When I returned from a recent trip to France, my baggage included what some people might consider unusual souvenirs: two stick-free frying pans; two Rhine wine glasses; several pieces of Basque porcelain; and assorted kitchen gadgets. Though I pride myself on going anywhere with nothing but carryon luggage, I pack expandable tote bags to bring home my purchases. And inevitably my haul consists mostly of items that enhance the cooking – or dining – experience.
My interest in shopping for kitchenware in France grew out of necessity. On my first extended stay there, in 2015, my husband and I rented a former winemaker’s cottage in the Loire Valley with what turned out to be two malfunctioning coffeepots. Groggy with jetlag, I stumbled into a nearby kitchenware store and purchased a 12-ounce French press. It has since made three round-trips to France, and accompanied me to several-dozen vacation rentals. It makes a great cup of coffee. Plus, I don’t need to buy filters or pods to fit whatever machinery I find on the premises.
Meanwhile, I have discovered the pleasures of shopping for kitchenware in France. This hobby has taken me from boutiques and outlet stores, to flea markets and restaurant supply centers. I shop for equipment to use in our French rentals, where we cook most of our own meals, and souvenirs for my kitchen back home.
Sometimes I’m looking for a specific tool, like a nutcracker for the house in the Dordogne that didn’t have one during the walnut harvest, or a bamboo breadboard with a reservoir to catch the crumbs, like one provided in a rental in Basque Country. Other times I find things that I didn’t even realize I needed, such as ficelle de cuisine (kitchen thread) to tie together the herbs in a bouquet garni: parsley stalks, thyme sprigs and bay leaves.
To avoid excess baggage charges, I’ve become selective in my purchases. This after I made the mistake of schlepping back to the U.S. items that could just as easily have been procured online from a U.S. purveyor. A stick-free quiche pan with removable bottom comes to mind.
To deserve space in my suitcase, a purchase must either be a good deal, or difficult (better yet, impossible) to locate where I live. For example, this justified cramming a 15-inch round pancake griddle, swathed in clothing, into a 22-inch rollaboard.
I had owned such a piece, with handles on both sides, for 18 years and been unable to locate a replacement when it fell apart. So I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to buy a new one, by the high-end cookware manufacturer Cristel, in Paris. Though there are few cookware bargains in the City of Light, this was the last such pan left in the shop and, for €100 (about $112 at current conversion rates), was an absolute find.
When it comes to cookware used to produce regional specialties – in the Dordogne, Basque Country and Alsace, for instance – I apply different criteria. I have learned the hard way that such items may not be available outside of the region. So even if it means traversing the country (and then crossing the Atlantic) with fragile glassware or ceramics, my motto has become, “Get it or regret it.”
Depending on where your itinerary takes you, here are some of my favorite sources.
Essor, Anglet and Bordeaux. I first went to this giant restaurant supply store hoping to purchase some of the traditional porcelain dishes used all over Basque Country, in southwest France. The dishes are white, with one of four striped patterns on the rim: blue; red and blue; red and green; or blue and yellow. And though they’re sold in souvenir shops, the quality varies.
After an exceptionally good meal at Restaurant Euzkadi, in Espelette (home to the famous pepper named for the village), I followed what has become my usual practice when I see an item I like in a restaurant: I inquired about where I can purchase it. That led me to Essor, in an industrial district of Anglet (16 Route de Pitoys), a suburb of the beach resort of Biarritz.
This 32,000 square foot warehouse-cum-store was the real deal, with no hovering sales clerks to inhibit browsing. It’s all open shelves, from which you help yourself. And the selection of Basque tableware, produced for Essor by the porcelain manufacturer Pillivuyt, is enormous.
My first time there, in 2017, I bought an oval platter (€37.16, or about $42) and two small bowls (€12.10, or about $13.50, apiece) to use as accent pieces with my white everyday dishes back home. When I returned this year, I was delighted to find a matching butter dish (€37.66, or about $42) that was not in stock on my previous visit.
Since this is where the pros come to shop, you’re not likely to bump into many tourists among the giant, industrial-strength paella pans, ladles and whisks. The downside is that Essor won’t give you a bordereau de détaxe. This is the paperwork that enables tourists to get a refund of the 20 percent sales tax in certain cases. In order to qualify, you must spend more than €175 on a given day in a particular store. (There are kiosks at international airports where you can submit the bordereau de détaxe before leaving France.)
