Appear Less American While Eating Your Way Through Paris

Categories: Travel Hog
SaintJacques.jpg
Photo by Riki Altman
Wendy Lyn knows her way around Paris--and it's eats.
​Paris wouldn't be the same for American foodie visitors if it weren't for Wendy Lyn. An ex-pat who moved from Florida's panhandle nearly two decades ago, she unpacked in Paris, immersed herself in the local food scene and met all its major players, then never looked back. Today she is the go-to for anyone with culinary curiosity when they visit or move to The City of Light. And for good reason--Lyn gives incredibly informative tours that will not only lead straight to the best eats in the city, but she sprinkles comments with suggestions regarding how to appear less--let's not say this too delicately--American.

She also knows how to get tables at booked restaurants, when to set your reservations, who claims to be legit and who isn't, where to shop, how to decipher the "oyster code," which markets to hit and when, and which eateries are the real deal and which are over-hyped (meaning, where the chefs eat). In the scant four hours we spent together a few weeks ago, we took 12-pages of notes, but we'll share some highlights so you won't arrive as green as we did.

We met at a Metro station close to Notre Dame shortly after 1 p.m. recently and she greeted us with a big Southern "Heeeeyyyy!" then whisked us off in a trot to a nearby food market. She explained that, unlike Americans who hit a grocery store every other week or so with a long list and knock it all out in an hour, the French have enclaves of stores side-by-side where they daily stop in for seafood, cheeses, baked goods, and wines.

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Photo by Riki Altman
This particular market, one of 76 in the city, technically closes at one, but Lyn pulled some strings and got the saucisson and olive guys to stay open and offer samples. [Lyn asked us not to disclose the exact location, since it's a trade secret.] The olives, she explained, were picholines and lucques from trees in Nimes, near Provence. Some were marinated in herbed brines, while others were stuffed with garlic or raw almonds. Cured sausages, or saucissons, weren't garden variety, either: we tried ones made of duck and donkey and others dotted with blueberries, blue cheese, and mushrooms or prepared with ash or rolled in herbs de Provence. Then we dashed off to a seafood stand and the city's top cheese ager, before learning about Patrick Roger, an M.O.F. (Meilleur Ouvrier de France, or top craftsman) who decorated his window with a 1,600-pound chocolate gorilla. (Sorry, folks, but the piece already sold and the proceeds are going to benefit the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. Cool, huh?)

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Photo by Riki Altman
Then Lyn took us into a nearby bakery, and we stopped for a snack of a freshly made waffle topped with artichoke heart puree and a thin slice of Iberico then drizzled with first-pressed olive oil at L'Avant Comptoir, a chic little spot that has the names of its suppliers painted on the walls and the menu hanging from the ceiling on removable tags. There, she explained, "I don't do shopping tours. I want Americans to know the culture and who's part of it." But, she adds, "I don't want to be too serious and I don't want to be a snob. In essence, what I'm doing is teaching. I help you interact like a local with a local."

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Photo by Riki Altman
It's nearly impossible to compile everything we learned into a blog, but here's a quick cheat sheet for you:

  • Produce vendors put the fruits and vegetables that are in season right at the front of the store.
  • There are about 80 varieties of French mushrooms (and cepes average a whopping 75 euros a kilo [$100 for just over 2 pounds]) and 1,347 varieties of French cheese, but only two types of oysters: creuses and plate.
  • Shellfish season is October 15 through March 15. 
  • Marching into a cheese shop is a big no-no. Wait patiently at the entrance and a knowledgeable helper will approach you and guide you around. What you'll discover is that the shop is laid out from mildest to strongest, counter-clockwise, and from creamy to hard if you start at the bottom and work your way up. 
  • Many French like their bread nearly burnt so look for varying crust colors and order "bien cuit" or "pas bien cuit," "well done" or "not well done."
  • Don't shop at any place labeled "chocolat" except the famous La Maison du Chocolat. The others only sell pre-packaged chocolates and aren't making the goods from scratch. Do search for a "chocolatier."
  • Put your cash or credit card in a tray. It's considered tacky if you hand either to a cashier.
  • Lyn makes endearing comments like "Try this! It's, like, slap-your-momma good!" and has the patience of a saint, but expect the French to give you harsh treatment until you learn the ropes. "They're sometimes mean here," she explains, "but it's only if they love you."

To book a tour with Wendy Lyn, visit her blog, The Paris Kitchen, then email her at wendy@thepariskitchen.com.

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5 comments
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ainparis
ainparis

I've lived in Paris for the past 5 years and it's true that the French are much nicer and more hospitable if you make the effort to speak their language.  Just learning a few words will go a long way and you will see that the French are appreciative of the effort. BTW, it sounds like the "secret market" you went to is my local one at Place Maubert Mutualite.  Wendy's tours tend to be on the expensive side, so for those who can't afford to take her tours I recommend her website as a good source of information on new restaurants in Paris.

Randi
Randi

I will be traveling to Paris this spring for the first time. Hearing Lyn describe the French as mean and providing harsh treatment doesn't sound like a good time. I haven't had the best impression from the French living in Miami. What is your impression?...be honest.    

Riki
Riki

In all honesty, both times I've visited Paris I've been treated very, very well by the French. But here's the reason, I suspect: I make EVERY effort to speak French with them in all my interactions. My French language skills are embarrassing, at best, but I really think a little effort goes a long way over there. Start with some simple niceties, like "hello," "thank you" and "excuse me" and then maybe pick up a noun or two (I always lean toward "bathroom," "right," "left," "water" and "steak" as the essentials). 

I think they just happen to be very direct. Sometimes that's refreshing, non? Enjoy your trip, eat everything you can, and definitely call on Wendy even before you go--she'll be the perfect starting point to your wonderful visit. 

Riki
Riki

We're soooo tuned in at Short Order! Wendy Lyn and L'Avant Le Comptoir were mentioned on this morning's Today Show, too! http://video.today.msnbc.msn.c...

Riki
Riki

Oops! Typo. L'Avant Comptoir. Je suis desole. 

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