The Gourmet Student’s Guide to Paris: A Weekend

 If you’re anything like me, visiting a foreign city is an excuse to gorge yourself on all the local favourites, in the name of ‘experiencing culture’. Sadly, when you’re travelling alone or on a budget, and in a limited time frame, it can be hard to find an obliging grandmother to cook you all the traditional meals you read about, and with the added barriers of language and not knowing the area, it’s hard to figure out how to sample local delicacies without paying too much or ending up in total tourist traps. Fortunately, I’ve spent enough time living in Paris whilst being simultaneously very poor and very interested in eating well to give you the low-down on what those Parisians are really eating, and how much you should be paying for it. Even if you’ve only got one weekend, you should be able to try most of these French favourites, without wincing too much at the state of your wallet afterwards.

Viennoiseries

Being perhaps what France is best known for, it only makes sense to start off a trip in Paris with viennoiseries – what you’d probably call pastries. The traditional croissant is a firm favourite, frequently eaten with nothing by way of accompaniment except perhaps some steaming espresso coffee. But if you’re seeking something a little sweeter, branch out and try a pain au chocolat (aka a chocolate croissant for us Anglospeakers), croissant aux amandes (a croissant filled with a sweet pastry cream made with almond meal and covered by finely sliced almonds), chausson aux pommes (rather like an apple turnover), or, if you’re game, a pain Suisse, which combines the sweet pastry cream of croissant aux amandes with small chunks of chocolate to give you plenty of sugary energy for your day.

Find these sweet treats and more at a boulangerie – most also sell coffee and hot drinks, and may offer mini-formules that let you buy one viennoiserie and one coffee at a reduced price. Try to avoid chains like Paul’s, La Croissanterie or Pomme de Pain, and if you’re staying outside of the actual city don’t hesitate to stop by the local boulangerie before heading to Paris for the day.

Prices: 90c (for a croissant or pain au chocolat) to 2 euros, 2-3 euros with espresso coffee

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Croissant aux amandeé

Crêpes

Perfect for breakfast, lunch or just a snack, crêpes are a go-to food for many travellers and native Parisians alike. Generally available in a wide range of both sweet and savoury varieties, they’re a cheap and warming way to fill your stomach whilst on the move. For a savoury snack, opt for jambon-fromage (ham and cheese, usually either cheddar or Emmental) or swap out the ham for oeuf (egg), poulet (chicken) or thon (tuna). If you’ve got a sweet tooth, sucre (sugar) and Nutella crepes are probably the most commonly appreciated, but it’s worth trying crème de marron (chestnut cream) or caramel au beurre salé (salted butter caramel) for a really French taste. Personally, I can never resist a Speculoos crêpe if I see it on the menu!

Crêpe stands abound throughout the city, wherever you might be. They’re also sold in restaurants, but I find it more fun – and cheaper – to watch them make it in front of me at a stand or small specialised shop. Specialised restaurants called crêperies are also plentiful, and offer more choice plus warm interiors. They  often have formules which include one savoury crepe, called a galette, one sweet crepe, and a drink – be sure to try cider, if it’s on the menu, as it’s the most traditional accompaniment.

Prices: from 2 euros (crepe au sucre) to 8 euros (if you’re getting something with lots of fillings), 8 to 15 euros for a formule at a crêperie

Baguette Sandwich

Sometimes the thought of a crepe, dripping with melted cheese or oozing sugary spread, while delicious, sounds altogether a little too rich. Fortunately, if it’s still lunch on the go you’re looking for, Paris has a perfect alternative: the baguette sandwich. Made either on custom-baked rolls nearly a foot long, or simply on a baguette sawn neatly in half, they provide a convenient way to consume some good French bread and can be stowed in a bag to be eaten while queuing for a museum, or in one of the many public parks that throng the city. Fillings range from the simple, with just one star ingredient complimented by beurre (butter), to more complex concoctions. If you’re after something traditional, choose combinations including your favourites from below:

Jambon (ham)

fromage (cheese)

saucisse (salami)

camembert

chèvre (goat’s cheese)

mozzarella

tomates (tomatoes

crudites (fresh salad ingredients, usually lettuce and tomato)

poulet (chicken)

thon (tuna)

saumon (smoked salmon)

These satisfying sandwiches are sold in the same places as viennoiseries, the ubiquitous boulangerie, but in smaller shops are not always displayed, rather made fresh upon request. Look for the word ‘sandwich’ if you can’t see rows of them lined up in the glass window. Formules are frequently available, usually consisting of a sandwich, a drink and a sweet – listed as ‘dessert’, or sometimes ‘patisserie’.

