Cornering the market

Naintara Maya Oberoi | Updated on January 16, 2018 Published on October 28, 2016
Upwardly mobile: Until the 1980s, Marché d’Aligre was a local affair. Now the market is more cosmopolitan, selling goods from France and beyond. Photo: Naintara Maya Oberoi

Upwardly mobile: Until the 1980s, Marché d’Aligre was a local affair. Now the market is more cosmopolitan, selling goods from France and beyond. Photo: Naintara Maya Oberoi

Naintara Maya Oberoi

Naintara Maya Oberoi   -  BusinessLine

A warm Sunday before the onset of winter becomes an excuse for a jaunt to one of Paris’s oldest marchés

I’m easily pleased when it comes to food shopping. I even like going to supermarkets, especially in foreign countries, where I can spend fascinated hours among the matcha Kit Kats and the aerosol cheese. Still, it’s hard to top the serendipity and charm of a street market.

To faire le marché on weekends is a treat for Parisians too. Most neighbourhoods have a marché, an outdoor market where everyone goes to stock up for the week (generally in addition to the supermarket), with butchers, bakers, greengrocers and fishmongers.

A warm Sunday before winter set in seemed perfect for a jaunt to the Marché d’Aligre, one of Paris’s oldest food markets. It was born outside the city gates in Faubourg Saint-Antoine, which led to the abbey of Saint-Antoine-des-Champs, later the Saint-Antoine Hospital, as a second-hand clothes market in the early 18th century. Over time the market grew, and in 1781, the abbess of Saint-Antoine-des-Champs donated money for the construction of a covered section, which was pulled down during the storming of the nearby Bastille, but later reconstructed. The marché has seen and survived the fall of the Bastille, guild strikes, bread-and-rent riots, and the doomed barricades of the Paris Commune.

Until the 1980s, it was still a local affair, selling peaches and strawberries from people’s cottage gardens and Montreuil’s suburban orchards. Now the market is more cosmopolitan, with stalls and shops selling goods from France and beyond: Brittany, Alsace, Italy, India, Portugal and North Africa. It remains a neighbourhood market, sans pretension to trendiness (despite the inexorable march of kale into the veggie trays).

The rue d’Aligré was bustling when we arrived at 11am: tomatoes, clementines, apples, and cascades of table grapes everywhere. “And mandarins!” I squeaked, nearly falling into a pile of prickly pears (called “Barbary figs” in French). My journey down the street (cherry tomatoes, a basil pot, a free clementine and a pink-and-white-mottled aubergine) led me to the Graineterie du Marché, an old-fashioned “dry goods” shop with grains for humans and birds, as well as flowers, dried fruit and plants, dried beans, flours, spice mixes, and oils (hazelnut, avocado, olive).

At the “certified organic” stall, I filled a paper bag with yellow, purple and pink carrots, and bought some purple-tipped French artichokes from the stall opposite. People clustered around wild ceps, girolles and pieds-de-mouton mushrooms, shaking their heads at the price of raspberries, and remarking that the pomegranates were better elsewhere (and cheaper, too, and they’d been coming here for years, and they knew your father, young man).

The interior market was in full swing too. A real deer’s head nailed to the front proclaimed that Le Chapon d’Aligre’s speciality was wild game — rabbits, deer fillets and pairs of striped pheasants. “All the little quails finished at 10 in the morning, monsieur!” said the harried man, scooping up veal kidneys. “Would you like a pigeon? A nice Bresse chicken?”

I left the pigeons versus chickens argument to go see Michel Brunon, the market’s most celebrated butcher. Brunon remains one of the last in Paris to still sell horsemeat, which was for a long time the only meat the poor could afford. I didn’t really want to buy a horseburger, but luckily, he’s also noted for other delights: prize Limousine beef, herbed sausages, terrines, and cider-cured hams.

The next butcher was a suckling pig specialist, while yet another was doing brisk business with party snacks that seemed from another era: pig muzzle in Lyonnaise style; pigs’ feet tied in twine and jellied, then sprinkled delicately with parsley, boudin blanc’; and, incongruously, tubs of ‘chorizo soufflé’. I considered buying a hoof for research purposes, but couldn’t stomach the thought of carrying a slowly un-jelly-ing pig’s foot around all afternoon in the sun.

A good fishmonger should have no surrounding smell, but for cheesemongers, the reverse applies. A good cheese announces itself to the air at large, rather like socks, and a fromager can normally be sniffed a few metres away. Here there were two, though Hardouin Langlet had a longer, more determined queue snaking all around the shop. People stocked up on Bordier butter wrapped in paper; small, squished goats’ milk rocamadour; wedges of Beaufort d’Alpage; and pats of Tomme de Savoie covered in tiny purple flowers. There were tubs of burrata, the hippest cheese in Paris right now, and a fat disc with a hole in the middle, covered in grey ash, which, the fromager said, was a goats’ milk Rouelle du Tarn.

Our last stop was Sabah, the “exotic” grocer at the corner of the rue Aligré. Sabah stocks Greek, West Asian and Indian spices, nuts, breads, oils and cheeses, as well as a haphazard array of vine leaves, halal hot dogs, arak, vindaloo masala and Jack Daniels barbecue sauce. But their star attraction is the olive bar: vats of different kinds of olives — green, red, purple and black, pickled and seasoned with garlic, pepper, chilli, lemongrass — all at €5 a kilo.

Now my cloth bags were bursting, so we wound our way out of the market to join the rest of theshoppers at Le Baron Rouge. This lovable wine bar offers some of the city’s most reasonable wine, with platters of cheese and charcuterie. Winters see an oyster shucker set up shop outside as well. We ran into an old friend, and we drank some cold white Muscat together, balancing our oranges and pâté and wine on car bonnets and windowsills. You couldn’t ask for anything more.

Naintara Maya Oberoi is a food writer based in Paris; @naintaramaya

Published on October 28, 2016
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