Crack a bottle of wine and tear into a baguette
It might not have been the inspiration Monet intended. I stood in the Musee d’orsay, lost in his interpretation of a Parisian picnic.
The romantic green setting. the breathtaking light. Suddenly, I was struck by an idea for an outdoor feast of my own. After all, Paris is peppered with plenty of great spots to unfurl a blanket, crack a bottle of wine and tear into a baguette.
‘P’ STANDS FOR BREAD
Shopping for food in Paris is as much fun as eating it, and the job is made easier with a guidebook and the Paris Metro iPhone app. There was no question where my husband and I would go first: Poilane, in the sixth arrondissement. Lionel Poilane was one of the worlds most celebrated bakers. He had a private island, mailed loaves to Robert De Niro daily and made art with Salvador Dali—including a famous bread birdcage from which the bird ate its way to freedom.
Poilane’s bread is made from simple ingredients: stoned-milled gray flour, Guerande salt, and water. The secret is to let the dough ferment slowly and naturally, and to bake in custom-made wood-burning ovens. The giant bread wheels boast a thick crust slightly charred on the bottom and slashed with the signature ‘P’ on top. The breads moist, fragrant crumb begs for a dab of butter or, better yet, some gooey cheese. I desperately wanted a whole loaf, but we were happy to be able to buy just enough slices needed for our picnic. The bakery also sells specialty breads (rye, raisin and Perigord walnut), crois sants, flans, apples tartlets and butter cookies. Short behind-the-scenes tours of the shop can be arranged by appointment only.
PAIN AND PROGRESS The recipe for what was essentially a sturdy peasant loaf was created by Poilane’s father, who opened his bakery in Paris’ rue du Cherche-Midi in 1932. The charismatic Pierre Poilane eventually inherited the shop and became one of France’s most vocal proponents of artisanal bread. He set out to preserve this crucial bit of French heritage by collecting 38 distinct recipes from various provinces and regions, thus saving them from culinary extinction. Pierre died tragically in a he licopter crash in 2002; his daughter, Apollonia, now heads up the business.
Give yourself lots of time if you visit the Quatrehomme cheese shop. Not because of the lineups—because of the product range. There are two hundred seasonal cheeses to choose from, most farm-made from raw milk and aged partially or entirely by Marie and Alain Quatrehomme.
Marie Quatrehomme was the first woman to receive the Meilleur ouvrier de France, a national medal of honor for craftspeople. What makes her cheese so good? I’d say it’s got to do with the close connection she maintains with her producers. Marie respects what each of them is trying to accomplish. She’s able to finish the ageing process in her own cellars with a clear understanding for each cheese. Her marque defabrique, or trademark, is slow ageing in cool cellars—a process that reduces the risk of a cheese going ‘off’.
We opted for a creamy Brie de Melun, and one of her treasures: a 36-month- old Marcel Petite Comte that develops crackly crystals and an increasingly complex nutty flavor as it ages. The shop also offers an impressive selection of hams and other charcuterie. We couldn’t resist a wild boar and duck pate, which I had no trouble imagining on a slice Poilane’s crusty bread.
IN SEARCH OF A SWEET ENDING
To top off our picnic feast, I wanted a few of those elegant, diminutive and quintessentially French dessert cookies—the macaron.
We headed for Pierre Herme, the sleek boutique on rue de Bonaparte. Herme was the first to introduce fashion concepts into the world of French patisserie. His pastry collections are organized by flavor combinations including fig and raspberry; strawberry, rhubarb and passion fruit; and vanilla, white truffle and hazelnut. I considered the green matcha and sesame, and the strawberry and balsamic, worried that they would be overpowering as a dessert; but they were delicate, light and airy, and absolutely delicious.
AND NOW FOR THE WINE
Rather unexpectedly, on one of Paris’ fashion boulevards and just a few streets down from Poilane, you’ll find La Maison des Millesimes. On the window, a list of names in little white letters enumerates every single wine of the Gironde AOC. La Maison des Millesimes is nothing less than an embassy of Bordeaux wines. The shelves are lined with more than 500 grand cru labels, many already aged to perfection, many prized old vintage years from famous vineyards. I think my husband realized it would not be wise to let me linger. As I ran my fingers enviously over bottles of Chateau Cheval Blanc, Latour and Yquem, he wasted no time discussing our plan with the shop’s owner.
The recommendation for our Monet-inspired feast: a Chateau Haut-Marbuzet (St Estephe) 2004. Tasting notes described it as a luscious, oaky, richly fruity wine, with scents of ripe black currants intermixed with copious toasty, spicy oak.
“It will open out nicely throughout the meal,” the shop owner assured us, “with a smokiness and an appealing grip.” A grip, that’s what I needed to get. I’d had enough planning and prep. It was time to wolf this feast. But my husband yanked me toward one last purchase—proper glassware. “I will not drink this Bordeaux from a plastic cup,” he proclaimed. I hate it when he’s right.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Official city regulations permit picnics only in designated parts of Bois de Boulogne, Bois de Vincennes and Pare Floral. Outdoor dining anywhere else will, in theory, earn you a fine. Nonetheless, at the first sign of balmy weather, Paris becomes one giant picnic area; every bench, every bank of the river and every patch of grass receives its happy crowd of baguette munchers.
We were told that we could avoid trouble simply by staying off the forbidden lawns—those marked pelouse interdite and pelouse au repos—and by keeping things reasonably quiet and tidy. This being Paris, that left a good chunk of the city in which to plant our picnic.
Our first choice was a bench on the lesser-known Allees des Cygnes in the Pare du Champs des Mars. It’s a narrow, tree-lined artificial island that’s also home to Paris’s very own, but miniature, Statue of Liberty. But the area did not seem as welcoming at night as it did earlier in the day. Instead, we dropped onto a bench at the foot of the iron lady herself—the Eiffel Tower. We weren’t alone. Many others shook out those familiar checkered blankets and settled on the grounds nearby.
Our meal began as the sun set behind the tower in a glorious pink sky. As darkness fell, a lightshow traced the tower’s shape, with encores every half hour. I relished the last macaron crumb and checked my watch. Excellent- just enough time to catch the last lift to the top of the tower.
Musee D’Orsay 1 rue de la Legion d’Honneur, 7th Arr. Tel: 01 40 49 48 14 Metro stop: Solferino www.musee-orsay.fr
Poilane 8 rue du Cherche Midi, 6th Arr. Tel: 01 45 48 42 59 Metro stop: Saint-Sulpice www.poilane.fr
Quatrehomme 62 rue de Sevres, 7th Arr. Tel: 01 47 34 33 45 Metro stop: Vaneau or Duroc
Pierre Herme 72 rue Bonaparte, 6th Arr. Tel: 01 43 54 47 77 Metro stop: Saint-Sulpice www.pierreherme.com
La Maison des Millesimes 137 boulevard Saint-Germain, 6th Arr. Tel: +01 40 46 80 01 Metro stop: Mabillon or Saint-Germain-des-Pres www.maisondesmillesimes.fr
Eiffel Tower 5 avenue Anatole France Champ de Mars, 7th Arr. Metro stop: Bir-Hakeim, Dupleix or Trocadero Ecole Militaire www.tour-eiffel.fr