Prices: 3 euros (for single-ingredient) to 6 euros (unless you’ve gone somewhere very fancy), 5 to 11 euros for a formule

 

 

Pastries (Patisseries)

Now, what would Paris be without its famous patisseries? From the Paris-Brest to the macaron, from the sumptuous Royale to the humble éclair…it would almost be a sin to stop in Paris without sampling at least one of these delicate, rich treats. There’s an almost limitless variety to be found, whether glinting with gold-leaf in patisseries on Avenue de l’Opèra, or simply neatly arranged in a back-street local store, but a few crowd-pleasers are almost sure to be among the ranks in every display. The big sister of the éclair is the religieuse (this translates as ‘nun’, being what the little desserts are supposed to resemble), offering the same sweet custard encased by crisp choux pastry. Mille-feuille is a good option for the wary, but not the weak-hearted: layers of thick custard, pastry and sugar make it delicious but nothing that can be described as light. The Paris-Brest was named in honour of the race of the same name, and consists of delicate praline cream with a crunchy pastry exterior. To round off the Paris-centric cakes there’s the Royale (sometimes known as Trianon, being named after the miniature palace at Versailles), perfect for chocolate lovers with its layers of chocolate mousse, chocolate ganache and crisp dacquoise (a meringue-like substance made with almonds) while those preferring the rich flavour of coffee can opt for an opèra, named for the famous Opèra Garnier and involving multiple levels of coffee-soaked sponge cake and chocolate.

Patisseries, confusingly or conveniently enough, are found at patisseries, made by patissiers. Most boulangeries are combined boulangerie-patisseries and as such it’s child’s play to find one, but look out for a salon de thé if you seek the creature comforts of warmth, a table to eat your pastry at and perhaps a pot of tea. It may cost a little more to eat in, but the extra fraction is well worth it on wintry days!

Prices: usually 2.20 euros to 5 euros, though at the big names like Lenôtre or Angelina’s expect something in between 6 and 10 euros. Yes, for one pastry.

 

 

 

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Déjeuner Formule

If you’ve got the time, money and appetite for a full French meal, be sure to take advantage of the numerous formule déjeuner (lunch menus) available. Some, unfortunately, run only on weekdays, but many restaurants still offer them on weekends. Their form can vary slightly: the basic premise is that you pay a lower price for a fixed menu, choosing from combinations of entrée-plat (starter and main), plat-dessert (main and dessert) or all three (for a higher price, of course). Sometimes there are multiple options for each dish, and sometimes you get the plat du jour (meal of the day) with no choice about it. They’re a great way to sample some of the French classics, but if you’ve splashed out on three courses, take your time – the rich food, even when offset by the basket of complimentary bread, calls for tranquil, languid dining habits.

Look out for:

soupe à l’oignon (onion soup served with a crust of bread and melted Gruyere cheese)

escargots à la bourguignon (Burgundy style snails served with garlicky sauce)

salade au chèvre (salad served with goats cheese, generally drizzled with honey)

oeufs à la mayonnaise (devilled eggs)

cuisse de canard or confit de canard (duck thigh cooked in traditional style)

boeuf bourguignon  (traditional beef stew originating from Burgundy, like the snails)

crème brulée (super thick vanilla custard covered by a layer of caramelised sugar)

fromage blanc or fromage à la campagne (soft white cheese the consistency of thick yoghurt, often eaten with sugar or jam on top)

assiette de fromage (cheese plate)

mousse au chocolat (rather easy to guess, but very traditionally French)

Restaurants with formule-déjeuners are found all over Paris, but prices and quality will vary hugely according to your location. For budget travellers, go ahead and try Montmartre or the Latin Quarter for 10 euro menus aimed at tourists, but be aware that your servings will be small and the quality questoinable. Otherwise, venture out to less popular suburbs such as Belleville (19th/20th arrondissement) or anywhere outside the arrondissements of Paris.

Prices: starting at 10 euros for entrée-plat-dessert, but average prices hovering around 15 for two courses.

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Oeufs à la mayonnaise

Planche fromage/charcuterie/mixte

Paris is host to an innumerable quantity of bars, brasseries and other drinking establishments, many of which provide food as well as endless aperol spritzers. When out for a drink, the best choice for something to nibble on alongside your wine is indubitably a planche (board). Generally found in three types – fromage (cheese), charcuterie (cold deli meats) or mixte (both cheese and meat), the servings are usually generous and the bread plentiful.

