Saturday, 28 April 2012

Paris on pennies

Here are my top ten tips for having a fantastic time in Paris without spending too much.

1. Plan ahead. Nothing in this life comes for free, and you need to invest your time if you don't want to invest your cash. Think about what you want to see / do / eat the most, and look into all of them in advance, making sure you know how to find them, when they are open and closed and how to get there. Speaking the lingo helps when it comes to local websites that offer information on upcoming events such as telerama but there are a host of english equivalents out there. Planning ahead like this helps to avoid the scenario of being in unfamiliar territory, tired and hungry all at the same time and thus falling into the nearest restaurant which is likely to offer neither good value nor good food.
Bear in mind that on the first Sunday of every month all Paris museums are free, so if you are looking for a culture-filled trip, this can save a significant expense if you are prepared to start early and to queue a little.

2. On your feet! To see Paris inexpensively you will do a lot of walking, so bring comfortable shoes, and this will often mean eating and drinking as you go. There are supermarkets everywhere, and this is their price heirarchy:
Top end: Grand Magasins like Le Bon Marché (think Harrods) Galaries Lafayette (think Selfridges) and BHV (think Harvey Nichols).
High: Monoprix (Waitrose / Marks and Spencer)
Middle: Franprix and Carrefour (think Sainsbury's. Likely to have later opening hours. Carrefour's tend to have a larger range).
Low: Intermarché (think Tesco), Leader Price (Asda) and multinational LIDL.
Cornershop: G20 (likely to be open at awkward hours, to stock bizarre items you never realised you needed but to also have staples priced more expensively than they should be).
Bottled water is inexpensive in supermarkets but, as with anywhere else, is massively marked up anywhere you can sit to eat. Baguette prices are closely monitored and should be fairly consistent, and fruit, vegetables and meat prices are linked to their seasonality, so bear this in mind when buying for a picnic. The quintessential European experience of enjoying an espresso in a café is cheaper if you drink it at the bar, shoulder to shoulder with the locals.

3, To market, to market. Sadly, Paris' enormous Les Halles market, which provided food for the tables of all Parisians whether at home or in restaurants, has been gone for some time now, but Paris still has a wealth of markets and specialist food areas to explore, each with its own personality. Take a sturdy bag with you, an iceblock perhaps if it's warm weather. My favourite markets are:
Les Enfants Rouges (closed Monday. Open 8.30-13.30 otherwise, and 16.00-19.30 except Sunday) is Paris' oldest market and houses Moroccan, Afro-Caribbean and Indian food stalls as well as organic fruit and vegetables, cheese, meat, fish and flowers. It is near the trendy Marais district which makes it an excellent pit-stop on a wander.
St. Quentin (closed Monday. Open 8.00 - 13.00 otherwise, and 15.30 - 19.30 except Sunday) is a covered market between Montmartre and Republique, near the Gare de l'Est, and hence in quite a good location for many visitors. The produce, sadly, is often from far afield, but it has lots of little stalls selling meats, fish, charcuteries and flowers.
Rue Mouffetard is a key 'tourist' market as it's rather picturesque but the prices reflect this and I personally don't rate it very highly because of the lack of range.
I would also mention the market in Place d'Aligre as being worth a visit for it's atmosphere and range of international foods and spices.

4. Lunch like a king, dinner like a jester. Lunch menus are always cheaper than dinner menus, and you are also more likely to get a lunchtime booking at popular restaurants. Having special meals at lunchtime also earns the je ne sais quoi of being surrounded by Parisians rather than other tourists, helping you to feel like you're part of some secret club. Bear in mind, however, that not all of the greatest places to eat are open at lunchtime. My favourite lunchtime spots are Metropolitain in the Marais, and for a special treat I loved Agapé Substance in St Germain, an up-and-coming molecular gastronomy gem that you will need to book in advance. They recommended my new favourite for nibbles or a light dinner - L'Avant Comptoir, a standing-room only wine bar which serves excellent basque tapas. Similarly, there are a variety of wonderful bars that serve charcuterie platters with wine by the glass, carafe or bottle and have a fantastic atmosphere. My favourite is La Cave des Abbesses in Montmartre, get there early as its tiny back room fills up fast!

