Shops & Markets

Algerine Pastries

Algerine Pastries

Walking through the Oberkampf neighborhood this past Friday on my way from one appointment to the next, I glanced at my watch and gleefully realized I had just enough time to drop by La Bague de Kenza, a luxurious Algerian pastry shop on rue Saint-Maur.

There was a line snaking outside onto the sidewalk — it was still Ramadan then and many of the customers were buying sweets for the nightly fast-breaking feast — but this gave me time to be entertained by the verbal fight that broke out when one lady accused another of trying to cut in front of her (if you hadn’t eaten or drunk anything all day, you would be nippy too), and to admire the colorful multitude of picture-perfect delights filled with almonds, pistachios, walnuts, figs, or dates, and flavored with honey, rose water, orange blossom water, mint, citrus, or vanilla.

It’s okay not to know the names of all (or any) of the little guys: the staff often caters to novices, so you can just smile and point, or ask for an assortment. I myself ordered eight different ones: a pistachio skandriate and a lemon and vanilla cornet aux amandes (pictured above, top and right), a sugar-coated corne de gazelle and a walnut baqlava (pictured here, left and top right), a doigt de Kenza, a rfisse (a mix of semolina, walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, date, and honey, ground into a marzipan-like, pleasantly grainy paste), and two more that I unfortunately can’t name: a piped round of almond and walnut paste flavored with orange blossom water and topped with an unpeeled almond (pictured above, bottom left) and a meringue round filled with pistachio paste (pictured here, bottom right).

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Courgette Bicolore


It’s probably safe to assume that I pay more attention to zucchini than the average joe, but if you had been walking by Joël Thiébault’s market stall* with me that day, you wouldn’t have missed these either: there, between the hostess-gift-worthy bouquets of fresh herbs and the off-white bulbs of hélianthi (a cousin of the Jerusalem artichoke with fewer knobs), was a basket of curvy-necked, bi-colored zucchini.

These zucchini were a little scratched, yes, as if they’d spent the morning playing in the bramble thicket, but they were thin-skinned and firm, they looked as if their bottoms had been dipped in pale green paint, and this was too pretty to pass up.

“Are they bi-flavored?” I asked the vendor, “Like Malabars?” (The Malabar is a French bubble-gum that was created in 1958, and comes in a bi-goût version — lemon and strawberry — that was hugely popular in my gum-chewing days.) He laughed and said, “Sure, vanilla and pistachio.” I bought two pounds.

Of course, once the zucchini is sliced — in my case, paper-thinly and served raw in a salad, with olive oil and a few drops of the stupendous 12-year-old balsamic vinegar that my friend Marianne gave me for my birthday — only you will know that it was bi-colored in the first place. But this doesn’t bother me at all; I like the idea that this chromatic oddity is for the sole benefit of the cook, a bit like wearing nice underwear when no one’s there to see it. (If you are intent on showing it off, however, you could opt to halve and stuff the zucchini, perhaps with two different colors of stuffing, to really get your point across.)

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The Best Baguette in Paris

La Meilleure Baguette de Paris

[The Best Baguette in Paris]

…and it’s not even me saying it, but the good members of the jury in the 2006 edition of the yearly Grand Prix de la Baguette Parisienne. The winner is Jean-Pierre Cohier, whose bakery is just off the Place des Ternes: this was his fourth time competing, and he received the distinction for his baguette called Tradition. He’s been making that baguette for twenty years, with flour from the French Beauce region, and it is a baguette that is hand-shaped and requires 24 hours of fermentation. The lucky guy will receive a prize of 4,000 euros, and the exclusive right to fill the daily baguette needs of L’Elysée, where the President de la République lives and works. (This all sounds very grand, but apparently it is just 25 baguettes a day.)

So what’s a Tradition baguette you ask? French bakeries usually offer several types of baguettes these days: a baguette ordinaire, which costs less than one euro, and one or more fancier (and pricier) baguettes, using a different quality of flour and a more elaborate production process — such as Cohier’s “Tradition” baguette. The latter category is usually more to my taste: ordinary baguettes tend to have a tougher and browner bottom crust (and I seem to have issues with that), a thinner interior texture (when I prefer the inside of my baguettes to be Rubens-fleshy), and they also go stale much faster. Great if you’re looking to make croutons for a fondue, not so great if you wish to enjoy it over a couple of days.

