Food and Memories in Paris

I remember a lot of food from our first trip to Paris in 2009, but I don’t remember anything as vividly as our dinner at A La Biche au Bois.  I remember eating at Le Timbre and having a delicious mushroom soup, but nothing else about the experience.  I remember eating our first escargot, but not where. I remember strolling through an outdoor market and getting baguette and my first taste of real goat cheese and falling in love. 

But when it comes to A La Biche au Bois, I remember sitting at the end of a longish booth; I remember how deeply flavored the coq au vin was; I remember the beat-up orange pots the coq au vin was delivered in; I remember the incredible cheese course; I remember the people sitting next to us giving us half their mashed potatoes because they were so good we couldn’t miss out on them—and they were; I remember being incredibly full but my girlfriend at the time, LeeAnne, forcing herself to finish the chocolate mousse because it was that good; I remember she couldn’t button her coat after dinner; I remember getting crepes on the way back to our hotel anyway.

I’ve been thinking about A La Biche au Bois and their coq au vin for 11 years now.

Over the summer, when my sister and some friends and I went to follow the Tour de France, I extended our trip by a day in order to be in Paris on a night they were open and finally go back to Biche au Bois.  We were arriving for our trip on July 20; I called for a reservation a few weeks in advance to find they, like much of the city, would be starting to take a month-long sabbatical starting—you guessed it—the day we arrived.  I think the lady on the phone could sense my disappointment, as she offered to let me join them on their holiday.

Champagne to start the evening in celebration

Luckily for my now-girlfriend Kaitie and I, our friend Nina moved to Paris in January to study, and we could justify a trip with a free place to stay.  I usually don’t go back to a place twice, let along three times—and especially less than a year after the previous visit—but the stars were aligning for us to justify the trip. I made a reservation for Friday the 14th, Valentine’s Day, remembering LeeAnne and I had first been to Paris thanks to a long Valentine’s weekend flight-and-hotel deal. I don’t remember which day we went to Biche au Bois, but my return could very well be 11 years to the day from the first time I was there.

As we made our way to the metro from Nina’s apartment, my excitement turned slightly to nerves.  2009 was a long time ago, and I knew nowhere near as much about food as I do now.  What if I had completely misjudged the food, and it really wasn’t that good? I had suggested the restaurant to Nina when she had visited Paris in 2017, so in addition to talking up the meal to myself for 11 years, I had been talking it up to her for almost three.  I had been talking it up to Kaitie for, I’m sure, as long as I’d known her.  What if I was giving up a quick, easy answer to any future “what would be your last meal” hypotheticals?

We walked in and, despite appearing smaller that I remembered, nothing had changed.  Coat rack immediately on the left, long booth where I had sat the first time on the right. We were seated in the very front of the restaurant at the window, and chatted up by the host/owner who had chatted us up 11 years ago.  I had worried that they might have a special menu for Valentine’s Day, because why not once again destroy my dreams of eating here, but they only had a few additions.  We looked over the menu and decided to start our celebration of my triumphant return with some champagne, and Nina ordered us a bottle of wine as well.

I can’t quite remember what we started with in 2009—nothing I’ve eaten before that first coq au vin matters anymore—but I will remember our first course from this year.  Kaitie ordered a ravioli salad, which came with a poached egg perched atop and covered in pickled red onion.  I had a special of the day, which was two poached eggs in a mushroom sauce—a deep, earthy, umami dressing that gave off the pure taste of mushrooms; and once the perfectly-poached eggs were broken and the yolk mixed with the sauce, we couldn’t get to the baguette on our table fast enough.  I think we went through a second round of baguette for Nina’s order of escargot, which weren’t only hiding in shells filled with perfect buttery parsley sauce, but were also sitting in pools of it.  We knew a lot was coming and we shouldn’t fill up on bread, but the food in France makes that an exceptionally difficult principle to stick to.

Next, the main course. On the strength of my recommendation and years of guarantees, we all ordered the coq au vin.  The pieces of chicken, cooked tender and floating in the dark sauce with potatoes, came out in the same battered and chipped orange pots I remembered.  And that’s not where the memories stopped—as I spooned a portion of chicken, potatoes, and sauce onto my plate, the smell was immediately familiar, despite not having smelled it in over ten years (and only having attempted to make it at home twice).

