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The Art of Parisian Living

Boulangerie, Paris, France
Parisians insist on quality, and shop with their noses...try it.
By Rick Steves

Why is Paris our most popular city tour destination? For starters, it stands as a symbol of the finest things that culture can offer — in art, fashion, food, literature, and ideas. It's flat-out filled with joie de vivre. When in town, I stay in a charming little family-run hotel on a pedestrian-only market street in "village Paris" just seven blocks from the Eiffel Tower. It's so French, when I step outside in the morning I feel like I must have been a poodle in a previous life.

With the help of a good guide or guidebook, you'll do more than see Paris — you'll truly experience it: chatting with the man who makes your crêpe, popping into chic boutiques, and sniffing "zee feet of angels" in a neighborhood fromagerie. You'll cruise the Seine, marvel at the nighttime glow of the Eiffel Tower, sip coffee in sidewalk cafés...and struggle not to say "wow" too many times a day. And, of course, you'll eat — very, very well. After all, this is the capital of cuisine.

If you wish to learn the fine art of living Parisian-style, a stroll down a neighborhood market street provides an excellent classroom. And if you wish to assemble the ultimate French picnic, there's no better place. (These vignettes come from Rue Cler, which most of our groups call home and which is described in a self-guided walk in my Paris guidebook.)

Shopping for groceries is an integral part of daily life here. Parisians shop almost daily for three good reasons: refrigerators are small (tiny kitchens), produce must be fresh and it's an important social event. Shopping is a chance to hear about the butcher's vacation plans, see photos of the florist's new grandchild, relax over un café, and kiss the cheeks of friends (the French standard is twice for regular acquaintances, three times for friends you haven't seen in a while).

This café is a neighborhood fixture. Drinks at the lively bar (comptoir) are about half the price of drinks at the tables. Notice the list of wines sold by the little (7 cl.) glass on the blackboard. The "tickets restaurant" and "cheque déjeuner" decals on the door advertise that this café accepts lunch "checks." In France, an employee lunch subsidy program is an expected perk. Employers issue these checks (worth about $5) for the number of days an employee works in a month. Sack lunches are rare. A good lunch is sacred.

Produce shops are stocked with the freshest fruits and vegetables. Each morning fresh produce is trucked in from farmers to Paris' huge Rungis market near Orly Airport and then out to merchants with FedEx speed and precision. Locals generally shop with a trolley rather than use bags needlessly. Also notice how the French resist needless packaging and go with what's in season.

Parisians shop with their noses. Try it. Insist on quality. Smell the cheap foreign strawberries. Then smell the torpedo-shaped French ones (gariguettes). Find the herbs. Is today's delivery in? Look at the price of those melons. What's the country of origin? It must be posted. If they're out of season, they come from Guadeloupe. Many people buy only French products.

The fish monger sells yesterday's catch — brought in daily from ports on the English Channel, 100 miles away. In fact, fish in Paris is likely fresher than in many towns closer to the sea because Paris is a commerce hub, and from here it's shipped out to outlying towns. Anything wiggling? These shops, like all such shops, have been recently upgraded to meet the new EU-mandated standards of hygiene.

Don't miss the wine shop. Shoppers often visit the neighborhood wine shop last — when they have assembled their meal and are able to pick the appropriate wine. The wine is classified by region. Most "Parisians" have an affinity to their home region, which affects their choice of wine. Notice the great prices. Promotional "wines of the month" sell for about $5–8. You can get a fine bottle for $10-15. The salesperson is a counselor who works with your needs and budget.

Nearby, smell the fromagerie (cheese shop): wedges, cylinders, balls and miniature hockey pucks all powdered white, gray, and burnt marshmallow — it's a festival of mold. Ooh la la means you're impressed. If you like cheese, show greater excitement with more las. Ooh la la la la. My local friend held the stinkiest glob close to her nose, took an orgasmic breath, and exhaled, "Yes, it smells like zee feet of angels." Try it.

Inside, browse through some of the 400 different types of French cheese. A cheese shop is known as BOF (beurre, oeuf, fromage) and is the place where people go for butter, egg, and cheese products. In the back room are les meules, the big, 170-pound wheels of cheese (250 gallons of milk go into each wheel). The "hard" cheeses are cut from these. Don't eat the skin of these big ones...they roll them on the floor. But the skin on most smaller cheeses — the Brie, the Camembert — is part of the taste. "It completes the package."

At dinner tonight, you can take the cheese course just before or as the dessert. On a good cheese plate you have a hard cheese (like Emmental, a.k.a. "Swiss cheese"), a flowery cheese (maybe Brie or Camembert), a blue and a goat — ideally from different regions. Because it's strongest, the goat cheese is usually eaten last.

The charcuterie sells mouthwatering deli food to go. Because kitchens are so small, these gourmet delis are handy, allowing hosts to concentrate on the main course and buy beautifully prepared side dishes to complete a fine dinner. Notice the system: order, take your ticket to the cashier to pay, and return with the receipt to pick up your food.

At the boucherie you'll sort through pigeons, quail, and rabbit. Look for things you may want to avoid in restaurants: rognons (kidneys), foie (liver), coeur de boeuf (heart of beef). Hoist a duck and check the feet; they should be rough and calloused — an indication that they weren't stuck in an industrial kennel but ran wild on a farm. While Americans prefer beef, pork, and chicken, the French eat just as much rabbit (lapin), quail (caille), lamb and duck. Horse has just gone out of fashion in the last decade. (The meat came from East Europe and was of questionable safety.) And the head of a calf is a delight for its many tasty bits. The meat is seasonal. In the winter, game swings from the ceiling.

Locals debate the merits of rival boulangeries. It's said that a baker cannot be both good at bread and good at pastry. At cooking school they major in one or the other and locals say that when you do good bread, you have no time to do good pastry. If the baker specializes in pastry...the bread suffers.

Remember: Whenever popping in and out of French shops, it's polite to greet the proprietors ("Bonjour, Madame") and say merci and au revoir as you leave. Bon appétit!