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Travel tips to London and Paris

London has beer and gastropubs. Paris has wine and bistros. Which one is the best food city?

Muesli with a hint of India

Muesli with a hint of India.

London has beer and gastropubs. Paris has wine and bistros. Which one is the best food city?

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London and Paris. St. Pancras and Gare du Nord. Two great cities tied together by a short train trip. The first time I travelled with the high-speed train from London to Paris was in 1995. I found Paris beautiful and grandiose, but did not remember the food except the croissants for breakfast. What is Paris like today, almost twenty years after? And how would it compare to London?

London has the Thames, Paris has the Seine. Paris has pastries. London has rollicking pubs. Really, the winner depends on who you are and what you like. (Huffington post)

Let us start with the obvious. The Michelin stars. London has 61. Paris 85. In comparison the Nordic countries has 5 (Oslo), 6 (Helsinki), 9 (Stockholm) and 13 (Copenhagen). Although London comes short in the race along via Michelin, it has come a long way and is renowned for its innovative and diverse food scene. London is the underdog and joke that has become a culinary star. French cuisine, on the other hand, has been in the sun since the 17th century and “the gastronomic meal of the French” was even recognized by UNESCO in 2010 as part of our world heritage. However, the same strict attitude that has contributed to greatness, has also conserved French kitchen like preserved jam – or should I say confiture.

Paris is very good at French cuisine, but after that it’s limited. (Tim Zagat, co-founder of the Zagat Restaurant Surveys)

The famed American writer Alice B. Toklas who fell in love with France describes how a simple dish such as a potato salad had to be adorned in a certain way, with chicory and chicory only. While other cuisines adapt, French cuisine has been criticised of being a museum culture on the verge of being religion. But some try to renew. Since the 1990s French chefs have abandoned their Michelin kitchens to open casual food establishments, so-called neo-bistros, and in 2000 Le Fooding was founded as an alternative to the Michelin guide. One of the founders has stated that the goal is to encourage cooks to cook “with the whole of their selves and souls, not technicians of the table.”

Gregory Marchand, the French chef behind one of the hottest bistros in Paris, Frenchie, went to London and New York to release his creativity. In London he worked at Jamie Oliver’s restaurant Fifteen, an experience he said liberated him from French cooking and taught him the value of teamship in the kitchen in stark contrast to the more hierarchical French restaurant kitchen.

The British Empire was created as a by-product of generations of desperate Englishmen roaming the world in search of a decent meal. (Bill Marsano)

Cheap gourmet food is not hard to find in London, a development spearheaded by the gastropubs, but there are also many decent chain restaurants to be found serving quite authentic food. Some of my personal favourites are Wahaca with their Mexican market eating and focus on sustainable ingredients. Another is Thai food at Busaba Eathai, Masala Zone for Indian street food, British at Canteen, Italian at Jamies’ Italian and Hummus Bros for a taste of the Levant.

Quiet time in London: A walk along the Regent's canal

Quiet time in London: A walk along the Regent’s Canal.

Time to eat

In London breakfast is a substantial meal whereas breakfast in Paris is so little you yearn for lunch, which in France happens to be the most important meal of the day. There is a saying: Parisians only think of two things, lunch and dinner. One of the biggest differences between London and Paris is the rhythm of eating. In London or New York you can eat dinner most of the day. In Paris you eat a three-course lunch at noon while restaurants do not open for dinner until 8.00. Also, it is imperative to book a table in advance. This is because dinner service is shorter and you show respect for the restaurant.

Many Brits eat at the wheel or with one eye on their PC, which is sacrilege for the French, who regard meals as a ‘full-time’ activity. In France meals are one of the best bits of the day. (Thibaut de Saint Pol, French sociologist)

What is truly unique about the French meal lies in the attitude towards eating. A meal in France is a collective act of sharing: You sit down to eat together, not in front of your computer or alone at a coffee bar. French food is simply a way of living. Each day a majority of the French sit down to eat three collective meals, and they consequently spend longer time eating. It is this way of life that has earned the French meal UNESCO-status.

The details of the meal

The polite French we learned at school comes in handy in Paris. When entering a shop or a restaurant you should always say Bonjour, monsieur/madame (and Merci, monsieur/madame when leaving). Paris has the highest population density in Europe, four times higher than London, a fact also discernible at restaurants. At the bistro Le Pantrusche in Pigalle, the waiter had to push the table to have me seated. The menu is often written on a chalkboard, a fact that is not coincidental but reflects the seasonality of the French cuisine. In Paris the customer is not king as in London and most other Western cities. Hence, you respect the chef and by doing so order the dishes without asking for any changes.