I am also happy to confirm the coq au vin at Biche au Bois will remain my last meal candidate.  The chicken fell off the bone, the potatoes were creamy, bits of bacon and mushrooms were a pleasant surprise when they came up, and I couldn’t get enough of the thick, meaty sauce.  When we ran out of baguette (our third serving, I believe), I resorted to spooning sauce from the pot directly to my mouth. It was thick enough that the spoon left a line in the bottom of the pot before it slowly filled in. I could not have been happier.

After we had finished with the coq au vin, we were presented with the cheese course: a large plate of cheese that you can take as much or as little from as you desire.  How much better could life be at this moment, transitioning from one of the best dishes I’ve ever eaten to the promise of, should I so choose, unlimited cheese? While Nina and Kaitie were a little more discerning with their selection in order to save room for dessert, I asked for a piece of each cheese on the plate. And ate them with more baguette.

Finally, on to dessert. We had to decide which we were each getting, and briefly considered some sorbet to cleanse our palates, but then gave up on that idea. Nina ended up ordering the daily special apple tarte, and I went with the house opera cake.  We had looked up opera cake to see that it was a cake of layered almond sponge cake soaked in coffee syrup and layered with ganache and coffee buttercream, which sounds incredible. The Biche au Bois version, however, was more along the lines of a traditional chocolate cake, though gooey in the middle, and sitting on a pool of crème anglaise. As a non-chocolate person, it was a little too chocolatey for me, which is a surprise, because I had convinced Kaitie to order the chocolate mousse with Grand Marnier, and I couldn’t stop eating it. The slight orange flavor countered the deep chocolate flavor, as did the fact that the mousse was so light and fluffy it was like eating a chocolate-flavored cloud. As someone who has hated chocolate his entire life, I was as surprised as anyone to not be able to stop eating this.

In addition to the food being just as good as I remembered—and in some (chocolate) cases, even better—the price hasn’t changed much either.  Even with the glasses of champagne, a bottle of wine, and the extra supplement for the escargot, the entire meal for three ran us about €150. This was as reasonable a price for the quality food we got as I’ve ever had.

I know I can eat at the upper boundaries of gastronomy in France, and especially Paris; the French, afterall, practically invented cooking.  But it is this kind of food—the homey, slow-cooked dishes that are somehow comfort food even though they have no ties to your childhood. Coq au vin, boeuf bourguignon, onion soup—these are what I crave in Paris.  This is what I go there for.  And these are the memories I will always keep of Paris, no matter how long it takes me to get back.

Le Tour Detour

We all woke up early, around 6am, and packed everything we’d need: the meat, cheese, bread, and snacks we’d bought the night before, as well as a selection of beer we’d carried with us from Belgium.  The day, Thursday, July 25, was the highlight of our Tour de France trip: the mountain stage.  We’d get to the highlight of the stage, the Col du Galibier, early enough to make our way up and stake out a prime viewing spot where we’d wait for the whole to-do of the Tour to go by. It was only a 30-minute drive from our AirBNB.

The Galibier and surrounding area from our spot.

We had to park about a kilometer away from the start of the mountain, but we eventually made it to a great spot where we could see any oncoming action for quite a while—we were there to get our money’s worth.  On our way up, we switched on and off who carried our cooler full of goodies and stopped occasionally to rest and to cheer on the hordes of amateur cyclists trying to conquer the Galibier. It looked like some of them really needed the extra motivation.

Not a bad view from our parking spot

We set up our camp around 8:30 or 9am and began our long wait in the sun.  The Tour de France caravan wouldn’t arrive until about 2pm, and the riders themselves between 4-4:30pm.

Le Tour

The team buses coming through amazed me at what good drivers these guys were—I would later find out that I’d never be able to take a bus around some of these mountain passes. The caravan was the same thing: it would have terrified me to drive those huge, unwieldy parade floats around some of the curves on the mountain.  But it did give us our last chance to pick up some cheap souvenirs and trinkets and get us excited for the cyclists that would be coming through shortly.

The television helicopter in front of us

Eventually, we heard the television helicopters in the distance and got ready. We had gone for a walk earlier and saw we were very close to the sign that signified 25km to the finish line, so keeping track of where they were on the Tour de France app got us even more excited as we counted down—40km, then 35, then 30. A helicopter appeared, and we could see the breakaway group on the winding road beneath us. We watched it snake its way through the crowd-lined road, and as the four or five riders were on the portion of road right below us, we saw Nairo Quintana put on a burst of speed and leave the others behind. We got into position to wait for the leaders to round a bend.

