I love the dirtiness of Paris. It is apparent when you first roll in on the Eurostar at Gare du Nord. The brutal, stained, matt concrete floor. Dogs barking in the distance, as if I was standing in a lonesome dark neighbourhood. The ticka-ticka-ticka-ticka of the old-fashioned flipping arrivals and departures board, which they have stubbornly refused to upgrade to digital, getting louder in rushing waves as trains arrive and depart. The Haagen Dazs ice cream store that greets you, looking temporary and kit-set. The chill in the air, the low light, and the feeling of having to watch your bags. So vastly different from neat St Pancras International in London, with its smooth tiled floors, perfect lighting, carefully chosen shops and cafes.
I am very fortunate to have one of my closest friends living in Paris. Which means frequent trips on the Eurostar to visit; I have been three times this year already, most recently last weekend. It was cold, colder than London, and gave me my first feeling of winter for the season.
So, on a cold Saturday morning, I started the day with nutella crepe and espresso, in a café outside somewhere near the Louvre. We then visited the Musée de l'Orangerie, €7.50, where we only had to queue for five minutes (I have queued for well over an hour to get into the Musee d’Orsay before). The l’Orangerie is of small enough size to not give you museum fatigue, yet house two rooms of enormous and wondrous Monet waterlilies as the star attraction, as well as plenty of Rosseau, Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne, Renoir and many others.
There is an odd cultural conflict in France with Islam, evident by the recent ban on women wearing niqab in public, as well as a ban on Muslim prayers on the streets. This cultural conflict was not evident at Café Maure de la Mosqué (the cafe of Grande Mosquée de Paris), where all three large spaces, indoor and out, were packed with Muslim and non-Muslim alike, for Saturday afternoon tea. We managed to find a pretty mosaic table for two in the outdoor area, though we had to carefully step along the top of a concrete wall, clamber over chairs, and were obscured by trees so had to jump up and down to get the waiter’s attention.
Once you have secured a table, you can then order glasses of sweet thé à la menthe, €2, and cakes, €2 each. A perfect post-Mosque restorative (the Mosque, with its pretty garden, is worth a visit). Sweet, chewy, pistachio and honey cake, and semolina cake drenched in sugar syrup, washed down with sweet tea. Enough sugar to keep you going for the rest of the day at least. On a sunny day you could sit here for hours, breathing in the smell of apple sheesha, watching the fat birds twittering and trying to steal your cake crumbs.
The sun had started to drop in the sky, our feet had grown weary, and the blackboards of cafes had started to advertise vin chaud. I was sold. We found possibly the best vin chaud bar that there could be – think waiters in braces and white aprons, glossy white tiles floor to ceiling, polished wooden booths, mirrors (perfect for discreet people-watching), late autumn light, black and white checked flooring. Café St Regis, on the Île Saint-Louis (an island on the Seine), 6 Rue Jean du Bellay. Vin chaud, served with a slice of orange and a stick of cinnamon, was €5.50. And there we were, on the Île Saint-Louis in Paris, two expat-kiwis, sipping our vin chaud, and Fat Freddy’s Drop comes over the stereo. Instantly recognisable, and it takes you straight back to any Wellington bar, shop or café.
Following further walking, eating and walking, we decided to make one last-ditched effort to find Parisian tiramisu, which had evaded me thus far. In the Marais, the Jewish quarter of Paris, we visited l’Enoteca on recommendation of a friend. The tiramisu here had also been raved about online when I googled it. The waiter gave us a table for two, despite it being late and us only wanting dessert. I think he was amused at two girls turning up at the door at 11pm, asking specifically if they had tiramisu on the menu.
Tiramisu, €8, was sadly, disappointing. The mascarpone was a beautiful texture, velvet smooth, yet there was no marsala flavour, and most worrying, no coffee flavour either. I couldn’t decide if there was alcohol or not – there did seem to be a slightly nutty taste which could have been alcohol.
We both ordered glasses of amaretto, €6, which arrived in fancy long-stemmed liqueur glasses, and my friend ordered the pièce de résistance; berries with sambuca mascarpone cream, €8.50. The same ultra smooth mascarpone (I want to know where they get their mascarpone – definitely the best texture I have tasted), with a strong undeniable sambuca hit, over fresh and perfect raspberries, blueberries and red currants. Somehow the anise flavour of the sambuca, in a cloud of smooth white mascarpone, matched perfectly with the sweet and tart berries. Absolutely divine.
After getting up early on Sunday to watch New Zealand beat Australia in the Rugby World Cup semi-final, we were hungry and went for takeaway crepes at L’Avant Comptoir, a tapas and wine bar with a little crêperie nudged onto the street-side. I had crêpe du jour, €5, chewy speckly buckwheat crepe, with gruyere, egg, ham, tomato, rocket, salt and pepper. A perfect Parisian brunch, eaten in the Jardin du Luxembourg, a short 5 minute walk away.
When I take my trips to Paris, I try to bring back French macarons as a treat. Macarons are, I think, the most amazing sweet ever made. If you pay the ridiculous amounts of money for the fancy ones, you are rewarded with incredible flavours – raspberry, rose, liquorice, blackcurrant, orange blossom, salted butter caramel, pistachio – as well as beautiful textural contrast. The crisp edge of the top of the macaron, the soft inside, and the creamy ganache filling.
On both of my last trips to Paris, I went to Ladurée, which is supposedly the inventor of the macaron, and which has a number of stores dotted around Paris. This time, however, I decided to go to Pierre Hermé, whom many claim makes the best macarons of all. Visiting one of these shops is like entering a designer store; you may have to queue to get in, you absolutely cannot take photos, stock is sparse and yet displayed perfectly, and everything in the shop costs a lot of money. I bought a box of macarons to take back to London, and also a treat for the last of my afternoon in Paris, a Tarte Infiniment Vanille, €6.90.
I think the infiniment part refers to the endless vanilla flavour present in base, filling and glaze. However, for me the infiniment made me think of infinity pools, those cheesy resort pools with no edge, because the glaze was so utterly perfect and shiny. Now, this vanilla tart was the best patisserie experience I have ever had. From the crunchy biscuit base, to the fluffy filling, to the infinity pool glaze, it was well worth the price. It was like vanilla ice cream, but not cold, like nothing I have ever eaten before. I do not know how Pierre Hermé did it. If only he made tiramisu.
Back in London on Sunday night, having a cup of tea and catching up on news, we sampled the Pierre Hermé macarons. I have to say that I prefer Ladurée, which have more of a crunch on the outside. Also, Ladurée do excellent fruity macarons, which are the most exceptional and unexpected flavours (how do they get that kind of flavour in the little thing?). Pierre Hermé macarons are more focused on chocolate/vanilla/nut flavours, and have less crunch. Perhaps I am too spoilt these days, when I can poo-poo Pierre Hermé macarons, don’t you think?