To market, to market

We have to admit, those of us who live in Paris are incredibly spoiled (I’m turning my mind away from the crowds, dog mess, transport strikes and hellish commutes, naturally). Croissants and wine aside, such beauty and history surrounds us, and the most amazing thing is that it’s pretty much all still here since jammy Dame Paris has managed to preserve most of her treasured bounty over the years where countless other cities have sadly failed. And all of this in the face of centuries of foreign invaders, world wars and natural disasters, still threatening her very bones today, as was sharply called into focus in April with the devastating fire that nearly razed Notre Dame completely.

One historical gem we have lost though (and the list is amazingly small) is the behemoth that was Les Halles, a huge iron, brick and glass market complex in central Paris finished in 1874 and razed in 1971, and immortalised in Zola’s Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris). Having outgrown the capital as the city grew around it and the way in which people shopped for food changed, the structure couldn’t withstand the tidal wave of progress, and was destroyed just before the preservationists found their strength and put a stop to the demolition of historic buildings in the name of boring functionality (the Musée d’Orsay, then Gare d’Orsay was amongst the first to be saved by this change in thinking).

Now as much as it would be appropriate to focus on what we do have rather than what we don’t, forgive me for not writing a post on the massive, soulless shopping complex and rat-filled gardens that now occupy the space, because well, that. So in a roundabout way we arrive at the subject of this post, the marché Saint Quentin in the 10th on Boulevard Magenta, the best surviving example of the Les Halles-style covered market, giving us a handy portal into the lively market spirit of Paris’ past.

Whilst the famous Les Halles was designed by the at-the-time chief architect of Paris and mate of Baron Haussmann, Victor Baltard, Saint Quentin was designed by an architect named Rabourdin, though despite being oft-quoted in this context, I can find absolutely nothing more about him, so that’s where that story ends I’m afraid. Though whoever he was, he faithfully followed the Baltard style and completed the building in 1866, and today it remains one of only three examples of the style along with slightly smaller markets Saint Martin and La Chapelle (10th and 18th respectively).

And isn’t a market with a roof on it just what we need in these wet and wintry times? Head inside and you’ll find perhaps less vegetable urgency than in Zola’s day, but there are plenty of stalls and fresh produce galore to fill your belly just as full. The usual selection of fruit, veg, meat, fish and plants are lovingly displayed, though no need to dash off too quickly out in to the rain with that lonely cauliflower, take a load off and have a bite to eat or glass of wine while you’re at it at one of the cosy bistros dotted about. Heck, you can even get your shoes repaired whilst you’re tucking in, and don’t forget to search out the Wallace fountain nestled in the centre.

As for that lonely cauliflower, if you’re cooking I’ll have a hot dish of cauliflower cheese nicely browned and bubbly on top, and don’t forget to pick up an orange for the vin chaud, too. Call it a finder’s fee…

In season: July

tomato kimAh July. Halfway through the year when New Year’s resolutions are a mere distant memory, but the sun shines bright to make us all happy despite our failings (well, in theory). The World Cup, the Tour de France, Bastille Day just around the corner… but way better than that, it’s finally tomato o’clock. Finally.

Forget the insipid offerings that insult the market stalls and supermarket shelves for the early months of the year, now the real red darlings have arrived. You can smell the greenhouse goodness just by smelling them, and the taste just has ‘garden’ striped through it like a stick of round, juicy rock. Seriously, I’m that excited. In fact, I probably won’t eat anything else for the next few months.

Only kidding, I’d be an utter fool to go that far given the vast array of wonderful seasonal produce on offer this month, with the fruit contingent really beginning to muscle in for once. Here’s a list of what’s good to stuff your kitchen with at the moment. Spoiled for choice? Oh aye (nod to Yorkshire there, given the le Tour and all). Never did a month spell ‘picnic’ like ‘July’ (if you tweak the letters a bit, obviously).

Apricot – abricot
Artichoke – artichaut
Aubergine
Beetroot – betterave
Broccoli
Cherry – cerise
Chicory – endive
Courgette
Cucumber – concombre
Fennel – fenouil
Green beans – haricots verts
Greengages – reine claude
Lettuce – laitue
Nectarine
Peach – pêche
Radish – radis
Raspberries – framboises
Rocket – roquette
Spinach – epinard
Strawberries – fraises
Swiss Chard – bette
Tomato – tomate
Watercress – cresson

And what’s the best thing to do with the pick of the mix, the humble tomato? The opportunities are endless, but sliced up, drizzled with olive oil and scattered with salt, pepper and basil is the greatest hommage you could give. Enjoy! (I’ll expect my picnic invitation in the post toute suite….)

