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.
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?)
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."
It's nearly impossible to compile everything we learned into a blog, but here's a quick cheat sheet for you:
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- 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."