EDITOR’S NOTE Attention, Francophiles and lovers of meat: Each day this week, Washington food blogger Cathy Barrow is posting from Kate Hill’s Kitchen at Camont in Gascony, France, where a select and fortunate group of women will meet farmers and butchers, observe daily life, collaborate at workshops, cook lots of great meals and eat very, very well. As the days unfold, she’ll introduce you to the other women on the trip.
Cathy writes Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Kitchen, sharing recipes, food preservation techniques and stories. She is the co-founder of Charcutepalooza, the year-long program that challenges 400 bloggers to learn to make charcuterie. She has been featured in The Washington Post Food section, on Food52.com and on National Public Radio.
First, there was shopping.
On Saturday, I met up with Toma Clark Haines, a 37-year-old American expat who lives in Europe and blogs at TheAntiquesDiva.com.
Given a little more than 30 hours in the City of Light, jet lag was ignored and a whirlwind trip to the famous puces, or flea markets, was a must. Toma made the most of my brief stay. Her boutique business offers private tours to visitors to Paris and six other European countries.
Most antique shoppers head straight for Clingancourt, the gigantic flea market to the north of Paris. With limited time and the desire to hunt for kitchen tools, cutlery, linens and other trappings of the French home, we began at the Puces des Vanves (Metro: Portes des Vanves).
On Saturdays and Sundays, the market opens around 8 a.m. and closes by 1 p.m., so it’s best to start your shopping day here. Bring cash (no credit cards taken) and be prepared to bargain smart. The vendors will roll their eyes and tut-tut in that Gallic way, but they often will discount prices by 20 to 25 percent. (Especially true on rainy days.)
These are professional sellers, each with their own specialty. We found tables of cafe au lait bowls (rather expensive, to my mind), boxes of Bakelite-handled cutlery, odd carving sets with animal feet (the fur put me off) and stacks and stacks of linens. There were an amazing number of antlers, cafe chairs, tin signs and other examples of French life.
I adored these menu cards from the 1920s, but their price (5 euros each) seemed steep. While it might have been fun to re-create a menu like this for a dinner party, the vendor’s reluctance to come down on the price brought out my stubborn side.
It’s quite possible I will regret leaving behind this incredible set of etched, hallmarked, sterling-silver fruit knives with monogrammed ivory handles. They were 300 euros each; again, too rich for my purse.
After a careful stroll of the three blocks of vendors, I carried away only a dozen linen monogrammed napkins (30 euros).
It was almost 11 a.m. Toma and I reviewed a list of the neighborhood brocantes and vide greniers (attic sales.) While the puces are populated by professional sellers, brocantes bring out the locals with whatever treasures they might want to move along. Naturally, this means digging through a lot of junk, but it also guarantees better prices.
The Oberkampf brocantes was situated in a small park not far from the Metro stop. There were easily 100 sellers offering up bits of everything: cookware, lamps, coat racks, old fur coats, books, maps, cafe au lait bowls and an extraordinary number of aperitif glasses.
(I wonder: Is this a sign of the end of the aperitif?)
In all, there were bargains galore. After just an hour scouring the market, I scored a Bakelite-handled fish server (5 euros) and a set of green Bakelite fish forks (eight, for 10 euros.) Left behind: Stunning copper cookware that needed to be retinned — even so, a great bargain; a seltzer bottle worthy of Nick and Nora; and Paris memories in the form of cafe standards, such as heavy glass water bottles emblazoned with the name of the familiar pastis, Ricard, and scores of plastic ashtrays.
Tired, foot-sore and hungry, we wandered just steps from the Ste Germaine de Pres Metro. Perhaps best known for the quintessential tea shop, Laduree, we were first headed to L’Huilerie LeBlanc (6 Rue Jacob).
A little-known secret, this small family business has produced extraordinary oils for over a century. On the shelves are some of the best olive and nut oils I’ve ever tasted. They’re a bit pricey (16 to 24 euros per bottle), but a mere whisper of the pistachio oil on steamed asparagus would make you mad for the stuff. Also available: walnut, hazelnut, cashew, pine nut and truffle oils, as well as buttery, golden-hued olive oil.
The whirlwind shopping day never could have happened without Toma’s help. She came well prepared and rapidly sensed what I was looking to find. I appreciated her well-trained eye and her advice about how to bargain.
Before she departed, Toma reminded me that Puces des Vanves would be open the next morning — just in case those fruit knives haunted my dreams.