[As a side note, I would like to draw your attention to a frustrating void in the English language: correct me if I’m wrong, but there is no single-word way to say “the soft interior of bread”. There is in French: the word is la mie (pronounced “mee”), and it is pretty convenient for writers who want to describe bread using short sentences — not that short sentences are actually my forte or my ambition, but you get my meaning. As a side note to my side note (who says those can’t be nested?), and although there is no etymological connection between the two, ma mie is also a deliciously quaint expression which means “my darling” when said to a woman. It is more often found in literature than in real life, but we could certainly start a trend. Update: “la mie” apparently translates to “the crumb”. Although I don’t think it conveys quite the same idea or, more importantly, feeling — “crumb” sounds a little dry and sad, when “mie” evokes a more noble notion, a certain tenderness or softness, and not just of texture — I stand corrected and happy to have learned this usage.]

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Club-Cake by Fauchon

Club-Cake by Fauchon

… or how to botch a perfectly brilliant idea.

This is the story of a disappointment. I hesitate to call it a cruel disappointment, because I was more disappointed the day I learned that Milli Vanilli was all a lie, but it was a sore one nonetheless.

I had business to do around the Place de la Madeleine the other day, and as I was walking past the Fauchon pastry shop, I stepped inside to take a look — you know, nothing out of the ordinary, just research. It had been a while since my last visit, but I was in fact familiar with most of their shiny new creations, as they tend to be very well covered in the magazines I read. Most specifically women’s magazines, where the picture of that lavishly indulgent pastry is often right on the opposite page from a worryingly slender girl, who has been made to look like said pastry might cheer her up.

I studied the pastries lined up behind the glass case, a tempting array created by pastry chef Christophe Adam, and decided that I urgently needed to invest 5 euros in the club-cake, a tricolor confection made to look — how clever! how titillating! — like a club-sandwich. (I might note here that it is a bit of a pain to purchase things at Fauchon: you get in line to select your stuff, receive a ticket, cross the entire shop to get to the register and pay, and then come back to the original counter with a different ticket that proves you are not a thief, and are thus allowed to collect your goods and get the hell out of here.)

I went home, and later in the afternoon, decided with much anticipation to give the club-cake a try. I took the pink Fauchon box out of the black Fauchon bag, and the silver club-cake box out of the pink Fauchon box. The packaging turned out to be Problem Number One: the sandwiches had sort of smudged themselves onto the little window opening (not very elegant), but more importantly the box was all sticky, although you could tell that someone had tried to wipe it down in an effort to clean it. I could certainly have overlooked the aesthetic issue, but trying to open the back of the box was a bit of a fight: it is made of a rigid and sharp-edged plastic that isn’t very pleasant to handle, and keeps snapping back semi-closed as you pull the sandwiches out.

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Tongue Blood Sausage

Boudin de Langue

[Tongue Blood Sausage]

Paris is filled to the brim with little stores that sell produits du terroir, artisanal products from different regions of France: condiments and spices, jam and honey, cookies and candy, traditional canned dishes such as cassoulet or duck confit… You push the door and feel like you’ve stepped right into Hansel and Gretel‘s bread house, complete with cake roof and sugar windows.

Having read that fairy tale and learned my lesson, I am usually a little suspicious of such stores: it has been my experience that they often sell products that look really nifty with their handwritten labels and grandma-made-it-just-for-you packaging, but turn out to be nothing worth rolling on the floor with the spoon in your mouth (which is dangerous, I might add) when you get home and try them.

Besides, they usually charge an arm and a leg for them, or at least much more than you would pay if you were to buy them from the source. They rely heavily on the impulse purchase factor, and the fact that the goods are so out of context in the cute boutique, that it might not strike you as unreasonable to pay 10 euros for a box of crackers you might not even like that much.

When I noticed earlier this year that a new store called Les Papilles Gourmandes (papilles meaning tastebuds) had opened on the lower end of the rue des Martyrs, I peeked inside briefly, and dismissed it as belonging to the category described above. The name also sounded very uninspired (there is another shop called “Les Pipalottes Gourmandes” a few blocks away, how happy they must be) and, what can I say, names are important to me.

However, someone tipped me off recently on the fact that said shop sold Jean-Yves Bordier’s excellent hand-made butter from St-Malo, and although I’ve been able to find it at several other places in Paris before (at the restaurant Chez Michel in particular), this is a much more convenient location for me.

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