Learning about Paris food culture on a tour with a Florida guide

PARIS

There are some tricks to buying baked goods at Eric Kayser's artisan boulangerie on rue Monge.

Rule No. 1: Don't dawdle. Even though the canyon of baked goods will leave you slack-jawed, know what you want.

Rule No. 2: Don't touch. The salespeople will handle the goods after you tell them what your heart desires.

Rule No. 3. Get in line. There's a reason that people are standing single file.

Rules No. 1 through 3 are complicated by the fact that you won't be able to decide from the vast selection of breads, tarts, cookies and cakes.

And you will want to touch. The crusty baguettes, which people in the know say are the best in all of Paris, beg to be squeezed. (By the way, if you want your baguette dark on the outside, almost a bit burned, order it bien cuit, meaning well done. Really, that's a thing.)

Glistening tarts with sugared berries bring out the kid in you who wants to plunge a finger into the custard underneath.

And the lemon bichon? Well, I've never heard of the caramelized pastry filled with lemon cream but I want one the second I spy it. Maybe it's worth a swift slap on the hand to grab one and stuff it in my mouth right away.

Luckily, I have Wendy Lyn to save me from my gluttonous and eager ways. She is an American in Paris, and one from Panama City no less. She speaks English with a strong molasses drawl, but her French has no trace of the South.

More than 25 years ago, Lyn visited the City of Light at the end of a college program in London, and fell in love. She has been living here ever since, though she returns to Florida at least once a year to visit her family. And the folks come to Paris, too.

Food, especially Gulf Coast seafood, was a big part of her upbringing and she took her affinity for local food with her to Europe.

She became a public relations consultant to some very big chefs and well-known restaurants in France and other parts of the world. But after a time, she struck out on her own and started her walking tours. Her website, thepariskitchen.com, is a valuable resource for visitors looking for the hottest places to eat and drink, and as a Parisian etiquette guide.

Food walking tours have proliferated around the world in recent years. For travelers, they are a great way to learn about a city's food culture from an expert. Plus there are samples.

With guides, I have tasted the food cart culture in Vancouver, British Columbia; eaten at the food boutiques of the back-from-the-dead Hayes Valley neighborhood of San Francisco; and noshed everything from chocolate-covered cherries to hefty mac-and-cheese at Seattle's Pike Place Market.

Lyn's tours come highly recommended, though I thought there should be more food samples for the price (about $215 per person). The Wall Street Journal named her one of the world's best culinary guides. She gets high marks from USA Today, Travel & Leisure and the Today Show, and late last year the Sunday magazine of the Times of London pronounced hers one of the top food walking tours in the world.

She offers a variety of tours, including a wine-centric ramble, but I chose a morning walk called the "Best of the Latin Quarter and Saint-Germain." These neighborhoods are on the Left Bank, and though I don't know Paris well, I know these areas even less. All the tours are private; she doesn't bundle groups together.

We met Lyn at the Maubert-Mutualité Metro stop, dressed in layers to combat the cold, damp weather. Lyn breezed down the sidewalk, a tres chic figure in skinny jeans, chunky high heels and a kicky bob. Everywhere we stopped, people knew her, from the sausagemaker at the outdoor market along Boulevard Saint-Germain to the fishmonger to the cheese shop proprietor. There were kisses on both cheeks and serious concerns about a recent cold that kept her away.

We walked the lanes of the outdoor market, dodging strollers and locals in a rush. Had the weather been better, this would have been the place to buy picnic food: Brie and baguettes; salty olives and pate.

We stopped for quite a while at the stall of Héléne Mudry. She and Lyn caught up while I wondered if I could bring the entire table of foie gras back to the States. We sampled bits of that plus her duck rillettes, and Mudry said the long-cooked duck bits are tastier when not practically frozen. The air was that frigid.

I bought a couple of cans of rillettes to take home and load on crackers on New Year's Eve back in St. Petersburg. A touch of Paris, for sure.

We visited with a fishmonger, too, marveling at the lovely scallop shells, the wee specimens still inside, and got a primer on olives at another stall. The picholines, bright in both color and taste, were a specialty from this vendor.

