One of the many wonderful things about Paris is its multiplicity. You can descend into the musty, musky smelling metro system and decide what kind of world you wish to emerge in. Perhaps arty, quasi-pastoral Montmartre or the popular and profane Pigalle. The refined, leather-bound Latin Quarter, the ancient Marais or St Michel, where tourists and pigeons flock around Notre Dame.
Otherwise, you could always take the metro less traveled (by tourists) and it might make all the difference (to your trip). The Bastille, in Paris’s 12th arrondissement, is one of the city’s most vibrant, culturally electric and consuming. Despite its recent popularity with Paris’ bright young things, this is traditionally and still an immigrant neighborhood. And nowhere is this more energetically evident than the Place D’Aligre markets.
The market takes place six days a week (closed Monday) in a triangle created by the busy Rues du Faubourg-Saint-Antoine and Charenton. There are a number of stalls selling bric-a-brac and doubtless many more ‘finds’ to be had among them, but Place D’Aligre’s real draw card is food. This isn’t a quaint, refined market: prices are low, people buy in bulk and the crowds are pushy. It’s a frothing melting pot, a little bit grubby and ever entertaining.
While the area is definitely a North African stronghold, there’s also a strong Southeast Asian contingent rubbing shoulders with traditional French produce and producers. Fruit sellers scream with hoarse, heavily accented voices to passers by, entertaining themselves and others with their battle cries, sales pitches and endearments to the pretty girls to stop and try their ripe fruit.
The covered Marché Beauvau-St-Antoine is the original Place D’Aligre market, the overflow of which is now the chaos outside. The contents of this lovely old building, which dates from 1843, mark a definite change from the noise outside.
Sur Les Quais sells tubs of spices, leaf tea and olive oils from Provence straight from the barrel. Buy a bottle or bring your own and fill it with your favorite. Les Plaisirs d’Anna is a fragrant, busy patisserie dominated by Anna herself, her strings of pearls swinging all over the place as she debates whether the current customer’s husband would prefer a dense chocolate fondant or a puffy Portuguese tart for his mid-morning sustenance. Besides custards, puddings, tarts, pastries and bitter 85% cocoa chocolate, the stall is also rimmed with cake trays. These contain up to ten varieties of honey bread crammed with pine nuts and apricot, drenched with syrupy candied orange pieces or simply spiced with nutmeg or vanilla. Anna’s honey breads are sold served sliced or whole and recommended served warm, in thick pieces and smeared with unsalted butter. Everything is baked on the spot using natural, usually organic ingredients.
A couple of stalls along is the wonderworld that is Monsieur Pommier’s La Maison du Fromage. Pommier specializes in raw milk cheese and has a stupendous collection of France’s best. There are chalky white goat’s cheeses, dribbling washed rind cheeses and pungent Roquefort. The queue moves slowly as Pommier and his colleagues dispense advice, suggestions and gossip to their adoring public.
The covered markets are also home to a fragrant stall selling huge buckets of dewy fresh flowers and nifty little garden clogs garnished with huge fabric rosettes. There are a number of charcuteries selling cured meats from all over France and a good selection of Italian hams, pâté, terrines and rillettes molded into thick ceramic bowls.
A game and fowl specialist sells duck legs en confit, foie gras and freshly made soups. Fishmongers sell live crustaceans, carefully presented salmons, whitebait, sardines and whatever else the season dictates.
Back outside, the hum of humanity revs to fever pitch. Trolleys sell frothy piles of green mint, strings of halal butcheries push their display cabinets, brimming with tongue, brains and tripe strung like wet gray knitting onto the streets, the traders competing with each other for volume both vocal and commercial.
There are plenty of stands selling seasonal French produce; when we visited in early spring, plump white asparagus and artichokes were just appearing. The seasonal staples sit tête à tête with exotic stands displaying pyramids of ripe rouged mangos, guavas and grapes, while specialist North African stands display mountains of lemons, both preserved and fresh, and buckets of marinated olives.
Shops lining the square are just as eclectic, selling everything from dried lavender from Provence to harissa, henna, black beans, rose syrup, orange blossom water, green tea, sticky dates, peanut butter and polenta.
If this orgy of world food has sparked a hunger, the streets surrounding the markets provide an embarrassment of riches. Moroccan cafes serve mint tea and sticky honey pastries or a plateful of tagine and couscous for what you’d pay for a coffee in some quarters. There’s also a hole in the wall producing Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai dishes. Their pho, a Vietnamese take on
chicken noodle soup, is cleansing and refreshing, piled with mint, sprouts and chili.
Or perhaps, loaded with fruit, cheese and clogs, you might decide to leave the chaos of the markets behind, perhaps for one of those quiet refined Left Bank cafes, or a picnic of your purchases in the delicate Tuilleries gardens. But more than likely, you’ll settle into one of the throbbing market cafes for some of Paris’ most interesting people watching.
Sophie Herron, an Australian journalist, previously a features writer for Australian Table magazine, is a member of the Slow Food Internet Office editorial team