Consult almost any menu in a bar or brasserie serving meals – they’re often listed under its own heading, A Partager (to share).

Prices: 10 – 20 euros

Chocolat à l’ancienne et glace à l’italienne

Depending on the season, you may well have need to warm yourself up with a good hot drink or find something to refresh you after long treks down cobbled streets. Accordingly, grab yourself a chocolat chaud à l’ancienne (old-fashioned hot chocolate) to discover the real difference between hot cocoa and hot chocolate: one’s chocolatey flavoured milk, the other feels like you’re drinking melted chocolate. Sometimes sold by chocolatiers (especially chains like Chocolat de Neuville), but also found in cafes and salons de thé, these can be a dessert all by themselves. Chocolat chaud onctueux is another name for the same thing – but just glance behind the counter: if you can see the whirling vat of warm chocolate, you know you’re in the right place.

Alternatively, if the weather’s warmer, cool down with glace à l’italienne (Italian-style ice cream). Soft serve ice cream is hugely popular in the warmer months, and available in far more flavours than boring old vanilla, such as salted caramel, strawberry and pistachio. Often, the machines will allow you to combine two flavours for a beautiful – and delicious – colour contrast. Seen only once the sun shows its face, the machines pop up in boulangeries and chocolatiers (chocolate makers) or can be found on the street, especially in busy areas.

Prices: for ice creams, 2.50 euros to 6 euros (for larger sizes). For chocolat chaud, 3 euros (takeaway) to 9 euros (check out Angelina’s for their famous African hot chocolate, coming in at a neat 8.20 euros)

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Glace à l’italienne choco-vanille

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Chocolat chaud à l’ancienne chez Angelina’s

A word of advice: if you want to profit from all that Paris has to offer in terms of gastronomic delights, you won’t be leaving the City of Lights feeling the least bit light – but I promise it’s worth it!

St-Germain-des-Prés (6th arrondissement)

This area is known for its connections to art and literature, as well as hosting some impressive architecture like the Palais de Luxembourg. It’s on the more expensive side, and appeals to those interested in culture.

Start at Metro stop St-Germain-des-Prés (line 4), and admire the church immediately beside you, Eglise de Saint-Germain-des-Prés. It dates from the 6th century, when it was erected by Childebert, the son of the first King of France, Clovis. The tomb of René Descartes, famous mathematician and logician, can be found in its side chapels.

If you’re in the mood for something sweet, pick up a traditional waffle or crêpe at the stand right outside the Metro entrance – it has a long established reputation for delivering cheap, sugary pleasure. If you’re looking for something more lux, head straight down rue Bonaparte towards Ladurée’s, a famous patisserie and tea salon that’s been around since 1861. It’s especially known for its macarons, though the cakes are delicious as well, but prices start at 2.50 for a mini-macaron and around 6 euros for the cheapest cake. That’s at take-away prices, too!

 

 

If money doesn’t concern you too much, and you want to relive the lives of famous authors, look across the street from the church to find the first of the three cafes patronised by long-gone intellectuals. Les Deux Magots is particularly known for playing host to Rimbaud, Picasso and Hemingway, while Café des Flores right next door was the favourite of luminaries such as Apollinaire, Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Trotsky. Each café lays claim to particular known names, but in fact the writers and thinkers generally frequented both businesses. They serve traditional French café fare, such as chocolat chaud a l’ancienne, but beware: a simple espresso starts at around 4 to 5 euros. Just across the road, the Lipp brasserie was also part of the handful of establishments beloved by the artists. Founded by an Alsatian couple, it was known for its food from that region – think sauerkraut, remoulade and beer – and now is famous for its excellent mille-feuille.

Moving eastwards along the Boulevard St Germain, you can take a left turn at Rue de l’Echaude to seek out the National Museum of Eugeune Delacroix, the famous painter. While it doesn’t have many of his famous works, it’s interesting to see his studio and house (and free for EU residents under 26), chosen specifically for its proximity to Eglise de Saint-Sulplice, where he painted one of the chapels. That’s worth a visit too, and is a short walk down the same rue Boneparte that leads to Laduree’s, but in the southerly direction.

Keep heading down the Boulevard if your stomach’s rumbling now, and just a few steps down Rue de l’Ancienne Comedie on your left, you can peek at the marvellous creations at Éclair de Genie, which features éclairs with fillings and toppings a little beyond the regular chocolate pastry cream. Le Procope, which holds the title of the oldest restaurant in Paris, is just before it.

