shade in the food blogging game {mini rant}

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Normally I’d reserve such missives for a private, long-winded Facebook post, but quite honestly I’ve become increasingly disturbed by the shady practices of food bloggers, who are desperate to attain celebrity status and the coveted title of cookbook author and “online brand.” Let me put this as plainly as possible: I write about food because it’s at the core of who I am. The alchemy of flavors, textures and tastes delight me, and for as long as I can remember, I’ve either had a pen or a whisk in hand. Food has the propensity to connect people in a way that’s visceral, real. We hatch plans, we weep, we rage, we talk our way through our darkness over a plate of hot pasta or a bowl of comforting soup. I write about food because I believe in its ability to heal and bind.

I don’t write about food because I want to be a “brand” or elevate my ranking in Google search with plug-ins, applications, or smartly-worded titles. I don’t write to sell my soul for a stand mixer or to post the au courant recipes making the rounds (popsicles, anyone?). And while I understand the business of content creation, brand building and word of mouth, there is a way in which one can be authentic, passionate, but still turn a profit. And, quite frankly, I’ve seen very few blogs in the food space that manage to keep their integrity in check. Rather, they’ve fallen into a “me-too” think speak of conferences, business cards, book deals, and a strategy that feels machinist rather than honest.

Untitled Recently, I road-tested two recipes from sites I found on Tastespotting (an elegant and visual Pinterest for foodies, if you will), and both times I found myself reading the recipes several times, shaking my head, and muttering: This can’t be right. I scrolled through the scores of comments that complimented the food photography, styling, and the personal anecdotes that preceded the recipe. Nothing about the efficacy of the baked goods or even a question on the chemistry. So, against my better judgment, I baked the two loaves from two separate blogs and they were both failures. One was a chocolate chip pound cake, whose ratios could have not possibly yielded the picture on display (3 sticks of butter for one scant cup of flour for the crumble? Are you kidding me here?), and the other was a bread loaf with 1:1 white for whole wheat flour swap, which didn’t account for the density of the flour and the needed to alter the wet ingredients for the substitution.

A long-winded way of saying the recipes were wrong. The photos were dubious, and scores of blogs are securing traffic, fans and deals, based on the fact of one beautiful picture and a few personal words. This reminds me of those gag books, when opened, are actually storage boxes. They’re empty, devoid of passion and authenticity, reduced to the output of a Canon 5D Mark or a Nikon.

Suddenly, all of the blogs appear as a variation on a single theme, a one-note plea for the glory that internet fame brings. The dream of being the next Smitten Kitchen (for the record, I’ve sampled some of the recipes from this book, and they were not up to snuff, but that’s a whole other discussion). Perhaps this is the reason why I’ve been so severe in terms of how I manage this space. I refuse to call myself a food blogger. I refuse to accept advertising. I refuse to try to achieve anything less than what I consider extraordinary.

A friend once told me that I’ll never have the traffic the “bigger guys” get because I’m too dark. My writing is too melodic and sometimes disturbing and sometimes meandering, and I don’t project an idealized life. Sure, I’ve got the pretty pictures and tagged posts, but I don’t project a home that the world covets. I’m not the online equivalent of cotton candy. My dinner parties are messy, replete with sullied napkins and discussions about Rosemary’s Baby, formalism, Amy Hempel, and Orange is the New Black. I’m outspoken, make whole new shapes outside of lines, and pretty much live in the color blue.

Listen, I’m not claiming to be perfect. I’ve had my blogging mistakes and pitfalls, and I was once tempted by the lure of free things, but I try to be as honest as I am aware. I’m trying to deliver food I’d cook and eat. What you don’t see are all the failed recipes. What you don’t read about is the fully uncut version of my life, because I firmly believe that my life is mine, and when it’s all revealed it suddenly becomes less mine. It becomes yours.

This is probably why I read so few blogs, why I trust a handful of folks who don’t write to gain traffic and build brands. They write because they love food, love the power of it, love how it consumes them. They live for that symbiosis. They live to marry image and text. They want to show you just how much this meal meant to them.

Not how much it’s padded their bank account.

