A taste of Paris
Patissier Pierre Hermé’s macaroon flavours range from the classic caramel to the unconventional ketchup. (Ming Tang-Evans)
Of all that comes to mind at the thought of Paris, from theatre to history to Claude Monet, its decadent cuisine easily remains among the most prominent. A walk through three very different neighbourhoods of the French capital shows that the city’s reputation as the culinary centre of the world is stronger than ever.
Old dog, new tricks
As the sun begins to sink behind the Louvre, people fold their newspapers and get up from their afternoon seats around the sculpture garden of the nearby Palais des Tuileries. This is the old heart of Paris, the 1st arrondissement. The city is divided into numbered arrondissements, or districts, that spiral out from this palace, which became the centre of regal power in the 12th Century. Though the royals did not endure, another Parisian tradition – the preparation and consumption of good food – survives here undiminished.
On a cobbled street a few blocks away, the atmosphere at Spring is heating up. Kitchen assistants rush around with huge stainless-steel trays of ingredients. Paris is a city that takes its traditions seriously. To the shock of many grandees in its notoriously conservative dining scene, the man behind this creative take on French classics is – of all things – an American. ‘Yes, I’m an American, and I’m in love with France,’ says Daniel Rose, the chef, as his sous-chefs baste, peel and chop in the open kitchen behind him. ‘There, I said it. And I’m getting married tomorrow. To a Frenchwoman, of course.’
Spring is part of a quiet revolution that has taken over Parisian cuisine in the last few years. It has become more relaxed, more modern – and more open to foreign influences. Daniel insists he is not doing anything different. ‘I don’t need to reinvent delicious,’ he says. ‘It’s what the French have done forever. The only thing that’s American about this place is the taste for risk.’ The main course is brought out: tender lamb with savoury cep paste, pomegranate seeds and watercress. It may not reinvent delicious, but undoubtedly that’s what it is. Perhaps Spring, like Daniel’s marriage, could be the beginning of a beautiful new Franco-American alliance.
The 1st and 2nd arrondissements of Paris showcase the city’s grandeur: all fabulous sandstone palaces, formal gardens, splashing fountains and boulevards crammed to bursting with terrifyingly expensive designer shops. It is a brave chef who breaks the rules here – but patissier Pierre Hermé does just that. At the end of a short and lovely wander through the Jardin des Tuileries, his tiny shop on the elegant Rue Cambon is like a jewel box – but one filled with immaculately arranged piles of fine chocolates. By the window are racks of macaroons – a rainbow of sugar pink, pale yellow and sea-foam green. It is these creations that led French Vogue to dub him ‘the Picasso of pastry’.
Alongside classic flavours, such as pistachio, raspberry and caramel, Hermé comes up with some surprising macaroon combinations: aniseed and saffron, lemon and caramelised fennel and, the most popular, the Mogador – chocolate and passion fruit. Sometimes, he even makes macaroons that sound actively disgusting: ketchup, or foie gras and chocolate. This does not deter his devotees, who besiege the shop whenever a new flavour appears. The weirdest one on offer today is mandarin and olive oil, but it turns out to be delightful, the crunchy biscuit fresh and citric, the paste unctuous and peppery.
Walking back from Rue Cambon to the Boulevard de Sébastopol, the streets become narrower and the designer boutiques more outlandish. Until a few years ago, Paris had no such thing as a cocktail club outside formal hotel bars. But the cobwebs have been blown away from the old city’s drinks scene by the Experimental Cocktail Club, hidden behind a grey door on one of the pedestrianised streets in the 2nd arrondissement. Inside is a candlelit room with Perspex chandeliers, velvet chaises-longues and exposed brickwork, and a bar stocked with rare spirits from France and all over the world. ‘Since we started, the bestseller is the Experience 1,’ says barman Damien Aries, knocking up the club’s signature blend of vodka, citron pressé, basil, lemongrass and elderflower cordial.