I can’t believe this trip is almost over! This is my last post as I am flying back to New York tomorrow. It has been an amazing two weeks – I will never forget the people I met and the things I learned. What bread I have tasted. And this luminous unbelievably crazy beautiful city. I can’t wait to come back.
(I am close to my megabyte limit on wordpress, so this final post doesn’t have as many photos as I would like – but of course check out flickr for more.)
So, the highlights of yesterday (Monday, May 14th) – I indulged in the first of my two big meals in Paris. I should preface this by saying that my eating habits have been primarily limited to bread, cheese, bread, crepes, bread, tarts and fruit. Of course I’ve had the best of each of these – but I generally did not go out for meals at night. After walking all day and carrying these huge bags of fantastic bread, at night I would usually write, catalog my photos and graze on the things I picked up over the day.
So it is without any regret that I indulged in two fabulous meals prepared by two very famous chefs. The first was lunch yesterday at Yannick Alleno’s Le Meurice in the first arrondissment. It’s about a thirty minute walk from my hotel over the Seine and through the Place de la Concorde – a delightful walk. When I arrived at the hotel where the restaurant was located, at first I was a little taken aback. This is luxury old school – very opulent and grand in a traditional french style. I am not used to dining in these kinds of surroundings, and usually I find it a little cold. But I have to say I immediately melted into the experience. The staff of the restaurant was very warm and professional, and they took great care of me.
I don’t know much about the chef other than he just received his third michelin star and is a big deal in Paris. His food really measured up – nothing disappointed. My first amuse bouche was a variaiton of red radish – gelee, foam and pickled – and it was a lovely beginning. It tasted like spring. I was then sent two mousses – a black olive and tomato with melba crisps. This was awesome – both were light as air but had so much flavor. I loved this. My next amuse arrived on a bed of sea salt and it was two cockles with pickled onion and muscavado foam. With this came a tiny paper cone containing six perfect pieces of tiny frites. Lovely. By now I was completely submissive – I guess I’m easy but hey – this chef is good.
I was served an assortment of very sexy looking bread made by Frederic Lalos – the baker I visited last week (if you remember from a previous post). I tried his pain cereales, pain algue and chestnut bread. I am proud to report that his breads were fantastic. Each one was unique in shape, taste and texture but did not conflict with any other course I had – it was a perfect compliment to the chef’s cuisine. (At the end of my meal I overheard the couple next to me who was also finishing speak to the maitre’d. They loved the food but wanted to know who made the bread. They said it was the best they ever had. The maitre’d told them about Lalos and where his shop was and that he was the best baker in France. Nice.)
My first course was a variation on vegetable ravioli. There were two preparations – one was very tiny fried ravs with an almond mousse, the second was on a clear bowl that had five different veg in a clear gelee. This also had tomato foam. When I was finished, the waiter removed the clear bowl finished the course with a veg consumme and spring vegetables.
The second course was a steamed sole with stuffed mushroom and a layer of mussel juice that had gelatinized on top. It was served with oysters and shrimp and spinach. I am not doing it justice – this course was beautifully executed.
The dessert was a panna cotta surrounded by raspberries and strawberries with caramelized sugar and orange sorbet. The orange sorbet didn’t taste like orange – it tasted like rose water and was probably my least favorite component of the whole meal. The petit fours were gorgeous – they consisted of a little glass of lime sorbet with little strawberries and meringue, passionfruit coconut macaroon and pistachio financier. What a fantastic meal. I loved it. A great way to end the trip.
I only wish I had pictures to show you but I couldn’t summon the nerve – it seemed so crass to be clicking away. (Check out http://www.meuricehotel.fr for photos and information on this restaurant.)
After my fabulous lunch I met my new Parisian friend Gwen – the General Manager of BE and her mom Michelle. Gwen had offered to take me to the “Kitchen Arts and Letters of Paris”, the bookstore Librarie Gourmand. This store is a booklover’s paradise. Here I found some great resources to take back home, including Lalos’ Le Pain l’envers du decor (I know Jennilee has this but I want my own copy), Pains Gourmands by Richard Bertinet, Tours de main, Pains speciaux by Christian Vabret. (Peter, I think you have Bertinet?) Gwen bought a copy of Eric Kayser’s 100% Pain and gave it to me as a gift to remember my time in Paris. This woman is a true gem. I went to tea with Gwen and her mom and we talked about the food scene and restaurant industry in Paris among many other things. Her mom teaches international kids both she and Gwen said how they really love to take care of people who travel to France. They think its important to reach out and give people a personal connection. I was really lucky to have found them – they were a very special part of my trip.
After tea I set out with my very heavy bag of books to find two remaining boulangeries I still wanted to try. Right about now is when it started to downpour, so the love and goodwill I felt from a fabulous meal and book shopping with friends faded pretty fast. My cheapy black umbrella was broken in about five different directions – a wind storm a couple of days ago had demolished it. (I hate broken umbrellas.) But I soldiered on to Herve Malineau’s boulangerie in the Marais District.