/rant

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tuscany in a day: pisa, san gimignano + siena {a story in photos}

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Pisa: Images (1-15), including the Leaning Tower, the Baptistry, and the Cathedral. | San Gimignano: Images (17-23 – Tenuta Torciano Wine Vineyard, of which the truffle oil is highly recommended!; Medieval town centre, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (24-45), and home to 17 towers. | Siena: Images (46-end), including Piazza del Campo, Piazza del Duomo, and the magnificent Cathedral and its interior.

foodie find: blue apron foods

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You don’t often find me talking about brands or reviewing products on this space. When you’ve been in my line of work for as long as I have, you start to see how a courtesy of changes people and the content that they share with their readers. Once passionate, hungry and scrappy bloggers who wanted to simply wanted to create and share now wax poetic about monetization and blogger agents. They’ve become deal-makers, product-shillers and somewhere along the way they left they checked their integrity at the door. I too struggled with this a few years back, as the products and gifts and delicious soirees make it hard to resist, but I started to read my blog posts, really read them and they felt airless, dispassionate, rote.

Granted, the bloggers who have become commodities, traded on an open market by brands like lucrative stocks, may not be the norm, but my small taste of it has me running skidmarks in the opposite direction. As this space is my own personal scrapbook of the food I make, buy, bake, and swoon over, I care less about traffic numbers and analytics and more about how I, and others, feel when they read my content. Food is inexplicably bound to memories or emotions within me, so every post has to be thoughtful, personal and evocative.

This is a long-winded way of saying [COME ON, ARE YOU SHOCKED?] that I’m very selective when it comes to reviewing products or services on my blog, and when I do it’s MAJOR.

Simply put, Blue Apron is the coolest concept I’ve discovered in a long time. The grocery delivery concept is pretty straightforward. Each week you get three recipes and all of the ingredients to craft your meal. No measuring, no fuss, no long supermarket lines or fear of missed ingredients — just a box of simply-packaged ingredients, all meant to make a delicious meal. And the recipes? So simple any one can make them. Each 8×11 recipe card tells you a bit about the dish, lists the ingredients, serving size, calorie counts, and gives you step-by-step visual + text instructions on how to fix your meal. Not only was I impressed by the delivery (all of my food was wonderfully packaged), but the ingredients were first-rate, and you can see the care and thoughtfulness that went into every step — from recipe concept to ingredient selection. My first week I had chicken paillard with warm potato salad, fish tacos with avocado and radish + lamb sausage with late summer Moroccan couscous. ARE YOU NOT PALPITATING?

For now, Blue Apron is available on the East Coast (primarily) via Fedex delivery + local delivery (in Manhattan). The prices are about $60/week, and in my opinion WELL WORTH the money. For a delivery map, click here.

Full Disclosure: Blue Apron was kind enough to let me sample their services, gratis, for a week.

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sweets in paris: this is last call!

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As I write this, I’m sitting in an airport in Paris waiting for my plane to New York. I’m always amazed by the tremendous amount of clarity time away brings. Woolf waxed poetic about this in A Room of One’s Own — if women had the luxury of a room in which to think, to write, to simply produce, all would be well with the world. Granted, Woolf was a woman of privilege, and time for oneself is a luxury many of us can’t afford. So if you have this time, seize it. Seize it now and use it wisely. I’ve had much to contemplate this week — a lot of introspection, a lot of looking in sort of thing — and I came out on the other side of it focused on what needs to be done in the coming months and years.

For now let’s talk about Paris. I’ve traveled extensively through the years (Asia, Southeast Asia, Russia, most of Europe), and I’ve never left a city aching to stay. I’ve always been ready for the return. Yet today I felt sorrow. Paris is perhaps the only city I’ve visited that felt very much like New York in its pace, rhythms, sentiment and commitment to good food. While my waistline is thankful I’ve left the patisseries and boulangeries (I’ve been wearing yoga pants for the past two days in violent denial), I’m sadly not.

