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Friday, April 24, 2015

A Food Tour Through Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris

Confession: I'm not a tour person. Maybe I just have a fierce independent spirit that hates not being in charge or maybe I'm just an unsocial loner, but for some reason the idea of going on a tour while traveling doesn't really appeal to me. I like to choose where to go, what to look at and how much time to spend where - can you tell I'm an only child? Now, rationally speaking, I obviously do see the advantage of tours, especially if you're in a new and unfamiliar place with a language you don't understand, but perhaps I have just been on too many boring school trips as a child to be able to truly appreciate guided travel.

I know, I know: Does this post sound pretentious already?

But since travel is all about new experiences and letting go of comfort zones (yes, I know, signing up for a tour isn't exactly wrestling with snakes, but whatever), I have come to realize that I should probably give tours a go more often. After all, I know many people who have very amazing travel experiences this way that I frequently find myself marveling at online and so when Margo suggested joining a Food Tour while we were in Paris in March, I figured it was as good a time as any to start working on that travel resolution.

We met up with our guide Delphine and the rest of our group at the Saint-Sulpice Metro Station in Saint-Germain-des-Prés on a quiet Sunday morning. There were four other people on the tour besides the five of us and after our greetings were made, we immediately set off to our first stop: Pierre Hermé. Pierre Hermé is one of the most renowned Pâtissiers in the world and if you're at all interested in food, you have probably dreamt of trying his beautiful creations before. There are stores all over the world now - I first tried his infamous Macarons in Hong Kong - but while the first store opened in Tokyo in 1998, it feels decidedly Parisian.

Delphine - who not only obviously had a lot of passion for food, but also works as a photojournalist and hence quickly became one of my favorite new people - told us a little bit about the history of the Pierre Hermé brand, before explaining just which pastries were especially famous and which ones she loved best personally. As a control freak, I had done my homework before and ergo arrived with a too long list of things I knew I wanted to try, but I would have found her recommendations very helpful (& spot on!) had I come without my (obsessive) preparation.

The price of the tour doesn’t include food, which gives you the option to only spend money on what you really want to try. This was dangerous for me, because I ended up leaving a ridiculous amount of money at Pierre Hermé - I tend to lose my ability for rational thought when confronted with beautiful pastries - but probably a good thing for people with special dietary requirements that are still curious to learn about Parisian food culture. I picked up a box of macarons and a couple of different pastries, but the one thing I was most excited to try was Ispahan.

Ispahan is a flavor combination of Lychee, Rose and Raspberry and has basically come to stand synonymously for Pierre Hermé. The original Ispahan consists of fresh strawberries and lychees with rose-scented cream nestled between two rose macarons and is so beautiful that I didn't dare to start eating it until it was way past its prime. But Ispahan has been interpreted in many other ways as well and there once was even a special promotion a couple of years ago where over 21 different interpretations of Ispahan were on offer. I also picked up a Croissant Ispahan and since it has a bit of a cult following, I had very high expectations, but I didn't really fall in love with it: It just reminded me that I personally really don't like the flavor of rose.

But let's not beat around the bush and discuss the important question instead: Pierre Hermé or Ladurée? Where can you get the best macarons in Paris?

This has got to be one of the most debated questions in the foodie world and I wouldn’t be surprised if marriages had ended over this question before! From an Artisan point of view, Pierre Hermé should probably take the cake (no pun intended): He constantly experiments with interesting and unexpected flavors and combines ingredients that you would never think of pairing together, especially not in a dessert, but that somehow end up working together flawlessly. The classic vanilla macaron was so good that it actually made me roll my eyes (and I'm not even a vanilla fan!) and I would expect the chocolate macaron - while a bit too rich for me - to elicit the same response from every true chocolate lover.

But... I'm still a Ladurée girl and cannot walk past a store without going in to pick up a couple of my favorites. I know, I know, I'm sorry. But for me, it really comes down to personal preference and the kind of flavors that I love the most: Pierre Hermé executes macarons marvelously and there are some that I think are just out of this world, but my personal taste leans more towards fruity flavors and therefore I tend to prefer the options available at Ladurée. I love the raspberry and lemon macarons! But if you're serious about your pastries (and who isn't?), you should try both Pierre Hermé and Ladurée, because either way, the macarons are delicious!

After Pierre Hermé, we needed some history and culture in our life again and so we headed to Saint-Sulpice, the second largest church in Paris. Saint-Sulpice is a massive building that is almost more reminiscent of an old opera house than a church, but it is so hidden away from the main streets of Paris that it is not really the kind of place you would just stumble upon on your visit. Delphine told us that Saint-Sulpice played a large role in Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code (seems like I need to read that book again!) and seeing the sombre interior of the church didn't make it hard to understand how this building would inspire someone to write about conspiracy theories.

As we strolled through quaint narrow streets on our way to our next stop, I was once again reminded why Saint-Germain is one of my favorite parts of Paris: Saint-Germain used to be the home of eloquent and astute writers and thinkers like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir and while it has since turned into one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Paris, you still feel the remnants of the vast intellectual haven it once was. With its mixture of grand boulevards and small streets, all flanked by beautiful sandstone buildings, Saint-Germain is also a perfect example of the type of architecture that has come to be quintessentially Parisian in the mind of many of us.

