When I asked the food writer I trust most what I should do during my weekend in Paris, he had but two words of advice for me: "Carbo-load."
For reasons beyond my control and beyond explaining, I had only spent a total of 16 hours in the City of Lights. This time things were going to be different as I had two full days to hoof around and wanted to use my time wisely. I also wanted to eat all the right things.
I needed advice and I knew just who to call.
Alan Richman is currently the greatest food writer in America. You read a story of his, say, "My Sweet Life", which ran in GQ a couple of years ago, and one minute you're laughing then the next you've got a lump in your throat, until you start feeling like an idiot for being nostalgic for someone else's childhood. He's good that way. I was once up against Richman for a James Beard award and we became fast friends. Over time he's shown me around his New York, I've cooked Shabbat dinner for him, and I even set him up with one of my editors (it wasn't a love match but they're still in touch so my instincts were sound).
"The key is to find a great patisserie," he started. "If you can't tell, the very great ones have lines at a time when you can't understand why there would be lines, like in the afternoon. If there are lines only in the morning, that means it's merely great, which is still fine. Start the day with croissants and coffee, obviously."
Alan explained that you come back to the patisserie at lunch "for one of those long sandwiches on a baguette that you eat walking around, which really annoys the French, which is one reason to do it." He suggests drinking a Coke with it: "That annoys them even more." Alan says that in the afternoon I should take coffee and pastries at a table; perhaps nibble on the neglected Paris-Brest (choux pastry filled with a praline-flavored cream). "Later you buy a baguette or other bread that you bring back to your room with some cheese and wine you buy from other merchants. If you're full, that can serve as supper, which it should."
"When you eat this way", he concludes, "You avoid all those young French chefs who call themselves auteurs. Life is so much better that way."
Who was I to argue with Alan?
The Paris of Bread and Butter
With a plan in hand, I set out for a buttery morning in this city that gives you the freedom to eat like there's no tomorrow and then when tomorrow inevitably comes, you feel okay about doing it again -- and all for a price you can afford and a shame with which you can cope.
First stop: Cafe de Flore, made famous by intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway and Simone de Beauvoir, who would sit and sip and contemplate the meaning (or non-meaning) of life on the Left Bank's "center of thought". I meet an expat friend for breakfast, and we chat over café crèmes and croissants beurres while sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on bistro chairs overlooking the lively St. Germain Boulevard. A great start.
Next, although it wasn't on Alan's list, a post-shopping snack of fresh, oozy Gruyere crepes eaten on a park bench fills us up without slowing us down, as do afternoon croissants amandes at Eric Kayser Artisan Boulanger near the breathtaking Jardin du Luxembourg. Later still, I carbo-load some more on crisply toasted Poilane bread smeared with Dijon and draped with rare roast beef at Bar De La Croix Rouge, near my hotel in the St. Germain area. And the day isn't done yet. I'm almost embarrassed to admit that I snuck in one of Alan's favorites, Paris-Brest, on the way home.
Self-improvement through Croissants
But here's the thing. Not only do I become smitten with the city's pastries and boulangeries, but also with the denizens themselves, as the men and women of Paris stroll the wide promenades elegantly swathed in cashmere scarves.
Suddenly, like a lightning bolt from the Eiffel Tower, I feel as if it's time for a change -- a superficial one, but a change that could eventually lead to something more profound. No more faded Ts and running shoes for starters. No more ponytails. I will put more effort into my appearance. I will part my hair on the side, swap out runners for heels and I'll wear more pants that are not jeans. Things will be different.
It would seem that the croissants of Paris were having a profound effect on who I want to be. I get started right away, investing in a gossamer grey cashmere scarf at the ritzy department store Le Printempts. It cost $100 euros and makes me feel like a million bucks.
When I return home to Toronto, I toss out all of the old heels of bread and frosty frozen English muffins from my freezer. I can do better, I tell myself as I wrap my new scarf around my neck before heading out the door. I know better now. I should want better.
Of course it can't be croissant beurre and toasted Poilane tartines every day, I think, as I smell the roses in my front garden. But fresh bread, hot crepes, a new Parisian puff-sleeved jacket, these things are all doable; I'm already there.
I know what you're thinking: "She's caught up in a mini Parisian spending spree, she'll have buyer's remorse, she'll regret it all once she's home!"
But I am home. And though I spent hundreds more than I usually would on a few new pieces of clothing, maybe that's exactly the point.
Just like the craftsmanship that went into my perfect morning pastries and café crèmes. Like the studied hospitality I was shown by the French waiters and maitre d's at Paris's classic bistros and cafes. The way my meals were presented with pride, and in turn, the way it all made me feel.
It's about the smaller points, the finer things, paying attention, taking care.
You may say I had a mild awakening due to travel, the lustiness of Paris, the beauty of the city and its people, but you'd be wrong. Because what got me thinking, the thing that started it all, was that soulful first bite of my first croissant on the Left Bank.
Alan Richman thought he was passing along some sage advice on how to see Paris inside of a couple of days, but in the end he helped me to see a better me. I guess what I'm saying is, a really great croissant can change a person.
IF YOU GO:
See the official Paris Tourism site (in English) for more info on the city. If you are looking for a nice French villa to stay in during a trip to France, you might the website here useful.
Toronto-based food and travel writer Amy Rosen is the food editor for House & Home magazine. A James Beard nominee, and regular contributor to the National Post, enRoute, Maclean's and Food & Wine among other magazines and newspapers. A story Amy wrote is included in the American anthology "Best Food Writing 2008". Her first novel, "Indigestion", will be released in spring 2011. Visit her web site at: www.amyrosen.com
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