Something About ParisJanuary 29, 2010
Last week I went to Paris with a friend to celebrate her cancer remission. Not surprisingly we had a fabulous time, tasting, walking, eating, using the Metro, shopping (everything is on sale in January) and tasting some more. We even managed to find time for a couple of museums. January is a super time to go as the city has few tourists and it is easy to get into restaurants and museums. I almost didn’t write about my trip in this blog because there are countless internet posts about Paris. I am not providing any new information by telling you not to miss Pierre Herme’s macaroons, Patrick Chapon’s Chocolates or Ladurée’s croissants. (Don’t worry I had my share of all these things).
But then I started thinking about the underlying factors in the French culture that make Paris so incredible from my vantage point as an American pastry chef. Parisians have a deep appreciation for the quality of food. They take it seriously but also get an immense amount of pleasure from it. They expect good quality but do not take it for granted. The food is displayed attractively. Shopping is a visual experience. Even in grocery stores it’s not wrapped in plastic wrap with a bar code slapped on top.
The French have a healthy perspective on eating and indulging. The answer isn’t in low fat and/or over doing it. They have dessert and are in shape. They eat small portions. Pastries are expensive in Paris (as is everything) but the expense helps them keep them special. Like other expensive things they are treasured and savored. Each sweet is not wolfed down like the bag of cookies you get on sale at the supermarket for $3.99. They make a smaller amount last longer. This trait is commented on and agreed with here in the United States but not many people follow it.
There are an amazingly large number of excellent quality pastry shops. Every neighborhood has at least a couple of good boulangeries and pastry shops. A sizeable population and a dedicated clientele allow French pastry chefs to specialize in a smaller number of items. Many of their selections vary and they do not feel compelled to make everything all year long. At home we are lucky to have several great bakeries in an entire city.
My pastry style is classics with a twist. When I walk the streets of Paris and window shop in the patisseries I get inspired. I don’t even have to eat anything. France has always and continues to do an amazing job at French classic desserts. While French savory food has evolved and changed the basic fundamentals of French pastry are consistently alive and well. Seeing the Mona Lisa a couple of times is enough for me but I can never get enough of displays of freshly made baba rhums, financiers or apple chaussons. I see these and it gets my mind turning on how I can twist them so they are still recognizable but have just a little bit more. French pastry chefs make twists on the classics but the original is always recognizable. Fauchon’s éclairs and Le Ble Sucre’s apple tarte tatin show how well French pastry chefs combine the new with the old. They are wildly creative but rarely go too far. Everything works.
When I got home there was a phone message from my credit card company asking me to call their automated number to verify some charges. The system was efficient. The “guy” on the phone stated the amount spent and then said if it was a restaurant, bakery, or clothing store. I pressed “1” if it was a legitimate charge and “2” if I wanted more information. I easily verified three charges. On the 4th, it said at a “fast food place”. I pressed 2 for more information and the voice said “Pierre Herme”. I guess it was fast food as they were efficient and I wasn’t in the shop very long but his work is a long way from American fast food. I will take French fast food over a McSundae any day.