Friday, March 27, 2009

I'm a foodie, and Paris is a city for the gastronome. It's true that the culinary excitement in Europe has shifted to Spain (think Barcelona and Ferran Adria and El Bulli), but the influence of French culinary tradition is deeply entrenched even there.

The idea of a learning vacation has become popular in recent years, and one of the things I love to do in Paris is to take cooking classes (albeit with more success than Audrey Hepburn's Sabrina at Le Cordon Bleu, above). The city is full of cooking schools, and below are three suggestions. And don't worry. All three instructors are totally bilingual.


(Photo credit: Paule's Lacanche stove, by ddip)

Paule Caillat and Promenades Gourmandes
This red Lacanche stove graces the kitchen of my friend Paule Caillat, who offers cooking classes out of her home in the Marais neighborhood of Paris's 3rd arrondissement. The groups are small and hands on, and you share the meal together when it's all done. It's a great way to learn basic French dishes and techniques, as well as to meet people while you're at it.

As part of the package, Paule takes the group to one of the city's many food markets to shop for ingredients, and if you like, she'll also take you on an afternoon shopping excursion to some of the city's best culinary stores.

Check out Paule's Promenades Gourmandes website for more details, and tell her I sent you!

(Photo credit: tile outside a boulangerie, or baker's shop, on the Rue de Grenelle in the 7th, by ddip)

At Home with Patricia Wells
The food critic for many years at the International Herald Tribune, Patricia Wells runs cooking classes out of a former artist's studio on the charming Rue Jacob in Paris's 6th arrondissement. She also offers classes in Provence in the south of France, and her popularity means it's good to sign up early.

Unlike Caillat, Wells offers week-long classes, so this option is for those who want more than a glimpse of French cooking--and who are willing to make the commitment in time and money. A less demanding introduction to the depth of Wells's knowledge is available through the fourth edition of her Food Lover's Guide to Paris. Even with a copyright in the late
1990s, it's still one of the best print resources for Things Culinary in Paris that I know of.

Check out At Home with Patricia Wells for more details.

(Photo credit: camembert on baguette at L'Esplanade de St. Eustache cafe in the Les Halles area of Paris, by ddip)

Eric Fraudeau and Cook'n with Class
One of the newest cooking schools in Paris is in Montmartre. At one point an artist's haven (think Gene Kelly and An American in Paris), this neighborhood surrounding the Basilica of Sacre Coeur (in Paris's 18th arrondissement) fell on hard times for many decades. Lately it's begun to gentrify, and classy restaurants (and people) are moving into the area.

Along with many other Parisians, my father and I marked Valentine's Day in Montmartre last month with dinner at Le Chamarre. (Note that, even though Le Chamarre's website is in French, everyone speaks English there.)

Eric Fraudeau's Cook'n with Class offers a range of hands-on cooking classes, market tours, and cheese and wine tastings out of a studio not too far from Le Chamarre. His website (which is currently being updated) also provides good information about Paris in general, and if you're interested in learning a little French while you're in Paris, sign up for a French-language cooking class with him! (For more information, email him at

Take a leap with any of these cooking schools, and don't forget to check back next Friday for more tips from Experiential Paris. Bon appetit!

(Photo credit for top photo:, Audrey Hepburn, as Sabrina, in Billy Wilder's 1954 classic film Sabrina. Tip of the nib to my sister for pointing me in this direction.)

Friday, March 20, 2009

A neighbor asked me if I could make recommendations for a friend who is visiting Paris for the first time. The friend takes an "experiential" approach to travel. This idea intrigued me and got me thinking about how to formulate a response away from the usual guided tours that are genuinely helpful and interesting for first timers--but not experiential in the way this friend is seeking.

I put together what turned out to be a three-page email of suggestions, and because it was received with such enthusiasm, I decided to share the information in a series of posts I'm calling "Experiential Paris." This first post will focus on gardens, parks, and walkways in Paris. Enjoy, and feel free to share with your traveling friends.
(Photo credit above: flower market at the Madeleine by ddip)


Paris is a horticulturalist's dream. Visiting one of the city's gardens, parks, or walkways for an afternoon is one of the best ways I can think of to experience Paris as Parisians do, with an appreciation for slowing down and taking in the aesthetics of place.

Any print or online guide to the city will offer good information on where to start. And take a peak at Elaine Sciolino's piece for the New York Times in June 2008. It focuses on lesser known gardens in the city and has a companion slide show for visuals.

Below are three of my favorites in the city.

