It’s just after eleven on a Sunday morning and a long line of clued-up locals curls from the door of la boulangerie. The smell of fresh bread teases on the footpath. Our tour guide Phyllis joins the queue and soon emerges with a traditional baguette, known as une tradi. She explains that there has been a renaissance in authentic, hand-shaped baguettes in France over the past few years and that une tradi can only be made from four ingredients: flour, salt, yeast and water. It takes longer to make a traditional baguette so it will cost you slightly more, but you are guaranteed the real thing.
Phyllis cuts the baguette open and we each rip off a piece to sample. It’s ever-so-crisp on the outside, tasty and chewy. Inside it’s cream in colour with large holes.
As contented customers push past with their luscious fruit tarts and Sunday morning bread, our knowledgeable guide produces another baguette of much poorer quality, in order for us to compare the two. This one is limp and squishy with a cotton wool centre. It is also tasteless from being over processed. ‘There are no nutrients left,’ says Phyllis as she turns the baguette over to show us a pattern imprinted on the dough. A red flag that the dough has been frozen.
These are the kinds of invaluable food tips that participants learn when they join a Paris by Mouth tour. Our small group is standing outside the original store of Maison Kayser, one the best boulangeries in the city, and this is our first stop on a three-hour walk enticingly named Taste of the Left Bank.
Tours by Paris by Mouth are a relatively new venture, run by contributors to the wonderful website Paris by Mouth, a great source of information for food and wine lovers. Reviews are gathered from a stable of established writers who spend their days tucking in their serviettes and tasting, and the site is edited by professional food writers. With a collection of exceptional addresses at their fingertips it makes sense that these contributors also use their local knowledge to lead food and wine tours through some of the most delicious neighbourhoods in town. Participants are introduced to a trail of treats from artisan bread, cheese, wine and charcuterie to mouth-watering gateaux, chocolate and ice cream. The most difficult decision is which food crawl to choose.
Our next stop is just around the corner at one of the most reputable cheesemongers in France, Laurent Dubois. ‘He is also an affineur,’ says Phyllis. ‘Look for the sign affineur on the façade of a fromagerie.’ This means that it is a serious enterprise, she explains. Cheeses are sourced from the countryside and the ageing process is finished in cellars beneath the shop, giving control over the final product.
We learn a little about artisan and farmhouse French cheese before an assortment is wrapped for us to try later with more good bread and some wine. ‘Trust the cheesemonger and rely on them to suggest a selection,’ says Phyllis. ‘They know exactly what’s in season and ripe.’ Being a cheese lover, I can hardly wait to taste our stash. We have a Tomme d’Oudry, a new season goat cheese from Burgundy; a soft Brie de Melun; an Ossau Irraty sheep milk cheese from the Basque country; a washed rind Langres from Champagne and a Carles Roquefort, a sheep milk cheese from Midi-Pyrénées. Oh, and a Comté AOC – a hard, pressed cheese that comes from the Swiss border. Most Comtés are aged for 5 months or so but this one has been aged for 3 years!
Next, we ooh and aah over our samples of chocolate from one of the most reputable chocolatiers in the country, then head towards a boutique devoted to the olive oils of Provence. Along the way we talk about the word maison (house/homemade) on menus, a word that is bandied around with far too much liberty.
We taste tiny spoonfuls of olive oil from micro producers and learn what to look for in an authentic olive oil, before sampling an extraordinarily good caramel macaron at a store nearby.
The maze of ancient streets lures us like lollies, but we push on to arrive at Place de Furstenberg. One of the most romantic little squares in Paris, it’s magical at night, lit by a central, antique candelabra.
By day, you can buy a great cream puff or choux à la crème, a trend in the city with bite-sized shops popping up like mushrooms. Here, the puffs are filled to order so they don’t go soggy, and offered in just three flavours: natural, coffee and chocolate. Phyllis orders a little box-full and we hoe in. They are light and fluffy and not too sweet.
Our last stop is the most adorable little wine shop in Paris, where we make ourselves comfortable and sample our cheeses with more beautiful bread and boutique French wines.
We sip and swirl, talk and learn. I leave, satisfied and stimulated, and yearning to know more about cheese. Perhaps I’ll sign up for the Tour de Fromage!
The Taste of the Left Bank tour was taken in the spring, courtesy of Paris by Mouth.