Each time I visit Paris I find something new, discover a great new cafe, bistro or terrace cafe
The Michelin-star chef takes Max Woolridge on a gourmet tour of Paris
“Paris is so much about a celebration of food,” says the top French chef Raymond Blanc. He is giving me a crash course in culinary life a la Parisienne. It is Saturday morning and Blanc has left his Oxfordshire restaurant Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons behind to escort me to one of his favourite culinary experiences in Paris. It’s not a restaurant, bistro or café – it’s a wonderful fresh food market called Marché President Wilson. It’s in the 16th arrondissement on the Avenue du Président Wilson, a street named after the former U.S. Head of State.
Situated between Rue Debrousse and Place d’Iéna, the market (also known as the Pont de l’Alma market) is open on Wednesdays and Saturdays from early morning until early afternoon.
“The food markets in Paris are incredible,” Blanc enthuses to me. “There are some of the best in the world here. For me this is the best.”
And it is immediately abundantly clear that food markets in Paris like this one are a way of life – a living, breathing entity and so much more than just a place to buy fresh produce. The market is a wonderful snapshot of Parisian daily life, a lively gathering of vendors and regulars catching up with each other.
We pass colourful displays of fresh fish, delivered early that morning from the Breton and Norman coasts. Friendly vendors sell the freshest shrimps, lobsters, mussels, oysters and snails.
“This market has the most extraordinary food imaginable,” Blanc says. “The best quality produce, the freshest fish, fruits, vegetables and cheeses.
“Ooh la la,” he adds.
Raymond Blanc says this phrase in person a lot, just like he does on TV. It’s like it is the famous chef’s own seal of quality, an official verbal sanction for when something meets his approval. I hear it frequently during my day with him in Paris.
“This market is a very special place,” Blanc enthuses. “It’s all about proud people selling local produce.
We follow our noses towards the west of the street where we find gastronomic delights galore: freshly-made paellas, quiches and beef bourguignon cooking in open pots.
There are also Middle Eastern dishes made with herbs and olive oil simmering on pans that look like metal drums. Then we come across stalls selling rotisserie roast chicken, with potatoes cooked in dripping. The aroma is heavenly. There are plenty of “degustation gratuit” (free samples to try), including coarse country pâté and foie gras.
Near the market we catch sight of a boat on the Seine. This is one of the popular Bateaux Mouches sightseeing cruises that ply their daily trade along the river year in year out.
“Even if you’re not a first-time visitor to Paris you should do all the touristy stuff,” Blanc advises me. “A river trip along the River Seine is a fabulous way to discover Paris and get your bearings. Some people may sneer at these river cruises, but there is no better way to discover the city. It is brilliant, and takes in all the landmarks. You see the best of Paris.
“You might want to avoid the tourist cafés around Montmartre, however. They can be almost too touristy. The best time to go to Montmartre is at sunrise, maybe after you’ve been out partying all night. It’s a great place to see Paris waking up – a whole city coming back to life. There’s the noise, all the people still celebrating. The lights and everything.”
Blanc grew up in a small village in the Franche-Comté region of France, but admits he didn’t discover Paris until he was in his 20s. Although he remembers his first impressions of the city of light as though it was yesterday: “The scale and grandeur of everything in Paris amazed me when I first visited,” he recalls. “The huge avenues, and the way they created light and space. I was also bowled over by Paris’s rich artistic and literary history. The world’s greatest writers and artists came here: Balzac, Sartre, Picasso…
“Emile Zola is my favourite writer. He wrote so brilliantly about the cuisine of Paris. His descriptions of food were marvellous. Ooh la la!
“I love Paris, like everyone, but I’m not an expert,” Blanc says modestly.
“I just know a lot of chefs and gardeners!”
Blanc tells me about his favourite Parisian restaurants.
“But the great thing is each time I visit Paris I find something new, discover a great new cafe, bistro or a terrace cafe.”
We lunch at one of Raymond Blanc’s favourite restaurants, the three-Michelin starred Pierre Gagnaire.
“Pierre is one of the best chefs in Europe,” says Blanc. The chefs have prepared for us a couple of dishes including pan fried fillet of farm veal with aromatic herbs, which is carved in front of us.
A trip to Paris wouldn’t be the same without a healthy chunk of cheese. We head to Laurent Dubois, Blanc’s favourite cheese-maker. He is a Meilleur Ouvrier de France, the highest ranking given to a cheesemonger in France.
Dubois has three fromagerie shops in Paris, selling 150 different cheeses. We are in a tasting room near his shop in Rue de Lourmel in Dupleix, where he offers visitors cheese tastings. We try several of his excellent cheeses, from a lovely Normandy Camembert from the salty meadows of the Cotentin Peninsula to a marvellous Tartuffe, a Comte made with truffles.
“The aim with cheese is emotion after degustation,” Dubois tells us.
We wholeheartedly agree but our mouths are too full of his produce to reply. Instead we nod our approval. All I can hear is Blanc’s trademark “ooh la la” coming from somewhere. Maybe it’s stuck in my head.