The market hall of fame: Barbès Rochechouart

Market barbes2Whenever a person thinks of France, and I’m really sticking my (frog’s) leg out here and generalising, I can be almost certain that the flashing procession of images contains a market in there somewhere. The place is fabled for them, making sure our happy bellies are full of technicolour produce, to-salivate-for meat and without a doubt the smelliest cheeses in the world.

Having lived in Paris for over five years (so I can safely consider myself somewhat of an expert), I’m well used to the gulf between the glittering tourist clichés and the more mundane and unspectacular reality of what the city is actually like. But these bustling markets, filled with a plethora of goodies and traders trying to push juicy figs into your mouth as you idle past, straddle the both ideas, being both the romantic cliché, and the happy reality.Market barbes1

Just as the 20 arrondisements are a patchwork of different cultures and salary brackets, so is the catalogue of the city’s produce markets. Ranging from the organic wonderland of the Boulevard Raspail where the prices can leave you saucer-eyed and open-mouthed, to the lower end of the scale where you can fill two carrier bags full of fruit and veg for 5 euros (and I’ve done it), there are different markets to see you through every day of the week.

Given the premise of this blog though, it’s only fair that I point you towards the cheapest. After extensive research (I still have the fig moustache), I can confirm that if it’s veggie bargains you want, then it’s to Barbès Rochechouart you need to head. The market takes place every wednesday (8am-1pm) and saturday (7am-3pm), extending along Boulevard de la Chapelle, under the metro line (so you’ll be nice and dry if it rains).

Market barbes3Along with the odd hardware and clothes stall, there’s are plenty of the usual suspects selling fruit and veg, cheese, fish and meat, and a handful of specialists selling delights such as olives and spices. You’ll also have to make sure you look out for the herb guys who plonk themselves right in the middle of the pedestrian traffic – if not for their fragrant green bunches, at least to save your shins.

It’s a busy ol’ affair, so if you’re not keen on elbowing through the crowds, competing with the masses to get served, or losing your heels via a fellow shopper’s loaded trolley being pulled with reckless abandon, then you’ll have to get there early. Given the rock-bottom prices, you won’t find a whole host of organic or local produce being sold by ruddy-cheeked farmers, and none of that ‘posh’ veg (watercress, asparagus, kale), though the quality is reasonable and the sales patter always lively. Who needs bananas exactly the same size and length anyway??

For more information on this market and others near you, check out http://meslieux.paris.fr/marches

In season: April

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The 1st April may be ‘officially’ a day concerned with fish (it’s called the poisson d’Avril over here, and the aim is to try and attach a paper fish to someone’s back without them noticing), but today it’s fruit and vegetables that are really stealing the headlines.

According to a new study, eating the hallowed five portions of fruit and vegetables a day just doesn’t quite cut it anymore – we’re now supposed to try and fit seven portions, up to ten if possible, into our bellies each and every day. This isn’t just some vegan punishment you understand, the health benefits are apparently quite considerable.

So… this being the new order of things, the time is er, ripe to hit Parisian markets to fill as many shopping bags as you can carry filled with nature’s candy. Given that eating ten portions of fruit and veg a day isn’t the cheapest undertaking in the world, eating seasonably becomes even more important, meaning eating well doesn’t have to smash a watermelon-shaped hole in your bank account.

Here are the best seasonal fruit and veg April has to offer:

Beetroot – betterave
Broccoli – broccoli
Cabbage – chou
Carrot – carrotte
Cauliflower – chou-fleur
Celeriac – céleri rave
Leeks – poireau
Lettuce – laitue
Potatoes – pomme de terre
Radishes – radis
Rhubarb – rhubarb
Spinach – épinards
Spring onion – oignons frais
Watercress – cresson

Now that it’s warm enough to eat salad, here’s a recipe for a traditional French vinaigrette, that no bowl of lush green leaves should be without.

3 tbs olive oil
1 tbs red wine vinegar
1/2 tsp good quality mustard
1 chopped shallot
salt and pepper

Keep a small jar handy in your kitchen – an empty caper jar for example – to shake the ingredients in. As long as you get the ratio of oil and acid right, you can play around with the additions as you fancy. Add some herbs, honey, anchovies – whatever you have handy in the cupboard (though not together… anchovies and honey anyone?). Any extra can be kept in the fridge. Simple sophistication that only the French can be responsible for…