Go with the grape on rue Mouffetard

September 25th, 2009


Rue Mouffetard on Thursday – even in light showers – is a bustling jumble of fruit vendors, fish stalls moved out on the sloping street, and oh, what cheeses!  This shopping street is legendary, nothing new to Paris shoppers, but for some of us from “the provinces”, rue Mouffetard has it all. And the story this week begins with grapes, voluptuous bunches of French Chasselas de Moissac and Italian Italia grapes. The vagabond hopped off the bus just a few steps from this market in the 5th arrondissement, drawn to a vendor’s stall literally draped with grapes. In addition to chasselas, translucent and pearly pale green to gold, the larger and less-sweet-more-racy- italias begged to be plated for an autumn banquet. Perhaps a cheese or two would be good companions, I thought, and peered into the shop windows of Androuet Fromagerie, the classic Parisian Cheese Shop founded by Pierre Androuet. His Guide du Fromage (published by Stock in 1971) has been this cheese-lover’s bible for fifteen years.  So it began well, an uphill market ramble  on rue Mouffetard.


About midway up the street, between butcher shops and racks of Indian scarves, I had a hankering for a warming cup of cappucino, answered immediately by a stop at a cozy Sicilian café. As I pondered the choice between a hot chocolate and a capucino, I was informed that this café is more than a coffee stop, it is a phenomenon. Beyond espressos, crèpes or Sicilian pastas and salads for lunch, to live jazz on Saturday nights, the crèpe master exclaimed: the Sweet Lounge is five cafés in one! After my last drop of cappucino, I took note of this espresso stop/crèpes extraordinaire/pasta lunch/bar/jazz-corner/international crowd’s watering hole…. for future reference. Continuing along the street between shoppers’ caddies and strollers, I resisted the urge to choose an ice cream at Berthillon and chocolates from Jeff de Bruges or sweet delights from Octave. Past sizzling, crisp-skinned chickens on rotisseries, wine shops and pâté boutiques, past a host of aromas and temptations, the vagabond resolves to return for more flavors on rue Mouffetard in upcoming seasons.


Winter’s earthy flavors

January 2nd, 2009


The Friday morning market in St-Germain-en-Laye is a treasure trove during the holidays – or anytime, in fact. Wander through the old town’s narrow streets to the market after a short ride on the RER train northwest of Paris (from La Defence or Gare de Lyon). Find fresh mushrooms, parsnips or even the little corkscrew shaped roots called crosne. Delight in the rich range of winter fruits, heaps of clementines and mandarines, then select a ripe mango or a sack of plump dates. And leave room in your basket for cheese….. oh, my.

Amazed in the Meuse, from dragées to dragons

June 23rd, 2008

A week in Lorraine – the Meuse and Moselle region of northeastern France – isn’t enough. What I had planned as a jaunt to visit Verdun, to taste and learn more about fine, artisanal sugared almonds turned out to be a revelation beyond candy-making. Wedged between Alsace and Champagne-Ardennes on the northern route to Luxembourg, the Lorraine region doesn’t get much ink in travelogues – or even in foodologues. The fact that Jeanne d’Arc lived here is an item tossed into guides and tourist pamphlets, as an aside to the glories of the Isle de France and the Loire valley. Since pre-Roman times, this cross roads has carried its history well, surviving invasions and changing rulers. In fact, it is amazing that so much remains after centuries of warfare.

After a day in Verdun, where Dragées Braquier have made sugared almonds since the eighteenth century (this is another, sweeter story!), we took a regional bus back to Metz, rolling through tranquil landscapes of pastures and river valleys from the Meuse to the Moselle. The city’s enormous central train station has a hulking stone presence, reflecting the neo-roman style popular in early twentieth century Germanic architcture (Metz was at the time under German rule).  I looked up at the modern fingers of light ringing the station plaza, and thought: these look like talons – or claws of a beast. We would meet the monster later, in the crypt of Cathedral St-Etienne.

We ambled up and down walking streets lined with shops on the way to the city’s central market. The best of Metz’ shopping streets is Rue Tête d’Or, where pastries and confections decorate windows, enticing me inside to inspect and to catch a whiff of raspberries and vanilla. I stopped to admire fanciful pastries as we passed Claude Bourguinon’s chocolate shop and tea room, just as a case of artisanal ice creams was temptingly rolled onto the street. We found the U-shaped Metz market hall facing the grand cathedral, which is still the hub of this vibrant city. Longer than the cathedrals of Bourges or Strasbourg, and nicknamed “God’s Lantern”, Metz’ cathedral is illuminated by 6,500 square meters of stained glass. Like many buildings in this historic center, St-Etienne is built of a luminous golden stone, pierre de Jaumont. With or without exterior illumination, these plazas and surrounding façades seem to glow from within. After a pause to study the cathedral looming over a café on the plaza, I was ready to scout for regional specialties in the market hall. June brings the melon season, berries and rhubarb for tartes, along with early green cabbage and flats of chantarelle mushrooms. Jars of Mirabelle plums are everywhere, but fresh Mirabelles will not be in the market until August. Then, the sweet, golden plum is cause for celebration in Metz, attracting thousands to its annual Mirabelle Fest.

Well past noon, a mounting hunger sent us in search of lunch à la Lorraine. The Restaurant du Pont St-Marcel is a short walk, across two bridges, from the cathedral. We luckily found a table on their shaded terrace, an ideal spot to watch swans dipping into the river. I sipped a fruity white Moselle wine and awaited the arrival of a Tarte aux poireaux (Leek tart), then a Pintade au choux (Guinea fowl braised with cabbage) before tackling a Tarte aux groseilles à la crème d’amandes. The waitress, dressed in peasant skirt, cap and bodice, smiled when I rolled my eyes and took the last bite of the dark berry (currants and raspberries) tart with almond cream. My husband, Michel, didn’t look surprised and asked: More cream, eh? Well, a two-tart lunch doesn’t happen every day – only in Lorraine.