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The éclair au caramel, one of the specialities of Eclair du Genie

Alternatively, turn right at rue de l’Odeon and walk towards the imposing Odeon Theatre. Behind it, you’ll find the Palais de Luxembourg and its famous adjoining gardens, which feature large basins used for toy sailing boats in summer and plenty of people, both locals and tourists, whenever the sun is out. The palace was built by the Italian wife of King Henry IV, Marie de Medici, after her husband died and is modelled on a palace from Marie’s native Florence. Now, the building is the seat of the French Senate, and the former orangery has become the Musée de Luxembourg which holds regular art exhibitions. The Boulevard Saint-Michel, so named for the huge decorative fountain found at its northern end, marks the end of 6th arrondissement, and the beginning of the Latin Quarter.

On Travelling Alone

I used to hate the idea of travelling alone. It seemed so boring, so lonely, and practically a waste of time – who wants to go do anything when you have no one to discuss it with? Where’s the point in looking at a famous church if you can’t inform the person beside you of your opinion on the décor?

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Snapchat helped me share my rage at this sign forbidding you from sitting down in a public square, even if you’re as depressed as the little figure looks

Now, though, I’ve been sightseeing alone in Paris for three months, and I’ve just spent three delightful days as a single traveller in Venice. As it turns out, travelling alone can be tonnes of fun, and even considerably better than travelling with other people. Why’s that? Well, in a word, it’s about freedom.

Plus, I have Snapchat these days, so I can always just broadcast my opinions via low-quality photos with witty* captions.

Even if you get on terribly well with your friend/partner/relative, you’re sure to have a few disagreements, however slight, on how to sightsee or properly enjoy a new place. That’s completely normal: we all have different opinions on what’s important to see or do, and no one can really say what the ‘right’ way to be a tourist is.

Money can be a major issue, whether because of differences in budget or just dispute over what’s worth spending money on – I, personally, love sampling the specialities of any new region, and I’m willing to pay a little more to have the traditional sarda in saor at an authentic, atmospheric cicchetti bar instead of just eating slices of pizza which, though cheap and delicious, can be obtained relatively easily where I live. There’s a million examples, though, like whether you prefer to spend your money on museum entry and go everywhere on foot, or would rather pay for the public transport but content yourself with glancing at the exterior of every famous monument. And how much is too much for accommodation?

It’s obvious why it can feel stifling to holiday with someone with a different budget or just a different sense of value to you, because no one likes to pay for things they didn’t particularly want to do, or, conversely, to feel guilty about putting someone else in that situation. But that’s just one aspect of travelling, and perhaps you and your potential travel buddies are lucky enough to not worry about how much you’re spending. Even then, travelling with anybody else means making compromises between what you want to do, and what they want to do.

I woke up early and left my hostel early to make the most of the light, but some people would rather have slept in, or dawdled over their breakfast or doing their makeup. To me, that seems a waste of time, but they’d probably think the same of me happily getting lost in backstreets and retracing my steps to that pasticceria I saw last night which had such delectable pan del doge in its window.

Travelling alone, though, meant that I could do exactly that, and that I could choose to eat pastries for breakfast every day instead having, y’know, the vaguely healthy option of fruit and cereal and bread rolls that would have cost me the same as my beloved cannolo Sicialiano and espresso shot but wouldn’t have pleased me nearly as much.

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Eating pastries by the lagoon was literally what I came to Venice for, after all.

 

It meant that I could spend as long as I wanted trying to find the perfect postcard, and not worry about being judged for not spending enough time admiring the Tintoretto paintings I’d paid good money to see at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. It meant that I didn’t need to worry about whether my travel companion minded taking a detour to see this basilica I’d heard was kinda pretty, or, alternately, if they’d be awfully disappointed if I couldn’t be bothered going to see Torcello.

I delighted in being left to my own devices because I was the only one to bear the consequences of my

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Buying these, for instance, was definitely the right choice

decisions – that being, in this case, very sore feet after foregoing the expensive waterbuses in favour of walking everywhere and spending the money on obsessively consuming fritelle, a type of fried doughnut often filled with cream, chocolate or zabaglione which I frequently ate in lieu of real meals. They were divine, and I regret none of it. And that is the crux of the matter: I could make choices based entirely around my own impulses, without worrying about inconveniencing others. I had the freedom to do, quite simply, whatever I wanted. And it was wonderful.

 

*witty according to me, whose opinion I value most