Malineau is known for having some of the best bread in Paris. For his traditional baguette – the Pain Paulette, he uses clean flour, a small amount of yeast, gentle kneading which does not oxidize the dough and a long pointage of twelve hours. He does not use a deferred fermentation and let the dough get cold. (Information provided by Kaplan’s Good Bread is Back).
Honestly, I was disappointed by the baguette. I hate to write a negative critique – I know that bread can change a lot from day to day and one really needs to give a place several passes before you can make a final call. But the one I tried just didn’t measure up to what I had tried elsewhere. The problem for me was that it lacked flavor and aroma, and the interior was very dense with no large cavities. It’s hard to believe that this was the same baguette that people rave about. Ah well.
Onward to A Moulin de la Vierge, a boulangerie that has five or six outposts in Paris. I had already been to two and this one was a third in the Montparnasse district on the Left Bank. Owned by the famous Basil Kamir, his bakery chain has a pretty good reputation in Paris. However, I always seem to arrive when there is very little to try. I’ve been morning, early afternoon and late afternoons. I don’t get it. Bad luck I guess?
So now today (Tuesday, May 15) – my last full day in Paris. And my second big blowout meal – this one was lunch at Pierre Gagnaire. This chef is one of the most acclaimed in the world, and the restaurant has three michelin stars. Also located in a hotel – (although this one not quite on the scale of Hotel Meurice and currently under construction) – the interior has a more subdued elegance. I was the first to arrive for lunch – actually I was the first to arrive yesterday – maybe I’m a little too enthusiastic. But the staff was very professional and immediately made me feel welcome.
I can’t write the same detail about this meal as Le Meurice – the food was less accessible to me because there were more things to try in smaller quantities and I had trouble understanding the maitre’d. I have a copy of both menus and will try to recreate it as much as possible for you back at home. But the highlights were the plat principal – sea bream with a beurre blanc with hazelnuts and tomato, accompanied by gnocchi with tomato, parmesan and spinach – beautifully presented and wonderful flavors. And then of course the desserts – five in total with petit fours and chocolate service. Five desserts! By the end of my meal I really thought I was going down. I mentioned that I loved the chocolate dessert and the maitre’d asked me if I would like another one. I thought he was insane.
The rest of my day – of course in the rain with my absolutely infuriating cheapy broken umbrella – was spent running around Paris finding my greatest hits list of bread to take back to the folks at work. If all goes as planned, we will have a bread tasting party Thursday morning. All are invited. I really hope this bread survives. I am not telling you what I have – its a surprise. And if it doesn’t make it through customs then you won’t be disappointed. But hopefully I will be able to give you a dose of the fantastic bread Paris has to offer. (I will tell you some of it is a very generous donation from Gwen at BE – thanks a million Gwen!)
The Final Chapter –
Originally when I applied for this scholarship, I had intended to try and get a work visa and intern at Poilane or another bakery that would take me on for a couple of weeks. I quickly learned that it was not going to be easy, French labor laws are really strict and many bakeries do not want take on the hassle of arranging an internship unless you pay them a significant amount of money. So the managers and chefs and I reworked the proposal, and they agreed to let me come to Paris to tour and visit boulangeries and learn from master bakers through spending time tasting, talking and observing. I think I really lucked out – because I ended up spending time and learning from several of the top bread bakers in France today. I can never think about bread production the same way again – this trip has completely opened my eyes to what is possible. Not only did I learn about various methodologies and techniques, I also learned about the politics and history of French bread baking. I saw many different business models and economies of scale. I think I got a wide and far-reaching look into the artisanal bread scene today in Paris. And it blew me away.
When I spoke with Professor Kaplan this evening to thank him for all of his help, he told me in parting that the most important thing a baker can do is “always place oneself into question”. Bread is alive and capricious and one must always be searching for how to improve the quality, texture, taste, aroma. He said the worst thing a baker can do is fall into a blind routine, for that is when you start to get complacent, and its easy to think that what you are doing is acceptable, but in the end it becomes just ordinary, and often bad. When I look back on the best bakers whom I have met in on this trip, it is exactly that quality of searching and exploration that comes through.
Thanks to everyone who gave me this great opportunity to learn and explore – the managers and chefs at Per Se and Bouchon – especially Chef Keller and Chef Benno. I have so much respect for the fact that they provide these kinds of professional opportunities to their staff. Thanks to Professor Steven Kaplan for all his really generous time and help, thanks to Dan Leader of Bread Alone for hooking me up to Poilane, thanks to all the bakers in Paris I’ve met and spent time with, thanks to Peter Endriss (the head baker at Per Se/Bouchon) for all his assistance with this trip and being a great teacher, thanks to the gang on my bread team (Stephane, Rhonda, Akemi, Jennilee) for covering for me and being fun to work with, thanks to – this is starting to sound like an Oscar speech. Mom and Dad and Jenn – thanks for being a fabulous support. And Scott and Parker and Nike – I love you guys – see you tomorrow night! Don’t forget to pick me up at the airport!