Readers of this space know that I’ve had more than my share of hassles with Paris apartments. But one thing that keeps me playing what I have come to call “Airbnb roulette” is the need for a kitchen in the City of Light. However small and rudimentary the space may be, it enables me to go food shopping and prepare my own simple meals. And this fuels one of my favorite Paris pastimes: shopping at the city’s diverse open-air markets, or marchés à plein air.
Paris is a foodie’s paradise, and nowhere is this more apparent than at the many dozens of outdoor markets that pop up, typically two mornings a week, at various locations around the city. Unlike those in the French countryside, where the offerings tend to be local, in Paris it’s possible to buy regional and seasonal foods from all over the country – and the world.
I don’t spend as much time cooking in Paris as elsewhere in France; there’s too much else to do, and it’s rare to find a kitchen that has everything I need. But a visit to the market inspires some delicious – and relatively inexpensive – meals using the meat, cheese, seafood and produce that I find there. It takes very little effort to sauté a handful of scallops or whip up an omelet made from farm-fresh eggs, for example. On a recent rainy Sunday, I boiled a couple of artichokes that looked like something plucked from an Impressionist still life.
For those who crave foods that are more quintessentially French, there are vendors selling escargots already stuffed with herbs, butter and breadcrumbs. All you need to do is bake them. And without turning on the stove, one could buy a perfectly roasted chicken from a market vendor and prepare a salad to accompany it. Even with winter approaching, salad is a treat here, as mâche – bunches of tender green leaves with a slightly nutty taste (elsewhere known as lamb’s lettuce) – comes into season.
During extended stays in Paris in each of the past five years, I have traversed the city sampling its outdoor markets. One Airbnb host, in the Denfert-Rochereau neighborhood, pronounced this an unusual pursuit. “We have a market right down the street,” he said, referring to a tiny one, at Place Jacques-Demy, that we had been to on a previous visit. He seemed incredulous that I would travel 45 minutes by Métro to the Bastille Sunday market.
Strive as I might to live – and eat – like a local, in this respect I am a wide-eyed tourist, thrilled with the fruits of my urban foraging. But along the way I am in good company with Parisians, who are always happy to talk about food and cooking. I schedule my Paris stays to maximize market visits – the best ones are on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Between markets, I walk along the Seine, admiring the city’s majestic bridges and centuries-old limestone buildings, and immerse myself in the special exhibitions at the museums. Retrospectives, like one about Toulouse-Lautrec, at the Grand Palais until January 27, are my favorites. They bring together works from collections all over the world, offering a rare opportunity to study an artist’s complete oeuvre – and work up an appetite.
But while these are solitary activities, each market involves human interaction centered on a subject of universal appeal. Exchanges at various food counters are a continual source of information and entertainment. Here are the three markets at the top of my list.
MARCHÉ PRÉSIDENT WILSON (MARCHÉ D’ALMA)
Avenue du Président Wilson, between rue Debrousse and Place d’Iéna
Wednesday and Saturday
This year my husband and I had the luxury of having a spectacular market just a five-minute walk from our apartment. It’s “the market Parisians will cross town for,” writes Patricia Wells in her book The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris: The Best Restaurants, Bistros, Cafés, Markets, Bakeries, and More. I was glad we didn’t need to. Instead, figuring that I could make five trips to this market during our 17-day stay, I bought only what I needed to last until the next market, either here or elsewhere in the city.
On my second Saturday at this market, I was on a mission: American friends were coming for dinner, and I wanted to make poulet au vin jaune – chicken with yellow wine from the Jura region, in eastern France. We had begun our journey in that part of the country and had brought with us a bottle of the intense, sherry-like wine required for this dish. The wine shop where we bought it, Domaine Jacques Tissot, in the village of Arbois, had provided us with a printed recipe. At the market, I hoped to procure the other ingredients.
First stop: the farm stand, operated by La Bergerie Dumesnil, for crème fraîche, a thick, slightly sour cream made with bacterial cultures. As I waited in the long queue – a sign of a loyal following – I debated whether to buy a fresh chicken here or from one of the various other poultry vendors. Meanwhile, a customer went behind the counter and sorted through a box of chickens, placing each one on the scale and examining it closely before making his selection. I decided I had come to the right place.
But what was this discerning client looking for, and how would I convey the same authoritative air? As events unfolded, I had no cause for concern. When the young man waiting on me asked which chicken I wanted, I told him that I needed to feed four people. As he lifted one possibility up by the neck for approval, the distinguished-looking customer behind me leaned into my field of vision and gave a nod. And with that, I answered confidently, “Please cut it up.”
The next item on my list posed other complications. Poulet au vin jaune calls for morels, which have a short season in the early spring and are available at a premium at other times of the year, but dried. Though it was possible to substitute something in season – shitakes, chanterelles or a combination of the two, for instance – this was my opportunity to make the traditional recipe.