5. Do your research! There are so many websites out there listing best bits, must-sees and must-dos in Paris, and lots of them offer tours. I have been known to scrutinise tour descriptions and work out the tour stops on my own so that I could enjoy the same goodies for a tiny fraction of the cost. Obviously you miss out on the narrative, but at the end of the day, you still get to enjoy the recommended food/drink! Such websites also often list events, such as wine tastings, which are often free.

6. Be a Culture Vulture. If you can book your trip on a variety of different weekends, and want to make a museum visit or few a focus of your days here, bear in mind that all Paris museums and art galleries are free to visit on the first Sunday of every month. If such a Sunday is part of your trip, bear in mind that queues may be longer, so this is perhaps a good time to explore one of the lesser-visited museums that are no less worth a visit, such as the Orangerie, the Rodin Museum or the Dalì Museum. Or to get up very early!

7. On yer bike! Paris is not a big city, and it has an excellent network of cycle lanes and paths, as well as a vast wealth of Vélib bike points, usually at most 200m apart. It's possible to get a week's ticket for €8, allowing you to cycle as much as you like for 30minutes at a time, and enabling you to cover more ground than you might think. At a relaxed pace, this would easily get you from the Champs-Elysées to St Germain, for example. Most maps will show where bike parks can be found, and at each park point you can find out where the nearest station is for you to pick up your next bike. This is a lovely way to see the city, helps (a little!) to burn off that chocolate and cheese, is cheaper than travelling by metro but faster than going on foot, and also gives you a unique way to get home at 3am without needing a taxi...

8. Not alone. As much as everybody's Paris is different, there's no denying that wherever you go, someone else has bravely gone before, and there are so many networks out there, people's experiences and mistakes to learn from that to not make the most of this will waste not only your time but also your money. Which is possibly why you're reading this to start with! If your stay is more longterm, check out the expat networks such as those advertised in Fusac, a magazine available everywhere. Ask questions, explore and you'll be rewarded with new experiences.

9. Learn the lingo. I always like to learn a few key phrases when I go abroad, and being able to express yourself in the language of the country you find yourself in opens doors, ensures you better treatment, and can get you information that you wouldn't have access to otherwise. I've been saddened to see what I considered to be the best part of an exhibition left untranslated and squirmed at mistranslations and incomplete information. It also gives you the means with which to ask further questions.

10. Somewhere not so far away... Don't forget that a trip to Paris doesn't have to be a once-in-a-lifetime thing. As I'm approaching the end of my adventure here, I'm rapidly learning that it's simply not possible to do it all, see it all, eat it all, and that's where the wonder of inexpensive international travel comes in. You can always go back.

And once you've fallen in love with Paris, you will.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Hints and tips from the Paris Cookbook fair 2012

Between the 7th and 11th of March this year, Paris hosted its 3rd annual Gourmand International Cookbook fair at 104 centquatre, a cultural space, as a culmination of this year's international cookbook awards and as part of a larger 'See it, Eat it' festival. 

I knew I had to go as soon as I heard tweet of it in England earlier in the year, and go I did, on the last day when it was open to the public. I wish I could have made it to some of the other events in the festival, such as a dance/cook performance, an interactive installation where the audience is invited to dine with contorted cutlery, and a stop-motion film with cakes as stars. However, the cookbook fair in itself was a feast for the mind and ignited lots of ideas. The space is dedicated during the festival to publishing houses specialising in cookbooks, to talks and live demonstrations from prolific culinary figures and to the international winners of the cookbook awards. Categories include best printing, best first book, best world/vegetarian/childrens cuisine and best charity project. Past winners are a hall of fame of the big guns, and many appear on my Amazon Wishlist: Paul Bocuse, On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, El Bulli 1983-2002, Pierre Hermé... 

