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Tiny Left Bank gourmet shop where savvy Parisian cooks can get their secret ingredients

May 11th, 2015 · 2 Comments

Article and photos by Josette King

A discrete sign guided visitors to the internal courtyard.

A discrete sign guided visitors to the internal courtyard where the shop was located.

Epiceries fines (gourmet shops) are hard to miss in Paris, France. They range from vast food halls that offer all manner of desirable foodstuff from around France and far beyond, to boutiques specializing in a specific indulgence: caviar, cheese, smoked salmon, chocolate or macarons to name a few. You name it and any self-respecting Parisian will give you at least a couple of bonnes adresses (top places where you are sure to satisfy your particular yearning). Many of these epicurean temples have been in business for well over a century and have achieved the status of local institutions on the checklist of foodie tourists from every corner of the planet.

Unassuming doors led to a treasure trove of delicacies from the French heartland.

Unassuming doors led to a treasure trove of delicacies from the French heartland.

Then there are adresses confidentielles, exceptional places to be shared only as a favor to someone’s friends. Tomat’s (12 Rue Jacob, 75006 Paris, France. +33 1 44 07 36 58. www.tomats.fr), a tiny gem tucked in a 17th century courtyard in the heart of Saint Germain des Prés rates high on my list of the latter. Barely a decade old, its unique appeal is rooted in the passion of its owner-manager Alexandra Blanchet de Pudhot for the traditional delicacies of the French heartland. She was proud to point out that 95 percent of her inventory comes from small French producers. She also featured a few outstanding Italian treats, such as her coarse fresh Genovese Pesto so delicious that one of my friends has taken to slathering it on toasted country bread.

Tomat’s owner-manager Alexandra Blanchet de Pudhot.

Tomat’s owner-manager Alexandra Blanchet de Pudhot

In addition to a broad array of the essentials that great pantries are made of, she also sourced exceptional seasonal specialties. At the time of my early fall visit she had just received a fish and crawfish terrine from the Loire Valley that was otherwise only available at the producer’s. And in anticipation of the holiday season her inventory was being enhanced with attractive assortments of exotic spices each with a cookbook included, as well as new kinds of truffled foie gras, duck confits and traditional goose sausages from the South West of France that I expect will star in my gourmet gift baskets. Alexandra had tasted approximately 80 percent of the products carried at Tomat’s. Her associate was charged with tasting the remainder, such as artisan jams and honeys, the full range of the peerless Bonnat chocolate bars, and other sweets. Products that have become permanent staples of the inventory were re-sampled periodically to ensure that the high quality remained constant.

A tasting of artisanal Huiles LeBlanc.

A tasting of artisanal Huiles LeBlanc

At Tomat’s the emphasis on personal contact was as exceptional as the products on the shelves. Alexandra clearly enjoyed discovering her customers’ tastes to better offer suggestions on what could delight them and enhance their recipes, making her épicerie the sort of place where savvy cooks get their “secret ingredients.” In my case recently, one such find was a small pot of Beaume de Casanova, an exquisite bitter chocolate and ginger mustard, a few dabs of which had my guest raving over a simple roasted chicken. I had not suspected such a thing existed until my visit to Tomat’s. Nor had I heard of Huiles LeBlanc, a wide range artisan oils from Burgundy.

The shelves were brimming with the makings of a great pantry.

The shelves were brimming with the makings of a great pantry.

The family-owned and operated enterprise has extracted exceptional virgin oils from a variety of products from pistachio, pine and hazelnuts to marrow pits for well over a century. In Paris, they could be found at Tomat’s exclusively. I was a bit dubious at some of the most esoteric concoctions such as oil from the nut found inside the pit of prune plums, until I had a taste of several of them. In all cases, it had a more subtle, smoother taste than the nut itself. Their pistachio oil is my new favorite to drizzle over seared scallops and poached mild white fish. As for the prune plum nut oil? A few teaspoons transformed a humble autumn fruit compote into an intriguing dessert. I have also been known to use it as a dipping oil for bits of day-old brioche.

Attractive assortments exotic spices made original gifts.