Magasin Staub, Turckheim. It figures that a region that has perfected the art of slow casserole cooking would be the headquarters of a manufacturer of premium cast iron cookware. Staub, which has offices in an elegant mansion overlooking the Alsatian vineyards, operates an adjacent outlet store in Turckheim (2 Rue de l’Huilerie).
What they call seconds here might be discontinued colors or have indiscernible dings. These are the real bargains, costing 30 percent less than the French list price, and less than half of retail prices in the U.S. Example: The 6-Quart round cocotte, which retails for $450 at Bloomingdales, costs €181.30 (about $203) as a second in Turckheim. But at 7.22 kilos (nearly 16 pounds) it’s a weighty purchase that we couldn’t imagine lugging home.
On balance, we opted for the next best thing, which was to cook with the beautiful Staub pieces in our Turckheim Airbnb rental, situated less than 10 minutes by foot from Magasin Staub.
Local boutiques. Much as I gripe about the quaint French villages destroyed by tourism, one does find some beautiful kitchenware stores in these locations. Most recently, in Alsace, I spent a happy half-hour browsing in Le Cellier — a gorgeous family-owned establishment in Riquewihr. If you’re in the market for a covered Alsatian earthenware terrine, they have an enormous assortment in many sizes. I purchased an Alsatian cookbook and got some tips from the saleswoman on making the traditional peasant stew called baeckeoffe.
In cities, one can sometimes find fantastic kitchen boutiques in proximity to outdoor markets. After loading up on walnuts at the Saturday market in Périgueux, a small city in the Dordogne, I stopped by Paris Ménage, an enticing shop at 5 rue Salinière, to buy an inexpensive nutcracker. The most ergonomic variety, if you happen to need one, has a metal cylindrical pit and wooden handles, and operates with a spring mechanism. (Also good for removing twist-off caps, including those on Champagne bottles.)
One drawback of boutiques is that the sales staff doesn’t give you much breathing space. No doubt they’re on the lookout for shoplifters, but this is also cultural – they’re trying to be helpful. To get them to back off, all one needs to say is je ne fais que regarder. (I’m just looking.) Chances are you’ll be back to them soon enough with a question or to ring up your purchase.
Boucheries. Many French butcher shops also sell prepared foods, and their display cases are enticing. The containers they use for this purpose are sturdy and attractive. Sometimes they offer their surplus to customers at very reasonable prices.
One place I noticed this was in at the butcher in Belvès – a medieval town in the Dordogne. When I stopped there one day last fall around lunchtime to pick up some picnic food, they had terrines and ceramic bowls for sale for €2 apiece, just like the ones in their showcase filled with salads and patés. I could have used such pieces in my Airbnb rental, where the kitchen didn’t have any bake-ware. If this had been the beginning of my stay in the region, I would have purchased a piece to use there and take with me.
Culinarion. If you travel to French cities outside of Paris (or take an excursion from Paris to Versailles), you’re likely to find a branch of this popular chain. And though it’s not a place to snag any bargains, the helpful staff in these colorful, well-stocked shops can help you find whatever you need. In their Avignon store, I bought a pair of bamboo tongs like those stowed next to the toaster to retrieve hot toast in our nearby rental apartment. (Now I wonder why I lived for so long without this inexpensive, utilitarian item.) The Emile Henry ceramic spoon rest that I bought at the branch in Tours cost as much as it did in my Brooklyn neighborhood, but in France I found a color that perfectly matched my kitchen.
Like many stores in France, Culinarion will gladly giftwrap even the most inexpensive purchase at no additional charge. So if you’re looking for a little something for the chef in your life, this is a lovely place to buy it.
Supermarket cookware sections. Being much enamored of French outdoor markets, I have a love-hate relationship with the giant supermarkets, or hypermarchés, as they are called, that have spread around the country. My newfound love stems partly from their growing housewares sections. When we stop by one of these megastores to load up on things like soda and soapsuds, I inevitably drift to the well-stocked shelves of kitchen equipment.
Judging from the clientele, this is where local folks go buy everything from frying pans to pie weights at prices that are generally lower than in kitchen boutiques. While browsing the aisles I have a propensity to “discover” things I didn’t know I needed. One of my recent finds, at the E.Leclerc in Wintzenheim, was a non-scratch couteau à patisserie or pie server (€3.71, or $4.15). I bought it to use with the stick-free quiche pan that I foolishly dragged home from Paris several years earlier.
