A Food Adventure in France Begins

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PARIS -- Day One: Landed in Paris and met my driver for the ride into the city center — obligatory ride around the Arc de Triomphe and down Champs-Elysées — to Hotel Bel Ami in the sixth arrondisement, just south of Boulevard Saint-Germain, about a block from the busy street behind Les Deux Magots cafe.

It’s the beginning of the Food Secrets of France tour that I’m co-leading with chef Kevin Fonzo through Art In Voyage — Beyond Travel. I had barely enough time to check into my five-star room (more on that another time) before meeting the group in the lobby to head out on our first tour, a sampling of markets and food shops.

We rode with our guide, Dina, on the Metro to the area above République near Marais. We started walking — on what would be a great day of walking — to Marché des Enfants Rouges, one of the city’s more famous markets, named for the children of an orphanage in the 16th century that were made to wear red.

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As you would expect from a market, there were stands of fresh produce, fish, meats and cheeses, but this particular market is well known among locals for its prepared foods. I’ve never been here that there weren’t long lines of hungry Parisians waiting for food to eat at one of the cramped tables or to take away to a nearby park. The Middle Eastern food stand is particularly popular. We purchased some small tomatoes and strawberries and moved on.

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Dina took us to a fine chocolatier, Jacques Genin. (The city is suddenly awash with precious chocolate shops.) We sampled caramels and chocolate squares and jellied candies made not only in fruit flavors but also vegetable (red pepper candy, anyone?).

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We found a cheese shop, Paroles de Fromager, near Canal St. Martin, and tucked into a table in the back for a countrywide tour of the various regional cheeses, washed down with wine — white for the bries and chevres and red for the Époisses and Roquefort. My favorite was the Saint-Nectaire, a semi-soft cow's milk cheese from the Auvergne resion.

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A walk along the canal to an ice cream shop (pistachio for me, with nuts from Iran) then coffee at Chez Prune, a small neighborhood cafe that was filled with mostly men cheering and booing at the World Cup on a large tv.

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Dina then took us to another cheese shop so she could pick up a special cheese for her in-laws that could be found in only a few fromageries in town, a Brie Noir, brie aged until it becomes black, hard and salty. That doesn’t make it sound good, but it was, and the man at the shop, La Cremerie, was charming and tolerant with our questions about the cheeses and how they are made.

Dina wanted to take us to the Metro station to send us back to our hotel, but we all said we’d rather walk. (This is a group of great walkers, which is nice because Paris is best seen on foot.)

We strolled through the Marais and crossed the Seine near the Department of Justice, stopping at Les Deux Palais, a classic bistro on the Isle de la Cité for refreshment. (Several of us were amazed and disappointed that a French bistro would not have any sweet vermouth at the bar — we’d have to wait for the negroni we’d been craving.)

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After getting cleaned up and changed, we met for a short walk to A La Petite Chaise, the oldest restaurant in Paris (depuis 1680). I chose this restaurant not only because it’s the oldest but also because it is the epitome of a French restaurant — quiet, cramped, not particularly posh, except for nice white linens, but comfortable, with classic cuisine. (A local couple even came in with their dog, who sat at their feet with a little bucket of water under the table in the main dining room. Perfectly French.)

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I started with poached eggs topped with bacon and sitting on a bed of leeks in a red wine sauce. Delicious (bacon and eggs, what's not to love?).

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I was disappointed that the Veau Blanchette wasn’t available and made do with steak tartare, which was nicely executed but a bit too mustardy for me.

Although dessert was included in our formule, most of us were too full. So we strolled back to the hotel and turned in in anticipation of a full day tomorrow, which will include morning and afternoon tours and a much grander dinner at Jules Verne, the Michelin-starred restaurant from Alain Ducasse on the second level of the Eiffel Tower.

I’ll tell you about that as soon as I have a few minutes to write.