The crypt below St-Etienne cathedral holds artifacts of the city as well as religious documents and sculpture. And that is where I encountered a replica of the city’s legendary monster, the Graoully, suspended from the ceiling. St-Clement, the first bishop of Metz, was credited with destroying the menacing beast who was said to live in the old Roman arenas. It is a story reminiscent of St-George and the dragon, a familiar metaphor of Christian force crushing pagan beasts. In the third century, St-Clement founded the first chapel on the site of the Roman forum’s ruins. But tales of the Graoully are still told, in fact a literary award for science fiction writing, Le Graoully d’or (The golden Graoully) is awarded annually in Metz.

The famous Dragées de Verdun drew me to the Moselle, but there are many other reasons to return. The Mirabelle Festival in August, the huge monthly flea market – perhaps to find Madeleine molds or oval earthenware terrines – a gathering of brocante dealers second only in size to Paris’ noteworthy Marché St-Ouen, and the Marché de Noël would all be fun. Imagine stepping out of the monumental railway station into a frosty plaza filled with cabin-stalls chuck full of jams, pâtés, wines, novelties and preserved Mirabelles – all well lit by designer Philippe Starck’s narrow, pointed street lights. In any season, Metz is well worth the detour.

To view more images of Metz, tap the photo above. Then tap category “Bites of History” to return to the story.

Note: Take the TGV Est from Paris’ Gare de l’Est, about one hour’s train ride to Metz, via Nancy.

Restaurant du Pont St-Marcel is at 1, rue du Pont St-Marcel in Metz. Open year round, reserving a table for dinner is advised : tel. 03 87 30 1229. Claude Bourguignon’s chocolate and pastry shop at 31, rue Tête d’Or, is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9:15 to 7 p.m., and Sunday from 8:30 to 12:30.

Slow down and smell the flowers: Place Monge market does it every time

May 28th, 2008

Last Friday morning, I was in a rush to catch a train home from Paris. It was a turn-around visit, with little time to spare. But I knew there would be good things in the Place Monge market, both regional products and teasers from abroad, to taste and to take home. Flat crates of Rhineland rhubarb tempted me – a few stalks for sauce? Like dill, the rhubarb of northern climes always has more flavor. I admired elegant lilies and peonies on two flower stalls, and little pots of fresh herbs, ready to brighten city window sills (and add some zip to entrées and salads). One stall sold apples and several kinds of apple juices from Picardy orchards, another offered shimmering olives – in brine, in oil, and spiced – as well as almonds (as you guessed, I was on the look-out) and dried fruits. Fish, sausages, meat counters, and …let me count the cheeses… but there was no time to dawdle.

I stopped at the corner, just before my dash for the metro, and waited in line. Could not resist watching Lebanese bread being baked on a black griddle, could not resist a sampling of meat pies – fataya filled with spinach and pine nuts, cheese crescents with a hint of mint, and a pot of laban (a dense yogurt that I yearn to make at home) – even if this made my run to the TGV more pressured. It was worth it, as I slipped into my seat on the train to Bordeaux with four and a half minutes to spare, and pulled out a small lamb pie to nibble on as we headed south. Another Friday, I will know where to stop first at the Place Monge market – after a quick survey of a new season’s blossoms.

Note to shoppers: The Place Monge Market (at the Place Monge Metro stop) is an open-air market held on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday mornings from 7:00 to 1:00. This neighborhood market is within walking distance of the Muséum de l’Histoire Naturelle and Jardin des Plantes, in the 5th arrondissement.

Paris lights up: Marchés de Noël

December 14th, 2007

Inside or outside, a shopper’s options expand with the Christmas season’s very special markets across northern France. Alsace and eastern France hold the most festive marchés, where pine cabins strung with brightly lit garlands shelter vendors for the month of December. Marchés de Noël offer gift-shoppers goods and goodies from all corners of the globe.

On a recent windy, wet morning in Paris, I found (and tasted) my way around a few of these seasonal markets. I was looking for regional French products, good gifts, and a little Christmas cheer. All of the above can be found – along with Russian amber, warm Canadian caps and Peruvian ponchos – especially in the aisles spread across the historic Place St. Sulplice in the 6th arrondissement. Mingling aromas of hot chocolate, roasted coffee beans and cheese-enriched specialties of the Savoy region, this market offers a delightful variety. Watch a knitter deftly creating gloves of French mohair, stop to marvel at a mountain of Corsican air-dried country hams, talk with honey vendors or wine makers. Take the metro to the Saint Sulpice stop, from December 5th to 24th, stalls are open daily from 10:30 to 7 p.m.

A few blocks away, the smaller Saint-Germain des Près (Metro line 4 to Saint-Germain) stretches along the boulevard. Here, a more global collection of vendors sell jewelry, saws and cutlery, shawls and objects for interiors as well as sweets of the season. Hot crèpes, deep-fried Chi-Chi, mulled wine and pain d’épice tempt lovers of street food.

After sundown, the market at La Défense is a magical sight, a vast temporary town of 250 white, pointy-topped tents from November 28th until December 29th. Take the Metro to Esplanade de La Défense for shopping daily, and from 11:00 until 8 p.m. on Saturday. At the Maison de l’Alsace, 39 avenue des Champs-Elysées in the 8th arrondissement, the spirited Alsatian mood expands from demonstrations of making sweet specialties every afternoon to fairy tales told on Christmas Eve. From the Metro line 1 stop at Franklin Roosevelt, stroll along the famous, sparkling avenue to this animated Marché de Noël …..in the City of Light.