Let’s stop kidding ourselves. Just like “muffin” is basically another word for cake, granola doesn’t have to be strictly “health food.” In fact, some granolas are so sweet they could easily qualify as candy. But since I tend to spend the better part of the day roaming around my apartment, sticking my hand in various boxes and jars of stuff to eat (some that qualify as health food, while other things that don’t quite fit that definition), I wanted to come up with a granola (called muesli, in French) that I didn’t feel so guilty about dipping my hand into throughout the day.
When I take visitors through those big glass doors of the La Grande Épicerie in Paris, the first stop may very well be the spectacular pastry section, where fanciful cakes wrapped with ribbons of chocolate, or covered with a spun-sugar lattice topping, are proudly displayed in glass showcases like jewels.
In the corner, less obvious, are the sweets for le grignotages, or snacking. (Which they also call le snacking, in French.) Among the sugar-topped chouquettes and scalloped madeleines, are squares of candied almond-covered shortbread, called miella. Although they don’t grab your eye with the same intensity as the surrounding pastries, they are my favorite thing in the showcase and I am borderline addicted to them. When I point them out to people, they rarely show the same enthusiasm as I do, being more transfixed by the rows and rows of colorful macarons and glossy éclairs. “Tant pis” (tough sh*t, or more politely “too bad”) as they say – more for me!
Fortunately, I am able to limit my consumption to the occasional trips across Paris, when I feel the need to do some damage at the grandest culinary supermarket in town. Not that I need an excuse to go there, but it’s probably best I don’t have easy access to those caramelized almond-honey squares. (And the three aisles of chocolate bars.) Well, until now.
When I lived in a small apartment, I had to dial down buying everything. As folks in Paris say: “Something in, something out” – meaning that if you brought something in, you had to get rid of something to make room for it. I lived ”smaller,” with fewer things, which was great because I pared down my collecting, and kept only what was essential.
What a difference a few years, and a few more square meters, make. And now that I’ve got some more space in my apartment after moving a couple of years ago, I’m hitting the vide-greniers and brocantes again, scooping up odds and ends. (And looking for places to put everything, all over again. *sigh*) When I put photos on my Instagram stream as I wandered the markets recently, the invariable question comes up: “Where are you?” So in response to folks that want to know where I shop, this listing is for you.
The bad news is that there are relatively few bargains in Paris. The good news is, that’s not exactly true. There’s plenty of stuff that people get rid of because it’s old-fashioned or not needed, so it is possible to pick up vintage cookware, linens, and other things that locals cast off. And I’m happy to buy them!
I’ve developed a bit of a “bottom feeder” mentality and avoid the traditional flea markets, the Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen (usually referred to as the Marché Clignancourt), and the Marché aux Puces de la Porte de Vanves, and stick to the brocantes that pop up in Paris during nice weather in the neighborhoods. Prices are much lower and it’s more fun to see what pops up as people are unloading their trucks. Below are tips on how to find them, as it’s not obvious to visitors (and some locals). Though I didn’t used to mind spending money on things, I am now more selective (and maybe more French?) and have become radin (cheap), focusing on things that are truly bargains.
It’s good to know the nomenclature. Flea markets (Marchés aux puces) refers to the larger, fixed-location markets in Paris, but it’s the brocantes and vide-greniers that I find the most interesting. Basically, a brocante is an open-air sale that includes professional dealers, but they’re lower priced than the fancy antiquaire markets and exhibitions. Most brocantes in Paris are a mix of dealers and particuliers, or individuals, who are non-professionals.
Garage sales and sidewalk sales aren’t permitted in France, so vide-greniers, or “empty the attic” sales, are the closest equivalent. These are collective sales held in various neighborhoods and folks in the quartier bring objects that they want to sell. These can be hit-or-miss. Sometimes it’s a lot of plastic children’s toys, other times, people are cleaning out their kitchens, and you can score. A braderie refers to a sale where things are marked down and there are rarely professionals, and a braderie often refers to a sale when things are sold rummage sale-style. (For the sake of discussion, I’m just going to refer to outdoor flea markets as brocantes, as they are referred to in Paris.)
I never feel the need to be the first person to hit the latest hotspots. For one thing, I worked in restaurants and I know that the first few weeks (or in some cases, months) can be tough and it takes time to sort everything out. True, they are open to the public and serving meals, but since I’m just a regular diner, and not a food critic, I think it’s better to wait and let everything fall into place. Another reason, which happens too frequently, is the throng of people who go to a hyped new place. I’ve been disappointed by places I’ve read and heard a lot about, only to find that they don’t live up to the buildup. (Which has me scratching my head, because so many people are talking them up.) I figure the good places will still be open months and months later, and the bad ones will beat a hasty retreat.