“Are those dried morels?” I asked, gesturing at a plastic bucket hanging from the awning at Bar à Patates – a vendor specializing in potatoes and mushrooms. The salesman confirmed my hunch. The price was breathtaking – €500 a kilo, or roughly $250 per pound. But I needed only about an ounce, to mix with a pound of the more widely available champignons de Paris. (At about $3 per pound, they seemed practically free by comparison.) I could easily justify the splurge: This meal at a restaurant would cost considerably more per person, and I would be lucky to find a single morel on my plate.
Buying a small quantity of anything at Bar à Patates made me no different from other clients. There and elsewhere, for example, I observed any number of people ask for a single cèpe – a large puffy mushroom now in season (the Italians call them porcini) – and then fuss about which one it should be.
More importantly, though, the salesman wouldn’t even put the morels on the scale until he was sure I knew how to cook them. The instructions in my recipe said to soak them in hot (not boiling) water for two hours to reconstitute them, and then wash off any residual dirt with the same (not fresh) water. As so often happens, the advice I got at the market conflicted with what I had read: Soak them in hot milk – not water – for 30 minutes, not two hours, the vendor said.
With the morels, I followed the recipe, which in other respects required some judgment calls. Most notably, it didn’t specify whether the chicken should be cooked on the stove or in the oven, at what temperature and for how long. As it happened, I had to use the oven, since the casseroles in my Airbnb kitchen were ceramic, and did not work on the induction stovetop.
Ultimately, none of this mattered. I cooked the chicken until it was done, reconstituted the morels and made sure not to let the crème fraîche boil, as the recipe warned. The moral of the story: When cooking with fresh market ingredients, you can’t go too wrong.
Boulevard Richard-Lenoir, between rue Amelot and rue Saint-Sabin
Thursday and Sunday
The following day, during a visit to my favorite Sunday market, I had in mind an encore of sorts. Most of the very flavorful, farm-fresh chicken had been consumed the previous evening, but I had plenty of cream sauce and mushrooms left over, including many of those precious morels. While theoretically this was another shortcoming of the recipe, it also posed an opportunity: Procure meat and fish that would work with the strong flavors of the morels and wine. Several more easy dinners ensued, as we reinvented the Jura classic with cod, chicken fillets and veal scallops.
Under other circumstances, I go to the Bastille market to buy fruit, vegetables and cheese. One of the largest markets in Paris, it has many stands selling the same produce, which keeps prices competitive, as vendors aggressively hawk whatever is in season. And though rain may reduce the size of the crowds, it doesn’t keep them away.
On the day we visited, persimmons were just coming into season and 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. Here, too, for those who would rather not cook, there are plenty of prepared foods for sale, from pâté to paella.
After the market we head to the nearby branch of Maison Landemaine boulangerie, at 28 Boulevard Beaumarchais, for a baguette and one of their irresistible pastries. In this Sunday routine, we are never alone. There is almost always a line.
Rue d’Aligre and Place d’Aligre
Tuesday through Sunday
This market, near the Gare de Lyon, in the southeast part of the city, gives you more for the money than most other markets in several respects. Not only do the produce prices tend to be lower than in more upscale neighborhoods, but it is open longer hours. Though busiest on the weekends, Marché d’Aligre operates weekdays except Mondays. And unlike most other markets, which end at around 1:00 p.m., this one reopens in the late afternoon (except for Sunday).
If you want a taste of a Paris flea market, there’s a postage-stamp-size one adjacent to the produce market. It’s not the immersive experience of browsing at the sprawling flea market in Saint-Ouen (Saturday and Sunday), but if time is short, this is a chance to do some one-stop shopping.
Another attraction of going to this market, rather than the other two mentioned here, is that it’s in the middle of a commercial district and bordered by an assortment of tantalizing food shops that line rue d’Aligre. One of my favorites is the fish store Paris-Pêche, at number 17, where on each visit I buy whatever seems to be running.
I had a hankering for scallops when I set a course there last Saturday, only to find the entrances to both Métro stations in my neighborhood blocked with a metal grate. It turns out police had closed these and more than 20 other stations in anticipation of protests marking the anniversary of the Yellow Vest movement. It was my final day in Paris, and traveling to the opposite end of the city under these circumstances was out of the question.
Fortunately, my sustenance did not depend on it. Within five minutes I was at Avenue du Président Wilson, where the market in my own neighborhood was in full swing. By then I not only had my favorite vendors, but I was starting to recognize some of the shoppers.
Scallops, in season, were moving briskly at the stand of Petit Bateau Dieppois. The woman behind me in the long queue was holding a three-year-old boy, who kept pointing to them and asking for coquilles as if they were candy. Already he had a sophisticated palate and spoke better French than I did.
While I waited my turn, I recalled the Airbnb host who had questioned my priorities as a visitor to this city on the Seine. And I decided that he had a point about patronizing neighborhood markets. While others filter their searches for lodgings based on proximity to the Louvre, the twisting old streets of the Marais or a view of the Eiffel Tower, I now have different criteria. Once I’ve established that the place has a comfortable bed and a halfway decent kitchen, I will ask, “How far is it to the nearest marché à plein air?”
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, chronicling her adventures 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.