For generations, lovers of fine food have been making the pilgrimage to Paris, spiritual home of epicurean excellence. These pilgrims may dream of days spent sampling fresh produce - cheeses, breads, meats and wines - from friendly shopkeepers keen to impart their secret treasury of French culture and cuisine. But, in reality, a lack of language and local knowledge can send them scurrying in desperation to the nearest Monoprix supermarket.
As an American living in Paris, Michael Erwin understood this quandary perfectly and devised a simple but inspired solution. Erwin is the sales manager of the Victoria Palace Hotel, a charming four-star hotel built in 1913 and remodelled in 2000 into 62 generous rooms and suites with marble bathrooms and Louis XVI décor. It is tucked away off the rue de Rennes, in the Cherche-Midi neighbourhood between Saint-Germain-des-Prés and Montparnasse. This area has the distinction, according to hotel manager Philippe Venet, of being the most expensive real estate in all Paris. Not surprisingly, it is also home to some of the city's finest providores.
These establishments could daunt the unacquainted, but Erwin has given guests a letter of introduction, as it were, in the form of a simple printed brochure to the food stores of Paris's fashionable 6th arrondissement.
Erwin secured each shop owner's permission to be included in the guide and also asked if each would take the time to share, in English, a little of their passion and perhaps a taste of their wares when hotel guests came calling. So was born 'Une petite initiation gastronomique au quartier du Cherche-Midi', aka the Foodies' Discovery Trail.
"Good food is not all about big-name chefs and mortgaging the house to pay for dinner," Erwin says. "It is about craftsmanship, which can never be on an industrial scale. And, fortunately, our neighbourhood is one of the best provided for in this respect."
Armed with Erwin's brochure, guests of the Victoria Palace Hotel can step out confidently into one of the capital's chic quarters knowing they have foodie 'friends' at their fingertips. The cynic in me wondered just how accommodating some of these shopkeepers would be, but I was soon persuaded.
Gilles Vérot is renowned among Parisians for his charcuterie, so it was no surprise to find a crush of customers when I arrived. His impeccably presented shop on a busy intersection on rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs is festooned with muscly terrines and pâtés and every conceivable pork permutation.
Monsieur Vérot routinely serves between 500 and 600 customers a day, but he graciously interrupted everything to greet me and chat. He and his wife Catherine bought this store a decade ago and built what was once a tiny operation with only four staff into a mini-empire - well, one shop here and another in the 15th arrondissement - employing 30 staff.
The couple make everything on site in a frenetic subterranean kitchen. Eighty per cent of their products are pork-based and their speciality is something called fromage de tête, 'head cheese'. This is not cheese, but a very rustic terrine made from pigs' heads and juices and a little white wine. Other classic French favourites crafted here are cervelas avec pistache, pork sausages with pistachio, and the vibrantly pink and green jambon persillé, a layered pork and parsley pudding. New Yorkers can now experience Monsieur Vérot's head cheese, too; his signature terrine graces the menu at the year-old Bar Boulud, opened by French super-chef Daniel Boulud.
Cherche-Midi is also home to Fromagerie Quatrehomme, arguably the best cheese shop in Paris. Opened in 1953, this maison du fromage is a bustling store run by Marie and Alain Quatrehomme. The interior is a pungent utopia of produce sourced from across the country: small stink-bomb tubs of Stilton-like La Fourme D'Ambert; pretty mounds of chèvre frais sprinkled with cut chives and, for a brief, blessed period between December and January each year, wheels of sensuously soft Brie de Meaux studded with truffles. They are hideously expensive, of course. All the cheeses are from farms, never factories. "People say the cheese from factories is not very good," Madame Quatrehomme explains. "And to my eyes, the best are the ones from the farms."
To demonstrate, she points to a perfect arrangement of small tubs of Le Cabri Ariègeois, a goat's milk cheese made in the south of France, at the foot of the Pyrenées. "This is a true fermier product - the very definition of a farmhouse cheese," she says.
Madame Quatrehomme often greets guests from the Victoria Palace Hotel who arrive at her shop clutching their guides. "They look and sometimes they buy. Sometimes not, but it doesn't matter because it's nice just to welcome them," she adds.
It seems sacrilegious to leave Quatrehomme and head straight to a fast-food outlet, but Kit à Bien Manger more than passes the quality test. This three-year-old outlet stocks convenience foods, true, but not as we know them. These are hand-chosen meals that do not compromise the principles of fine cuisine for which the French are renowned.
"Our speciality is quality first, and seasonal products," says owner Catherine Maillot. There's a wonderfully casual air to the store, with crates of produce, wines, spices, breads and a wall of fridges with pre-made meals. Maillot likes her customers to have the choice of either a meal (a 'kit') from the fridge, or buying fresh ingredients for their dinner.
Customers can choose from a weekly menu devised by Maillot and available on her website, and then have their meals home delivered. At the end of the working day they might sit down to a delicate 'green and orange soup' of carrot and tarragon, followed by grilled Indian Ocean tuna with a sweet garlic vinaigrette and wild rocket, and maybe a fresh tropical fruit salad with Madagascan vanilla. Maillot's customers may be time-poor professionals, she says, "but they still like to eat well".
The next stop on our gastronomic gallivant is the boulangerie Poilâne, perhaps Europe's most famous bakery. Despite a thriving export business that delivers its bread around the world, the shopfront is tiny and effortlessly stylish. Inside, bread lovers are attended by staff in linen coats with a copperplate 'Poilâne' embroidered on the breast pocket. There is always a brisk trade in artisanal wares, from the trademark two-kilo sourdough loaves baked with a large 'P' on top, to pastries straight from the 200-year-old wood-fired oven in the basement.
In the anteroom behind the serving counter you can see a six-pronged chandelier made from bread. It was part of a suite of furniture designed and baked by Lionel Poilâne, son of the bakery's founder Pierre, for the artist Salvador Dalí. The story, as related to me by Poilâne's Geneviève Brière, sees Dalí asking Lionel to bake the furniture for him because he wanted to test whether he had mice. The baker produced a bed, a cupboard and a chandelier and they were assembled at the Hotel Meurice where Dalí was staying. History doesn't record what happened to the rest of the furniture - maybe the mice got to it.
Meat, cheese, bread… and chocolate. Chocolats Rochoux, known for its truffles and sweet sculptures, is the next stop on the petite initiation, but I stumbled instead into A La Reine Astrid and was amply sated by superb chocolate samples from the kind staff there. This is one of the unintended pleasures of Erwin's gastronomic tour; once you embark on it, you invariably make some special discoveries of your own.
The final stop I managed - there are eight shops on the trail - was at Les Caves du Cherche-Midi, a boutique wine store that showcases the big talent of small producers. It was founded by caviste and part-time vigneron Guillaume de Kergorlay, but it's his American-born wife Claudia who welcomes me into the cellar.
De Kergorlay is an independent wine seller who spends a great deal of his time touring vineyards around the country. "His speciality is that he searches for wine-makers who really represent their region and their wine," Claudia explains. He will stock wines based on quality and price - if both are good, you will generally find the wine here, whether the price is $10 a bottle, or $100. A good example is the relatively unknown Closquinet Champagne; de Kergorlay has worked with the vineyard for many years and rates Closquinet as a seriously good winemaker, but its Champagne costs just $34 a bottle. There are no Australian wines on the shelves, but that's fine. You don't come to Paris expecting it to be like home. It's about experiencing the authentic, and the Victoria Palace Hotel's inspired gastronomic excursion delivers that in spades.