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A Tasty Tale of Two Cities

Food Tours of Paris and Parma

By Carolyn O’Neil

Learning to listen for the delicate crunching sound of a perfectly baked baguette in Paris, or watching as chunks of cheese in Parma are broken into rough pieces for the best taste experience—these are just two examples of delicious lessons learned during expert-led food tours. According to surveys conducted by Virtuoso—a network of luxury travel advisors—one of the top trends in travel is the enjoyment of authentic culinary experiences. It’s no surprise that neighborhood market tours, farm visits, regional cuisine cooking classes, and even dining with the locals are on the to-do lists of traveling foodies.

A Delicious Day in Paris

In the city of Paris, just about every street is a fantastic food tour of open-air markets, charming cafés, festive brasseries, and Michelin-starred restaurants. On a recent trip, I decided to take a deeper dive into the culinary scene by joining a guided food tour. Sure, you can happily wander the neighborhoods of Paris on your own, but during my day with Paris a Dream food tours, I was not only led to the brightest spots to sample the best fare, but I was also introduced to the people behind the food.

The knowledgeable guide for our tour was a lovely young French woman, Angelique Lagarde, who is also a trained chef. The three-hour walking route was carefully planned to include tasting a variety of foods, chatting with the locals, and gathering delicacies along the way. Another delight, Angelique acted as our interpreter when there was a need to translate English into French or vice versa. While many residents in central Paris speak English, we were in a residential neighborhood northeast of the city that proved to be a little trickier for non-French speakers to navigate.

Cute little pastries at a café in Belleville look almost too good to eat—almost! Photo by Carolyn O’Neil
Cute little pastries at a café in Belleville look almost too good to eat—almost!
Photo by Carolyn O’Neil
During my day with Paris a Dream food tours, I was not only led to the brightest spots to sample the best fare, but I was also introduced to the people behind the food.
Beautiful Belleville

Paris is a patchwork of many neighborhoods. The tour led us through a part of Paris I had never visited, Belleville. Once a wine-making village, it has a rich tradition of folk music and is the birthplace of famed singer Édith Piaf. The Parc de Belleville offers a magnificent view of Paris and boasts the only active drinking fountain fed by a natural spring still available for filling water bottles (or your poodle’s drinking bowl).

Belleville, while historic, is a neighborhood on the rise with lots of students, young families, bohemian-style boutiques, unique coffee shops, a small Chinatown, and a dynamic display of urban street art. The village is lively and lovable—and so is its food scene.

“We are very excited to share with you our passion for Belleville and its authenticity,” said Isabelle Pochat, founder of Paris a Dream food tours. “The tour is made of samplings by different artisans who will introduce you to pastries, bread, charcuterie, fresh produce, and wine with a journey through the real French population and a shared love of good food.” Our tour began near the Rue de Belleville, the neighborhood’s main shopping street, anchored by the elegant double spires of the neo-Gothic church Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Belleville, built in the 1850s.

We jumped straight into the twenty-first century to warm up on a chilly morning with a cup of hot coffee and tiny chouquette puff pastries in front of the fireplace at the Cerwood Terrasse. It’s a cozy, modern café with rustic mountain cabin decor. Then we hit the streets of Belleville, popping in and out of shops featuring cheeses, seasonal produce, seafood, charcuterie, artisanal olives oils, jams, pastries, and bread (of course!). Did you know that the bread must be baked on-site for a bakery to be called a boulangerie? At the Boulangerie Au 140, we were invited to step into the kitchen, where master bakers worked their magic. Seeing the dough rise and the baguettes being shaped and smelling the yeasty aromas of crispy loaves emerging from the oven was an extrasensory experience. That’s my kind of French perfume!

“The tour is made of samplings by different artisans who will introduce you to pastries, bread, charcuterie, fresh produce, and wine.”

The tour continued with a stroll past artists, spray-paint cans in hand, adding to the local street art and concluded at La Cave de Belleville wine shop. On a farmhouse table set near stacks of wine, Angelique created a beautiful picnic spread. We feasted on goat’s-, cow’s-, and sheep’s-milk cheeses, apricot and thyme jams, olive and artichoke tapenades, eggplant “caviar,” Le Prince de Paris ham (the last cooked ham produced in Paris), goose liver pâté, baguettes (which we had seen being baked), and fig tarts. The lunch was paired with wines from three different regions in France and a large serving of laughter among new friends—undoubtedly the best way to practice speaking French while on vacation in Paris.

True Italian Tastes in Parma

There are plenty of “Italian” products to choose from in shops, restaurants, and online today. There’s balsamic vinegar, Parmesan cheese, prosciutto, provolone, and Gorgonzola. But it’s not Italian if it’s not made in Italy. Something might be produced well in other countries and might taste pretty darn good, but it’s not truly Italian. And that makes a delicious difference. How can you tell if a food or an ingredient is truly Italian? Look for the certification label PDO, an initialism that stands for “protected designation of origin.” It not only signifies that the food is from the specific region, but it’s also a certification that the preparation meets characteristics essential to the time-honored quality of the product.

A cheesemaker demonstrates how to correctly break and serve Parmesan cheese. Photo by Carolyn O’Neil
A cheesemaker demonstrates how to correctly break and serve Parmesan cheese.
Photo by Carolyn O’Neil
Food Rules of the Region

Recognizing the PDO seal of approval is the critical culinary lesson I learned while touring and tasting my way through Parma in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy. It’s the home of Prosciutto di Parma, Provolone Valpadana, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena. Artisans have been making these sought-after gourmet products for hundreds of years, and today some farms and production facilities offer behind-the-scenes tours. It’s part of an emerging travel trend called agritourism, and Italy is at the forefront.

Artisans have been making these sought-after gourmet products for hundreds of years, and today some farms and production facilities offer behind-the-scenes tours.

To see how the milk from the cows of Parma is transformed into the prized Parmigiano-Reggiano PDO cheese, the Consorzio Produttori Latte in Parma offers prearranged tours. It’s fascinating to see the shaping of the classic eighty-five-pound wheels of cheese and to witness the enormity of aging rooms stacked high with the iconic circles waiting to be shipped around the world. But there’s no need for you to wait any longer to taste them than the time it takes to walk to the cheese shop next door.

In nearby Modena, balsamic vinegar producers at Aceto Balsamico del Duca di Adriano Grosoli share the story of their centuries-old craft; they include a cellar tour and tasting room experience, quite similar to winery tours where visitors learn about the journey from vine to glass. Look for Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PDO when you want to buy the best.

While touring Modena, plan a pit stop at the Enzo Ferrari Museum. You don’t have to be a Hot Wheels fan to appreciate the design and engineering story of the Ferrari family. The museum also features a terrific café and wine bar along with its impressive collection of vintage and prized automobiles. And remember, if you’re going to call a vehicle an Italian sports car, it had better be made in Italy.

— V —

Visit Paris-a-Dream.com and TrueItalianTaste.com to start planning your Parisian and Parmesan food tours today!

Carolyn O’Neil is an Atlanta-based food writer who specializes in culinary travel. As a cookbook author and a registered dietitian nutritionist, she believes the more you know, the more you can eat! Find her blog at TheHappyHealthyKitchen.com.

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