Parisians have always loved meat. (Eivind Hellstrøm, Norwegian celebrity chef) 

If you order the Parisian bistro’s most classic dish, steak frites, salad is often served as a side dish with the fries – or as it is done at Le Relais de l’Entrecôte, one of several Paris restaurants that specialize in steak frites, the salad is served as an appetizer. The keyword to French food culture is balance – a French meal may include dessert and lots of butter but also a fair share of greens.

Place des Vosges in Marais, Paris

Place des Vosges in Marais, Paris.

Fast food

While there is a Pret A Manger or similar outlet on almost every street corner in London, they are far and fewer in Paris. Still, McDonald’s has made its way into Paris. While there are 190 McDonald’s in London, Paris has 66. However “MacDo” has adapted to French culture and is designed more like a café where both the baguette and the macaron is part of the menu. Also, people tend to eat at McDonald’s at fixed mealtimes. In France snacking is less common than in countries like Norway or England. People in Paris do not eat and drink on the go.

One of the best things about being a vegetarian in Paris isn’t even French…it’s falafel.
(The blog jeparleamericain)

If there is a type of fast food Paris could call its own, it is pancakes. Pancakes come in two varieties, crêpes and galettes. The former is made with wheat flour, typically served with nutella. The latter is a pancake from Brittany made with buckwheat and often eaten as a savoury pancake. Falafel, the Middle Eastern fried chickpea balls, is also popular in Paris. I tried falafel in the heart of Jewish Paris in Marais and another at the market Le Marché Bastille. The strange thing is that none of them can compete with falafel from the fast food chain Hummus Bros in London. But one thing is for certain: In both Paris and London hummus, the chickpea dip from the Middle East, is standard item in supermarkets and not a dish confined to vegetarians.

Cocktails and coffee

Paris has always been the city of wine and champagne. Wine is a natural part of a meal and having a glass of wine in a restaurant is cheap as water. Therefore it may not come as a surprise that Paris traditionally has not been a cocktail city. This is the city of the sommelier, not the bartender. A glass of champagne, kir or even pastis is more common. Not surprisingly the French are more focused towards flavour than the amount of alcohol in a cocktail.

Paris is known for its cafés, not the coffee served in them. (Food and Wine Magazine)

What may come as a bigger surprise is the dismal coffee in Paris. Coffee is still fuel for the body to wake up in the morning, not refined latte art. Foreigners mostly run the few coffee bars that exist in Paris. According to Bon Appétit foreigners have also played a significant part in the recent cocktail revolution there. One of them is Tony Conigliaro, London’s top bartender who has opened Le Coq in Paris where he has created French cocktails such as the Fleur du Mal with rose-infused vodka, absinthe and pernod.

The last time I saw Paris, her heart was warm and gay, I heard the laughter of her heart in every street café. (Oscar Hammerstein II)

In London the cocktail scene is as diverse as the restaurant scene. There is a wide array of cocktails bars and most restaurants also have wonderful drink menus. The diversity means every need is catered for, so there is no problem getting equally inventive and delicious non-alcoholic drinks. Why not try one of the drinks invented in London, the Bramble? Or go for England’s mojito, Pimm’s Cup? Though England is a nation of tea drinkers, coffee has made its way into the heart of Londoners, with coffee shops and roasteries booming. Have a look at the London Coffee guide showcasing 150 independent coffee venues in London.

The signature dessert at the bistro Le pantruche is soufflé au Grand Marnier et caramel au beurre sale (Grand marnier soufflé with salted caramel sauce)

The signature dessert at the bistro Le Pantruche is soufflé au Grand Marnier et caramel au beurre sale (Grand marnier soufflé with salted caramel sauce).

The sweet life

Living the sweet life in Paris is not hard. Paris is almost synonymous with the pâtisserie, and the Parisian cake above all is the macaron. Equally the array of delicious French desserts are astounding, ranging from delicate soufflés to fruity tarte tartins. Though macarons are everywhere I was surprised to see brownies and cookies in several pâtisseries.

For me, British puddings are some of the most informal, yet luxurious desserts in the world. (Jamie Oliver)

What is sweet in London? British food has a lot of delicious desserts and cakes and while London may not have as many pâtisseries as Paris, it has afternoon tea. If you want to try something typically British, indulge yourself with a Chelsea bun or hot cross bun – or eccles at St. John, a buttery cake similar to pain au chocolat but where the chocolate is substituted with raisins. Do not miss out on the British desserts (puddings). I recommend the Bakewell tart, or if it is summer, strawberry desserts like Eton Mess and strawberries and cream. The latter is served with that special British cream, double cream consisting of 48 % fat.

