One of the first things we used to do after settling in a little in Paris was to scope the neighborhood of our rented apartment. Our first objective—to find a bakery that offered baguette de tradition française. Made with a special kind of flour and given a long time to rise, its tangy goodness came in a crumb with irregular holes and a brown crust that crackled as you sank your teeth into it.
Every Parisian neighborhood seemed to have at least one boulangerie. We’d ask at an artisanal one closest to us when the afternoon baguettes came out of the oven. The following days of our months-long stay, we’d pick up a baguette de tradition while they were still warm.
The supermarchés in France were actually not bad. Many of them offered a good collection of cheeses—some AOP-stamped (appelation di’origine protegée). In the Berkeley food mecca, they would be considered gourmet (meaning you have to pay premium prices). Ask how much a small wheel of St Marcellin, for instance, costs at Berkeley’s Cheeseboard. Compare that price to the two euros we paid in Paris. At the local Franprix, we’d bought reblochon, pont leveque, chaource, and epoisse, all affordable.
We generally found the marchands quite genial. At the bakery, boucherie, or fromagerie, they greeted you when you arrived, and said merci after you’ve made your purchases and au revoir as you walk out the door. Yes, even when the shop is busy.
We’ve met a few marchands who were real characters. At boucheries, they would ask us how we would cook the meat we were buying, so they could recommend the best cut. One who impressed us was a flamboyant boucher with twinkly eyes. After we told him we wanted some lamb for curry, he disappeared briefly into a room and came out with the pink shoulder of young lamb. In rapid French, he explained why it was the best cut for curry. We nodded and with flourish and admirable speed, he cut the shoulder into just-right pieces, trimming off the fat. When Rich remarked on his knife, he said, “Bien sur, c’est très bien aiguisé (of course, it’s very sharp)!” Then he cut the last few pieces with a grace and swiftness to rival the Japanese chefs on TV food shows.
Farmers markets in Paris offered great feasts for the senses. These two stood out for us.
Rue Mouffetard. At this popular open market, we saw a long line going into a cheese shop. We learned later that this fromagerie had been in the same spot for about 100 years. As we approached the door, we got this whiff of something aged. Probably just plain stinky to some. At this shop, you definitely needed a sense of adventure.
Three solicitous shopkeepers, garbed in white like doctors or lab researchers, presided over what looked like at least a hundred different kinds of cheeses. As in other specialty shops proud of their wares, the gentleman who helped us knew cheese. And he was so nice that he made us feel we had to return there for our next cheese purchase. He also let me squeeze the cheese! Ever so gently, of course.
The rue Mouffetard market was quite an experience. Amidst all the bounty, a group entertained the crowd with French songs and dances. The mood that morning was certainly “fun.” But we also sensed spontaneity and unabashed joy. An atmosphere one would expect from a country “fete,” not a jaded Parisian venue. Or, was our stereotypical idea of a Parisian morphing into flesh-and-blood reality?
The flavor of this quartier was much different from busier tourist haunts. More informal, more authentic. Or, was it merely that here, the trappings of our imagined Parisian sophistication (and intellectual elitism) did not get in the way of the realities of daily living? The market looked dirtier though not necessarily grittier. It showed us, once again, that Paris had a thousand faces.
We found produce that was unusual largely because we could not easily get them back home. The most beautiful and cheapest chanterelles. Mirabelles, a type of very sweet prune, as big (as small?) as giant bings but with the color of Royal Annes. Grown only in Lorraine, import laws prevent them from being brought into the US. The French used them in tarts, though these juicy nuggets were also good eaten fresh.