I was pleased to see some books I own appear in the winner's catalogue (Lorraine Pascale, River Cottage Veg), as well as a healthy number of 'UK' talents (the McCartneys, Bocca and Galvin at Windows). I saw books I had never heard of before but really should have by now, such as the remarkable 'Modernist Cuisine', a snip at $625 for 6 volumes of incredibly beautiful photography and truly inspirational information from the intricacies of basic food preparation to the pinnacles of molecular gastronomy. If anyone wants to gift me a copy, I promise to treasure it forever. In the space of a couple of pages I learnt that french-style vegetables taste so sweetly delicious because of their final cooking in butter, which discourages osmosis of natural sugars out of the vegetable, whereas cooking in water means these sugars disappear into the cooking water. Similarly, potatoes should be cooked in water that has had a small amount of sugar added, so that the natural sugars do not escape.

There were some obvious signs of food trends amongst the books in the winner's room, such as street food and burgers, Peruvian cuisine, as predicted by Sara Edwards at a Stylist Magazine event I attended last year, and baked treats. There were stands about food apps and ebooks, live sugarwork demonstrations and most importantly, a cook-book free-for all where browsing was actively encouraged. 

I thought I'd share with you some nuggets of wisdom I gleaned from the day. In 'Lucky Peach', a quarterly magazine by Momofuku's David Chang, I learnt how to make ramen (hooray for my new pasta machine!). Recipe here. I also learnt a DIY version of slow-poached eggs: Set a large bowl in the biggest pot you have and invert a smaller bowl inside it, balancing the eggs between them so that they do not come into direct contact with the hot water. Using a cooking thermometer, cook the eggs for 50 minutes between 60-63 degrees C.

In the 'Mere de Famille' cookbook, I learnt how to confit fruits in sugar, such as orange, lemon and pineapple (which I had to find out having spotted this in the window of Pain de Sucre). Basically, use 1.2kg of sugar for 1 litre of water. Make a boiling syrup with half the sugar, pour over the fruit and cover overnight. the next day, remove the fruit, add 200g of sugar, bring to the boil and simmer with the fruit for three minutes. Repeat this step twice more, adding 200g sugar each time. Finally, leave to soak covered for a week before draining to enjoy - in moderation! 
I also read how to make the delicious dulche de leche - basically a spreadable  gooey mess brought into being by cooking a litre of whole milk, 400g of sugar, 50g of honey and a spilt, scraped vanilla pod. I noted how marshmallows are made, and will give this a try once I've bought myself a proper cook's thermometer, perhaps after the eggs above!

The genius Ferran Adrià has a book out at the moment called 'The Family Meal' which is along the same lines as Heston's similar oeuvre. I like that each recipe has an ingredients table ready adapted for differing portion numbers, more like a chef's recipe than a cookbook recipe. I sneaked the ingredients list of the mexican pulled pork recipe but will have to get my hands on a copy for the full proper method. Happily, I have found an amazing gourmet ingredients shop in the Marais called Izrael where I've already bought long-sought kampot peppercorns for a Rick Stein recipe and where I can also get hold of habanero chillies and, hopefully, achiote paste.  

My only criticism of the day was that some of the talks I was really looking forward to hearing had been rescheduled, but nobody could tell me when to, and the most interesting-looking talks in the guide had no name attached to them. But that did mean I got to sit in, albeit unexpectedly, on a talk given by Xavier Denamur, restauranteur and producer of a new documentary about how French food is going to the dogs and is no longer respectful of provenance or consumer. All in all, the day inspired me to carry on doing just what I'm doing - learning about food, immersing myself in recipes as often as possible and to keep on tasting with mouth as well as eyes. And, of course, sharing that with you!