An attractive assortments exotic spices made original gifts

With its exceptional variety of unusual products, personalized service and this not insignificant detail, friendly prices, Tomat’s has become a frequent stop for me, just in case a new interesting something has come in. It usually has.

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A caviar and salmon tasting in Paris

April 27th, 2015 · No Comments

By Elena del Valle and photos by Gary Cox

The Prunier shop in Place de la Madeleine, Paris

The Prunier shop on Place de la Madeleine, Paris

prunier-redo-1

Inside the Prunier shop - click to enlarge

Tasting more than one type of caviar at a time is not ideal, the sales lady at Prunier, a specialty shop on the ritzy Place de la Madeleine in Paris, France, said when I asked about sampling several varieties of the delicate seafood. She went on to explain that most people's palate has trouble distinguishing the flavors in the same way that after sampling several wines it becomes difficult to taste the nuances of each consecutive one.

The Prunier shop had a selection of caviar on display.

The Prunier shop had a selection of caviar cans on display.

So it was that we settled on only one kind of the four caviar types sold at the shop instead of the two or more varieties we had anticipated when we planned a caviar tasting. We also sampled some Norwegian farm raised Balik salmon which she said tasted "like candy."

Prunier Tradition caviar

The Prunier Tradition Caviar we sampled. (click to enlarge)

She recommended the Tradition Caviar, explaining that it accounted for as much as 60 percent of the company's caviar production. Ours was from the most recent production of September 2014 and had been aged one month. We took home a 30 gram tin of Tradition, a farmed caviar from Montpon Menesterol in France, for each of us. We also took a 120 gram vacuum pack of Balik Norwegian farmed salmon smoked in Ebersol, Switzerland. They came in insulated sealed plastic bags with small frozen packs.

Balik salmon for one.

A box of Balik salmon for one.

The products would be at their best if we refrigerated them within five hours so we made our way back to our place with alacrity, arriving within an hour and placing the bags in the refrigerator immediately. They sat in the corner while we fretted with anticipation until the following afternoon when we sampled them with a glass of well chilled brut champagne.

The salmon was offered in a variety of cuts and sizes.

The salmon display case with a variety of cuts and sizes.

Following her advice we had the caviar by itself first. It was buttery with a pleasing texture, a mild flavor and just the right amount of salt to highlight its natural taste without being too salty. There was also a hint of nuttiness and a pleasant aftertaste but no fishiness.

There was a case containing other products, like foie gras and blinis.

There was a case containing other products like foie gras and blinis. 

The salmon too was subtle and had a buttery melt-in-your-mouth texture. We sliced it into bite size chunks and ate it by itself with no garnishes or condiments. Each package was a single serving which was plenty, yet it seemed to disappear as if by magic. I would buy both products again and recommend them to friends, especially if it is their first time tasting caviar and salmon. Boutique Prunier (15 place de la Madeleine, 75008 Paris, France, +33 147429898, www.prunier.com, info@prunier.com),  a 50 square meter ground level shop, was established in 2005.

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Some of our Paris food favorites

April 13th, 2015 · No Comments

By Elena del Valle and photos by Gary Cox

A view of Paris

A unique view of Paris from atop Notre Dame. (click to enlarge)

Paris, France is an exceptional city when it comes to restaurants and food. In addition to a variety of neighborhood size supermarket stores, specialized food shops small and large, single and chain owned, domestic and foreign can be found across the city. As if that wasn't enough street market vendors sell fresh seafood, ethnic foods, produce, flowers, dairy products and merchandise several times a week in various city neighborhoods.

A variety of salts at the Galeries Lafayette Maison

A variety of salts at the Galeries Lafayette Maison

Yuzu citrus from Japan

Yuzu citrus from Japan

Prices are high and the shelf life of fresh products short so it pays to shop often and with care, and to pay attention when making purchases lest the produce wilt or spoil in the refrigerator before we consume it. Over the years we have discovered that the best way to shop for us is to pick and choose favorite products from a variety of vendors in our area. For example, we usually find a neighborhood bakery and grocer for regular purchases. In addition, for special occasions and when we just want to treat ourselves to something out of the ordinary there are a number of sellers we find are worth a special trip or detour.

