Apr 11th, 2024

City of Artisans

Meeting the artisans of Paris

for National Geographic Traveller

The smell in the air is of pastries, tobacco smoke and Metro tunnels. It’s a spring afternoon in the French capital, and the clichés have been let out to play. There’s sunshine on the cobbles, burnishing the shop awnings and the chestnut trees. The boulevards are full of scarf-huddled couples and wedge-heeled dog-walkers. It’s cold enough to sting the cheeks, which in Paris terms makes it the sort of day that begs to be spent strolling from café to café. Unless, of course, you’ve got a job to do.

Tucked away inside his 12th arrondissement workshop, Michel Heurtault looks around the room – an ordered jumble of silks, sewing machines and bare-ribbed umbrellas – and smiles. “I work to the same rhythm as a man from the nineteenth century,” he says. “In the year 1860, France exported around six million umbrellas to the rest of the world. Just imagine that.”

Michel is a maître d’art, a kind of official guardian of French craftmanship, and for the past decade has hand-made between 200 and 300 parasols and umbrellas a year. These aren’t your average brollies. He holds out a recently waterproofed example for my inspection. The turned handle is carved from ebony, the end is a length of polished bullhorn and the canvas itself is cut from patterned, jet-black Asian silk. “An umbrella like this lasts a lifetime,” he says. “And when you pass away – it goes to your children.”

His devotion to his trade is nothing unusual. Not in France, and certainly not here in Paris. Michel’s workshop, Parasolerie Heurtault, occupies an arch of the Viaduc des Arts, an old railway viaduct close to the Gare de Lyon. Every arch, and there are dozens of them, holds a similar enterprise. Walk in one direction and you pass the premises of a furniture-maker, a chocolatier and a luthier, its windows full of lushly varnished cellos. Walk in the other and you pass a master bootmaker, a mosaic atelier and – improbably – a specialist in bronze door-knockers.

It’s a great pocket of the city in which to while away a few pre-dinner hours. The upper level of the viaduct has been turned into a promenade plantée, a long open-air walkway lined with trees and plant beds – and predating New York’s similar High Line by more than 15 years. When you wander along its length, you know that under your feet are workshops that are keeping the old ways alive. “Yes, you pay more for things that have been made by hand,” says Michel. “But you get true quality.”

How is it that the city has constructed such an unshakable reputation for artisanship – for making things so well? Think Paris, think tailors, think perfume houses, think restaurants. Think daintily flavoured macarons baked to precisely the texture that makes you want to simultaneously wolf one down and treasure it. Other European capitals have style and heritage, but none has quite the same cachet and panache as Paris. Why?

It’s a question of legacy, according to city expert Courtney Traub, who runs the online travel guide ParisUnlocked.com. “We need to look back to the medieval city as a powerful European centre for craftsmen’s guilds,” she tells me. “They put into place traditions and regulations, which is why the term ‘artisan’ carries such respect in France. This is true whether you’re a fabric-maker, baker, chef or cheesemonger.”

In other words, quality still matters. “There are governing bodies that give their approval to differentiate between ‘authentic’ and ‘inauthentic’ products. These labels are taken very seriously,” she continues. “More generally, there’s an emphasis on both respect for tradition and innovation that seems a bit contradictory but tends to inspire creativity. Great chefs or couturiers manage to innovate while still showing great respect for traditions and standards. Paris is a globalised city, but it also fiercely resists the homogeny of global culture. You see fewer chains here than you do in London, and there’s good reason for that.”

In the depths of the hotel, ten voices chorus two words. “Oui, chef!”

I’m standing in the forensically clean kitchen of a two Michelin-starred restaurant. It’s 8pm, and four orders have just reached the pass. Within seconds, the whole space is alive with the sizzle of duck breasts, the stirring of sauces and the tack-tack of rapid knife-chops. There’s soft conversation, even laughter, but it’s of the focused, eyes-down, this-soufflé-will-change-the-world kind. This is L’Abeille, the leading restaurant at the Shangri-La Hotel Paris, a property that occupies the former palace of Napoleon’s grandnephew. It’s fair to say they do things properly here.

“Cooking is personal. Above all, it’s about sensitivity,” explains executive chef Christophe Moret, raising his finger to emphasise the point. He is shaven-headed and jovial, a former rugby flanker. “A chef has to put their soul into their cooking. If a customer doesn’t like a dish – aargh!” He mimes thrusting a dagger into his own heart. I get the impression negative feedback isn’t received too often. “Our strength here is the sauce. For French cooks, the sauce is the first thing you have to learn. Because,” he smiles, “we are a little bit pretentious.”

I get pretentious myself when I sit down to taste the food. It’s the main course that gets me. Lobster, vanilla, chestnuts and pumpkin sounds an unlikely combination, but the kitchen weighs the flavours until they’re tousled and sauced into something woozily transcendent. They arrange the food like an artwork. They serve it in a belle époque dining room. They pair it with a chilled glass of 2014 Hermitage Chevalier de Sterimberg. I’m slayed, frankly – and that’s before the desserts redefine my notions of what desserts should be. What kind of mind thinks to partner roasted pears with beer ice-cream and bergamot?

Christophe has been cooking in Paris for 23 years, many of which were spent working with the legendary Alain Ducasse. So what has he learned from more than two decades in the capital’s best kitchens? “Three things,” he says. “Firstly, rapidity – you have to be quick and consistent on every service. That’s not easy. Secondly, anticipation of what customers want. And thirdly, a sense of competition. You could give ten grands chefs the same ingredients, and you’d get ten different dishes. Competition is healthy.”