Yesterday, on the recommendation of a Twitter follower, I checked out the very posh Carette in the Place des Vosges. A bastion of sin, Carette is a luxe cafe that offers light lunch, tea, ice cream and confections. You’ll find a psychedelic spray of candy-colored macarons (macarons are a bit too precious for my taste, but I appreciated the presentation and the sumptuous color), artful tarts (the tarte aux citron and tarte aux pistache caught my eye) and one of the finest collections of croissants. While I fancy myself an amateur croissant connoisseur, I have to say, without apology, that the almond croissant is EXTRAORDINARY. This is the sort of pastry that you need to sit down and consume, slowly, preferably with a hot cup of coffee in a drawn bath. Me being the shameless chow hound that I am, I scarfed it down in my hotel room getting ready for the airport.

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I’m a bit embarrassed that my crêpe game was pretty pitiful (IN MY DEFENSE I WAS DISTRACTED BY THE CROISSANTS!), I instantly followed David Lebovitz’s lead and raced to Breizh Cáfe (images above), straightaway. Known for their galettes de blé noir (buckwheat crêpes), minimalist execution (you won’t find a mess of plate decor, but rather perfectly made Breton-style crêpes fixed with the finest ingredients), the proprietor sources butter, jams and ingredients regionally (Brittany, for example). This is all a very fancy way of saying that my crepes were damn good. Cooked evenly (an art form, my friends), the crêpe was light, buttery, nutty, and married with blueberry preserves — utter perfection. I had menu envy when I spied the scrambled eggs, gruyere and ribbons of ham, but I had work to do. Onward!

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I am miffed that I didn’t get a chance to try the famed West Country Girl and Josselin — simply for the fact that the French practice a strict siesta, which makes traveling, sampling and shooting these gems a challenge come nightfall. However, while on Rue Montparnasse (translation: crêpe road), I did pop into La Crêperie Bretonne (images above). Although this spot has gotten A LOT of mixed reviews, I found it pretty good. NOT PHENOMENAL, but pretty good for the value. I ordered the chocolate and toasted almond crêpes and they were delightful. A little dry at the ends, but the center was pretty LUXE.

Ending this post is so hard because there’s so much more I want to explore, so much more time I want to spend, but alas — there is always next time.

a comprehensive guide to sweets in aix en provence

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The Internet can be a cruel, cold and lonely place when one isn’t able to find exactly what they need. Would you believe that I spent hours (no seriously, HOURS) on the web searching for a list of boulangeries and patisseries to visit in Aix en Provence? Would you believe that after translating dozens of pages from the French, I found only a handful of places — a paltry list of tourist traps — to guide my first day in Provence?

I WEPT CROISSANTS, PEOPLE. CROISSANTS AMANDES, TO BE PRECISE. THAT’S ALMONDS TO YOU, PEOPLE!

After spending two days in Provence, hitting every alley way and every shop that sold confections, pastries + bread, I’m bringing you the very best of what I’ve discovered during my stay. In all candor, nearly all of the places I visited were a complete and utter delight. You’re instantly greeted with a waft of a hot oven, of things baking and cooling, and a pride, helpful proprietor. Oddly, I had a dream the other night where a woman told me that my constitution was built for bread and cakes, not for exquisite pastry. I was obsessive, methodical, passionate but not borderline psychotic. You need to be insane to devote that much minute detail to the art of pastry. And this is true. Although I’m a Type A personality, I tend to not have patience for pate-a-choux, and most of my achievements have been working with breads, loaves, cakes, pies, etc. I have a predilection for the grand in stature rather than the microscopic perfection. What this means is that I cared less for the fanciful Bechards of the world (the beautiful shop was a bit intimidating) and opt for more of the rustic bakeries. However, this is my taste and I encourage you to explore what suits your fancy.

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If you haven’t noticed, I’ve been on a bit of a croissant rampage. For those who know me and know me well, there was the situation I’d like to call the Muffin Intervention of 2007. I devoted six straight months to the consumption of the blueberry muffin and wondered why I’d gained five pounds. Mysteries of the world, people. Riddle of the Sphinx, etc. In the past two years I’ve engaged in an outright war against the consumption of the CROISSANT. Specifically, the almond croissant. This pastry is much like crack cocaine, and I’ve found myself making the Muffin Intervention of 2007 look like a blip in the calendar. However, I’ve allowed a week of debauchery (I’m in France!), so it’s been a three-croissant/day situation. At this point I’m acutely aware of how bad this has gotten, and cannot wait to set foot in JFK, where I will properly mainline kale.