A poorly-zoomed picture of the breakaway, right before Nairo makes his move

I always thought I would take the opportunity to be one of those guys who ran beside the riders, but Nairo positively flew by us, followed by Romain Bardet and the rest of the leaders.  We cheered them on, and chatted excitedly while waiting for the peloton.  Once the main group was by us, we waited for the grupetto, or the back end of the race.  A car coming up announced that the group behind him contained fan favorite Peter Sagan, and we all cheered him on as he went by.  As someone who cycles (poorly), it still amazed me how fast even the stragglers were going up this mountain.

Nairo on his way to the stage win
Peter Sagan struggles on the Galibier

Rain

As the final riders were going by, the sky began to darken. We put on our rain gear, and there was a light sprinkling rain for part of our descent back to the car.  Nothing too bad, but we could see some intermittent lightning back in the direction of our AirBNB. Taking different routes down, we all met up back at the rental car, where we pulled out and got in line to head back home.

The line of cars barely moved, but it did move.  Every once in a while, an emergency vehicle flew by in the opposite lane, and we figured there had been some fender-benders in the rain and rush to get home. We made it back to La Grave, a small town about halfway between Les Deux Alpes, where we were staying, and the Col du Galibier when we noticed the line of cars only seemed to be moving when a car came back our way.  Then we noticed cars in our line starting to turn around.  Uh oh.

Campers at the Galibier. They were probably fine.

We turned around and pulled into the first open parking lot we saw and headed into a hostel/restaurant called Gite Le Rocher in order to sit down, use the WiFi, and get some food.  They had a prix fixe menu of vegetable soup, goat, and a dessert, but at this point I was getting too nervous to take pictures of my food (a first).  We were originally told by the hippie-looking woman in charge that the roads would be closed for about three hours due to a landslide caused by the rain.  When Beth had her husband back home get online and check (the WiFi turned out to be bunk in the restaurant), he found that the roads being closed for three DAYS was a generous assumption.

We realized, now nearing 9pm, we would have no other option but to take a detour back to our AirBNB. It was starting to get dark, we were all tired from an entire day spent sitting in the sun and drinking, and I was the only one on the car’s insurance, so it would be up to me to take the four-hour detour over the Galibier, over the Col du Glandon, and back to Les Deux Alpes.  Did I mention I’m afraid of heights?  We got ourselves psyched up and walked back to the car, where we realized the building we had parked by had become a temporary shelter for people who had cycled from the area of Les Deux Alpes to the stage and couldn’t get back.  It was a huge inconvenience for us, but at least we had the means to drive over the mountains in the dark—these people were completely stranded.

King of the Mountain

We threw on some podcasts—I wanted something my brain would have to pay attention to, rather than zoning out to music—and headed back the way we’d come.  The line of cars at the base of the Col du Galibier was long and slow-moving, and by this point it was pure nighttime. We eventually made it to the base of the mountain, and my nerves kicked in. If I’d had my own car, which is smaller and something I’m more familiar with, I would have been a lot more relaxed, but I was convinced the SUV we had was going to roll off the edge of the mountain any minute as we climbed higher and higher.

Our original route home.
The detour (without traffic)

I didn’t care about the people behind me who probably wanted to drive faster, and I only moved from the center of the lane when there was oncoming traffic (and once almost not quickly enough, as we were almost hit head-on by someone coming around a sharp bend). Beth and Kelly, both manning phones for directions, kept me braced on when a particularly sharp bend was coming up and what I had to expect, while Ray fell asleep in the back seat—after he made sure to point out how steep one of the climbs we were coming up to was.

Luckily, the Galibier has a tunnel cut through about three quarters of the way up, so we were able to skip going over the peak of the mountain.  This, and the fact that it was so dark we couldn’t see the drop-offs next to us, are probably the only things that kept me from a full-on nervous breakdown on the ride. After the tunnel was a downhill portion leading into the town of Valloire, which gave us an up-close view of the Tour route that we wouldn’t have otherwise received. I could have done without it.

When we explored more of the Galibier, I didn’t realize I would eventually be driving these roads

Whenever there was room, I moved over and let all the antsy drivers behind us pass me, but if we were going up or downhill, I didn’t care how mad they got, I wasn’t getting close to the edges.  If one of you was behind me, sorry not sorry.

After two climbs and two descents, we were back on the highway for a portion, and then once again ascending to Les Deux Alpes. We rolled into the area of our AirBNB and found the last parking spot around 2:30 in the morning, almost immediately before a car behind us pulled in, no doubt in the same situation.

If the buses could do it, I could do it.

