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An Especially Tasty Biennale Season By Carolin C. Young
August 30, 2012  | 

If the opulent displays of art and antiques at the Biennale des Antiquaires suffice to justify a special trip to Paris, simultaneous festivals of culture and cuisine lend extra sparkle to the City of Light, making this September an ideal time to visit.

The Best of Southwestern France in Paris Sept. 14th—16th
Even as the Biennale opens at the Grand Palais, the gastronomically rich regions of Gers, Lot-et-Garonne and Tarn-et-Garonne bring some of their foremost producers of food and wine to the banks of the Seine just across from Notre-Dame, along the Quai de Montebello and the Quai de la Tournelle.  Punctuated by marching bands and scampering children, this public event features foie-gras sandwiches; cheese; piping hot, garlicky escargot; smoked duck; and sausages—not to mention vast quantities of wine and liqueurs. It’s an ideal place for a festive, grazing picnic as well as a terrific spot to pick up suitcase-friendly gifts of jellies, preserved plumbs, honey, and pâtés, while learning more about these treats from the people who produced them.  From 10:30 a.m.—5:30 p.m. free bags of fresh fruit are distributed to any and all with the patience to line up for a taste of Southwestern France.  Those wishing for a more formal dining experience can enjoy a special menu of Southwestern specialties at one of the floating restaurants moored in the shadow of the cathedral.

Cultural Heritage Days Sept. 15th & 16th
On the weekend of Sept. 15th and 16th, France reveals its hidden treasures during the 29th edition of ‘French Cultural Days’. For this weekend, and this weekend only, some of the nation’s most glorious and historically significant — but otherwise barred-from-public-view — venues open their doors, free of charge, to the public.  When else, for example, can one, without an official invite, gain access to the inner recesses of the Presidential Elysée Palace or of the Palais Royal, which now houses the French Ministry of Culture?  The ‘Heritage Days’ program now traverses the European Union (although not all countries hold their events on the same September weekend) and now includes more than 16,000 venues or special events. However, the French initiated the idea and have arguably the most extensive selection out there.  

This year’s theme features hidden spaces, whether subterranean tunnels or over-air spaces that normally vanish from view.  Not far from Paris, for example, one can visit the spectacular underground haunts of the monks of Pontoise. In the city itself, one can, through the Musée Carnavelet, sign up for a tour of the secret spaces of the Marais district, which in the Renaissance housed France’s most aristocratic families and which later became the city’s Jewish center. 

By law, any French château or other building that has received government funding for its upkeep MUST open its doors to the public that weekend. Interested visitors should peruse the website to sign up in advance for many of the most sought after openings.  

Paris Restaurant Week Sept. 17th—23rd
One could argue that every week in France is restaurant week. However, from Sept. 17th—23rd, more than 1000 restaurants across the French regions will offer two-for-one special menus for the 3rd annual tous-au-restaurant festival, adapted from the ‘restaurant week’ held in numerous American cities.  Restaurant impresario and chef extraordinaire Alain Ducasse initiated the program and his eponymous restaurant at the Plaza Athenée, the Jules Verne in the Eiffel Tower, and his bistrot, Benoît offer some of its most tantalizing menus. However, plenty of other Michelin-starred chefs such as Hélène Darroze and Guy Savoy are in on the action, too. So are far humbler establishments, from the hipster Alcazar in the 6th arrondissement to the old-fashioned brasserie Wepler in the 18th.  Well over 100 Parisian establishments will participate.  Advance reservations are essential and should be booked directly through the tous-au-restaurant website (which has an English version).

France’s National Gastronomy Festival Sept. 22nd
The crescendo of these celebrations of culture and cuisine comes with the national ‘fête de la gastronomie,’ created last year in a proud celebration of UNESCO’s recognition of the ‘gastronomic meal of the French’ as a significant part of the world’s ‘intangible culture’—on a par with other ephemeral events such as Spanish flamenco dancing or Peking opera.

This year’s edition focuses on terroir, the symbiotic link between geography and culture that lies behind the myriad foods and wines of the French regions.  In addition to special menus at numerous restaurants, the celebration includes wine-tastings and chocolate-samplings, the chance to tour or take a special class in many cooking schools, or, for those willing to travel outside of the capital, tours of farms, vineyards and artisanal food producers.