Cole Porter was quite a weatherman. In his 1953 song “I Love Paris”, he expressed his ardour for the French capital not just “in the summer, when it sizzles” but also “in the winter, when it drizzles”. From December onward, the showery city is colder on average than London and enjoys less daylight than New York. Why, then, doesn’t Paris suffer a rotten-weather reputation? I think it is because of the food.
During these dull, damp days, Parisians and visitors turn to French comfort food and the brasseries and bistros that take pride in serving it. These resolutely traditional places ignored the nouvelle cuisine movement and have had only a passing flirtation with fusion. They are usually informal, inexpensive and homey, and they rarely let fat or calorie content get in the way of a good recipe. In other words, they are perfect refuges on a cold winter night.
Especially the brasseries. Introduced to Paris by people fleeing Alsace-Lorraine at the time of the Franco-Prussian war, these cavernous, noisy, brightly lit places specialise in oyster platters, onion soup, choucroute garni (sausages and pork on a huge bed of sauerkraut) and service resembling Longfellow’s “little girl with a curl”: when good, very, very good; when bad, horrid.
The word brasserie means brewery, and Bofinger, the one nearest my home, dates from 1864, when Frederick Bofinger became the first entrepreneur in town to sell beer on tap. Of course, now there is wine too; Bofinger’s Alsatian whites are distinguished and gently priced.
Lexicographers can’t seem to agree on the origins of the word “bistro”. But, as French journalist Bernard Pivot once said, everyone sees in the word “bistro” what he or she wants to see. What Pivot considers a true bistro is a place where one eats the food of the “terroir”, the essence of France’s unique regions and soils.
Though their numbers are dwindling, Paris still has plenty of traditional bistros – from Allard (+33 (0)1 43 26 48 23) to Zinc-Zinc – and the current locavore (locally grown) and slow-food movements are giving them renewed energy. Thus, cold and hungry diners can still find small, convivial Parisian restaurants serving up generous portions of regional specialities like coq au vin (a Burgundy staple), confit of duck (from the south-west), blood sausage (Lyon) or aligot (the Auvergne). That last one is a stick-to-your-ribs mix of potatoes, butter, crème fraîche, garlic and Cantal cheese. At the Ambassade d’Auvergne, near the Pompidou Centre, a waiter whips up aligot in a copper pot at your table. Designed to accompany hearty meat dishes, it is so rich that I can never quite remember what I ate with it.
There is a timelessness about most bistros that is particularly felt at Moissonnier (+33 (0)1 43 29 87 65), which has been operating in the same placesince 1942. My husband Don and I go there for Lyonnais classics like quennelles (pike dumplings in Nantua sauce) and tablier de sapeur (fried tripe). Another old-style establishment, Bistro Paul Bert (+33 (0)1 43 72 24 01), dates only from 1997. Highlights include the steak-frites and a Paris-Brest hazelnut cream-filled pastry, as enticing as it is enormous.
One sign of the bistro’s vitality is its rediscovery by celebrity chefs. Yves Camdeborde pioneered this with La Régalade in 1992, and now runs the super-popular Comptoir du Relais, off boulevard St-Germain. Alain Ducasse has taken over two bistros: Aux Lyonnais and Benoit.
Christian Constant, whose empire includes Le Violon d’Ingres and Les Fables de La Fontaine, also has a pair of bistros: Café Constant and Les Cocottes (+33 (0)1 45 50 10 31), where hearty choices – like cassouletor stuffed pig’s feet with potatoes – come in cast-iron enamel casseroles. With seating along a high bar, the atmosphere is contemporary but when those steaming pots come out of the kitchen, you feel warm all over. And you forget that “April in Paris” – composed (by Vernon Duke and EY Harburg) two decades before Cole Porter’s classic – is still months away.