Markets

The markets are perhaps the most distinguishing trait about Paris. This is where most Parisians buy their “groceries”, not in the supermarkets. The produce at the numerous food markets is highly seasonal, and although Paris is a landlocked city the array of fresh sea food is impressive. London has its fair share of markets too ranging from general food markets like Borough Market to specialized markets like Columbia Road Flower Market. Perhaps the biggest difference between London and Paris lies not in the number of markets, but in the attitude towards the market. In Paris shopping fresh produce at the market is an integral part of French cooking, not something you do at special occasions.

Going from fresh and seasonal to the other extreme. In London I ate at a little old greasy spoon café in Bethnal Green. I knew this would be quite far from fine dining, but I thought it would be decent enough and made from scratch. So we ordered cannelloni and pork chops with mashed potatoes. The mashed potatoes were pale as snow and more disturbing, without flavour. It tasted nothing. Afterwards I visited the neighbouring supermarket. The name, Iceland, should have warned me. Judging from the posters outside this seemed to be heaven for lovers of processed frozen food. And there they were, the mashed potatoes from the caff. Fresh from the freezer.

What then is the verdict? I love London. I could fall in love with Paris. But apparently I am looking in the wrong direction. According to Food and Wine Tokyo is the new Paris.

Flowers along the Regent’s canal

Flowers along the Regent’s Canal.

London sky

London sky.

8 tips to London:

Hummus Bros
It is incredible how fast food can be so tasty and healthy. Delicious food from the Levant.

Wahaca
Great tacos, drinks and the yummiest sweet potato wedges ever.

Albion
Modern British café in a quiet street in Shoreditch. Try the large breakfast plate including black pudding, the omelette or one of the delicious cakes.

The Anchor and Hope
One of the best gastropubs in London, always crowded and noisy. The pub lies in a nice little street, The Cut, where you also find the Old Vic theatre and Wahaca.

Afternoon tea
A distinct English tradition that is a must when your are in London.

Borough Market
The city’s most famous market, right next to London Bridge. Gives a nice insight into British produce. Also, one of the best coffee shops in London, Monmouth, is just across the street.

Riverwalk along the South Bank
One of the loveliest parts of the Thames is along the South Bank from Waterloo Bridge to Tate Modern and London Bridge.

Regents Canal
Walk away from the hustle and bustle. The canal offers a romantic walk alongside old boats with flowers on the roof.

8 tips to Paris:

Le Comptoir Belge
Best ever Belgian waffles in a not-so-tourist area at the foot of the Montmartre hill.

Le Pantrusche
Gourmet bistro in Pigalle serving cheap Michelin food (it has a Bib Gourmand status = best value). Do reserve a table ahead. Voted one of the 50 best dishes in Paris by Time Out.

Chez Janou
A Bistrot Provencal, hence it serves food from Provence. Very atmospheric bistro in Marais situated in a quiet and green little square that reminds you of being in a village, not a city.

Rue de Rosiers in Marais
This is the heart of Old Jewish Paris. Old and narrow streets, the city’s best falafel at L’as du Falafel or meze at Chez Marianne.

Place des Vosges
Beautiful park surrounded by gorgeous architecture. Buy macarons at a nearby pâttiserie and have a picnic here.

Marché Bastille
One of the biggest markets in Paris, stretching all the way from Place de la Bastille and along Boulevard Richard Lenoir. Vendors also sell crêpes and galettes.

Canal St-Martin
This canal, 4,5 kilometer long, is both romantic and urban. It is known from the film Amélie and also figured in a song by Edith Piaf, Les mômes de la cloche.

Playgrounds in the Tour Eiffel park
Paris is very good at playgrounds. Everywhere there is a little patch of green, there is a playground too. One of the best lies in the long park that belongs to the Eiffel Tower. Here you find playgrounds, crêperies and an adorable vintage merry-go-round.

Muesli with cardamom, mango and Norwegian rasperries

Muesli with cardamom, mango and Norwegian raspberries.

Muesli with a touch of India (makes a jar)

In London I had a simple but wonderful muesli for breakfast at Dishoom, a place that emulates the tradition of the old cafés in Bombay. This inspired me to make muesli with a touch of India.

2 cardamom pods
6 tbsp maple syrup
8 tbsp oil
200 g / 7 oz oats
250 g / 7 oz almonds (or a blend of nuts)
75 g / 3 oz coconut chips
50 g / 2 oz sultanas (or raisins)

1. Preheat the oven to 160C/325F/Gas 3 and line a large baking tray with parchment paper.
2. Grind the cardamom pods in a mortar.
3. Mix together the syrup and oil in a large bowl. Add the chopped almonds, nuts and cardamom and mix well.
4. Spread on a large baking tray and bake in the oven for about 20 minutes. Shake and turn the tray halfway through.
5. When cool, add the sultanas and coconut chips.

Serve with yogurt, mango, melon, berries and a drizzle of maple syrup.

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