The sun rose on that second morning and found Dad and I wandering the streets of Paris in the eerie silence of an early Sunday in search of bread. Alleys that had been clogged with busy looking people the evening before sat hollow and cavernous in the pastel light and we combed them with our heads pointed up at the rooftops, noses working busily, on the prowl for baking smells. Sunday morning is a notoriously quiet time in the 13th and we found more closed signs than open ones. Nevertheless, we found our way back to the apartment with a bag full of baguettes and pastries.
“What did you guys get?” Mom, cradling coffee on the couch.
“I don’t know.”
“Well what’s in the bag?”
“I don’t know.”
Things were in the bag. Things from a bakery, which means bread-like things. The specifics though, eluded us. We’d wandered up to the counter of that lonely open bakery and the woman behind the counter, looming over her creations with the air of a lioness amidst her pride, had started asking questions in machine gun French. Words rattling out of her. We pointed at things, at anything. She bagged them. We threw Euros at her as we scurried out.
“What happened?” My wife, Melissa, from the bathroom, picking up the waver in my voice over the sound of a running sink.
“We panicked,” my dad said.
Panic would become a theme for the early part of that day. The sun sharp and sparkly over Paris as we walked the ever-filling streets to the Marais, dipping into exciting looking businesses with ancient sounding titles like cheesemonger and chocolatier, ogling exotic looking delicacies and withering under the experienced eyes of their purveyors, scampering out empty handed. Noon came upon us all dejected in a coffee shop off Rue de Turenne, sipping whatever we’d pointed at on our menus.
Even Melissa, who’d spent the weeks leading up to the trip, dutifully sponging up French from podcasts and movies and phrasebooks, found many nuances to the ordering process intimidating. Fortunately though, our salvation stood outside in a pink cotton trenchcoat.
“Now, when you order a croissant,” Lizzie said, her British accent standing starkly against the muddled consonants of French all around us. “ You probably want to stay away from one’s that are curled in at the corners.” She held up a counter-example. A flaky, bronzed croissant, shaped like an american football. “If the ends are curled in, it means it was probably made with margarine.” Our gaggle nodded, carefully in unison. “And that’s no good.” She concluded.
Lizzie, a half Chinese transplant from the UK, had come to Paris to learn the culinary arts. She was a chef at the very core of her. If she said it was no good, it was no good.
She slipped off to the counter of the busy boulangerie and left us to mill about amidst the delicacies. I found Allen, another member of our tour group, stashed away near the baguettes. He had white hair and a white mustache. There were thin rimmed glasses perched on his nose and he was a veteran husband. You could hardly tell he was hiding from his wife. In fact, if you didn’t know that they’d been traveling together for the last 4 weeks, or seen her scowl at him every time he opened his mouth, you might honestly believe that he was over there in the corner studying rolls. He was that good.
“What do you do in Toronto?” I asked him.
His voice was hushed, but casually so. “I’m retired. I was a high school vice principal.”
“What brings you to Paris?”
“Oh the wife and I are just traveling around, enjoying the sights.”
“A spy?!” I said it like he just confessed, and he blew his cover with a belly laugh.
“Allen!” His wife barked.
Fromagerie Jouannualt, and Lizzie was pointing at bricks of moldy wonder behind glass, saying,
“Is there anything any of you have been wanting to try?”
She was carrying a bag of treats from the last place. People flowed around her where she stood in the center of the bustle like a stone in a stream. Undaunted by their hurry. A fixture of the street.
“I’ve always wanted to try that really runny cheese,” my dad offers. A few members of the group who weren’t as accustomed to his flights of culinary fancy gave him a once over, but they can fuck right off, because this was an adventure and if you’re going to eat weird cheese in Paris, it might as well be good weird cheese. And if you’re going to get good weird cheese, Fromagerie Jouannualt is the place to do it. The displays behind the glass looked like the set of Fragel Rock, bulbous and grand and storied. Lizzie threw my dad a nod of approval and waded through the crowd to the counter, her pink coat cutting through them like a flare in the night. She was back moments later with a fuller bag of goodies, saying, “A good fromager is a friend to the community.” She motioned at the man she’d just spoken to, nodding carefully now at the couple in front of him, calculating. Lizzie continued, “You don’t just walk into his shop and tell him what cheeses you want. You tell him what you’re doing, how many people you’re doing it with and what you like, and he’ll help you figure out what you need.” The fromager pointed to rounds of sepia cheese that looked like the pages of an old tome, and the couple in front of him nodded.
“For example, you might come to the fromager and say, ‘I am going to the park with three or four friends and we’re going to have a picnic with charcuterie and a bottle of red wine. I like sharp cheeses’ and the fromager would bring out 4 or 5 different things for you to-”
Allen’s wife raised her hand. An angry looking hunk of cheese in the shape of a mortar shell had her absolutely transfixed. “That,” Lizzie said, “Is called the devil’s suppository.”
I am gripped with a sophomoric barb of laughter, imagining satan himself duckwalking into this place, and the cheese monger wagging a finger at him, saying, “I’ve got just what you need.”
Lizzie herded us all into Bibovino as a light rain began to fall on the Marche Des Enfantes Rouge. The sky had taken on a charcoal swirl and umbrellas snapped open in the market place, bodies wall to wall moving. At tables in the back of the boutique wine shop, we gathered as Lizzie unpacked the delicacies that she’d collected along our walk. Breads from the boulangerie, cheeses from the Jouannualt, charcuterie and other treats from different stops. She paired them all with wine from Bibovino, which, she explained, stored most of their wine in boxes in the spirit of sustainability. We ate and drank and laughed as the city of Paris shuffled by a window spattered with rain, Lizzie guiding us along. “Do you taste the nuttiness of this cheese?” “Do you notice anything about the texture of this baguette?”
We staggered from the wine bar tamped full of cheese and bread and wine and something more substantial than those things.
The next morning the sun came up and found me wandering the hauntingly empty streets below our apartment. Those same streets that had driven Dad and I back to our quiet kitchen with our arms full of whatever and our tails between our legs on a normal Sunday. Today was May Day and apprehension hung low and heavy like a fog on the city. Convoys of armored vehicles en route to the protests near the Louvre. Gendarme in full battle rattle, FAMAS assault rifles at the low ready. Shuttered shop windows. People only in transit.
It was enough to leave any tourist feeling out of place.
But I was no longer any tourist.
A boulangerie on a wonky side street caught my eye as I passed it, because a local had just left it at a trot with baguettes sticking out of his paper bag. Lizzie had said to look for that. I marched through the door and the baker sized me up, but I was busy. I pointed at croissants behind the glass, “Du Buerre?” I said.
“Oui.” she fired back.
I ordered 4 croissants, (made with butter, not those curvy margarine fakers), 2 chocolate croissants, and a baguette. She said pleasant sounding things to me in rapid french that I didn’t understand and I paid her with my head held high and slipped back onto those quiet streets on that tense morning, positively oozing with that final thing that Lizzie had given us…
Next week: May Day in Paris…
Paris By Mouth Food Tours:
I would HIGHLY suggest using this tour group. The tours were intimate and incredibly informative. Big props to our guide Lizzie.