Yannick Alléno, the most glamorous three-Michelin-star chef in Paris, has a mission—a dirty one. Ever since he read a food writer’s accusation that it was impossible to tell the difference between the dishes of the top 10 chefs of France, he has decided to dig deeper into the origins of his local ingredients—and so launched a movement called “Paris Terroir.”
We are more accustomed to hearing the word terroir from winemakers, who use it to describe the unique flavors and characteristics of their product. It is one of those untranslatable French words, meaning something that involves a blend of dirt, territory, climate, and identity. Alléno thinks it is time that the culinary produce of the Paris region be identified, protected, and celebrated, especially as many producers are under threat from urbanization.
From his rarefied headquarters, opposite the Tuileries Gardens, where he serves as chef of Le Meurice, one of the grandest palace hotels in Paris, he would seem an unlikely candidate to be found trudging through paddocks and farmyards just outside the French capital. However, for the past five years, such excursions have become the focus of Alléno’s work. Last March, he opened his own bistro in the 5th arrondissement, called Paris Terroir, which showcases the best local products from within a 50-kilometer radius of Paris—known historically as the Île-de-France, the wealthiest and most densely populated region of the country.
Alléno is not a pedant, though, and is quite prepared to utilize the best products from outside the region, as well. “For our terroir lunch at Le Meurice, we provided 80 percent of our produce from the Parisian region, but for dinner or à la carte, it is not so much. I don’t want to restrict my creativity like that. For the same reason, I would not restrict myself like the New Nordic [chefs] who only want to use produce from their region,” he says.
Before World War II, there were 300 farms located within Parisian city limits. But the last one of them—a dairy farm in the 14th arrondissement—closed 15 years ago. “At least we still have the opportunity to grow things in and around Paris, not like New York, where the only available space is on the top of skyscrapers,” Alléno says.
The chef also believes it is time to recognize that Paris is not only the historical home of France’s first modern restaurants, but it also remains the most important crucible for French cuisine. “The creation of the first Parisian restaurant just after the French Revolution is really the beginning of the way we live today—for the first time, there was a menu with a choice of dishes that the diner could chose from,” Alléno says. “The earliest restaurants in Paris tended to be in Les Halles, because that was where the best produce was, and it was close to the Seine for transportation. So I believe that grand cuisine of France was born not in Lyon but in Paris.”
Alléno then rattles off a list of classic French dishes that originated in Paris: “pomme frites, pommes soufflés, sauce Béarnaise. grandes pâtisseries…the brioche, the choux, Chantilly [cream]. Then there was also a culture of fruits and vegetables around Paris—there used to be more than 140 different vegetables that were grown here.”
I spent a day with Alléno, traveling to his favorite farms, to understand the problems they face in maintaining their standards, not just in an age of creeping urbanization but also globalization, which inevitably means the produce has to sell at a considerable premium for them to survive.
Just over an hour’s drive due south from Paris, the village of Méréville produces the finest watercress in France. Sixty-year-old Serge Barberon sells four tonnes of watercress to the leading restaurants of France. “Everything here is harvested by hand and we never try to preserve our product by unnatural means. It is very tough because if there is even one yellow leaf in my product at the market, I am dead,” Barberon says.
Because of his adherence to traditional methods of production, Barberon’s produce costs nearly three times as much as ordinary watercress. He’s one of only 26 watercress producers in this region, and two of the others are about to close shop. He, too, hopes to retire soon and pass the business on to his children.
From Barberon’s farm, it was a short drive west to Aufferville, where Vincent Morisseau runs a sheep farm, the last one near Paris. It is difficult to think of sheep as an endangered species, but before World War II, there were 300,000 of them near the capital, according to Alléno. “The problem is that due to globalization, we all began to eat Irish lamb, which—while not of the same quality—was a lot cheaper,” he says. Morisseau also breeds rabbits, turkeys, and a fine-looking white chicken called a Gâtinais. Alléno approves of this breed, but his real desire is to revive a far rarer bird, the Poularde de Houdan. “It was very popular with French kings and had a higher reputation that Poulet de Bresse. It is smaller, with dark meat, and a unique taste, so I am hoping to create enough production so it can be revived and recognized with its own classification.”
Alléno’s wish list goes on—he discovered the last man to grow white asparagus in Argenteuil, which has been revived by his support and now is bought by the leading chefs in Paris. And then there are the Champignon de Paris mushrooms from the quarries at St.-Ouen-l’Aumône. And Alléno doesn’t confine himself to food either. “I have also been in touch with my friend Michel Chapoutier in the Rhône Valley to see where we can replant grapes in Paris. In the past there were a lot of vineyards here, too—Chablis is quite close to Paris, so we are also looking around for a place to replant vineyards.”
Terroir, whether for food or wine, has a lot to do with the soil, and, fortunately, the earth around the Île-de-France is some of the richest in France and doesn’t need fertilizers. “These people don’t want to move from their land, but the problem is that farmers are encouraged to only grow cereals. Most of the market gardens disappeared in the past 50 years—that is why we must do something now for the future,” Alléno says. “If we do not make a special effort, there will be no dirt left anywhere for vegetables.”
Bruce Palling has reported in Asia and Africa and now lives in London’s Notting Hill, where he mainly writes about food and wine.