Three stores, three lunches, and the best meal money can buy in Paris
Manny Gonzalez (The Philippine Star) - January 5, 2014 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - If you go to Paris with one or more females and have some spare time, sooner or later it will occur to them to go shopping.

Oh, darn. There are no malls in Paris proper. No designer outlets (without taking a one-hour bus ride). Maybe, you ask optimistically, we could just take a walk along the Seine?

Your lady companions will consider this idea for exactly two seconds, then, with laser-like focus, return to the subject at hand. So, sooner or later, you will be forced into an excursion to Paris’ trusty old Grands Magasins (grahhhn mag-uh-zah) (department stores).

There are other options, of course, such as the Faubourg St. Honoré and the mini-malls on the Champs Élysées, but if you are well-informed (as you now are) you will simply refuse to go there, unless you are really quite rolling-in-it.

Back to the magasins. There used to be five or six, most going back to the 19th century, but now we are down to three. Or maybe four.

Printemps. (prahn-tah). The name means “spring.” These days, it is probably the least crowded of the lot, for no clear reason, and it is actually the most manageable. If you hold any power of suasion at all over the females in your party, bring them here, because there is less to buy, and you will get out with less of a dent in your wallet. After all, it only occupies two large buildings on the Boulevard Hausmann (bool-VAHR OWSS-mun).

There is a bonus to Printemps, and that is its rooftop restaurant, with the just-awful name of Deli-cieux. The food is not that great, either, and while cafeteria-style, lunch will still set you back 10 euros a head.

Get to Deli-cieux early (by 11:30). It’s a biggish rooftop, but fills up fast.

So Printemps offers both shopping and sightseeing, for relatively modest effort.

La Samaritaine. (la sum-mah-rih-TEN) This used to be a big name, but the building got condemned, and the whole company was bought by LVMH (Louis Vuitton, etc.), which doesn’t augur well for prices when it re-opens. It’s still closed. Stand by for further developments.

Le Bon Marché. (bohn mar-SHAY). Arguably the oldest department store in Paris, Bon Marché was opened way back in 1838! The name means “cheap” or “good value,” and when I first encountered it many years back, that was about how to describe its stock. Maybe slightly more emphasis on the “cheap.” This was to be expected, since it was situated on the less-affluent Left Bank.

Alas, the LVMH Group (they of Louis Vuitton, etc.) acquired it some years back and gradually turned it into a designer haven. Of all the magasins, Bon Marché is now the one where you can most quickly deplete your bank account. It has only one building (except for the food annex), but pretty much occupies an entire block. Moreover, it was designed to inhibit your getting out — there are doors only at the corners.

Anyway, the entire ground and first floors are dedicated to women’s fashions, which are quite attractively presented. I was even tempted to buy something for somebody. Until I saw the four-figure price tags.

If you do shop here, you will have run out of money by lunch. Fortunately, the management thought of that by offering cheap (sorry, I meant bon marché) sandwiches in their food annex.

Quite the thing to do is buy a sandwich and a Coke for a few euros, then pop outside (if you can find the exit) to eat in the very nice park just in front (see previous photo). This is all part of their Grand Marketing Plan, so that, having lunched thriftily on the one-figure sandwich, you will feel flush enough to go back in to the four-figure dresses.

Bon Marché has a very comprehensive Household and Kitchen department, which occupies most of the fourth floor. If your efforts to steer your friends to the other store (Printemps) failed, and you wound up here, try to herd your group straight to this section. Instead of buying a Vera Wang dress for 3,000 euros, you might get off with a set of six Laguiole steak knives and forks for only 240 euros, or one Le Creuset cast-iron pot for only 350. You can see how the savings can add up.

Galeries Lafayette. Back over in Boulevard Hausmann, the largest department store in Paris is the Galeries Lafayette, which sprawls over three large buildings. The main building has the most spectacular atrium I have ever seen anywhere, and even beats Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele. (See picture). The central stained-glass dome, or coupole, rises above four or five floors of shopping space. It is four times the size of the coupole at Printemps (by eyeball estimate), so you can deduce that it was built later, to one-up the other store.

Shopping under the coupole makes you feel like you went to the Opera.

Other than the usual that you’d expect, Galeries Lafayette has a very, very impressive Food Hall. With apologies to my British friends (all two of them), it beats Harrods Food Hall hands down in terms of stock, though admittedly not in store design. If you have the slightest interest in fine foods, you can spend two hours here just eating with your eyes. There are also some pleasant service counters to have a snack or lunch at, thoughtfully scattered throughout the Hall. There’s one beside the fresh oysters, and another beside the jamon bellota carvery. The one inside the wine section, La Barouge, is actually a full-fledged restaurant and vinotheque (but the wines-by-the-glass are unremarkable, and expensive).

Most of the world’s most expensive culinary indulgences can be bought at Galeries Lafayette: Russian beluga caviar, check! (though possibly fake or old, since there isn’t any more, and it’s still 80 euros for a 15-gram tin); fresh black truffles, check! (only in season, 3,000 euros a kilo); Chateau Petrus 1960, check! (12,000 euros a bottle, if memory serves); foie gras from Perigord, check! (a steal at 20 euros per 100 grams)…

For the record, Parisian food snobs don’t shop there, or at any rate don’t admit they do. The elite prefer Fauchon and Hediard, which are near the Madeleine, but are very much smaller and considerably less entertaining than the Galeries Lafayette.

The Best Meal in Paris. And the truth is that I didn’t buy much there, either. Except this, the best meal money can buy in Paris.

This is a meal you have to assemble yourself. You need Gewurztraminer (an Alsatian wine), TUC crackers (or Ritz), and rillettes (the stuff on the cracker). A passable Gewurztraminer will cost 15 euros for the bottle. And now for a pleasant shock: this tub of rillettes costs less than three (three!) euros at Galeries Lafayette; with the crackers and wine it is enough for a very satisfying dinner for two persons. (If you’re not in the vicinity of Boulevard Hausmann, this exact brand shown in the photo can also be found in many grocery stores around France.)

Rillettes de porc (hree-yet deh pohhr) is one of the last great French food mysteries, almost totally unknown elsewhere. And no one else makes it except the French. Yes, you can find recipes on the Internet, but in all of the Americas and Asia, I have never found any ready-made rillettes for sale. (I have found some, imported from France, at Manor, a food emporium in Geneva, and at the Zeil Kaufhof in Frankfurt.)

As you see, it sort of looks like paté. But it has no liver (whew!). All it has is pork (ummm), and pork fat (ooooh). It was the inspiration for Spam (from me, this is a very high and sincere compliment, with apologies to my French friends, all one of them after this article sees light), though it doesn’t really taste like it. Rillettes is out of sight. If like me you have a natural prejudice in favor of pork and fat, take one bite of rillettes and your life will be forever enriched.

It’s a better reason to go to Paris than shopping or the Mona Lisa.

Trust me.

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