One thing I like about the E.Leclerc stores, in particular, is that their cookware sections include special equipment or serving pieces used in the region where the store is situated. For example, the one in Saint Jean-de-Luz stocks the short bodega glasses used to serve all types of beverages in Basque Country, while the store in Wintzenheim, in the heart of Alsace, carries the green stemmed Rhine glasses used to serve Reisling. The E.Leclerc in Wintzenheim also has a wide assortment of casseroles and terrines used to make slow-cooked Alsatian dishes such as baeckeoffe.
Flea markets. I’ve always had mixed emotions about flea markets. On the one hand, they seem like treasure hunts that can yield fabulous bargains on hard-to-find items. Yet, as I thread my way through the aisles of cast-off silver sets and unused monogrammed dishtowels, I feel a certain sadness. Especially in France, which was torn apart by war twice in the previous century, I’m left wondering about the stories behind these and other possessions: Are they vestiges of lives well lived, or those interrupted by the cruel currents of history? If only spoons could speak.
Of the French flea markets that I have visited, two have been truly memorable. The one in Montsoreau, on the second Sunday of each month, gets high marks for its setting – along the banks of the Loire River. In Paris, the Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen (at Porte de Clignancourt) is one of the biggest flea markets in the world and takes place every Saturday and Sunday.
For the best pickings, go in the morning, as the dealers and collectors do. You can spot them by their confident, detached aura – looking things over with an educated eye and never seeming too excited about a possible purchase. If you shadow one of them, you’ll notice that they transact business quickly, bargaining briefly before peeling bills off a wad of cash.
If you don’t mind using second-hand cookware, this a great way to acquire vintage copper pots, fish poachers and casseroles. I’m still searching for an oval baking dish like the hand-hammered one in our Saint Jean-de-Luz Airbnb. During the month that we spent there, in 2017, I used it to prepare sole with cream sauce; pan-fried scallops with lemon butter sauce; and the Basque fisherman’s stew called marmitako.
My husband thinks the hand hewn pan is a one-of-a-kind, passed down as a family heirloom. My own (perhaps wishful) thinking is that it was acquired at a flea market, and that a comparable piece could easily turn up at the next one that we visit.
Paris. Although one can find cookware stores all over Paris, there’s a concentration of them in the 1st and 2nd arroundisements, within about a five-minute walk of the strikingly gorgeous Gothic Church of Saint Eustache. This neighborhood is also home to G. Detou, 58 rue Tiquetonne. Its name is a play on words – j’ai de tout means, “I have everything.” And in its floor-to-ceiling shelves you can find all manner of pastry ingredients plus high-quality, reasonably priced nuts, dried fruit, jams, spices and chocolates to bring home as gifts. (Don’t be waylaid at the far less impressive deli next door under the same ownership.)
For equipment, bakers and pastry chefs will appreciate the enormous selection of pans at Mora, 13 Rue Montmartre. I have a lovely assortment of olivewood spoons bought several years ago at A. Simon, 52 rue Montmartre. E. Dehillerin, 18 et 20 rue Coquillière, which caters to the trade, has an impressive selection of copper pots, but its narrow aisles are choked with tourists and prices for many items are not on display.
When I stopped by in November to ask whether the store carried nonstick Cristel frying pans, a gruff salesman told me they didn’t stock that brand because it was too expensive. I found this somewhat amusing, since the first thing one notices upon entering E. Dehillerin is a display of far more expensive copper pots secured to the counter with an antitheft cord.
If you’re looking for a specific item, the proximity of stores in this neighborhood makes it easy to comparison shop. For those nonstick Cristel frying pans, which we’d been coveting since earlier in our trip, we found the best prices at La Bovida, 36 Rue Montmartre.
Having established that, we agonized over the purchase of the two pans we wanted – one measuring 24 cm (9.5 inches) and the other 28 cm (11 inches). Using the currency converter on our iPhones, we compared the prices at La Bovida with those at Bloomingdale’s Private Sale, which was in progress back home while we were wearing out shoe leather in Paris.
The bottom line: By purchasing the pans in France, we saved $123.90, including the French tax refund, over the best sale price we could get at Bloomingdale’s. That was a savings of nearly 30 percent off the U.S. list price. On the trip home, the two pans, with detachable handles, nested perfectly in our suitcases.
Back in Brooklyn, I put them right to use. They heat quickly, clean easily and produce perfectly caramelized onions, among other things. Admittedly, they aren’t a once-in-a-lifetime flea market conquest. But this doesn’t inhibit my satisfied smile each time I snap on the handles, light the flame and think about how I bought them in Paris.
Deborah L. Jacobs is the author most recently of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home, about her adventures – and misadventures – living in France. 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.