But I digress. These two gems are from Banette and Pâtisserie Weibel, respectively. Banette is much like your local bake shop cum deli, serving up sandwiches, light eats, pastries, fresh bread and croissants. The place is a bit ordinary, but the chocolate croissants (at $1.30) are a pure and utter delight. Flaky and fresh with a warm chocolate center, you will order two, as I did, and have no regrets consuming the lot. As Edith Piaf so sagely sang, Je Non Regret Rien!

Weibel is a bit fancier in nature, selling loads of the Aix sweet, callison (think fruity chalk), however, their almond croissant is probably one of the finest I’ve sampled in France. Subtly sweet, you have a hint of amaretto amidst the powdered sugar, cream and light pastry. It’s a symphony of flavor, I assure you, and I treasured EVERY. SINGLE. BITE.

Remember when I waxed poetic about Stohrer? Sang its praises, etc? While Stohrer will always hold a dear, minimalist place in my heart, I fawned over the perfect eclairs at Lavarenne (below images). Like pages of a book, I love how this pastry unfolds. At first bite, you taste a thin layer of chocolate frosting and sheets of puff pastry. As you delve deeper, the pastry implodes, caves into a perfect chocolate center juxtaposed with a slight touch of cream.

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While I felt intimidated by Bechard and its decadent pastry and bright lights, a much humbler Riederer (below images) is definitely worthy of a visit. Tucked away on a side street off Cours Mirebeau, Riederer feels like Bechard’s quirky cousin, mainly due to its current pâtissier, Philippe Segond, who is warm, effusive and constantly re-inventing biscuits, chocolates and the delicate cakes the shop sells. Instantly, you’ll be drawn into bakets filled with biscuits — an array of aromatics — lavender, almond, citrus, lemon, chocolate, and on it goes. Yet, you’ll leave with a slice of cake (the pistachio blueberry melted my cold heart) or a fig tart.

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And let us not forget my lifelong affair with chocolate? As Nigella Lawson once said, whatever the question is, chocolate is ALWAYS the answer. If you’re seeking confectionary finery, I encourage you to check out Puyricard (below images). Whether you’re taking a tour of the chocolate factory in the Aix countryside where you see artisans hand-crafting exquisite confections, or you’re strolling around town aching for a bit of sweetness, Puyricard will easily satisfy all cravings. Not only did I sample coconut and almond-infused truffles, but indulged in chocolate-covered almonds, discs of dark chocolate studded with nuts, and pillowy marshmallows that melted in my mouth.

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Notables: Don’t dismiss PAUL because it’s a chain. Serving up tasty sandwiches, fresh coffee and tarts that will put your heart on pause (I stood in front of a glazed fig tart for ten minutes, gawking like a lunatic). If you’re looking for a solid, affordable lunch or a quick sweet, definitely hit up this spot. Loved Gout de Pain’s bread.

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SWEETS GUIDE (My Picks)
Banette Puyricard
5 Cheminement Ecoles
13540 Aix en Provence

Pâtisserie Weibel
2 Rue Chabrier
13100 Aix en Provence

Lavarenne
44 Place Richelme
13100 Aix-en-Provence

Riederer
67 Cours Mirabeau
13100 Aix-en-Provence

Puyricard
9 Rue Rifle Rafle
13100 Aix-en-Provence, France

provencal markets: place richelme, aix en provence

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That she had so completely recovered her sanity was a source of sadness to her. One should never be cured of one’s passion. ― Marguerite Duras, Ravishing of Lol Stein

Strange that I came to France carrying a book about another place: California. One couldn’t conceive of two disparate places, but when you think about it what both have in common is the ravaging; they both bear the weight of their name and the history of it. Wearers of masks, they are pranced out in all their finery and plumage, but in the quiet, in the actinic blue of evening, they are both places filled with people who are trying so desperately define where it is from which they’ve come. I’m reading Joan Didion’s Where I Was From. Part history, part folklore, part memoir, this stark work is a siren song to the place that has been the specter in Didion’s work. As she navigates generations of her family — the duplicity and ferocity of a state that was once considered the promised land for many, Hades for others — you’re alongside her, trying to assemble the shards of glass, trying to piece this strange world, this life back together again.

