25 Nov Finding my tribe in Belleville, Paris
As humans we are tribal. Our ultimate fear is rejection. Often, we pull away from people before they reject us; it feels less ‘messy’, ‘safer’ and we are more in control. It was November. I was in Paris to work for an art gallery exhibiting at Paris Photo, the world’s biggest photography art fair. It was seven days of gruelling work. I loved every minute, well almost, but the evenings were solitary.
I was staying in the 2nd arrondissement, right in the centre, near Les Halles and Le Palais Royal. Yet each night, once the doors of the Grand Palais closed, at about 9pm, I would catch the No 11 metro line to Belleville, to top up my ‘vibration’, my energy. No going home to face solitary bedroom walls for me; I needed to feel that I ‘belonged’.
Finding Le Grand Bain
Le Grand Bain had popped up as I had trawled the internet, doing my research as I always do for restaurants. More trawling and I found it recommended on a fashion site as being the place to go for Gen Z – my son’s generation, not mine. So the first night I took along my photographer friend Anaïs; well, she’s the niece of a friend, and she is almost Gen Z. The other five nights I went on my own.
Le Grand Bain – what I ate
I ate around 15 different dishes in total from the evolving menu. I won’t bore you with all the photos – otherwise you might ‘reject’ me from the tribe (oh no, the fear has set in!)
The signature dish is the panisse, as featured in the main photo – deep-fried ‘fingers’, made out of chickpea flour dipped into homemade mayonnaise with a dash of Worcestershire sauce. It is a dish typical to the south of France.
Other favourites included:
- Saint-Jacques poire fumée, radis, dulse – scallops, smoked pear, black radish & dulse (a red alga)
- Soupe de choufleur, huile cresson, coing – cauliflower soup, with watercress oil & quince
- Lieu jaune, pamplemousse, topinambour – pollock, grapefruit & Jerusalem artichoke.
- Betterave, noix, livéche – beetroot, walnuts & lovage (to remind me of my trip to Les Grands Causses, where the garden was full of lovage)
- Poireaux grillés, os à moëlle, ail noir – grilled leek with marrow & black garlic.
Having a glass of wine is a ritual …and with a natural wine, you enter a cosmic world of the moon, the seasons, nature, soil and a location on the map of the earth. The natural wines I had at Le Grand Bain included:
- Anjou Rouge l’Aubinaie – a Cabernet Franc from Domaine Les Grandes Vignes.
- Potron Minet La Berlue – a Grenache/Mourvedre from Roussillon by Jean-Sébastien Gioan.
- Chiroubles Vin de KaV 2017 – a Beaujolais by baker-turned-winemaker Karim Vionnet.
Food and wine apart, my experience was wrapped up with amazing daily encounters with people while I sat the bar… a model from London, a posh man from the 16th arrondissement taking his two children to a different neighbourhood, a Ukrainian working in start-ups on a foodie weekend while his artist wife prepared for her exhibition in Birmingham. To name a few.
There was also one special person, who I had met that day at Paris Photo. I had told a friend who lives in the Middle East about Le Grand Bain. He had obviously told this friend from the Philippines, only for me to find her one night sitting at a table with three of her friends. Social media brings global connection.
Above all, it was the warmth and welcome of the staff at Le Grand Bain (‘The Big Bath’ – and not to be confused with this year’s film by Gilles Lellouche); they made me feel that I was coming home each evening. And, as those using the hashtag #meditatenotmedicate might say, the music helped retune my chakras.
And I even got a photo of me (below) with Edouard Lax – one of the two Edwards at Le Grand Bain. The other is Edward Dwelling-Williams.
Le Petit Grain
My favourite bread shop in Paris is Du Pain et Des Idées, in the 10th arrondissement. It opens a 7am, and is closed at weekends. This time round, I ate my red fruit & cream cheese escargot (those pastry whirls) and my sacristan (pastry twisted like a sacristan’s rod & then sprinkled with sugar and almonds) sitting on the bench outside, under the canopy, in the rain, with my coffee (they are eco, so no plastic lids here!)
Now I have another place to go. (I also like gluten-free Chambelland in the 11th.) Just down the road from Le Grand Bain, and still in the cobbled rue Dénoyez, is Le Petit Grain, specialising in sourdough. It is also run by Edward and Edouard, and it is open on Sundays, when so much else of Paris is closed! . To match the Le Grand Bain, the service is also really friendly.
I knew the cartoon film Belleville Rendez-Vous. Otherwise, I had always seen Belleville as a multicultural, working-class (or low-pay class) neighbourhood. Now it is the bohemian area of Paris… having shifted from Le Marais, to the 10th and now here – next, who knows where it will be.
Belleville is to Paris what Sodermalm is to Stockholm or Hackney Wick to London… but with more vibrancy, buzz and authenticity. You better get here quick before gentrification prices out the bohemians.
The Cave de Belleville is my new go-to place to stock up on natural wine… much better selection and prices than in London. It’s also a wine bar, serving cheese and charcuturie. I bought some saucisson made from pigs fed the milk used for Cantal cheese – delicious! And goat’s cheese, my favourite.
Everything seems to happen on or just off the rue de Belleville, where Edith Piaf is said to have been born under a lamppost…
My son was partly brought up in Paris, and Buttes-Chaumont is his favourite place.
I walked to the top of a hill and sat on a bench. I listened to the wind in the trees, felt the air on my face and took in the autumnal colours. Trees were all around me – unlike my nearby Primrose Hill, which is only open in two directions. Nature is good at keeping your vibrations strong. I never made it to the main spot in the park – the Temple of Sibylle, perched on a cliff overlooking the lake.
Le Grand Bain is for going out and having fun; Le Baratin, a few streets up the Rue de Belleville, going towards Buttes-Chaumont, is about finding solace and comfort in a place that feels like home. I squeezed in a lunch here on my first day of work as we were not starting till late – Le Grand Bain is closed at lunchtime.
I discovered Le Baratin in Girona, where I spent four days this September. Most evenings, I would prop up the bar at Restaurant Maran with a glass of natural wine and some tapas. Each night at the bar, there was a couple from Paris. He was French and she was Argentinian. I then found out they had a restaurant in Paris, in Belleville, Le Baratin, up the hill from Le Grand Bain.
Raquel Carena and her husband opened Le Baratin 30 years ago. La mère de Belleville, the mother of Belleville, as she has been called, is in the kitchen and her husband behind the bar. The food is nourishing, seasonal and flavoursome… and the wine is natural, of course. It has a bistro feel, with zinc bar, tiled floor and small library, but there’s something more. For its homeliness it reminded me of Le Café du Peintre in Lyon, where Florence Périer resides, but more Parisian, more refined.
I had lentil salad, followed by veal with fennel & citrus and vanilla cream.
There are only two ages in life
I met a 31-year-old restaurateur who told me that Le Grand Bain was “too young” for him. He preferred Le Baratin.
In my path of life, at times I need a boost (Le Grand Bain) and at other times I need to be more meditative (Le Baratin). As for age, there are two ages: when we are born and when we die, Anything between is a state of mind, and body.
For a reasonably priced hotel, I liked the look of Hotel Scarlett. I did not stay there. I just went in and said hello. It is a few doors down from Le Baratin, so in a quiet street and close to Belleville metro. Or for single travellers looking to spend more money on food than accommodation, try Beautiful Belleville Hotel & Hostel, although single rooms go quickly.