Since I don’t have my ear to the ground, I hadn’t heard about Caillebotte. But I had heard of Pantruche, which has been around a while and is known for the quality of its food. And since a friend who loves to eat was in town, I thought it time to consult the little list I keep of places I’m eager to visit. At the end of the list was Caillebotte, which was at the end because it was the most recent addition, suggested to me by my friend Zeva, who runs Yelp in France.
Someday, someone is going set up a camera in my place. At least I hope so. Because over the last three years, I can safely say that the craziest things have happened to me. I’ve often toyed with writing a book about it, but no one would believe me, and it would quickly get tossed into the fiction bin, dismissed as folly. Oddly, I’ve been finding comfort in the easy-listening music of James Taylor, who seems to understand what I am going through, as he gently reassures me that, indeed, all is okay – because I’ve got a friend.
In addition to JT, as I’ve taken to calling him, I also find security in Asian food. I’m not entirely comfortable with the term “comfort food,” but I have to admit that whenever something isn’t going the way I hope (or the way any sane person would hope), I am rejuvenated eating a bowl of bò bún (Vietnamese cold noodle bowls, as they’re called in France), or gai lan (Chinese broccoli). Perhaps because I come from San Francisco, where Asian food is seamlessly integrated into our culinary consciousness, a bowl of noodles or Asian greens makes me happy. (Although a well-timed pain au chocolat has a similar effect.)
I don’t regularly watch American cooking programs and competitions, although occasionally I come across them on TV here in France, dubbed (Version Française, or VF), which makes them less interesting to watch. And I don’t go to those cooking vacations where chefs come and cook for guests on tropical islands because, frankly, I’m never asked. (Although unbelievably, I did just get an email from a public relations person, which contained links and photos to one of those food festivals, asking me to write a post on my blog about it…even though I wasn’t there.)
So I decided to spare you a post with someone else’s photos about an event that I didn’t even go to. But while everyone else was frolicking on the beach sipping tiki cocktails with their favorite chefs, I was at home, reading. One thing that caught my eye in the newspaper was an article about Bobby Flay – who often appears on television and probably gets to go to those food festivals – regarding a new restaurant he is opening in New York after a hiatus from restaurant cooking.
Unlike writing about faux vacations, I was much more intrigued by a recipe for Chicken with Roquefort cheese that accompanied the article. So I went to the market and came home with a big hunk (unfortunately, not the guy from the Auvergne who sells sausages and terrines, with the dreamy smile..) of the blue-green veined cheese that happens to be the first AOC designated food in France.
(The AOC designation was enacted in 1925, and was meant to control and protect production and quality standards. See how much more important reading and researching is, rather than sitting at a bar by the ocean, drinking rum cocktails with warm sand under your feet?)
Every year, beginning in mid-February, thousands of farmers, wine makers, cheese makers, sausage makers, and an arks’-worth of animals, makes it way to Paris for the annual Salon de l’Agriculture. The salon began in 1870 in a country that was, and still is, justly fond of its agriculture, which is celebrated on tables, in steaming cauldrons, on picnic blankets, in restaurants, and ready-to-slice on cutting boards, all across France.
The best of France converges on Paris and last year, there were nearly three-quarters of a million visitors, filling up the massive, grand halls of the Porte des Versailles, on the edge of Paris.
There are exhibitors from twenty-two countries in addition to France, as well as foods from tropical French regions. And four thousand animals are trucked to Paris from the provinces to bring the taste – and smell(!) – of the country, to Paris.
Like many agriculture fairs, there are competitions, too, honoring everything from the liveliest livestock to the best wines in France. But to me, it’s really an astounding place to enjoy the best of France in one hectic visit. However, it’s impossible to see it all in one day unless you have the stamina of one of those massive bulls in the pens, or the men who stir (and stir and stir and stir) the giant pots of cheese and potatoes.
Some say that the French can be very narrow in their definitions of things, which is why traditional French cuisine can be so simple, yet spectacular; because the classics don’t get messed with. Other cuisines, however, do get modified to local tastes, like les brochettes de bœuf-fromage, or beef skewers with cheese, at les sushis restaurants, popcorn available as salty or sweet (!?), and while sandwiches stuffed with French fries may be a sandwich américain, I can’t say I’ve ever seen one in Amérique.
Americans spend a fair amount of time defending certain dishes, and some things are (or should be) rightly forbidden, like raisins in cole slaw and dried fruit in bagels, and others are debatable, like beans in chili, sugar or honey in cornbread. (But it’s okay to stop with those football-sized croissants.)