Foodies Say Fall Is The Best Time To Eat In Paris : The Salt In his new book, food historian David Downie takes readers on a gourmet jaunt through time to reveal how the French capital became a gastronomic powerhouse. (Hint: You can thank Rome.)
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'A Taste Of Paris': How The City Of Light Became The City Of Food

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'A Taste Of Paris': How The City Of Light Became The City Of Food

'A Taste Of Paris': How The City Of Light Became The City Of Food

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All right, so my definition of victory is a good meal. And, you know, we often hear from our colleague Eleanor Beardsley covering news. Let's just wander with her through Paris today. She says autumn is the season for food lovers there.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Shouting in French).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: This time of year, the stands at Paris' hundreds of weekly food markets are laden with plump, dark grapes and wild mushrooms.

DAVID DOWNIE: The fall is the best time to eat in France. Everyone knows that. Everything comes in. It's the harvest season.

BEARDSLEY: That's longtime Paris resident and culinary historian David Downie. His latest book, "A Taste Of Paris: A History Of The Parisian Love Affair With Food," is a gastronomic jaunt through the city that tells how Paris distinguished itself as a world capital of eating. Downie says Julius Caesar, who conquered what was then called Gaul in 52 B.C., had a lot to do with it.

DOWNIE: You could argue that without the ancient Roman presence in Paris 2,000 years ago, you would never have had the culinary culture that developed in this country. The Gallic peoples, who were here when the Romans arrived, were not gourmets. That's the polite way of saying that they were, you know, complete barbarians. They ate a lot of raw things, and they had very basic food. The Romans had extremely sophisticated cuisine.

ALEX RYERSON: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Parisian Alex Ryerson is choosing girolle and cepes mushrooms from a pile of fungi. How do you tell the best ones? Look for the mushrooms whose edges have been nibbled by discerning French slugs. Ryerson says Parisians love their street markets, which are stocked with foods of the season.

RYERSON: For sure, it's important to eat fresh, anywhere, even in the states, and it's starting. More and more people are going to the markets. I mean, here it's just part of the culture, which is great.

BEARDSLEY: Another fall food the French relish - just as the Romans did - are oysters, and in September, the mollusks are back in season after four months of reproducing. Especially as the weather gets colder, you can find oysters on icy stands at markets and corner cafes across the city. Jerome Chetif is prying open oysters to fill a giant seafood platter.

JEROME CHETIF: (Through interpreter) See, when I open them, they're alive. We French like to eat them raw. That's the best way.

BEARDSLEY: Downie says Louis XIV adored oysters and revived the Roman tradition of ingesting them raw. He says the Sun King advanced the notion of a uniquely French cuisine in the 1600s as he consolidated feudal France.

DOWNIE: His big schtick was to distinguish France as a kingdom from Burgundy, from southern France, from the dukedoms, and that's why French cuisine became part of a soft power diplomacy of trying to take over all of France and then later to broadcast things French abroad.

BEARDSLEY: We make our way along Rue St. Antoine, once an ancient Roman road, then a medieval thoroughfare where Downie says King Henry II was skewered through the eyeball in a jousting match. Today, the street is full of good eating. We stop to admire the vast offerings of a delicatessen when...

MARC FERMIN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: The owner, Marc Fermin, invites us in for a taste. He says everything is homemade. I'm fascinated by a big square of pate with a gelatin top called fromage de tete - literally, head cheese. Fermin explains how it's made.

FERMIN: (Through interpreter) Head cheese is the pig's head, the snout, cheeks and tongue boiled all night in carrots, onion, thyme and laurel. We let it cool, cut it in cubes, make a reduction with white wine, shallots and my secret seasoning, then bake it in the oven.

BEARDSLEY: Well, we're eating head cheese. Oh, my God, it's delicious.

Downie says eating well in Paris often means going out of your comfort zone and getting off the main tourist drag. We step into a corner bistro where everything's made from scratch, which is not always the case in Paris anymore. Ordering from the daily chalkboard menu is another good tip. We choose the cow's tongue with gribiche sauce.

It's delicious and tender.

DOWNIE: It's sauce that's got pickles in it and capers and mayonnaise.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You would never know what it is, would you?

DOWNIE: No, you would never know. It's absolutely delicious.

BEARDSLEY: For the main course, we tuck into another traditional favorite - entrecote frites - a rib eye steak with home-cut french fries. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.


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