Eating Europe strives to provide a peek under the pot lid of neighborhood establishments.
As French society has evolved, so has its cuisine.
On a sunny afternoon in a quiet park in Paris’ 10th Arrondissement, a dozen people have gathered for a moveable feast. Removed from the hectic heart of the city, where visitors crowd around the enigmatic “Mona Lisa” and cloud-tickling Eiffel Tower, we’re eschewing escargot for an off-the-beaten-menu tour seasoned with savory social and historical insights.
“I believe in discovering a culture by its food,” says Leo Goldstein, a 29-year-old native of the 10th Arrondissement and creator of Eating Europe’s new Paris: Hip Eats and Backstreets experience. The foodie walking tour, which launched in June, is the first and only Parisian excursion currently offered by Eating Europe, which also operates in London, Rome, Florence, Prague and Amsterdam.
While those are some of the world’s most well-trodden cities, Eating Europe strives to provide a sneaky peek under the pot lid of neighborhood establishments that visitors might never unearth on their own. The up-and-coming 10th Arrondissement — beloved by Parisian hipsters yet virtually unknown to tourists — is rife with such undiscovered spots.
“This neighborhood didn’t have much life until about 10 years ago, when the tech industry, the millennials, took it over,” Goldstein admits. But as this young, branché generation moved in, attracted by cheap rent, more shops, cafes, bars and restaurants followed, seduced by the scent of disposable income. Today, Goldstein says, “this is the core of the young, happening, vibrant part of Paris.”
Our first stop is Fric Frac, a café specializing in the croque monsieur, a sandwich traditionally made of ham, cheese and béchamel sauce. It was invented in the early 1900s as a working-class meal, but Fric Frac keeps things fashionably fresh by styling the monsieur in disguises from around the world, ranging from the Viking, made with salmon, to the Asian-inspired Shaolin, incorporating prawns, shiitake mushrooms, soy sauce and ginger. We try two: the hearty, no-nonsense original, and a veggie version with asparagus, avocado and pea hummus. The monsieur makes for a memorable lunch date either way.
Bidding adieu to Fric Frac, we cross the Canal Saint-Martin, the 10th Arrondissement’s answer to the Seine. Constructed in the early 1800s to bring fresh water to the city, Goldstein says it was funded by a new tax on wine — effectively turning wine into water, I muse.
Food and drink seem to impact virtually every aspect of French life, as we learn over this four-hour tour. At TSF Epicure, an intimate deli where our charcuterie platter is accompanied by a baguette and a Loire Valley pinot noir, Goldstein explains that the French economy can actually be measured in sandwiches.
“There are 2 million ham and butter sandwiches sold in France every day,” he says. “If less are sold, it means people don’t have as much buying power. If the price is going up, it’s inflation.”
Food even influences the language.
“In French, bread is ‘pain,’ and a friend is called a ‘copain’ — so a friend is someone you share bread with,” Goldstein grins.
As French society has evolved, so has its cuisine. After World War II, the government invited citizens from its former colonies to come and help rebuild the country. Many were from Africa, and they brought their own culinary traditions, like couscous, which Goldstein says is now the third most consumed dish in France, after steak and fries and mussels and fries.
It’s only fitting, then, that we should sample couscous with stewed vegetables and merguez sausages at L’Amalgame. Goldstein explains that the owner, Nasser Ouallouche, emigrated from Algeria in the 1960s, and Ouallouche’s wife, Nora, is one of only two restaurateurs in all of Paris who still prepare couscous by hand, fresh from semolina.
“It’s actually like a home-cooked meal,” marvels Radhika Oberoi, who is visiting from Dubai. But it’s not only the food she finds appealing.
“This is so much better than a hop-on-hop-off bus,” she says of the tour as I dive in for a second helping of couscous. “You get to hear different tales, and I think it gives perspective — a feeling of belonging to the country for a bit.”
Of course, if you’re going for the full French foodie experience, you must make room for cheese. “We eat cheese at every dinner,” Goldstein insists. “This French stereotype is true.”
Loosening my belt a notch (OK, two notches), I follow Goldstein to Paroles de Fromagers. In the shop’s barrel-vaulted 17th-century cellar, co-owner Pierre Brisson treats us to a cheese chat as we sample five varieties with a glass of chardonnay.
My favorite is a gooey Brillat-Savarin (75 percent fat; what’s not to love?), followed closely by a Brie de Meaux. And there I am in good — or at least, infamous — company. Legend holds that when Louis XVI was on the run during the French Revolution, he stopped for a meal and refused to leave until he had finished his Brie and wine — a delay that contributed to his ultimate capture and execution. So I suppose calories and high cholesterol were the least of Louis’ worries.
Of course, if you’re going to risk the guillotine for a chunk of cheese, you want to choose one that’s worthy. According to Brisson, “A good Brie smells of cauliflower. Cheese is not always as poetic as the wine,” he allows with a sheepish shrug.
As far as the French are concerned, however, you can’t go wrong with a Comté, a semi-hard cow’s milk cheese with a vaguely nutty, savory flavor. “When you go to a party at someone’s house, French people always take a Comté,” Goldstein says. “If we could make a lollipop from it, we would.”
Waddling up the stone steps from the cellar, my belly brimming with cheese and wine, I’m tempted to wave my white napkin in defeat. But Goldstein reminds us that we still have dessert. Hoisting a bag of treats from Yann Couvreur, a young pastry chef whose innovative Instagrammable creations have been featured in Vogue Paris, our pastry-wielding pied piper bids us follow him to our penultimate stop.
After passing through the busy Place de la Republique, “where you come to protest, to complain, to get your voice heard,” Goldstein leads us to the leafy Eden of the Square du Temple, just outside the 10th Arrondissement in the north of the trendy Marais. “You come in from the concrete jungle … and then, this,” he smiles, as we settle on a row of park benches by a duck-filled pond.
Were it not for Goldstein, I’d never have found myself in this peaceful haven, tucking into a citrus tarte and chocolate and coconut éclair. I really do feel like a genuine Parisian denizen, privy to the city’s secret pleasures.
That’s exactly what Goldstein hopes to accomplish with this tour. “It’s about eating like a local and giving a taste of local life,” he explains. “A city is so much more than its landmarks.”