(Photo credit: the Luxembourg ruche, or apiary, by ddip)

The Luxembourg Gardens
The centrally located Luxembourg Gardens off the Boulevard St. Michel are not to be missed. Everyone goes there, and you'll find amazing things tucked in various corners—an apiary (above), a fruit orchard, a fish pond, pony rides and miniature sailboats for kids, boules (a ball game using small steel balls on a flat gravel surface) for the adults, ice cream, and everything in between.

(Photo credit: Eugene Atget, Luxembourg Gardens,

The plantings change regularly, and when we were there last month, tulips and daffodils were already pushing through the ground with their bud sacks ready to burst. Stroll through the park leisurely or choose a chair to sit in the sun and read for a while. It's what any self-respecting Parisian would do.

Afterward, go to the Dalloyau patisserie for coffee and pastries. It’s on the Boulevard St. Michel side of the park and has a lovely little tea room on the second floor. Parisians sit there for hours reading, writing, talking. And on your way to Dalloyau, don’t miss the free photography exhibit that usually lines the fence of the park on that same side.

(Photo credit: Allee des Cygnes, by Alemsk.tos on

Ile des Cygnes
My father and I walked to this little known island in the Seine after Mass at St. Eustache one Sunday afternoon. He thought it would be a relatively short walk, but hiking from St. Eustache in the 1st arrondissement to the
Ile des Cygnes in the 15th is not for the faint of heart. It took us about two hours and remains a peak Paris moment, partly because we walked the whole way along the Seine, taking in an amazing swathe of people and sights.

The fun of the island is the approach to its far end along the enchanting tree-lined Allee des Cygnes (photo above). The reward: a miniature Statue of Liberty at the very tip of the island. The Metro is aboveground in this part of the city, so it's fun to catch a ride from here to wherever you're going next.

(Photo credit: St. Cloud, Eugene Atget, from

St. Cloud
I love some of the parks just outside of Paris. The grounds at Sceaux, for example, are lovely. Versailles is magnificent and an easy day trip. But the park at St. Cloud is my very favorite, and not many people seem to go there.

I learned about St. Cloud many years ago through nineteenth-century French photographer Eugene Atget, who took some classic images (above) in this park along the Seine in the town of St. Cloud. You can see the flowing waters of the magnificent terraced fountain, known as the Grande Cascade, on certain days of the week and take tea or coffee at the little concessionnaire that's open in good weather.

The park is an easy ride on the Metro from Paris, and if you're so inclined, you can combine a visit there with a stop at the nearby National Museum of Ceramics.

(Photo credit: website)

At the museum, you'll be introduced to Sevres beauties (left) along with the idiosyncracies of French museology
--a sort of "figure it out yourself" approach to displaying a museum's collection. It's a lovely space and a lovely collection, so even if you aren't exactly sure what you're seeing, you'll go away happy.

Tune in next Friday for more tips from Experiential Paris!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Guest Blogger (My Father!)

I invited my father to contribute an entry about our recent trip overseas. Below are his observations.

(Photo by ddip: Ecole Militaire metro stop. Guest Blogger is on the platform. Can you spot him?)

Every aspect in the planning of our recent trip seemed fraught with problems, all of which of human origin. It did not bode well for this journey. Despite the signs, our vacation turned out exceedingly well.

With few exceptions, usually I do not pay attention to individual acts while traveling. This time, perhaps because of the initial experiences, I was more aware of them, and they added an interesting and enriching component to our trip. Here are a few examples, listed by city.

Champagne in Three Acts
DDIP and I enjoy La Table de Joel Robuchon (an expensive restaurant, but worth it). In Paris I have two quests: one is for the perfect lemon tart (thus far to be found at a patisserie on the Rue du Temple near the Hotel de Ville); and the other for the best kir vin blanc (a kir made with white wine), thus far found in my own home.

(Photo by ddip: lemon tart)

At Robuchon, I had ordered my preprandial kir while ddip ordered water. The director of the restaurant came over to greet us and noticed ddip’s empty wine glass. He could not tolerate such a situation. He turned to a waiter and instructed him to pour champagne for us. Madame could not have just water!
Several days later, we had lunch at Casaluna--a Corsican restaurant singled out by Pudlo (a French guidebook to restaurants in Paris). It was such a fine experience that we decided to return for lunch on the following Sunday. When we arrived for our second visit, we were welcomed like old guests.

We went to use the rest rooms before sitting down. When we went to our table, there to greet us were two glasses of champagne. A little special welcome for two "old friends."
Marcel and Ginette were our downstairs neighbors. We had met Marcel at the elevator, and he had told us of his lamentations about people who had previously stayed in our apartment. He was acutely aware of our comings and goings and remarked that we had gone to bed early the night before.

Toward the end of our stay, ddip bought a primrose plant as a thank you for Marcel and Ginette putting up with "our noise." Later, Marcel knocked on our door and invited us for an aperitif on the following afternoon.

