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Whenever I go to Paris I like to bring back spices. Last time, it was ras el hanout from the Belleville market and this time I found some amazing Madagascan black peppercorns in Le Comptoir Colonial in Montmartre. Dodgy name aside, Le Comptoir is a fantastic little store with dried beans, leaf teas, and gifts along the walls and a central island made up of heaping vats of spices from around the world.
I could spend hours in a place like this. There are familiar flavours, of course, like the various dried chilies and spice mixes, but even these look – and smell – more interesting when they’re fresh and not stuck in a glass jar.
This turmeric was beautifully vibrant.
There were also some things I couldn’t identify, or at least wasn’t completely familiar with. I think this is some sort of giant saffron, but really it looked like a big basket of hair. A delicious big basket of hair, but a big basket of hair nonetheless.
The assistant was really helpful. In addition to letting us photograph more or less everything in her shop, she was on hand to offer advice on the produce. I overheard her telling another customer that the Madagascan peppercorns were “a little miracle” so I couldn’t resist trying them out. She gave me a taster, grinding a bit into my hand, and the flavour really was unexpected. It’s moderately peppery, not super strong, but with a floral quality that’s quite distinctive. As you can see in the photo at the top of the post, these peppercorns are tiny ovals on stalks, much smaller than regular Indian black peppercorns, and they grow wild in the forests of Madagascar. Given my love of Madagascar’s native wildlife, I was obviously drawn to these little fruits. Perhaps lemurs were playing in these pepper vines before they were harvested and shipped to Paris!
The pepper is going to be used in my regular cooking, but I am also looking for ways to highlight it, rather than just use it as seasoning. I’ve been working up the courage to try Miss Cay’s amazing looking Strawberry Black Pepper Jam, which would surely be the perfect dish to highlight this “petit miracle” of a peppercorn. Until I trust in my abilities to sterilise jars without poisoning my friends, however, there’s the lazy expedient of just rolling fresh strawberries in ground pepper. The combination of sweetness and bite makes a pretty good early evening bite with a nice cold glass of rosé.
I don’t go to New York to eat American food, nor do I spend my time in London eating British food, but somehow I feel like I’m expected to eat French food in Paris. Probably it’s because Paris is at once the self-conscious centre of French haut cuisine and a cultural cliché of bistros and steak frites. We often think of the city as the bastion of a certain kind of French culinary experience that matches perfectly with a tourist itinerary of museums, churches and architecture. In the same way that we expect to eat (delicious) Roman food in Rome, we imagine Parisian food to be an integral part of travelling to Paris. But if the cliché is familiar, it’s also both limiting and not so pleasurable. Maybe I’ve been unlucky, but whereas I’ve never eaten a bad plate of food in Rome, I’ve had a good deal of mediocre bistro food in Paris. Meat dishes heavy on the butter but light on flavour, insipid salads of overcooked vegetables, decently cooked classics that just fail to excite the imagination: eating French food in Paris can seem like a faintly embarrassing exercise in unsuccessful nostalgia.
I’m sure there is amazing modern French food out there, but just as any self-respecting visitor to Paris sees beyond the tourist circuit, I don’t think you can’t get a proper feel for the city by eating only ‘national’ food. I’ve come to think of Paris eating as less like Rome and more like London, where the city’s postcolonial and cosmopolitan cultures make for a plethora of cheap and delicious cafes and restaurants that get you out of the soulless grind of the tourist trail. I’m far from an expert on Paris: I’ve never lived there and I mostly go for weekends or short trips. But I do have a nose for exciting food in unlikely places. So this isn’t an insider’s guide to Paris eating but some itineraries of a tourist who can’t keep to the proper routes. Where do you go when you can’t face ‘French food’?