Bellota Bellota in the Latin Quarter

The Bellota Bellota shop and eatery in the Latin Quarter

Slicing Bellota ham requires skill

Slicing bellota ham requires skill (click to enlarge)

For over the top wonderful bellota ham from Spain and related products we like the Bellota Bellota store on rue de Seine in the Latin Quarter (see Paris Latin Quarter gourmet shop new favorite). They offered eat in (though we found it too chilly to eat there on cold days) and take out options as well as freshly sliced and vacuum packed options. Most recently we tried Le Royal sandwich made with slices of master cortador cut bellota, manchego cheese and homemade smashed tomatoes. The single slice of cheese and single slice of bellota tasted best after removing one of the halves of the thick and crunchy bread.

The distinctive logo for Marriage Freres marks the location of fine teas

The distinctive Marriage Freres sign marked the location of fine teas

A turkey club at the Marriage in the carousel

A turkey club at the Carrousel du Louvre location of Mariage Freres

When we are in the mood for tea and a light meal at a teashop we make our way to Mariage Freres on rue Bourg-Tibourg in the Right Bank for their Snob Salad and Louvre sandwich (see Superb gourmet lunch at Paris tea salon). Although on our most recent visit the service was slower and less attentive in the tea salon and shop by far than in past occasions the food was good. We generally stay away from the too touristy Carrousel du Louvre location, especially in cold weather. We have found the underground shopping center next to the Louvre Museum to be overcrowded, and the only bathroom for teashop customers was an equally crowded pay for use mall facility outside the eatery. Although clean and maintained by onsite staff it required exiting the tea shop and walking over public bathroom, payment of 1.50 euros and standing in line.

Snob salad at Grand Augustin

The Snob Salad at the Grand Augustin shop (click to enlarge)

Sencha tea whipped in a special cup

A cup of matcha tea whipped and served in a special cup

On our most recent stay in the City of Lights, we visited the shop and tea salon at Grands Augustins on the Left Bank. While we were disappointed the shop did not carry the match tea flavor we liked from the tea salon or offer any date for its availability (the staff person responded stiffly when we asked) the tea salon experience was pleasant and the service attentive. The Snob Salad was slightly different and less to our liking than the one on rue Bourg-Tibourg.

Table D'Aki changed its name

Table D'Aki changed its name to La Table d'Akihiro

Scallops with white truffles

The scallops with white truffles were outstanding

Delicate fish served with carmelized endive

A delicate fish served with caramelized endive (click to enlarge)

For dependable, fresh, beautifully prepared and presented seafood we beeline our way to Table d'Akihiro in the Left Bank (see Same outstanding seafood Paris restaurant, updated name). While advance reservations have been a must, and menu selection in the past was limited to one or two appetizers, one or two mains and one dessert, the meals have always been exceptional and outstanding value for money.

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Alain Ducasse new Left Bank shop worth a visit for single source dark chocolate

March 30th, 2015 · No Comments

By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox

Le Chocolat storefront on Rue Saint-Benoite

Le Chocolat storefront on Rue Saint-benoite

Paris, France is a city where many bakeries sell chocolates and specialized chocolate shops abound. Some shops sell handmade chocolates made onsite while others tout imported bonbons. Some vendors, especially in tourist areas, attract buyers with elaborate chocolate art and sculptures, sparsely stocked display cases, uniformed and gloved staff, and the high prices that might mean high quality, but don't necessarily deliver on the implied promises.

Information and a display of the raw ingredients for chocolate

Inside the store there was information and a display of the raw ingredients for chocolate (click to enlarge)

With such a plethora of choices what makes one chocolate seller rise above the rest despite simple, some might say understated, wrapping and boxes? Chocolates, especially single source dark chocolate bars, made from scratch in the shop's own factory with organic ingredients. At this newly opened shop there were no artificial or from frozen ingredients, flavor enhancers, additives or preservatives in the products. In December 2013 we featured the factory (see The art of making chocolate Alain Ducasse style in Paris).