You might wonder what this has to do with a farmer’s market in the center of Provence? Good question. I often think in a stream of consciousness. Often see the world in this strange prism where everything doesn’t initially make sense, but after time, it makes perfect sense. I’ve always defined myself as a New Yorker, someone who grew up poor in Brooklyn (not your gentrified Park Slope, Brooklyn, but further south), but before I left I had a strange conversation with an acquaintance. I was telling her that people often don’t connect the woman I am now to the girl I was back then, and I tell this friend that after my memoir was published I went back to the old neighborhood. Not once, twice, but multiple times, because I had a hard time confronting the fact that while the place had remained unchanged, I was demonstrably different. I no longer blended; I was an outsider. I couldn’t make sense of this because at the time I didn’t fit in in my old world, I had a tough time with my new one, so was it possible that I had been banished to the betweens?

Years later, the person who I was to become started to emerge. And one part of this person was a lifelong passion, obsession, with food. Cooking it, baking it, eating it, sharing it, writing about it, taking photos of it — I love every single thing about food and what it brings, how it shapes the conversation, how it lingers, how it brings together when nothing else can.

This morning I woke determined to find my home, my center, in a very foreign place in the south of France. A few steps from my hotel (everything in Provence, by the way, is within a 5-minute walk!) I located the famed farmer’s market in Place Richelme. Here you’ll find a charming market of green grocers who sell fruit, vegetables, spices, cheeses, meats and fish to locals and restaurants alike. The produce is remarkable in appearance and taste, and I couldn’t help sampling everything. From fresh-cut carrots and luscious, sanguine figs to plump peaches and verdant greens, I had to remind myself that I’m shopping for a lunch picnic, not groceries for the week! The produce is quite affordable (considering the quality) and proprietors are keen on doling out samples. I didn’t feel odd taking pictures (I often get dirty looks even AFTER I ask folks at the Union Square Market if I can photograph their wares, and I ALWAYS ask and I ALWAYS purchase from said merchant), and the mornings are serene. I returned at different points of the day to witness the growing frenzy, and I was pleased that I had a home away from home, albeit for a little while.

Local producers market
Daily, starting at 8AM-ish
Place Richelme, Aix en Provence, France

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getting sweets in paris, france

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But Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight. ― Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

There is a photo of you taken ages ago it seems. Dressed in black, you stand in front of the verdant Place de Vosges because you are the dramatic kind. You live for the extremes; you dwell in disquiet. You tell everyone who will listen that your heart is a landmine — you could blow at any minute. You’ve begun what would soon be a final siren song to your mother, a woman whom you’ve often dreamt about, a woman whose voices was the loudest sound. Both of you had hair like a forest, one could get lost in the thicket of it. So you walked the streets of Paris obsessing over Dostevysky and Sebald, doubles, fractured selves and the many masks you wore. You roamed a museum dedicated to a grown man’s obsession with miniature dancers, and drank wine in the waking hours because anesthesia felt good. Looking back, you see the beauty in all this and the woman that you will inevitably become. You don’t yet know that although life keeps getting hard you keep getting better. But you are young and everything is a massacre. Paris needs to be dramatic. Paris needs to bear the weight of all of your history.

Time passes. Ten years, to be exact. Although you suspected you would become a thirty-six-year-old adult, the reality of it still shocks you. Is this your hand, your face once youthful showing the years? Are these the years that have finally borne the fruits of your labor? Clean conscience, eyes wide open, a heart more forgiving although not forgetful. The ticking is no longer the bomb, and you return to Paris reading Didion’s Where I Was From, because although you are a different woman now there is no hiding from the place from which you’ve come. There is only the memory of it, and your smile and sigh that life did get better. You did get sober. You did find love in your heart.

