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Forget love, Paris is the city of food

Posted on 23-09-2013

I’m writing this post aboard my return flight from Paris, and I think I might be pregnant. No, not from the countless French men who swooned over me during my stay (all three of them), but rather I’ve been eating so much over just two days that I certainly think there’s something growing inside of me. Let’s hope it’s a choux bun.

But seriously, I didn’t realize just how much food I’d be enjoying during my stay. Of course, my culinary journey was purely by accident – having a whole free day to myself before I flew back, I decided to do the Parisian thing and wander the streets, trying hard not to look like a tourist.

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Turning the corner from my hotel, it dawned on me just how many patisseries there are nearby. I walked into the nearest one, eyes wandering over the perfectly glazes tarts and melt-in-your-mouth éclairs. I opted to start my day with a baguette that had been stuffed with sliced boiled egg, lettuce, tomato, Dijon, smoked salmon, and was finally peppered with a few black olives. I underestimated two things about this sandwich – one that the crust was so hard that I had to clamp my jaw shut completely in order to break off a chunk to chew, and two that it was actually the length of a foot-long Subway sandwich. But some kind of feral hunger took over me, and within twenty minutes the only traces of the sandwich that remained was a crumpled up sheet of wax paper with a few crumbs. Of course, what’s life without dessert, so I opted to polish off a vanilla éclair. The top of the éclair cradled an impressive amount of vanilla glace icing, but biting into it revealed the soft, yellow custard that lay within. It was a gorgeous moment, one that I relished over and over with each bite I took. Towards the end the glace icing was really starting to get to me, but I didn’t care – I’d put a great number of things in my mouth over the years, but nothing compared to this sandwich and éclair.

Content with my choice of breakfast, I ambled down the streets, stopping briefly only to wander into a gigantic bookshop and later, just for kicks, to buy a bottle of water from a Carrefour. About half an hour later, I walked into something completely wonderful and unexpected (no, it wasn’t a taxi stand). Set in the middle of an entire stretch of road, there was an open market, with vendors selling everything from cheese, wine, meat, sandwiches, carpets, jewelry – you name it. The place was teeming with people, most of them tugging along a small trolley laden with fresh produce. Babies grinned from their prams. Elderly people stood hunched over at counters, peering at shopping lists hastily scribbled on Post-It notes. Vendors shouted at customers and each other, desperate to attract attention. “Melons! Melons! Un melon un Euro!” The smell of everything was intoxicating. Fresh fruits and vegetables, chickens roasting slowly at a rotisserie, a fragrant coconut curry being sold at a Columbian stall, fishmongers skillfully portioning fresh salmon – there was activity everywhere.

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For reasons I still can’t fathom, I was hungry again. I wondered if I had only dreamt about eating the sandwich I had polished off less than an hour ago, but nevertheless the sights and sounds around me compelled me to take part in this opulent feast. I walked up to the nearest stall, which happened to belong to an Italian proprietor. Freshly made pasta sat in mounds at the front, while gigantic wheels of cheese in every size and flavor sat in neat rows behind him. I greet him shyly in French, but within minutes he’s figured out that I’m essentially a tourist, and his tone becomes laced with flattery. I sample some of the olives swimming in huge vats, but I politely refuse when he tries to sell me a bottle of olive oil. I settle instead on a miniature lasagna, this one cooked with a mixture of beef and pork mince, mixed with tomatoes and carrots and topped with a gloriously perfect layer of béchamel. The portion is no bigger than my palm, but only after eating it does the mixture of pasta, meat, and cheese take its lethargic effect on me. And while I stand there in my half-pasta bliss, I realize that I haven’t even paid the man, and he’s been standing there quite patiently watching me eat. I grab my wallet and thrust a note at him, mumbling something to the effect of how wonderful the dish was and he can keep the change. He smiles gratefully and scoops up a small plastic container, the contents of which I immediately spot as Tiramisu. I smile gratefully and accept the divine dessert, which is consumed within three feet of leaving his stall. It’s at this point I also discover that the proud chef seems to have been a bit generous with the Amaretto in this dessert (must complain to the kitchen when I regain feeling in my right leg).

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I then walk by a stall manned by a woman who’s deftly churning out crepes of every flavor to a crowd of eager (and surprisingly patient) customers. Beside her crepe station are huge mounds of pastries and breads, each one more delicious looking than the next. I intelligently choose to not expedite my food coma, and smile as I move along through the crowd. A little bit later I come across another Italian stall, this time selling a beautiful selection of hand-made cannoli. I delicately pluck one up and pop it into my mouth. The crusty shell caves in almost immediately in my mouth, giving way to a smooth and creamy filing that’s been faintly caressed with lemon. I pick up four more and much on them as my nose leads me forward, past the huge displays of sausages and cuts of meat.

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I find myself among produce vendors again, rows of fruits and vegetables gleaming brightly in the sunshine. I wander to the nearest stall and admire the endless variety on display, stopping to gaze longingly at the various boxes of berries that lay in neat rows. I pick up a small tray of raspberries and inhale deeply, their subtle fragrance begging me to pop the entire tray into my mouth. I pay a ridiculously low sum for two trays (even by Paris standards), and have eaten one entire tray even before I’ve stopped in front of a small coffee shop to rest.

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I’ve been walking for about two hours straight, and it was only the constant stream of food and activity that distracted me from how far I had walked. I ask the waitress for a simple cup of hot chocolate, but she decides that I also need to eat something because I look hungry. At this point I can either narrate everything I’ve been eating or just agree with her, so I just end up saying “Oui” and she disappears. She then returns triumphantly with a small plate with three neatly folded crepes on it, swimming in a light caramel sauce. “Ah, Crepe Suzette?” I ask her “Non, non, monsieur!” she replies, smiling as she lays the plate and steaming mug of chocolate on my tablet. I cut away a small portion of crepe and bathe it in the sauce before popping it into my mouth. I was right about the caramel, but it tastes slightly nutty and has a distinct tang of alcohol in it. I later learned that it was crepe served in a butter caramel sauce made with wild honey, and mentally I made a note to reverse-engineer it when I got back home.

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Having had enough of the market and now feeling extremely full, I began walking back up to my hotel, passing by the vendors still singing and shouting to each other, the bags overflowing with fresh produce, the small brown packages that cradled fresh cuts of meat and fish, and baskets packed with freshly baked bread and pastries. Yes, this was Paris all right, but a Paris that was head-over-hells in love with food.

P.S Yes, I never thought I’d see the day when I penned a food-related blog post on here, but there’s a first time for everything, n’est pas?

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