Throughout our three-hour walk, Lyn passed on information about the neighborhood, where she had lived for most of her time in Paris. She recently moved to the other side of the Seine, mostly because, she said, good luck turned up a wonderful apartment there.

Near the market is the small cheese shop of Laurent Dubois. Dubois is a Meilleur Ouvrier de France, which is a designation given to culinary professionals who have been deemed the best in the land through rigorous and regular competitions. Eric Kayser's bakers have earned this distinction, too.

Oh, how I wished I could get locked up at the fromagerie overnight. Piles of goat cheese, Morbier, Mont d'or, Camembert and Brie de Melun rest in various stages of aging and I wanted to try them all.

Again, don't touch. Get in line and someone will ask if you need help.

I tell the cheesemonger that I want to buy some Morbier, that distinctive cow's milk cheese with the line of ash wiggling down the middle. He asks how many I will be serving and when we will eat it.

There will be two of us and this afternoon, I say. From that information, he selects the amount and the level of aging. If I had said we would be eating it in two days, he would have selected another that would be perfect to eat at that time, Lyn said.

Another lesson: Trust the expert.

We finish the tour at chocolatier Patrick Roger's sleek shop. He is another Frenchman who has earned Meilleur Ouvrier status. He may be just as famous for his elaborate chocolate sculptures as he is for his sophisticated chocolates.

A large ape reminiscent of Rodin's Thinker is in the window. The display cases look as if they could be showing off diamonds, rather than chocolate laced with ginger, pepper and lemongrass, among other interesting flavors.

Even the brilliant aqua green bags are cool, their handles made of thin rubber ropes, a nod to Roger's love of cars.

I say goodbye to Lyn on the sidewalk outside the chocolate shop. And now it's my turn for double cheek kisses.

I know more now than when we started, but really my appetite has just been whet.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8586.

IF YOU GO

A food walking tour of Paris

Wendy Lyn's three-hour private food tours of Paris are held year-round Tuesdays through Sundays. She offers tours in the morning and afternoon, concentrating on farmers markets, the Left Bank, the Bastille neighborhood (her newest tour) and wine and cheese shops. Cost is about $215 per person. Visit Lyn's website, thepariskitchen.com, for more information, plus lots of suggestions for dining in Paris.

Lyn suggests eating at Le Bistrot Paul Bert (18 rue Paul Bert in the Bastille district of the Right Bank; dinner $50 to $65 per person). As with most Paris restaurants, you'll want to make a reservation. I loved the atmosphere in the tight space of the traditional Parisian bistro. It was too cold in mid November to sit outside, but I imagined returning in balmier weather. The menu is in French on chalkboards that servers move from table to table. Our server was happy to translate when we needed help. Among the offers were Cote de Boeuf with house-made frites, escargot, fabulous cheese plates and macarons the size of hamburgers.

There are many types of accommodations in Paris, though a lot are pricey. I have stayed at the Scribe Hotel near the Opera House after finding a good deal on Expedia. A reasonably priced hotel, the Pas de Calais (59 rue des Saints Peres) is a charming facility not far from the Eiffel Tower for which I have see rates as low as $250 a night on Expedia. Information: hotelpasdecalais.com.

If your wallet can handle it or you've just won the lottery, the five-star Park Hyatt Paris-Vendome, 5 rue de la Paix in the 2nd arrondissement, is near some of the city's most exclusive designer shops. It is walking distance to many city landmarks, including the Tuileries Garden that leads to the Louvre. Rooms start at about $850 in winter, but fluctuate throughout the year. Information: paris.vendome.hyatt.com. A bit cheaper but still chic, the Pavillon de la Reine, 28 Place des Vosges, is a boutique hotel in the Marais section of Paris. It is set back from the street, separated from the historic Place des Vosges square by a lovely courtyard. Rooms start at about $500 in winter, but fluctuate throughout the year. Information: pavillon-de-la-reine.com.

Janet K. Keeler

Learning about Paris food culture on a tour with a Florida guide 01/13/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 14, 2014 1:40pm]

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