Falling for Paris in the Fall: Part Two, Food

Chocolate has become synonymous with autumn in Paris because of the Salon du Chocolat. That’s recent.

Think nuts. Horse-chestnuts are the centuries-old symbol of springtime in Paris but, better still, roasting real chestnuts, the delicious, edible variety, usher in the fall and have done so since the days of Caesar. Wherever the Romans marched and conquered they carried with them garlic, olive trees and chestnuts trees, not to mention emmer and all the other heirloom grains that went into the ancestor of today’s polenta.

But we’re straying from Paris and chestnuts.

Edible chestnuts do not grow in the City of Light, though some people seem to think they do, and are unpleasantly surprised when they try to eat the marrons dropping from the horse chestnut trees in the Luxembourg Gardens.

But that doesn’t mean you won’t find real chestnuts everywhere making your mouth water as you prowl the streets with hunger in your heart. That inimitable scent of burning wood and charcoal, and the toasted shells of chestnuts, wafts up from stands on a hundred street corners.

Fall is still the best season for food and wine in Paris: pâtés, terrines, sausages and hams, foie gras, duck confit and other deliciously fattening delights.

The weekly or twice-weekly street and farmer’s markets found in every arrondissement artfully display a kaleidoscope of harvest colors. From the humble Place d’Aligre and Boulevard Richard Lenoir markets, via the bobo hipster stalls of the Infants Rouge market in the Marais, to the hoity-toity 7th and 16th arrondissements Paris becomes not just a moveable feast but a painterly one to boot.

Until the end of October you can buy regal produce at the Chateau de Versailles’s Potager du Roi—the “King’s Kitchen Garden.” Yes, it still exists, the forces of nature having outlived the Divine Right kinds. Louis XIV heirloom produce—including about 150 varieties of pear and 200 of apple—are offered for a price to the gathered masses.

Cheese? The unmistakable, earthy perfume of Paris’ cheese-mongers’ grottoes dances with the scent of chestnuts, the smell of roasting chickens and meat, to make a shopping trawl on Rue Cler, Rue Mouffetard or Rue Saint-Antoine a dizzying delight. This morning I was at Androuet on Rue Mouffetard poking the Brillat-Savarin and jawing with Patrick the maître fromager—the famous shop’s cheese meister—about wine and cheese pairings. (On our “Paris in April” tour we do a spectacular wine-cheese tasting each April and we’re going to feature it in a Paris in the Fall tour soon).

Though Brillat-Savarin is wildly good my favorite is still the oozing, luscious, unctuous, eat-with-a-spoon Vacherin (alias Mont d’Or, when made in France).

The obesity pandemic continues to rage here as elsewhere, especially among the young, yet most adult Parisians—the ones who scarf the cheese and chocolate and foie gras and drink the wine—remain as slim as ever. Why’s that? Teenagers alternately swill soda pop and sweet alcoholic beverages, they eat junk food and snack just like their American counterparts. McDonald’s second-largest market is France: it has over 1,000 franchises here.

The only thing that saves French youngsters from untenable fatness is the fact that they smoke like fiends: 40 percent of adolescents are nicotine additions (the percentage is even higher for teenage girls).

Meanwhile, toothpick-thin Parisian adults benefit from the abundant fresh food; they at least try to enjoy themselves when eating. They also do a lot of walking, philandering, talking and arguing in that typical, feisty Parisian way. And they too smoke like chimneys.

To end on a positive note… Carla Bruni Sarkozy, as of yesterday the mother of a (politically premature but otherwise healthy) suckling girl, has been widely reported as saying she’s eager to get out of the hospital and back to normal life. She misses her smokes and wine, which is a polite way to say cigs and booze. What a fine role model for France’s youth! Bravo!

At least Carla is slim and glamorous (some commentators even find her pretty). The really great news is that her husband, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, does not drink or smoke and he’s slim and fit and feisty as they come. Nicolas also eats industrial quantities of chocolate. So there’s hope that, even if the French one day smoke less or grow up and quit entirely, as a national block, they still won’t get fat, and they may even enjoy their food and wine even more. Qui sait?

Come back soon and read part three… and in the meantime, you’ll always have Paris, Paris

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David Downie

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