If there’s one altar of French cuisine that I am fully willing to worship at, it’s boulangerie and patisserie. Let’s face it, the French are unsurpassed in the pastry arts and a trip to Paris without substantial stuffing of pastries into one’s gaping maw is a trip wasted. Since I’ve been here, I’ve had a wonderfully heavy apricot and custard pastry, a chocolate-studded brioche, and a very correct baguette. But you haven’t really had pastry till you’ve been to Poilâne and I try to work in a pilgrimage to the original bakery in St. Germain each time I’m here.
They have the most beautiful little breads, including these cuties with names on them.
They’re also famous for their punitions (the oddly-named punishment biscuits) and flavoured pastry forks and spoons, plus breads made from a wide range of grains including rice and quinoa as well as wheat. Their sourdough is legendary, and the nut loaves are rather good too.
However, there’s one thing I always go back for and that’s the simple apple tartlets. If there’s a better single bite in Paris than Poilâne’s apple tart, I’d be surprised. It’s the Platonic ideal of light, buttery pastry and soft, sweet apple. I could eat them every day and it’s really just as well I’m not in a position to.
Poilâne bakery, 8 rue du Rue Cherche-midi, 6e, Paris
With royal wedding fever taking over England, Mr Lemur and I have bailed on the whole unpleasant spectacle and taken the Eurostar to Paris for the long weekend. I like living in England, I really do, but there are times when it is imperative for a self-respecting Scot to get the hell out of Dodge and, along with the World Cup, this is one of those times. We’re staying in the 8th arrondissement by Parc Monceau, which I think might be the Parisian equivalent of the Upper East Side in New York. Right on the edge of the 17th, it’s leafy and quiet with the grand gates of the park enclosing some really beautiful apartment buildings. Longstanding Lemur friends J and D are lucky enough to live here with their kids, and are kindly allowing us to take refuge in this bastion of republicanism from the onslaught of royal media.
We wandered out into the neighbourhood for something to eat last night, and, at our hosts’ recommendation, stopped off at Rimal Lebanese restaurant. This is probably going to be something of a theme, I’ll warn you: I like French food just fine and I’m sure we’ll eat some of it while we’re here but honestly I often find it to be too heavy, meaty, and a teensy bit dull. I know, I know, this is a terrible thing for a foodie to say, but one of the things I like best about eating in Paris is the non-French food. (Note: this does not apply to the world of baked goods, in which, I think it’s clear, French have got it entirely right.) anyway, our ears perked up when J and D mentioned a Lebanese place, and they weren’t wrong. Rimal is a popular local joint with a cafe/takeout on one side of the road and a slightly more formal restaurant on the other. Both were crowded but we opted for the restaurant as we wanted to try the mezze.
Rejecting the house selection of mezze, we opted to choose our own, as there were a few dishes I knew I had to have. Since the house selection was ten plates, we went for eight, as we figured we weren’t hugely hungry, and it’s just as well we did as the portions were generous. Fattouche was exactly as you’d want it to be, a light and tasty salad full of fresh vegetables and crispy pita bread.
Foul moudamas were probably the most dramatic ratio of looks to taste – an unassuming bowl of beans, it fairly sparked with garlic and spices.
Probably my favourite Lebanese dish is mouhammara. I first ate this amazing spread at the a little hole in the wall Middle Eastern takeout called Waterfall Cafe in Brooklyn that a friend lived upstairs from. We used to call it ‘red stuff’ and ate it by the bucketload. It’s made of walnuts, pomegranate molasses, chilies and some spices I can never quite identify and it’s utterly addictive. I’ve made my own based on a recipe from the New York Times that’s very nice but not quite right. This version was just perfect, warm and spicy.
There were also some delicious meat dishes, including these cooked lamb kibbe, which were perfectly juicy, with none of the dryness that often mars these little morsels. The square pastries at the top are safiha, filled with lamb, tomatoes and pine nuts, and there were also arayess, leaves of grilled flatbread stuffed with ground lamb, which Mr Lemur was mildly obsessed by.
Today, it’s out into Paris to find some more deliciousness – and to keep as far as possible from any mention of bloody Wills and Kate.