I’m continuing my Springtime in Paris theme by sharing some of the stories I’ve written about the world’s most visited city.
One of the best days I’ve ever spent was a day in Paris when my sister Sue and I shopped and cooked with two Parisians – in their neighbourhood market and in their kitchen. It was glorious for me. I had to keep pinching myself that entire day to make sure it was not a dream and I had to write about it.
The article I wrote was called Succulent Paris and it was published by Bonjour Paris and editor/founder Karen Fawcett. Succulent Paris is also the name of the food touring company that delivered this fantastic life experience. We’ve stayed friends and I hope you’ll check out their wonderful tours the next time you visit Paris.
Let the story that follows wet your appetite to do so…
By Karen Anderson
(as originally published for Bonjour Paris)
I have always believed in the diplomatic abilities of food. Perhaps you’ve heard that oversimplified statement – If only our world leaders shared a meal, all the world’s problems would be solved. Well, I actually believe that and in a recent visit to Paris I wanted to challenge my pre-conceived notions that Parisians were aloof and inaccessible and thought food would be the perfect vehicle to do so.
I have visited Paris several times but until now I’d never spent time with any real Parisians. I have only admired from afar their style and panache and secretly wished there was a way to make an acquaintance. I have my own food touring company in Canada and realized that when I entertain guests I am genuinely friendly and affable to them. I decided to put my theory of food’s ambassadorial properties to the test. Could it give me access to the real Parisians I was seeking to know and understand?
I was planning a special trip for my sister and I and a quick perusal of the offerings on Google led me to choose a company called Succulent Paris as the means to achieving my goal. I signed us up for their special Private Gourmet day. We would meet our two hosts for coffee, shop in their neighbourhood and then prepare and enjoy a meal together in their home.
I had never spent time in the 17th arrondissement where we were to meet our hosts but on arrival by Metro at the bustling corner on Rue Villiers we immediately recognized that we had left the tourist district behind. The square was filled with commuters making their way to work and people taking a morning coffee at their favourite café under the canopy of early April’s bright green Linden tree leaves. We met our hosts, Marion Willard and Aurélie Mahoudeau, the owners of Succulent Paris, at Café Monceau.
At last we were tête-à-tête with Parisians and we would get to experience what life in their typical day was like. I was curious about where they live and shop, what they cook and what their homes would be like? Would they approachable and nice or aloof like I had imagined? Do they really live the French paradox or is that a myth? How much duck fat, wine and cheese do they actually consume?
Within the first few minutes of meeting Marion and Aurelie, all my preconceived notions flew out the window. They were kind, gracious, open and friendly. They immediately treated us to coffee and we sat and got to know each other a bit. The two friends met through their children and developed a friendship over their mutual love of food and cooking. They started their business, Succulent Paris food tours in 2008 and specialize in chocolate and pastry tours or the full gourmet day that we had chosen.
After coffee, we began our Parisian provisioning around the corner on Rue de Levis. This street spans about four blocks and has four butchers, four vegetable stalls, six boulangeries-pâtisseries, two cheese shops, and wine, chocolate, olive oil and tea specialty shops. We tasted olive oils from small groves in the south of France at Oliviers and Co, talked to the cheese monger at the 100 year old Androuet, and bought fresh potatoes, spring peas, chives, parsley and strawberries at a variety of produce vendors along the street. The two hosts were careful to ask where products were from and chose local first. The main course was to be a medieval recipe for guinea fowl and we found that easily at their favourite butcher. Aurelie shops this street everyday and the two women were warmly received at each shop we entered.
Another block’s walk led us to Aurélie’s chic Hausmannian apartment for our cooking lesson and lunch. When we crossed the threshold of Aurélie’s apartment, in my mind, we crossed a barrier most tourists never do. We had the privilege of entering a private home in Paris as invited, albeit paying, guests. Aurélie’s home was airy, light and spacious and the kitchen larger than I ever imagined a Paris apartment’s to be. We washed up and began to prepare the meal together chatting easily all the while.
Before long there was guinea fowl braising in one large “cocotte” Dutch oven and potatoes frying in duck fat in another. The recipe for the bird was one recovered by a food historian friend and its use of hazelnuts and parsley gave it a rich almost tarragon-like flavour. We shelled new peas and chopped radishes and spring onions to go with freshly cooked lentils from Champagne for the makings of a seasonal spring salad. Cheeses were set out, and bread direct from the boulangerie was sliced. A buttery pastry crust was thrown together, baked flat and then once cooled, covered with strawberries and melted homemade currant jelly and a side of Chantilly cream.
Preparations complete, we retired to the living room to nibble on lardon and shallot Madeleine’s and sip an aperitif of crisp cool champagne. The conversation flowed and soon we were seated and spooning bites of that “ode to spring salad” from its visually stunning nest in clear water glasses. The rest of the meal was served family style and enjoyed with a Cote du Rhone. We laughed at the amount of cheese our French hosts slathered on their bread and they too laughed and said, “mais oui, it is the famous Paradox”. They are petite, slim and healthy looking and they swear they eat and drink this way everyday. They recited studies about duck fat’s healthful properties and I thought if more people met these women it would be good-bye to EVOO (Extra Virgin Olive Oil) and hello to HCDF (Happily Consumed Duck Fat).
We had eaten slowly and savoured it all and after the strawberry tart we returned to the living room. Coffee arrived along with fresh local chocolates, petite cannelles, and tiny orange cakes. We lingered and the conversation turned to more intimate talk of husbands and children, parents and family traditions, the integration of cultures, travel and dreams for their lives and business. At four o’clock, we marveled that we had just spent six hours with Marion and Aurélie and that it seemed we had known them much longer.
These two women seemed like everything a French person should be if they could be. They were worldly, warm, gracious, funny and hospitable. There was not an ounce of snobbery in them. Food was the vehicle that provided our acquaintance but they had sealed a special bond with their friendship and camaraderie. They opened their lives and homes to us and in doing so showed us that life in Paris is not only Succulent but indeed filled with the joy of food, family, friendship and the most important joy of all, the joie de vivre.