Sunday, May 2, 2010

Food Scavenging at Aligres Market, Paris

      The Marché d'Aligre is an outdoor market in Paris' 12th arrondissement that sits snuggled up against the Marché Beauvau, a covered market.  Marché Beauvau has some fantastic shops and stalls: butchers, fishmongers, produce stalls,  an Italian deli with fresh pasta, and my favorite shop in the covered market, Sur Les Quais.
        Sur Les Quais stocks beautiful spices, gourmet salts, charcuterie,  mustards, tapenades, olives, and a beautiful array of bulk olive oils. The shop is normally crowded, and this Saturday was no different.  When I visited, a line was forming into the hallway outside the shop. I squished past the crowd and the row of shiny olive oil drums and my eye fell on a little jar of fat caper berries. I love caper berries, and haven't been able to find any reasonably priced ones in Paris. I counted out my change and walked up to the counter. The gentleman behind the counter greeted me and asked "How much are these again?" I told him the price that was on the sticker beside the jar and I handed him my pre-counted change. He glanced at the pile of coins and said "Did you count this right?" I said yes, and he tossed the change into the till without counting.
       This is one of the reasons I really like doing my food shopping in the markets. I regularly see people hand over their coin purses to the stall owners and let them sort out how much change they need.

       In the outdoor market at Aligres, the stalls run the length of the street on both sides and the vendors shout the prices of their produce at the throngs of people in between. People jostle and shove and occasionally run over your feet with their carts. It isn't rude to elbow in to get a view of the stalls; it is normal and necessary. Prices are competitive here and get lower towards the end of the market, or when one vendor sees a cheaper price across the street. They are very competitive: I have seen them make fun of each others' lettuce prices. 

       Though I was visiting the market for a few specific items,  I had another purpose in mind as well. I had witnessed a strange phenomenon at other markets.  When the vendors packed up and left at around two in the afternoon, a new group of people took over the market. People with their own bags or carts would swarm over the leftovers, the food discarded by the vendors, deemed too old, too soft, too ripe.  I was hoping that I could find the same thing at Marché d'Aligre.

Once I had finished browsing the stalls, I sat in a very noisy café to have an espresso and a stealthy macaron (bought at a patisserie down the street and smuggled in). I waited until the market was over, and as I had hoped a kind of ephemeral, underground market sprang up for a short time while the official market wrapped up. 
        There were lots of people picking through crates of produce that had been rejected, some of it was clearly spoiled, some of it was beginning to turn, with soft spots and bruises, and some of it was perfect, crisp, fresh and completely free. I hate wasting food, so I felt great that I could keep some of it out of the dumpsters. There was a competitive feeling between the scavengers, and it was thrilling to find something great that others had missed. Sometimes squabbles broke out over a particularly good box of this or that; I fought my way through a flock of ladies and their elbows to get to a large box of wonderful, perfectly fresh carrots.       
         The best moment came when I was considering some rather scrawny endives. As I stood there, I heard “Madame, Madame!” I had already been scolded by several vendors at that point. It was hard to tell whether I was being scolded because they were annoyed by my scavenging, or because I was in fact taking food that they hadn’t meant to throw out. I turned  in the direction of the voice, feeling slightly guilty. A vendor stood there, holding out a small but quite perfect fig. He smiled at me. “Voila, Madame.”

      Food scavenging is not exactly a typical touristic pastime, nor is it practical to do on a short trip to Paris. However, it was one of the most fun and satisfying things I have done here so far, and definitely worth observing if you are not up for scavenging yourself. My haul comprised: 
  • 3 avocados
  • 1 nectarine
  • 6 strawberries 
  • 15 carrots
  • 6 red heirloom tomatoes 
  • 1 large yellow heirloom tomato 
  • 1 fig
  • 1 pepper
  • 2 oranges
  • 1 lime
  • 1 celery stalk
  • lots of grapes 

         The market itself is not the only thing in the area worth checking out, though. One of my favorite food stores in Paris is tucked away besides the Marché d'Aligre. In its front room, the Graineterie du Marché carries bulk grains, beans, pasta, a wide variety of spices and an assortment of French sweets. In a second room, they have bird and animal feed, bird cages, plant pots, and various kitchen and garden odds and ends. They have a couple of little birds as well. I go often to buy their little packets of vanilla powder:  the vanilla is fantastically aromatic and not as expensive as other vanilla powder I have seen in Paris. The shop is lovely, the staff is friendly and they pack a huge amount of variety into a small space. They are closed on Monday, as is the whole market.
           The Marché d'Aligres is a fantastic example of a French market, lively, crowded and colourful. It is a great spot to see some locals in their natural habitat, which can be pretty refreshing after a lot of the main tourist attractions. The shops around it are great for foodie presents to take home as well.

Graineterie du Marché: 8 place d'Aligre
Metro: line 8, Ledru Rollin

No comments:

Post a Comment