We just returned from 2 weeks in Europe, the first 10 days in Italy, traveling with one of my sisters and her husband. We then spent 4 days in Paris and one in Brussels.
I've generally found it difficult to find bad food in Italy, although it's not all wonderful. I think the best meals we had were actually at the B&B at which we stayed South of Siena. Our hostess, Laura, kept saying she was "not a professional," but the best Italian cooking is, after all, "home cooking." Laura made totally amazing tarts and breads, with butter she churned herself, for breakfast each morning, and one special dinner. The dinner included ribollita and pasta with a tomato sauce, both of which were extraordinary.
As an aside, I would recommend this B&B/Agratourismo, Il Canto del Sole, to anyone wanting to stay near Siena. The setting is beautiful, in the Sienese hill country. Our hosts, Laura and Luciano were incredibly warm and helpful. Laura's cooking was simply fabulous. The evening she cooked dinner for us, Luciano learned it was my sister's birthday and presented us with a bottle of champagne with our dinner.
The bread we had in restaurants in Italy was boring with the one exception of a very rustic sourdough that I'm pretty sure was baked in house in the wood fired oven they used for pizzas.
Paris was an entirely different story. We had some excellent food, and the generally quality of the bread was quite good. I was able to visit 3 of the boulangeries I most wanted to visit - Phillip Gosselin (across the street from our hotel!), Eric Kayser (in Gallerie Lafayette) and Poilane on Rue Cherche Midi.
We did not know one of Gosselin's boulangeries would be so close, but I was delighted. His is the "pain a l'ancienne" on which Reinhart based his very popular formula. We had Gosselin's "Baguette Tradition" a couple of times. It is a very rustic, thick-crusted baguette with an open, chewy crumb and a delicious flavor.
Gosselin Baguette Tradition
Gosselin Baguette Tradition crumb
Poilâne miche crust
Poilâne miche crumb
We made a special trip to Rue Cherche Midi, arriving at Poilane at about 3 pm on a Friday afternoon. The miches were still warm from the ovens. The aroma of the little shop almost brought tears to my eyes it was so wonderful. The shop was empty of other customers to my surprise. I guess it was just a bit too early for picking up bread after work, but the breads were waiting for the evening line-up. My wife and I were offered lovely little butter cookies to nibble on while we admired the breads. I bought a quarter loaf. (They sell miche by weight.)
We bought two of Eric Kayser's breads - a mini-"Baguette Monge" and a Pain au Cereal. The former was beautiful to look at but was quite ordinary in flavor. The pain au cereals was delicious. It's a pain au levain with some whole grain (wheat, rye or, perhaps spelt) and seseme, flax, millet and poppy seeds in the dough and on the crust.
Kayser demi-baguette Monge
Demi-baguette Monge crumb
Kayser Pain aux Cereals
Pain aux Cereals crumb
We ate the Kayser breads and our miche with wonderful cheeses and tomatoes from the Gallerie Lafayette food court. The Poilane miche had a very crunchy crust and a chewy crumb. The crust was very sweet. The crumb was surprisingly sour. (This was probably no more than 3 hours out of the oven.) The flavor was wonderful - quite similar to the SFBI Miche, actually.
But "man cannot live by bread alone." There is also ....
Gelato in Florence
Pecorino in Pienza
Salumi in Bologna (at A.F. Tamburini)
Tagliatelli with Ragu in Montepulciano
Wonderful wine (Vino Nobile di Montepulciano)
A little something sweet for dessert (from Ladurée in Paris)
And, most of all, good company with which to enjoy them.
Susan, Evan and Ruth enjoying a taste of Brunello in Montalcino
Happy baking and happy travels!