We eventually reached the next destination of our tour, Le Marché couvert Saint-Germain, a small, covered market in the heart of the quarter. The French are obviously famous for their appreciation of food and that cliché has definitely been reinforced by every French market I have ever visited. I am always blown away by the sheer variety of different produce on offer and while many German supermarkets have a pretty decent selection of goods, it always, always pales in comparison with our neighbors.

As we walked along the stalls, Delphine pointed out different products to us that are very uniquely French. I still can't quite figure out why exactly frog legs would be sold at the fish monger - Delphine mentioned that frog legs aren't thought of as traditional meat and therefore not sold at the butcher - but the one thing that really managed to draw in my attention was the cheese stall:

Isn’t the selection amazing? It certainly is a cheese lover's paradise! I bought a piece of classic Brie to take home to my parents, while Delphine picked up some Raclette cheese for a dinner party and for us to try. Unsurprisingly, the cheese tasted amazing and made me want to give a Raclette Dinner Party as well. Have you had Raclette before? If not, google it right now and drool for a second. Molten cheese and potatoes - that cannot possibly be a bad idea! France and Switzerland fight over the question which country invented this tasty Alpine treat, but Raclette is also a big New Year's Eve staple in Germany.

And what goes best with cheese? Bread, of course! And so we headed to Gérard Mulot, a baker who supposedly makes some of the best baguette in Paris. Compared to the fancier pastry stores that can sometimes make you feel as if you're an intruder, rather than a customer, this store had a wonderfully refreshing air of no-nonsense: Gérard Mulot really seemed like the kind of place one would go to on a daily basis and not just for a special occasion and besides bread, there was also a broad collection of other sweet and savory treats. I would have loved to try one of the Quiches, but the store was overwhelmingly crowded and so I quickly resigned myself to take pictures rather than queue up.

As we continued on to Boulevard Saint-Germain, Delphine stopped at a tiny square just off the busy street to point out one of the hippest places to grab lunch in Saint-Germain: Le Comptoir du Relais. I had heard great things about this restaurant before, but sadly missed out on trying it on this visit.

Boulevard Saint-Germain is one of the lifelines in the quarter and basically the exact opposite of the small streets in which we spent the beginning of our tour. The Boulevard is lined with movie theaters and all sorts of stores, while the road itself is so busy with cars that you are truly reminded that Paris is one of the largest cities in Europe. We went to Georges Larnicol, a store whose outside I have admired on many a previous Paris visit, but that I had never actually been to before.

Georges Larnicol was recognized as a Meilleur Ouvrier de France - one of the most prestigious craft distinctions in France - for his artisan chocolate work, but Delphine mostly took us there to introduce us to a baked speciality from her home region Brittany: Kouignettes. When Delphine warned us about how heavy they were, I figured that she had to be exaggerating, but I quickly saw the error of my ways, when I realized that I barely managed to eat more than two bites in a row myself. Kouignettes are very sweet and even more butterly and while that is obviously not a bad thing in itself, it just was a tad bit too much for my tastebuds.

Our next stop was Un Dimanche à Paris, a popular brunch time spot, for some coffee and chocolate. Because I have a giant sweet tooth that doesn't care much for bitter flavors, I don't usually like dark chocolate, but the one we tried there was truly excellent. I can only imagine how much an actual dark chocolate lover would love it! The interior of Un Dimanche à Paris was decidedly modern and wouldn't really have looked out of place in London or Berlin either and the airy and calm atmosphere of the sales area definitely encouraged me to want to try their infamous Sunday brunch one day.

We spent some time chatting to Delphine about her work as a photojournalist (you can check out some of her beautiful work on her website and her Tumblr page!) and I obviously tried to pick her brain on how she found her personal photography style.

Unfortunately, our tour was quickly coming to an end, but we still managed to snug into L'Eclair de Genie. I had already satisfied my eclair craving at the Marais location the day before, but Alex was a giant sweetheart and treated me to another for having shared mine with her the evening before.

After the tour, we had to say goodbye to Jordan who had to catch her flight back to Zagreb. It was such a strange feeling to know that we wouldn't be able to hang out at our favorite coffee spot in Heidelberg regularly anymore, but that made it all the more of a treat to see her again in Paris.

Determined to make the most of the remaining hours the rest of us still had, though, we decided to head to the nearby Luxembourg Gardens. The language school at which I spent two summers taking French classes was located near the Jardin du Luxembourg and we would often spent our lunch breaks there. I have fond memories of sitting under the big trees of the park and chatting about pretty much every aspect of life and so it is definitely a dear place of mine in Paris. Getting to share this experience now with friends that I never thought I could make was special to say the least. Blogging friends really are some of the best in the world!

My first tour experience was certainly fun, but what's the take away? Should you go on a Food Tour in Paris? The answer obviously depends. I paid for the tour myself and while it wasn't outrageously expensive at thirty-five euro, it also wasn't cheap either and I'll be honest and say that I probably would never have spent this kind of money on a walking tour had the others not suggested it. I definitely didn't regret spending the money, had a lot of fun and loved our guide, but I also don't believe it's an absolute Paris Must if you're on a budget or are already familiar with the Parisian pastry scene.

If you don't know a lot about the food scene in Paris yet, though, and money is not your biggest concern while traveling, this tour would be a great activity and introduce you to many popular foodie spots. I’m definitely glad I decided to try something new and while I'm not sure I'll ever truly become a tour person, chances are that I'll give it a try again in the future!

I went on the Gourmet Food Tour with Hidden Paris.

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