Emily Dilling is the writer of Paris Paysanne, a blog which gives voice to the city's local food structure, revealing an emerging identity of Paris through its markets and artisanal food culture. Emily has applied this focus to her first book, My Paris Cookbook, which continues upon this discussion of responsibly-sourced produce, giving a new understanding of Paris defined by its food. I first heard Emily speak as a member of a panel discussion centered around the different strategies necessary for developing a sustainable food system. Her ideology is inspiring, as it confronts the complexities of food policy while simultaneously acknowledging and illustrating the aesthetic, sensory pleasure and encouragement of community inherent in promoting local food.
Below, Emily talks to me about how this focus has manifested itself in Paris, driving connections and citing contrasts between this culture and that of the United States, as well as defining a genuine interest in artisan food.
What began your interest in food? Was this a primary reason for moving to Paris?
I moved to Paris because I wanted to learn French and find myself in an in-between time, between college and what would come next. Living here not only taught me French, but it revealed to me the importance of food culture.
I credit a trip I took to the West Coast of the States as being the inspiration for my blog, Paris Paysanne. While France has an admirable food culture that includes taking time to sit down to a meal and cherishing wholesome family recipes, I found that the United States was way more advanced in things like farmers markets and eating locally. When I saw that, contrary to Paris, farmers markets in the US were filled with farmers, I decided I wanted to investigate where to find farmers at Paris markets and things took off from there.
How does the idea of buying locally compare between the United States and France? The American understanding of this concept seems to be something more concerned with trend, that it's cool or an indication of your social standing if you can buy your produce from Whole Foods or farmers markets, even if these aren't necessarily the most responsibly-sourced goods. How do we define between establishing local food as a lasting part of our culture and seeing it as just a passing trend?
I think that Whole Foods and farmers markets are two totally different things. I see your point about the possibility of people following a trend when they shop at Whole Foods, as if they feel they have to buy vegetables there because that's what everyone in their social circle is doing, but I don't like to talk about trends when it comes to farmers markets. Something that comes up frequently when I talk about any of the subjects I cover, craft coffee, craft beer, natural wine, farm to table restaurants, etc., is whether or not these movements are for and by hipsters. I think that's dismissive of the hard work that goes into roasting coffee or opening a craft beer bar so people can discover real beer. Beer, coffee, wine, farm fresh vegetables, these have been around for ages. So if you want to update the definition of our shared gastronomic heritage to our shared hipster heritage, I guess we can call these movements trendy, bobo, or hipster. But I don't think the idea of quality, tasty, and authentic products has anything to do with how your facial hair is styled or whether or not you're wearing a lumberjack shirt.
Would you say that this support of local produce is inherent in the way Parisians live, such as young people taking part in the vendanges, families eating fruits and vegetables only when in season, the choice to buy from markets multiple times during the week, etc.?
Parisians, as French people, probably have more of a connection to local produce because it may be more likely what they grew up eating, even if it was just on Sundays at their grandma's house. Parisians, as city dwellers, are inherently cut off from nature and may be less in tune with seasons, etc. and also have access to things from all over, Italian delis, Asian supermarkets, African markets, a diverse option of foreign foods at restaurants, etc. So they are less dependent on what is available in each season, they can get a pizza if they don't feel like cooking that night or if they want a taste of tomato in winter. It's harder to do that in the countryside.
How does the local food movement in Paris support the traditional conceptions of Paris' food culture?
I think it amplifies the essence of that culture and maybe even challenges institutions that have gotten lazy about respecting that culture. When I think of classic Parisian restaurants or bistros that use local ingredients, I see traditional, simple recipes that reflect typical bistro fare, just done with good ingredients.
Are there certain arrondissements or areas of Paris where this sentiment and support for local food and the purchase of responsibly-sourced goods is concentrated? What do you think accounts for that?
Definitely in the 18th! I love the Barbès neighborhood and still mourn not living there sometimes. I think that the diversity and the fact that it's always been an inexpensive area added to the feeling of being a part of a community when you live there. The Brasserie de la Goutte d'Or is a great example of this mentality. Thierry uses and is inspired by herbs and spices and other ingredients from the African market and the Indian shops in the neighborhood. He also makes special brews for local restaurants, features new beers first at local bars, and he even teamed up with nearby Café Lomi to make a coffee beer a few years ago.
You've also spent significant time exploring France outside of Paris. How has this movement shown itself in these regions and how does it compare to Paris?
Outside of Paris, especially in places like Brittany that have a really strong sense of regional identity and tradition, this isn't a movement but a real thing. There are definitely bad restaurants and huge supermarkets, but there are also ladies lined up at the local market and people getting giddy about foraging for mushrooms when it's the season. Again, not hipsters, but people who have been doing this for years and will happily eat mushrooms every day while they're in season, because they appreciate the fleeting beauty of every micro season of the year.
What was the research involved in writing My Paris Market Cookbook? Did you have a set of criteria for determining which producers, farmers, roasters, and cafés you would include in the book?
My research took place over about five years. The first two started with the blog in 2010 and were heavily concentrated on visiting the city's over 60 outdoor food markets. Then in 2012 the craft beer and coffee scene started exploding so I began covering that. Then in 2014 I did my first vendanges in the Loir-et-Cher and that propelled me into learning about natural wine. I basically followed up on things I was curious about and spoke with a bunch of insanely talented and passionate people, and when the time came, I compiled all of that into a book!
I wrote the book so that people can use it as a guide to the city as well as a cookbook they can use after shopping at a market. But it is also great for people who are just curious about Paris, or who want to use it for ideas of what to make out of the fresh food they get from their markets, no matter where they are in the world.
For Parisians, is purchasing food from markets a conscious decision or simply more so a result of tradition, an adherence to the way it's always been done?
It's definitely a conscious decision for many, because you have to plan your day around it and make the effort to go, instead of stopping into the grocery store on your way home from work. You're going to make a list of things you need and then head to the market on the weekend, for example. But that's fun, the organic markets of Batignolles and Raspail are filled with people making a day out of food shopping, and that's really great to see.
Thank you Emily!
Photos from My Paris Cookbook or by Emily Dilling