It also takes unusual forms. In his workshop on the southern outskirts of the city, chocolatier Patrick Roger is surrounded by dozens of life-sized emperor penguins and chimpanzees, all sculpted from chocolate. They are, however, a mere backdrop to his current project – an edible statue of a Thriller-era Michael Jackson. This one isn’t life-sized. That would be ridiculous. It’s bigger than that.

Patrick is Willy Wonka meets Auguste Rodin meets Heston Blumenthal. His workshop smells exactly how you’d hope: sweet, goodly and all-pervasive. His team of 20 are dressed in black, busy creating hundreds of glazed hemispherical caramels. Patrick is in cocoa-dusted whites and constantly moving, consulting his iPad one minute, sampling a praline the next, stipulating to the team the exact thickness of a chocolate egg the next.

“When I was 18, I discovered good chocolate, proper chocolate. It was a revolution,” he tells me animatedly. His childhood was spent in a small village in northern France. Three decades later, he has six dedicated chocolate boutiques in Paris. “I understood that it could give me a passport to the world. Of course, I had no business plan. I had to let everything happen naturally – but my mum tells me I was always the same.”

He sources premium ingredients from overseas for use in his creations: oranges from Corsica, whisky from Scotland, marrons glacés from Turin. “Taste has no borders, so it’s important to look for the best ingredients in the world.” And why Paris as a base? “People have high expectations. It’s an extraordinary city. Everything happens here. But listen – the city’s not just about luxury. To want to eat well is normal. That’s just how it goes here.”

Later in the day I visit his boutique in the St-Germain-des-Prés district. There’s a long queue winding around the store, and the chocolate aroma drifts to the pavement outside. This is another Paris neighbourhood that’s not only primed for walking – thanks to the sweepingly landscaped Jardin du Luxembourg – but packed with upscale artisan outlets.

In the narrow streets around Rue Saint-Sulpice, they come thick and fast. Cire Trudon, the world’s oldest active candlemaker; Sabbia Rosa, where supermodels reputedly stock up on underwear; Boulangerie Poilâne, baking since 1932 and proving Patrick’s theory that Paris is about far more than indulging in luxury items. Here, a modest one euro ninety-five cents buys me an oven-warm chausson aux pommes (apple turnover) fit for Napoleon himself.

Back to those smells. Paris has many scents. Some are pleasing, some are less so; all are evocative. And ever since the lavishly fragrant days of Louis XIV, who insisted on bowls of rose petals being placed around the Palace of Versailles and reputedly had his shirts rinsed in a jasmine-and-musk solution, the city has had a close relationship with perfume.

More than two centuries later, I’m in a fashionably lit room on Avenue George V being told things about myself that I never suspected. “You are a vast, powerful ocean,” says Carole Aymé, store director at The Harmonist, a new perfume house. She has just calculated my perfect scent, using a feng shui-inspired theory that involves my birthday, my own smell preferences and my place of birth. Who would have thought Reading held such potency? “You are sometimes calm,” she continues, “and sometimes stormy.”

The perfume she suggests is a bouquet she calls Golden Wood, which uses ingredients that include tonka beans, oak, mandarins and Southeast Asian beeswax. The end result is heady enough to give pause to the aftershave-shunning doubter in me – but then Carole knows her stuff, having spent 18 years working for Guerlain, one of the biggest and oldest names in the trade. When she raises something to her nose, she closes her eyes, tilts her head and concentrates in the way a composer might focus on different elements of an orchestra.

“People’s sense of smell is always better in the morning,” she tells me, matter-of-factly. “After a big meal, digestion lessens your perception.” I ask her why Paris makes such a natural home for the world’s biggest perfume houses, and she smiles. “Being positive isn’t really in the Parisian character. We’re never happy – we’re always moaning. But when we create something, we create it from our hearts.”

Five minutes’ walk away, I visit an artisan of a different sort. Cifonelli is a family business that has been tailoring bespoke suits from its Rue Marbeuf atelier since 1936. The current caretakers of this heritage are Massimo and Lorenzo Cifonelli, the great-grandsons of the original founder. I find them leant intently over a worktop with scissors, fabrics and rulers.

Lorenzo leads me through to a plush carpeted room hung with stylised lampshades and lined with shelves of fabrics. He is impossibly dapper, wearing a blue velvet jacket and stroking a long, sculpted beard. “Every suit requires three fittings,” he tells me. He is softly spoken and bright-eyed. “It takes 80 hours to make by hand. We have the biggest bespoke suit workshop in the world here, with 45 people. A suit costs 6,500 euros, but that’s a reflection of the work.”

He spends a huge amount of time on the road visiting clients. “Mainly in London, New York, Tokyo and Hong Kong,” he explains. “They’re people who care about look, quality and craftmanship – they’re not concerned with brands. But it’s not easy work. I never deliver a suit unless I’m 100% happy. When a client puts a jacket on for the first time, I have to see a smile.”

I’d been hoping, while in Paris, to meet Serge Lutens – the 76-year-old fashion designer, photographer and perfumier who singlehandedly sums up much of what makes the city what it is. He’s out of town, but he does send an email a few days after I leave. His thoughts on perfume are impassioned (“it contains anger, love, tenderness – it’s a treasure hunt, a labyrinth”) and he provides a neat final word on Paris itself too.

“The distance isn’t so great from gaining a reputation to achieving legendary status,” he writes, “and Paris is unquestionably une ville de plaisirs – a city of pleasures.”

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