Specialty chocolate gift items in the window display

Specialty chocolate gift items in the window display

On our most recent visit to the City of Lights we discovered Le Chocolat Alain Ducasse's new Left Bank location on a side street off the famed Boulevard Saint Germain (26, rue Saint-benoit, 75006, Paris, +33 01 45 48 87 89, http://www.lechocolat-alainducasse.com, contact@lechocolat-alainducasse.com). We returned often during our stay.

A video about the making of the chocolate ran on a screen

A video about the making of the chocolate ran on a screen (click to enlarge)

Chocolate spread and hot chocolate mix display

A chocolate spread and hot chocolate mix display (click to enlarge)

Opened in March 2014 the 30 square meter shop was owned by Alain Ducasse, he of the culinary empire. Despite the unobtrusive facade (we almost missed it on our first visit due to nearby construction) the shop was busy every time we were there. We were so distracted browsing the chocolate filled shelves and display cases on either side we almost missed the wall mounted television screen with presentations on the factory and manufacturing process, and the pretty original tiled floor.

The chocolate bars and a view of the historic tile floor

Note the chocolate bars on display and the historic tile floor (click to enlarge).

A variety of chocolate covered bonbons

A glass covered display case housed a variety of chocolate covered bonbons (click to enlarge).

On sale in a tall wall case, in brown paper foil lined resealable bags, were 48 varieties of chocolate bars. The design on the bars, available in 100 percent (only one), 75 percent, 65 percent, and 45 percent, was by Pierre Tachon. On the opposite side of the shop, there were also 25 types of bonbons, dragées, roc’s, soveria candied fruits, chocolate chips and chocolate spread (in glass jars) all made at the city factory in the eleventh arrondisement.

Chocolate made from Cuban Trinitario and Criollo beans

Chocolate made from Cuban Trinitario and Criollo beans

Chocolate and hazelnut spread

Chocolate and hazelnut spread

Under the careful supervision of the factory staff, the products were manufactured from cacao imported from small farms in 13 countries: Ecuador, Venezuela, Peru, Madagascar, Mexico, Granada, Sao Tome, Java, Dominican Republic, Trinidad, Vietnam, Cuba, and Brazil. To sweeten the brown paste the makers used organic non refined sugar. Italian artisan candied fruits were added to some bars including the muesli chocolate. The milk chocolate muesli chocolate bars, Mendiant Lacte Muesli 45 percent, quickly became my favorite item. Like the truffles and pralines they had a relatively short shelf life compared to the dark chocolate bars, but that was never a problem as they didn't last long. I can't wait to return to Paris to buy a stack.

A favorite milk chocolate with muesli

A favorite: milk chocolate with muesli

Peruvian chocolate that has not been conched

Peruvian chocolate that had not been conched

We sampled the chocolate spread, and a box each of truffles and praline chocolates. From the chocolate bars we had mostly plain dark chocolate varieties although the Fourree made with coconut and passion fruit filling was another favorite. The single source bars we tried were 75 percent dark chocolate Venezuela Porcelana Criollo (a favorite with a sweet and tart finish), Sao Tome Forastero Amelonado, Cuba Trinitario Criollo (satisfyingly dark without being too sharp), Tradition Perou Non Conche (a favorite from our previous tasting, it was slightly gritty yet rewarding), and Bresil Trinitario. The Brazilian had a dark flavor with hints of tobacco while the Sao Tome was tart with a touch of spice. The Brazilian and Cuban flavors were new and was the 100 percent Peruvian chocolate bar. We tried 100 percent Perou Trinitario, made exclusively from Peruvian cacao. It was sharp and bitter, an acquired taste.

Various chocolate truffles coated with cocoa powder

Various chocolate truffles coated with cocoa powder

The truffles came packaged in a box

The truffles came in a cardboard box

Kudos to Alain Ducasse and Nicolas Berger, the passionate man behind the chocolate factory, for their artisanal chocolate products, in particular the single source dark chocolate bars (and muesli milk chocolate bars for milk chocolate fans) worthy of a detour.

