An American in Paris
Paris is an interesting place when it comes to food. It's harder than you might think to find something really good to eat. Like many other European cities, it too has busy people who want to feed their families quickly. Yes, there are those who take lengthy lunch breaks, but there are also those who eat plain sandwiches. And you'd be surprised by the number of teenagers who, when they're hanging out with friends and catching a movie, do a poll of the group and decide on McDo for dinner. It's not all farmers with live chickens and unpasteurised cheeses.
This makes it hard for the visitor to stumble around and find good quality food. Just like in any other city, if you don't know where you're going, you could end up somewhere less than scintillating (much less). But when you do make a find in Paris, it can be stellar. And it is this which makes treasure-hunting in the City of Light totally worth it.
On a recent trip to Paris, Frangelico and I stumbled upon Lafayette Gourmet. It was a Monday, dinner was a long way away, and the markets were closed, but we wanted to have a tapas-style pick-and-choose snack. Galleries Lafayette is a big department store in the city, located on one of the famous Parisian boulevards, Boulevard Hausmann. The brand is a familiar name in South East Asia too. (Well, it was in 1980s Singapore anyway, and that's where all the South East Asians came to shop in those days).
I'd heard a mention of a food hall in this place and we decided to investigate. We rushed along to Boulevard Hausmann, thinking: "This is Paris, the place would have shut at 5pm". As we came up to the building, we saw a sign announcing that Lafayette Gourmet would be open until 9pm. Allez, les Bleus!
True to the name, it's a floor full of gourmet products. We ignored the bottled and packaged and refrigerated, and focused instead on the deli counters. The first sight that greeted us blew me away. Bowls, jars and trays piled with spices. Almost every spice you'd need for Indian cooking was there.
This sight would make my mother so happy
Next was the largest range of peppers I have ever seen anywhere. In the picture below, every small tray surrounding the large central one contains a different kind of pepper. From the large central tray, you can pick up a mixed bag. Pepper is a funny thing for me. An interesting piece of world food history is that, before the chili arrived in India in the 16th century (chili was originally native to Central and South America), Indian chefs used pepper for heat. (Read more about this in my post on Origins). But I don't really like the pepper-based Indian dishes. I guess I must have some Portuguese in me.
People of the world, spice up your life
We had to sample something from this display. Not wanting to pick up any peppers, we decided on salt instead. The salt selection was impressive too, and we picked up a bottle of sinister-looking smoked salt and one of Himalayan pink salt (just to see what the fuss is all about).
Sel fumé and Sel rose de l'Himalaya
As if I hadn't had enough surprises, the counter even had paan on display. Made up of different seeds and spices, paan is the Indian equivalent of an after-dinner mint. It's the fennel seeds that give you the minty tingle in the mouth.
Aromatic and sweet
So, remember we were here for a snack, not just to ogle salts and spices? We did find that too. Numerous deli counters abound, selling bread, cheese and ham, and there are Chinese and Thai counters, selling spring rolls, summer rolls and noodles. A Spanish deli counter caught my eye, and we found my favourite jamon iberico de bellota (a sublime and smooth Spanish ham, last seen on this blog at a wedding in Salamanca). You could either get it to eat right away, or they would slice and vacuum pack it for you (and you could keep it for up to 3 months). Never one to delay pleasure, I got it to go. We also picked up a slab of comté and some fresh walnut bread.
We walked out into the warm, Parisian evening and found a spot opposite the Palais Garnier, the city's Neo-Baroque opera house. In the middle of the Place de l'Opera, on a large island with traffic careering around it, we tore the bread, broke off cheese, and ate the bellota ham with our hands. I'm sure some of the locals must have thought we were crazy to eat at this odd time, and in this fashion, but a pair of aviators can always help you get away with things.
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