COWGIRL IN PARIS: OUI, PARIS FOOD MARKETS REALLY ARE THAT GOOD
Ellise Pierce, Cowgirl Chef
by Ellise Pierce
There’s a mystique about shopping the food markets in Paris that goes something like this—you’ve got a wicker basket on the crook of your arm (very Parisienne) that you might fill up with Roquefort and Brie de Meaux along with a thick slab of wild boar pâté, some of the season’s last raspberries, and a head of leafy, purple-tipped lettuce almost too big to fit into a bag of any size, but for one euro apiece, how can you say non? (You don’t.)
But after living in Paris for six years and shopping the markets sometimes twice a week or more, plus the neighborhood shops on top of that, I can tell you that it’s not like that at all. It’s better.
At first, though, I couldn’t see it. I yearned for Texas staples I couldn’t find in France—tortillas, jalapeños and salsas—which gave way to me making them myself, and eventually, a new business, a blog, and a cookbook deal. This helped me transition from feeling homesick to feeling more at home right where I was
Every Saturday morning, I’d wake up and drink a cup of strong, French press coffee made from beans from the coffee roaster at Ternes market just two metro stops away. (A fixed market instead of an open-air market, this was a great alternative to the stinky Franprix grocery store). Along with my coffee, I’d usually eat what was left of the baguette from the night before. I’d split it in half, toast it, then slather it with crunchy, salty butter and a thick layer of Nutella.
After that, I was ready to go to President Wilson Market, about a 15-minute walk from my apartment near Place Victor Hugo in the 16th Arrondisement. Or I might take the #52 bus and hop off at Place d’léna, right in front of the statue of George Washington riding his horse into battle. Which is how I felt if I’d made the mistake of lounging too long over the Nutella baguette toast and coffee. By 10 a.m., the cashmere army–chic women wearing conservative black or gray crewneck sweaters and tightly knotted scarves — had already descended and were marching up and down the narrow passageway, with plaid wheely-carts, very small dogs, and sometimes husbands, in tow. Maneuvering through the throng required skill and persistence.
So I’d try to get there early, and often I would, even before my friend Sandy arrived. Sandy, an Irishman with a wicked sense of humor and a farm in Normandy, made the best fresh chèvre I ever tasted. He sold it in thick, hockey puck-size discs for two euros apiece. Plus eggs in cardboard cartons of six, not 12. Wheels of tomme. Yogurt with fresh blueberries or raspberries that he’d put in tiny, refillable glass jars.
When I’d see him, if he was busy, he’d tell me to put my shopping bag down and get to work. I’d wait on customers beside him, wrapping cheese in blue and white paper and weighing chickens, too. We’d always go for a coffee and a chat afterwards.
Over the past few years, Sandy and I became good friends, and seeing him was just as important as getting my week’s worth of goat cheese.
Actually, the cheese was the bonus. The promise of coffee with Sandy was what got me on the bus when it was raining and cold. Which is what makes living in Paris so special. Sure, the products you find here are some of the best in the world. It’s a given that when it’s strawberry season, you’ll eat the prized Mara des Bois strawberries like candy because that’s what they taste like, candy, and wonder if they’ve injected them with some sort of strawberry extract they’re so sweet. When you taste the green striped Provençal melon, Charentais, you’ll be overwhelmed with its perfume before you even take a bite. You’ll become accustomed to always getting your baguettes warm, just pulled from the oven, around 6 p.m. each day.
As far as Paris’ 70-plus food markets go, President Wilson is unique. With a vendor that sells fois gras, another who peddles the prized fleur de sel de Guerande, a mushroom and potato-only vendor, three boulangers, two poissonnières and the always crowded vegetable stand of Joel Thiébault, the third-generation vegetable farmer who sells to the city’s Michelin starred chefs, President Wilson Market may be Paris’ toniest (and perhaps priciest) market, but there are products and vendors here that you’ll not find elsewhere. It’s worth the metro ride to get here early on a Wednesday or Saturday morning, even if you only leave with a Nutella crêpe made by the sweet older married couple from Brittany, about halfway down on the right-side of the market.
When I first moved to Paris, I longed for what I couldn’t find in France, like Texas blueberries, peaches and yellow squash. But after a few years, I didn’t mind doing without, because every week, my basket was full. So was my life, with the people I’d see every week at the market and at the shops in my neighborhood.
Like my friend Sandy. And the handsome, flirty butcher who would call me from across the street, kiss me on both (!) cheeks, and ask how I’d been before he ground a kilo of pork that I’d later turn into chorizo. The boulanger on the corner who knew before I asked that I wanted a baguette tradition, and cooked well, bien cuit. The couple from Normandy who owned the fromagerie across the street from my apartment who always gave my dog Rose a piece of cheese when we stopped by.
I miss them all. Through these relationships, I felt more connected to what I cooked and what I ate every day.
Until I get back to France, I’m hoping to do the same thing in Santa Fe. Right now, I’m counting the days until Tom Delehanty (the organic chicken farmer behind Pollo Real) opens his butcher shop, and I’m making a list of French products (Le Petit Ecolier cookies, any Normandy butter!) for Cheryl at Kaune’s down the street, where I’m happy to report I can buy rotisserie chickens, hot out of the oven, around 5 p.m., just like I did in Paris.
Now if I could just find a bien cuit baguette…
Native Texan Ellise Pierce is the Cowgirl Chef and author of COWGIRL CHEF: Texas Cooking with a French Accent (Running Press). She divides her time between in Santa Fe and Paris and teaches cooking classes in both cities. Read her blog and watch her cooking videos on www.cowgirlchef.com and follow her at www.twitter.com/cowgirlchef
WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
A farmer’s market in Paris isn’t like a farmer’s market in Texas. You won’t see anyone selling out of the back of a pickup truck and sitting in a lawn chair waiting for customers to arrive. This is France, and everything’s done with more formality and politesse. To be waited on at the market, it’s best to try to blend in and observe how things are done here, instead of at home.
- If you’ve mistakenly packed sweatpants or shorts, please, leave them in your suitcase. Jeans are fine. Cowboy boots are even better— Parisians LOVE Texans.
- Be polite. When you walk up to a vendor, don’t just start asking him or her how much something costs. This is the surest and quickest way to be ignored. Instead, first say hello (Bonjour, madame/monsieur), making eye contact as you do so, and then you may move on to business. When your transaction is complete, always say thank you and goodbye (Merci, au revoir!). This applies for any and every interaction in France, whether you’re at the market, the Nicolas wine store, or your favorite bistro.
- At the market, look for signs that say “Producteurs.” This means the seller of the produce is also the farmer.
- Observe the rules. The most popular stands often have long lines in front of them. Notice this and find your way to the end. Do not cut in line. Ever.
- Have plenty of small bills and change. Credit cards aren’t accepted at most stands.
- Go early, 8 to 9 a.m. to avoid the rush.
- Don’t touch the fruit and vegetables. This will get you in all sorts of trouble. You may point at a particular tomato that you’d like, but don’t just pick it up and hand it to the vendor to pay. You’ll not only not get that tomato, but you’ll likely get chewed out (I have).
- Ask questions—in French. Even if you’re struggling with your high school French and end up mixing up the tu and vous forms, trying to speak the language will make even the grouchiest Parisian smile.
Edible Dallas & Fort Worth is a quarterly local foods magazine that promotes the abundance of local foods in Dallas, Fort Worth and 34 North Texas counties. We celebrate the family farmers, wine makers, food artisans, chefs and other food-related businesses for their dedication to using the highest quality, fresh, seasonal foods and ingredients.