It took a while to get to sleep, because my adrenaline was going full blast and my nerves were on edge.  On our way back to La Grave, sitting in traffic, I had nodded off once or twice due to being so exhausted, but on the haul back I’m not sure I closed my eyes once—I knew it was up to me to get everyone home safe, and I knew I had to stay awake and stay calm.  As much as I wanted to panic (and, at some points, full on cry), panic wasn’t an option. We got back into our room, cracked a beer, and calmed down.  What had been a memorable day of watching the Tour de France became one of those unforgettable days of a trip where things go just wrong enough to make it exciting, but not so wrong as to ruin everything.  Had we ridden bikes from our room to the Galibier, I may be singing a different tune, but as it stood we had the ability to get back safely. And the day went a long way to reinforce one of my favorite sayings: it’s always an adventure.

Beth and I, before the dread of driving sets in, but not before the sunburn does.

Tips for following the Tour de France

A few years ago, having friends who were into cycling, I had some time to kill before a beer event and decided to check out the first stage of the Tour de France. While I wasn’t sure of the rules or what exactly was going on, I loved it. This was in 2013, and as the peloton raced to the finish, the Orica-GreenEdge team bus got stuck in the finish line banner. What was going to happen? Would the cyclists have to go around it? Would it be able to move in time? Then there was a crash! Combine the excitement of the finish with the soothing and informative commentary of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, and I was immediately hooked.

It took a few years, but this year I was finally able to go and spectate live with my sister and two of our friends.  We planned on seeing parts of four stages (though that didn’t exactly pan out) over seven days.  While I was happy to take the reins, the logistics took a fair bit of planning.  If you are a fan of cycling and one day want to see the Tour live for yourself—and I very much recommend it—I’ve put together some tips to hopefully help you along the way.  Allez!

One of the Haribo cars during the caravan

Rent a car

As an American, I generally assume you can get anywhere in Europe by train.  While this is mostly true, many of the small towns or mountain passes the Tour winds up in will not be.  We had four days between two large cities, so we rented a car to hit the stops we wanted between the two and took trains the rest of the way—but the car was absolutely necessary.

AirBNB

If you want to be up close and personal, your best chances for accommodation are through AirBNB.  As the Tour starts and ends in many small towns, and there are an incredible amount of people associated with the daily running of the race, most hotels will be booked solid before the route is even announced.  If you don’t mind booking in another town and making your way to the start/finish, that’s fine, but we were able to get AirBNBs within 500 meters of two stage starts.

Don’t try to do too much

If you want to see the start of a stage, chances are you won’t be able to see the finish—and vice versa.  Waiting for the roads to re-open, getting out of the city, and being lucky if the roads are still open when you get to the end of the next stage (and there’s parking) is a very, very slim chance.  Instead, pick one or the other and take your time enjoying the atmosphere.  We lucked out at our first stage, in Nimes, that the end just happened to be about a kilometer from the start—one of the reasons we picked the stage.

The view from the Col du Galibier, with spectators lining the road

Know the route

The route for the Tour will come out in October (with the race being in July), which will give you plenty of time to book accommodation.  Be sure to do it wisely.  For example, we wanted to see a mountain stage on the Col du Galibier this year.  We stayed in Les Deux Alpes, which is about 45 minutes west of the mountain—but the race was coming in from the east.  With the roads the race is on being closed hours in advance—and sometimes days—we wanted to make sure we weren’t inadvertently closed off from the stage. 

Make a day of it (and be prepared to do a lot of walking)

The riders weren’t scheduled to get to the Col du Galibier until around 4:30, but we were there around 8am—and we still had to park about a kilometer away from the base of the mountain.  We made it to the spot we wanted on the mountain by around 10am, which gave us six hours to hang out, enjoy the atmosphere, and dig in to our cooler full of beer, meat, and cheese.  We spent a lot of time cheering on all the amateur riders taking advantage of the road closure to ride up the mountain.  Being there early also guarantees you the opportunity to see the caravan, a 45-minute parade of decorated sponsor’s cars throwing out all kinds of swag.  It comes through about two hours before the riders on every stage, so this is your best chance to get some freebie souvenirs.

Go near the end of the Tour

The first week is generally for the sprinters, without much reason for the peloton to slow down. So, unless you want to see a group of cyclists fly by you at 50km/h, there isn’t much reason to be around. We specifically went for a mountain stage to have a better chance at seeing the riders, even though they went past faster than I could ever imagine going on some of those climbs.

