Over the past few years there has been a lot of conversation around the startling statistic that around one-third of France’s cafes, brasseries and restaurants are actually using pre-frozen ingredients or entire meals that only need a microwave before reaching your plate. In typical French fashion, this was a drawn out discussion that needed a government vote and while restaurants now can mark on their menus “fait maison,” when items are truly made from scratch, you might not always be able to see the menu before sitting down.
A few months ago, I attended a question and answer session about French food and the fait maison/frozen food question was raised. A few people said, “you just should know where to go.” But without any mandate and as a visitor to Paris, “knowing where to go,” is easier said than done. And for first-time tourists, it’s easy to end up somewhere that is beautifully authentic and appears to be using all fresh ingredients but well, isn’t. Here are five tips to keep you street smart when eating fresh, seasonal and farm-to-table in Paris.
1. Check out the seasonal produce at outdoor markets
If you get a chance to explore any of Paris’ great outdoor markets, take a closer look at what is actually coming from France during the time of year of your visit and remember those vegetables for that evening. Is it also on the menu? If your restaurant is touting a buffalo mozzarella and tomato salad in December, you can bet the tomatoes are not from France. In winter expect more dishes made from root vegetables and in the warmer months, summer squashes, tomatoes, peppers and stone fruits are in abundance. And in spring, take advantage of the white and green asparagus, as they are the first sign of the new season.
Chef Alain Passard takes it one step further and grows his own produce on his farms. L’Arpege is at a higher price range but the lunch service is a little less expensive and an unforgettable experience.
84 Rue de Varenne, 75007. Tel: +33 (0)1 47 05 09 06
While not new in Paris but picking up in popularity amongst chefs, is the fixed menu. A smaller menu normally means fresh ingredients. To eliminate waste and maximize efficiency, it is not practical to offer 8-10 entrees and main plates and still be able to buy fresh, farm-to-table ingredients. While this is not always 100% true, menus with a lot of options – and a lot of the options that you see everywhere – are not always the freshest and don’t take seasons into consideration.
Top Chef winner Pierre Sang has wowed both Parisians and visitors alike with his unique dishes that change throughout the evening. Get there early to grab a seat at the bar and be a part of the action. A recent meal there included smoked herring, potatoes with herring eggs, pickled onion and ficoïde glaciale (also known as ice plant), an iced green found foraging along rivers.
As farm-to-table ingredients have become more common, so has the celebration of the vegetable, which can be at times hard to find on Paris menus. This doesn’t mean that chefs are going against French tradition and becoming vegetarians. Don’t worry, meat and seafood are still on the plate but vegetables are more and more the star.
Another Top Chef winner, chef Romain Tischenko, changes his menu frequently with a recent spring dish of beef but with young carrots, green asparagus and purple, sprouting broccoli clearly standing out.
Listing suppliers, while more and more common in certain places in America, is not as prevalent here. There are some really great vendors growing and selling (or catching, butchering and such) great products. Terroirs d’avenir, advocates for slow food and local sourcing, started out supplying in-season produce from farmers in the Ile-de-France area. Now they’ve expanded their offerings to fish, cheese and meat and even have shops where you can go and buy from directly. A lot of chefs have direct relationships with farmers like Annie Bertin and Joël Thiébault and are proud to communicate to customers that they support them.
With an array of small plates and mains, the fresh dishes are too good not to share. Semilla proudly lists their suppliers on the bottom of the menu, ranging from their olive oil, peaches, nuts, olives and more.
One of my favorite things to do is follow restaurants in Paris to see what they’re buying and from where and what they’re creating and cooking for later that evening. There is not better way to see how fresh your dinner will be when the fish on the menu was in your Instagram feed earlier that day.