PARIS (AP) Its a visual delight and a palate teaser, a coffee-table book that would be an asset to any epicures library: Gourmet Shops of Paris by Pierre Rival, with striking photographs by Christian Sarramon (Flammarion, 2005, $40).
Spring is a traditional time for a visit to Paris, but this glossy volume is a rich, any-season resource, even for those who arent planning travel. More than just a guide to the citys food and wine stores, both celebrated and humble, its a good read, too. Its packed with history and colorful background on movers and shakers in the food world, past and present.
Its also eminently practical, with a lengthy address list that includes some big names, such as Fauchon, not featured in the main body of the book.
From sweet to savory, from expensive fare to soups and snacks, from the traditional to the forward-looking, Gourmet Shops covers a mouthwatering range of boutiques, wine stores and bars, tearooms and coffee shops.
In making his picks, Rival is a stickler for absolute freshness and the highest quality. He doesnt agree with critical gourmands who carp at what they see as todays indifference and sinking standards, and the inroads of fast food.
The French people still appreciate high standards, and are eager to try new tastes and angles, he said in a phone interview. In some ways, food variety and quality have never been higher.
He sniffs out new food ideas from wide-ranging travels, and says he loves adventures in taste. The books choices are clearly his personal favorites.
He gives kudos to good olive oil, for example, which he says he uses daily on his breakfast bread. I must consume about a liter of olive oil a month, he says, pointing out the olive oil-dipping habit originated in Spain, not in France.
After celebrating the overall richness and entertaining variety of food establishments in Paris, Rivals book launches into a detailed tour of specialties.
His Sweet Paris chapter features not just candy to buy, but welcome shoppers respites such as the charming Laduree tearooms, famous for pastries, sandwiches and light lunches. The original shop on rue Royale has exuberant Belle Epoque decor as well as marvelous macaroons in flavors from raspberry to licorice and mint.
Another colorful spot with an original flavor is Les Cakes de Bertrand, downhill from Pigalle and Montmartre, with its Jazz Age motifs. Besides its lovely sweet and fruit cakes, clients hanker for its savory versions, too, including cakes flavored with cheese, olives and bacon, or tandoori chicken.
Chocoholics love the Maison du Chocolat, founded by Robert Lynxe in the 1970s. He astounded Parisians with the perfection of his slightly crunchy coatings, his creamy ganache fillings and inventive flavors such as unsweetened marrons glaces, or fresh mint.
Another chocolatier, Jean-Paul Hevin, says he thinks of chocolate in terms of haute couture, fashioning collections of new shapes, and flavors from fruit and spices to Roquefort cheese. He tells the author, and anybody who cares to listen, that I want to provide a moment of happiness.
Turning to Savory Paris, which includes its variety of daily bread and cheeses, Rival praises the late Pierre Poilane for reviving the once-nearly-lost art of making bread with real taste. In 1932, Poilane founded the original shop on rue du Cherche Midi that is now a tourists magnet; here he made country-style loaves in a wood-burning oven, using honest ingredients like stone-ground flour and crushed wheat germ, plus live yeast rather than a substitute.
Go there to smell the yeasty odors, sample the bread or spice cookies, and inspect the striking collection of paintings from grateful artists who had trouble paying for their bread.
Rival calls Eric Kayser the most fashionable baker of the moment. Kayser offers four changing selections of bread yearly, one for each season, at Boulangerie Kayser shops where clients queue up patiently for the daily bread, and the sandwiches that are available in a couple of the five bakeries.
Reminding readers that high-quality cheese is Frances natural partner for good bread, and claiming that the cheese, aged or fresh, in the best shops is better than ever, Rival takes readers on an informative cheese tour.
Marie-Anne Cantin, on the left-bank rue du Champ de Mars, is cited as the high priestess of cheese vendors and experts, in a rare profession for a woman. Like other cheese specialists, she is proud of her offerings of authentic, unpasteurized, and sometimes strong-tasting cheese, though her mild cheeses are a great option, too.
If shes the queen, Roland Barthelemy is the doyen and king of cheese sellers. At times you can hardly squeeze into his minute shop, decorated in old-style wood and marble, redolent of his pungent wares.
Barthelemy is the first cheese specialist to have earned, in 2000, a rare title usually reserved for chefs and artisans, Meilleur Ouvrier de France best craftsman in France.
He was hailed for his ability to propose subtle marriages of taste such as Roquefort with gingerbread or fruit, and for the creation of new flavors, such as a creamy, truffled mascarpone, from the sweetish Italian cheese.
At the top of Rivals fine-foods category, unsurprisingly, is olive oil especially as offered in branches of Oliviers & Co., founded by Olivier Baussan in 1996, a pioneer in developing local taste for it. According to Rival, until ten years ago, Parisians knew hardly anything about olive oil. At lunchtime, at a long wooden table in the small rue Levis branch, olive-oil fans relish their choice, with their pasta or fish dishes or salads.
Another lunchtime specialty is fine ham, for example at colorful Bellota Bellota, which offers rows of Spanish-cured hams, and plates for sampling.
Rival surveys other luxurious places to eat or take out high-priced caviar, smoked fish and foie gras. Terres de Truffes sells truffles of all shades and seasons, even an eccentric truffle-flavored dessert featuring blancmange and apricot jam.
In his chapter on wine, Rival picks out a few of the many flourishing wine shops and bars, great places to learn about vintages and pairings with food, at a wide range of prices.
One example: Legrand Filles et Fils, known for promoting the top labels as well as little-known vintages, holds Tuesday wine tastings from a stock of around 100,000 bottles in a mellow setting of antique polished mahogany and gleaming brass.
Among famous tea and coffee vendors, Rival writes about the incomparable Cafe Verlet, with its traditional decor, fine coffee and great atmosphere for conversation; and about La Maison des Trois Thes, near the Pantheon, an esoteric place selling about 1,000 Chinese teas.
The book is not all about rare delicacies at fabulous prices. Rival affectionately lists some of the places, including sandwich shops, where you can find the simple, down-to-earth goodness of everyday food.