The peloton whizzes past on the Champs Elysees

Don’t expect much from the final stage

Don’t get me wrong—the party atmosphere along the Champs Elysees is amazing.  However, the caravan is done giving away freebies (they just drive by and wave) and while the peloton goes by eight times, they’re getting faster almost every time, so it’s mostly a blur each time.  Walking up and down the Champs, though, is a great way to get some good food, any merch you were missing, some sponsor freebies along the road, and (actually reasonably priced) beer.  And while spectating the final loops on the Champs isn’t going to get you much in the way of the race, I would absolutely recommend being there for the party.

Gorgeous bikes outside the Movistar bus

Stage starts are the best for rider sightings

After the stage, the riders are (understandably) tired and ready to get back on the team bus and back to the hotel.  Before the stage, though, the buses are lined up and riders may come out to greet fans.  They will, eventually, have to make their way out of the bus and to the start line (where they physically sign in before each stage), so if you want to see someone specific, parking yourself outside the team bus before the start is your best bet.

Enjoy the cities

Finally, be sure to enjoy the cities you most likely wouldn’t otherwise find yourself in.  On any given trip to France, there’s no chance I would have gone to Nimes or Les Deux Alpes, and chances aren’t good I would have ever even heard of Albertville.  But they all had their own charm and beauty, and we enjoyed each stage.  Many of the smaller towns also have celebrations or specials the night before of the night of the Tour. Expore!

Our balcony view of Les Deux Alpes

Hopefully this will make things a tad easier to plan your trip to see Le Tour.  There’s a lot of good (and sometimes more specific) information on DC Rainmaker’s blog, which I read a few times while planning our trip. I’m also always up for answering any questions or just talking about the Tour (and travel), so feel free to ask below or shoot me an email.

Food: Paris, 2008

When I think back on all the trips I’ve taken, I think Paris might be the first food-focused trip.  LeeAnne and I went for Valentine’s Day weekend in 2008 (only because Air Canada was offering a deal on flights out of Toronto). Everyone I knew thought it was going to be proposal time, since we’d been dating for a while—what could be more romantic than Valentine’s Day in Paris?—but I was more concerned with eating and, if we’re honest, paying my respects to Jim Morrison’s grave.  Now that is romantic.

While we did see all the tourist sites—The Champs-Élysées and the Arc de Triomphe, The Louvre, Notre Dame, Shakespeare & Co bookstore, Père Lachaise cemetary, and the Eiffel Tower on actual Valentine’s Day (the line of nervous-looking men waiting to get to the top to propose kept us from getting in line to go up; well, that and my fear of heights)—the most important part, as it always is in France, was the food. Unfortunately (or fortunately) this trip pre-dated our obsession with taking pictures of everything we ate.

Le Timbre: French for “the stamp,” because the place is the size of a postage stamp, Le Timbre was one of the highlights of our trip.  The place has 24 seats and, when we were there, employed a single server and the chef.  The food was well worth the stop, and was very affordable at about 36 euros for the basic tasting menu.  I remember the mushroom soup being particularly good.

Paris-1

Open-Air Market: Being 10 years ago and not having a lot of pictures, all I can say is that we waltzed through an open-air market at one point and picked up some items for lunch in a park, which I would highly recommend if you ever find yourself in Paris.  Crusty bread, some pate, and fresh goat cheese were perfect for a cold February afternoon.  Until then I hadn’t liked goat cheese much, and this was the moment that it clicked for me.

Pierre Hermé: This was my first experience with macarons, and I guess waiting in line and getting them from the master probably ruined me on them, but these little guys were another eye-opening moment in Paris.  I remember white truffle standing out to me (as I was—and really still am—quite the truffle slut).

A La Biche Au Bois: As I will get around to writing about, I’ve been lucky enough to eat at a lot of great places in my life, some of them ranked among the best restaurants in the world (and one making #1 in 2017). Of all the fancy places I’ve eaten, and all the dives, and all the streetcorners, and all the bars, the coq au vin at A La Biche Au Bois stands out as the single best dish I’ve ever eaten.  It is my death row meal, the one I think about most, and a meal I would fly to Paris to eat and then fly immediately back. The stew was served in a dented-up old pot in a restaurant we were crowded into, but it was fucking amazing.  I can’t even describe the way it makes me feel, which may have to do with nostalgia and the time and place, but I fantasize about this meal.  I recommend it to everyone who ever goes to Paris, and I recommend it to you when you go.  Don’t skip the mashed potatoes, and I hear the chocolate mousse is to die for (I don’t like chocolate).  We stuffed ourselves so much LeeAnne couldn’t button her coat on the way out—in February.

But we still got a crêpe on the way back to the hotel.  Because that’s what you do in Paris.