When considering a holiday I wanted to be efficient. I wanted to visit a place I hadn’t seen, but I couldn’t help but feel drawn to return to Paris. Not because I wanted to see the sights and stand in front of cathedrals, but because France is home to one of my passions — perfect pastries. It’s funny how time sorts things. How I arrived in Paris feeling all noir and dramatic and now all I want to do is find croissants. It’s CRAZY, I tell you. However, I flew in today, am feeling the weight of jetlag, and have probably consumed my weight in carbs and dairy.

As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans. ― Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

As soon as I dropped my bags in my room, I raced out to the Marche D’ Aligre market. An open-air market in Paris’ 12 arrondisement, the scene on a Saturday is dramatic with proprietors offering you samples of their wares (think of vendors as procuring and selling their finery in the form of figs, squash, Egyptian pomegranates, and cruciferous greens) while jostling one another (all in good humor). From fresh flowers, fruit and vegetables to delicious cuts of beef and spices, this is definitely the place where many Parisians shop for the week — and believe me when I say that this market is a gastronomic, visual delight. You’ll also want to weave in and out of the shops that line the street — cheese and fish mongers, butchers and speciality shops that left me wondering why I didn’t rent an apartment where I could have made such AMAZING FOOD.

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Ravenous, I popped into Le Chat Bossu, a local bistro notable for their epic cheeseburgers and affordable fare. Although my lunch was indeed tasty, I’m not sure I’d sing the cheeseburger praises from the rafters. People often complain about service in Paris, however, I’ve taken a different approach. Parisians appreciate the time it takes for one to consume and enjoy their food. There is no concept of “table turns” and rushing people to the door, rather a meal is a time for leisure so the service tends to be a bit more lax. After a few times in Paris I’ve learned to appreciate the wait.

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Perhaps the highlight of my first day in Paris is Bread and Roses. Known as the place to be, the chill-ax cafe features organic and homemade breads, pastries, tarts, tartines and heartier bites. Believe me when I say that I spent TWO HOURS eating, reading, and chatting up the couple next to me. A menu rife with a delicious array of exotic and indigenous teas, I settled on a warm earl grey (it’s chilly in Paris!) paired with a creamy pumpkin soup with a side of jamon + multi-grain bread. And this isn’t the sort of white bread with a pile of sunflower seeds tossed in for good measure — you can taste the depth of the loaf juxtaposed with the salty, paper-thin slices of ham, which served as the perfect foil for the luscious soup. After, I indulged in a chocolate souffle bathed in a vanilla cream sauce. I nearly died. LITERALLY. I snarfed on a “cereal” baguette as I made my way to the Luxembourg Gardens. And although lunch was on the pricey side, the meal and the richness of it, are really worth it.

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A friend tipped me off to a child’s delight — La Cure Gourmande. The sweets and biscuit shop finds its roots in a town in the South of France (Balaruc-les-Bains), and now has locations dotted across France, its latest on the quaint streets of Ile Saint Louis. As I type I’m savoring a vanilla biscuit filled with dark chocolate — and this is just the beginning, my sweet friends. From homemade caramels and lemon biscuits to pistachio-infused chocolates to rows of wrapped sweets, the store is a visual feast for the senses. The service was impeccable and the treats affordable and delicious; I cannot WAIT to bring some of these biscuits into the office!!!

After, I wove in and out of shops, smelling flowers, sampling ice-cream, securing cheese samples and champagne grapes. A short walk and I found myself in the Marais district, home to artisanal shops and the famed Comme La Lisbonne. I discovered the small shop on a lark because I always pause where the lines form. I learned that the Portuguese dessert, pastéis de nata, dates back to the fifteenth century. A mix between a creme brulee and light pastry, you’ll enjoy the creaminess of the custard juxtaposed with the light, flaky crust. And after I discovered that David Lebovitz is a fan, I knew I’d struck gold.

Keep popping back daily, as I plan to chronicle my eats from Paris and Provence! If you’ve got any suggestions, please drop them in the comments! I’m looking for recommendations!

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