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Burgundian led Paris wine tasting workshop in English was engaging

March 16th, 2015 · 1 Comment

Article and photos by Elena del Valle

Wine Tasting in Paris

The entrance to Wine Tasting in Paris on an old cobblestone street

Understanding and appreciating wine is a personal and subjective experience, one I always feel the need to improve. Each time an opportunity presents itself for me to grow my knowledge and exposure to wines I jump on it. And what better place than Paris, France while I had time to spare? When I heard about a new program in English I was immediately interested. Hosted by Thierry Givone, a native of Burgundy, the French Wine Tour, a two hour hands on workshop was engaging and fun. Thanks to its central location I was able to walk there from my temporary Parisian home.

Thierry Givone hosts wine tasting in english.

Thierry Givone, a native of Burgundy, hosted wine tasting workshops in English. 

Following self introductions and a brief video presentation by our host, six of us, all Americans coincidentally (while Americans represent half of his clientele, many British, Canadians, Australians, and Europeans attend as well) tasted and discussed six wines ranging in retail price between 12 and 20 euros. They were, Champagne Brut Reserve from Thierry Massin; Sauvignon blanc Eclat de Silex, from Domaine Michaud, in Loire Valley 2013; Chardonnay Macon La Roche Vineuse from Domaine Merlin in Burgundy 2013; Pinot Noir Mercurey from Chateau de Santeney 2009; Bordeaux Chateau D'arcins Haut Medoc Cru Bourgeois 2011; and ORTAS, From Caves de Rasteaux, in Rhone Valley 2012.

wine-tasting-20

The main area of Wine Tasting in Paris (click to enlarge)

The presentation utilized a flat screen television for multmedia.

Givone relied on a flat screen television for his presentation.

"I hope the quality of my welcome, from the confirmation e-mail to the recommendation of what to do or where to go after the tasting," said Givone when asked what makes his programs special in a city filled with wine and gourmet tasting possibilities. "Individual interaction, the fact that I created the company and I animate all tastings myself, with passion and involvement, when other companies just drive the business and hire free lance sommelier for the animation. The atmosphere of my space, in this nice street, with a small tasting room where people feel very well. I've tried to create a 'tour' with a good combination of global information, details, historical facts, fun facts, and personal experience, so that people have learned things and had a great moment."

champagne for tasting

The champagne selection from Thierry Massin

Givone's first job was as marketing manager in a French subsidiary of an American group. In 2013, he established Wine Tasting In Paris (14 Rue des boulangers, 75005 Paris, France, + 33 676 933 288, www.wine-tasting-in-paris.com, thierry@wine-tasting-in-paris.com) at another location. The course I attended took place in a 45 square meter two room space within a building that may date to the XVII century, near metro stations Cardinal-Lemoine and Jussieu. The cobble stoned street itself was already in existence in 1350.

wine-tasting-24

We spent most of the time at the table, watching the presentation and tasting wines. (click to enlarge)

red wine for tasting

We each had wine glasses, bread and water within reach.

Givone, a fan of wines from his native Burgundy, rounded his wine education by spending time at Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) at the Ecole du Vin in Paris, Wine School of Bordeaux, and Wine University of Cotes du Rhone. The way to taste was by looking, smelling and tasting a wine, he explained. He recommended that we smell the wine before swirling it in the glass to smell it a second time before tasting it.

Example smell aid used to train the nose.

A smell aid we used to practice identifying scents

He relied on synthetic smell aids in an exercise designed to teach us to identify the range of flavors found in wines. They were flower, fruit, vegetable, earthy such as mushrooms and forest, spices like pepper and vanilla, wood, toasted aromas, mineral, balsamic, animal and chemical or foreign. He described the varied flavor zones of the tongue. We can taste sugar on the tip, acidity and salty flavors on the side and bitterness in the back, he explained.

The table allowed everyone to see the presenter

The custom made table allowed everyone to see the presenter.

The meeting room featured a modern design and wood furniture. The tasting table with a V shape was custom made according to his specifications to allow up to 12 guests a good view of the presenter and the large wall mounted television screen. At the same time, it allowed him to stay in the middle to pour of wine for each tasting course. We plucked pieces of sliced baguette from the bread filled baskets nearest each of us to cleanse our palates between wines. As the workshop ended several of us lingered and bought wines to take home and sample at leisure or with a meal.
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