I love the rhythm of weekends in France, especially as it involves food shopping. Starting on Friday morning, and continuing until noon on Sunday, one can observe locals buying everything from produce to pastries. In sidebar conversations at the market, spouses confer about which items look freshest and what they should prepare. Vendors seem oblivious to the length of the queue as they give each customer their undivided attention. No matter how indecisive the client or trivial the banter, most people patiently wait their turn. Each transaction ends with buyer and seller wishing each other bon weekend.
One of the great joys of visiting Paris is being able to participate in this ritual for three consecutive days. Here, as elsewhere, I prefer to rent lodgings and prepare my own simple meals, rather than eating in restaurants. And whereas in the countryside weekend markets take place on only one day in a given place, in Paris I can prolong the pleasure by shuttling between neighborhoods.
By the time we arrived here in early November, my husband, Ken, and I had been in France for more than two months and had assembled a traveling larder. It included such staples as shelf-stabilized heavy cream, bullion cubes, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, mustard and mayonnaise, plus specialty items from the regions where we had lived previously. During our month in Alsace, we had laid in enough packages of dried pasta and bottles of Riesling to last for the rest of the trip. In Basque Country, we acquired jars of cherry jam, preserved tuna, white asparagus and sweet red peppers. It took four trips, in an elevator the size of an old telephone booth, to transport these acquisitions to the sixth-floor Paris apartment we had rented. At least there was an elevator.
In Paris we would shop strategically, the goal being to use up our supplies in time for our return to the U.S. two weeks later.
Our apartment, rented via Airbnb, was one block from the Seine, just outside the trendy Marais neighborhood. So it seemed logical to begin our food shopping, in Parisian fashion, close to home. On Friday morning, we headed to the Marché des Enfants Rouges (39 rue de Bretagne), a 400-year-old covered market that is the oldest in Paris. Situated in what was once an orphanage, the name (market of the red children) refers to the color of the clothing worn by Christian charity cases.
But for its historic intrigue, the market had little to recommend it. Behind the heavy wrought-iron gate were stalls selling overpriced produce and prepared foods. Except for two tour groups, it was mostly deserted when we arrived in the late morning.
Immediately outside the market, though, rue Bretagne was a hub of activity – a better indication of where our Parisian neighbors shopped. At Jouannault (39 rue de Bretagne) I took a cue from the woman in front of me and picked up a palet-frais – a disk of unprocessed goat cheese. We bought veal scallops sliced to order at Pacaud Boucherie du Marais (17 rue de Bretagne); and mushrooms and shallots at Jardin du Marais (29 rue de Bretagne). That, plus the wine and cream we already had, would become veal in cream sauce.
Then on to rue des Rosiers, a sliver of a street in the old Jewish quarter of the Marais. If you want a break from baguettes, there are several places there to buy the Jewish egg bread called challah. A Russian friend in New York swears by the poppy seed strudel from Boulangerie Murciano (16 rue des Rosiers) – every time she is in Paris, she takes home an enormous piece, which she keeps in her freezer for months. For me, a more ephemeral pleasure is a falafel sandwich from L’As du Fallafel (32 rue des Rosiers). To avoid long lines, do not go at lunchtime.
For a sweet sensation, we headed to Pierre Hermé, the macaron emporium (18 rue Sainte-Croix-de-la- Bretonnerie, with branches elsewhere in Paris). But, alas, the saleswoman seemed miffed when I asked for three of these delicate cookies, suggesting that, since the smallest box holds four, we should buy one more, for €2.20 (about $2.50 at current conversion rates) apiece. Though their macarons were delicious, this dessert splurge left a bad taste.
Our Saturday foraging was far more satisfying. Nostalgic for the lower food prices and better selection one finds in a more residential neighborhood, we traveled 25 minutes by Métro to the 14th arrondissement. We had rented an apartment there for two weeks in 2015 and had been especially impressed with the wide variety of food stores. It was even better than we remembered it.
We got off the #4 train at the Alésia station, and started at Ledreux, a large poissonnerie (fishmonger) with a wide assortment of fresh fish and a down-home oyster bar (67 Avenue du Général Leclerc). After scoring some beautiful sole at an irresistible price, we walked northeast along the avenue to where it intersects rue Daguerre, a pedestrian street lined with many food shops, and there we completed our purchases. Though we already had fish for our main course, I couldn’t resist the large Normandy scallops at Daguerre Marée (9 rue Daguerre), and bought some to grill on our stovetop, with lemon, butter and garlic, and serve atop a salad.
In the same store, I was delighted to find brandade de morue: an emulsion of salt cod and olive oil that looks like mashed potatoes. (It sometimes includes potatoes as an ingredient.) This hearty winter specialty can be eaten with bread, but in Basque Country I had seen it used to stuff the sweet red peppers called poivrons du piquillo. I happened to have an open jar of them, bought earlier in our journey, but they were also for sale at the Franprix supermarket one block from our apartment.
Even if you prefer not to cook in Paris, brandade on a crusty baguette makes a great picnic food. The same goes for the various Middle Eastern spreads sold at Pelops Epire, a Greek appetizing store (15 rue Daguerre). And if you happen to need marinated anchovies for a Niçoise salad (a quick and easy meal to prepare in a French kitchen), you can find those there, too.
My stroll down the block would not have been complete without a purchase at Androuet (13 rue Daguerre), a fromagerie, with branches elsewhere in Paris. Though they have a wide selection, my choice that day was a seasonal delicacy available all over the city: Mont d’Or, or Vacherin du Haut-Doubs. This cheese, which comes from the Jura Mountains, has a washed rind, a butter-colored pâte and a hardened brown crust. Made with rennet, its center looks like pudding, and at room temperature it is so soft that I eat it with a spoon for breakfast. Recognizable by the spruce wood around its crust that holds the cheese together, it is cured on spruce wood boards and packed in spruce wood boxes. As it ripens, the center gets yellower, and the more time it is in contact with the wood, the more pleasantly it tastes – and smells – like the forest.
The Sunday morning Bastille market, the following day, got a late start, as many shoppers waited for the heavy rain and gale-force winds to subside. We were among them, but this being one of our most coveted French markets, we were not going to miss it. Extending north on Boulevard Richard-Lenoir, this market is immense, and judging by the queues, the regulars have their favorites, whether it’s olives, seafood or charcuterie.
The best deals are the produce, and vendors aggressively hawk whatever is in season. On the day we visited, there were clementines everywhere – brought to Paris from Corsica, Italy, Spain and Portugal. As we cruised the market, merchants reached out to entice us to their stands by handing us half a clementine in its peel. We loaded up on this fruit, and some deeply discounted, very ripe, tomatoes that were perfect for making a meatless pasta sauce. When the rain returned that afternoon, we spent a quiet Parisian-style afternoon in our apartment, cooking.
On Monday many Paris establishments, including food stores, are closed, but we did not go hungry. We just feasted on the leftovers.
Deborah L. Jacobs, a lawyer and journalist, is the author of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home and Estate Planning Smarts: A Practical, User-Friendly, Action-Oriented Guide. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.