I thought we would have a simple glass of wine. Instead we arrived to a spread of hors d'oeuvres and desserts. And then came the champagne and an expressed regret that we had not met earlier.

Invalid Credit Cards
On one occasion, neither of my credit cards would work. Fortunately, ddip’s card did. Later, at Casaluna, ddip asked what would happen in instances where people’s cards would not be accepted. Our waiter casually said that they would be taken to the forest, tied up, and never heard from again.

The Failed Thief
There was a new scam being run in Paris. As one walks along at a popular place, a person "finds" a gold ring on the ground and engages you in conversation about it. DDIP spotted the ruse quickly and moved us on.

We ran across the scam several times! In one instance while crossing the Seine (on the Pont des Invalides, I think), someone tried the game on us. I just laughed. The response was also a good laugh of acknowledgement of his failed attempt.

(Photo by ddip: Eiffel Tower, a prime spot for con artist scams)

The Curious Waiter
In the mornings, we took breakfast at our hotel. Basically because it was "un-Spanish." Breakfast was served from 7:30 to 10:30! We ate closer to the latter time.

The meals was charged to our room. When the waiter came with the bill for us to sign, he noticed our name. Not quite sure, he asked if I was American or Italian. We remarked that we were of the former, but of the latter ancestry.

DDIP suggested that my nose gave us away. No, the waiter said, it was all of me.

The Button Sewer
We had dinner one evening at La Dama--a Michelin one-star restaurant. (DDIP did not inform me of this for fear that I would refuse to go.) When we entered through locked doors and removed our coats, a button fell off ddip's coat. She proceeded to put it into her pocket, but two La Dama persons--the maitre d' and the head waiter--refused to permit this. No, they would have it sewn on while we dined.

After an excellent meal, they presented us with our coats, and there was the button properly affixed but not at its original place. The coat had been missing another button at mid-line; so they had resewed the button but in the more "strategic" location. Then it was “Buenas noches y hasta la proxima vez” (Good evening and until next time).

The Toilet Counselor
While visiting at La Sagrada Familia--Gaudi's fanciful church--ddip wanted to use a restroom. She asked a guard, who suggested she use the facilities at the nearby McDonalds. A woman who had been chatting with the guard frowned (in distaste) and insisted that ddip not go there but to use the public toilet, which was in the park across the road. We went to the preferred facitity.

(Photo by ddip: peppers at La Boqueria market)

The Worker
For lunch one day, we decided to go to the Boqueria, which is a large and fascinating market on La Rambla Catalunya. We decided to have a Spanish tortilla, which is like a fritatta. DDIP asked to have it heated, and the woman agreed.

DDIP then said thank you, to which there was no response. I told ddip that she said thank you too often. A faint smile crossed the woman's lips, and without raising her head said, "Es mi trabajo" (It’s my job).

The American and the Security Officer
Our flight home took us through Amsterdam's Schiphol airport. While standing in line to go through the security check/interview (I was once interviewed by a cook because there were not enough security officers!), an American woman tried to bypass the line. She was distraught because she had a baggage problem.

The security officer stopped her and explained that she would have to go to the end of the line. In an exchange about her luggage, he explained that the responsible people were taking care of that, but that she was at a different station and she would have to join the queue.

The woman looked at the officer and told him not to be angry. As she walked away, he replied: "I am not angry; just disappointed."
The rest of the trip was uneventful, except that I lost every game of 20 Questions as we flew across the Atlantic.

Friday, March 06, 2009


"Allons Bonhomme/Let's Go, Buddy"

"Whatever I do/
Wherever I am/
Nothing will erase your memory/
I'm thinking of you/
I'll never forget you"

"To my beloved Bigoudi"

Le cimetiere des chiens (the pet cemetery) in Paris is on the left bank of the Seine in a northwestern suburb called Asnieres-sur-Seine. It's a short Metro ride from the city and an easy walk from the station. The cemetery came to be as the result of efforts by attorney Georges Harmois and journalist Marguerite Durand, and it first opened to the public in 1899. The Art Nouveau entrance gate to the cemetery was designed by architect Eugene Petit, who also designed a number of buildings in the 14th arrondissement in Paris.

In the twenty-first century, the cemetery is managed by the city of Asnieres-sur-Seine, and the care of the resident cats is the responsibility of a cemetery association and of various unofficial but approved volunteers. For more information, go to this site. (It's a good way to practice your French!)

Photos: by yours truly, excepting the one of me with the black kitty and the one of the plastic beaded dog headstone, both of which were taken by my father

Sunday, March 01, 2009


Photos: Graffiti in Barcelona's Barri Gotic, the medieval and oldest section of town, along the waterfront