the Marché Maubert, a three days a week outdoor market. Some 30 different vendors selling fruits, vegetabls, meats (calves brains!), cheeses, pastas, middle eastern specialities, and, oddly, suitcases. The two or three permanent shops there are quite good as well. My Parisian restauranteuse friend Evelyne was kind enough to go shopping with us the first time and show us the ropes. Quite easy; afterall, the vendors want to sell to you as much as you want to buy.
Hot on the heels of our lousy salad-in-a-bread-bowl, Ken and I finished another 45 minute marché de manger at some random pizza place we found in the 6th or 7th that was open and advertised "feu de bois". Nice enough neighbourhood joint, slightly rowdy and good spirited, but nowhere near good enough to warrant remembering.
The one thing I do remember was the gentleman sitting next to us, a regular. In his mid 60s, very large, slight difficulty moving. But well loved by the staff despite (or because of?) his tendency to flirt with the young male staff. His eyes followed every young man in the room, not rudely, just enjoying the scenery while dining. Tres gentile. He helped us get the waiter's attention a time or two, was friendly, but alas my French isn't good enough for casual conversation. I did get a good smile from him when I made a mildly intimate gesture with Ken, letting our friend know we were fellow travellers. Paris is good for people.
The nadir of my dining in Paris so far is a joint right across from Notre Dame at the end of the Petit Pont. There's a string of several outdoor cafes; good for a beer, bad for food. Should have run away with I saw they proudly advertised "salad served in a bowl made of bread!". Nasty day old pizza dough, inedible. And the salade nicoise was lacking in all the goodness that makes a French salad. Hey, they're not all good.