What’s your favorite food memory from the markets of Paris? Maybe yours is as recent as this morning, or last Thursday, or perhaps decades ago. My own favorite food memory goes back to January 23, 2011. As intense memories go, I remember not only the date but also the weather, my mood, and even my clothing (more on that in a moment).
My husband and I had arrived in Paris a week prior. We had visited Paris many times before, but this was different. We were settling in for a 6-month stay while I was on assignment to research and photograph markets for the guidebook Markets of Paris, 2nd ed., co-authored with Dixon Long.
Living in Paris, or anywhere for that matter, is a whole lot different from visiting for a few days. We were dealing with setting up a bank account (need I say more?), buying electrical adaptors, and retraining ourselves to pull when instincts urged us to push. Without the benefit of a hotel desk clerk to ease our adjustment, we were left to our own devices for navigating our way.
On our first market outing, we were chastised for asking directions from a kiosk vendor without first saying Bonjour. Punished is a better word, because after the rebuke we were given directions that sent us in the wrong direction. And so when we finally got to Marché Raspail, we were disoriented, dispirited, and downright chilled. That’s where the clothing part of the memory comes back. We were wearing thin fleece jackets, which seemed fine when we left our apartment but proved inadequate in protecting us from cold spritzing rain that appeared from nowhere.
It was a Sunday, and so this was the organic (“bio”) version of the Raspail market. Even on a chilly January day, the market was abuzz. Everyone, except us, seemed to know where to head and what to buy. We strolled the length of the market without venturing a single purchase or conversation. Here we were in Paris. And yet. We were miserable. That is, until we discovered Les Galatins at the rue Cherche-Midi end of the market.
The smell of galettes de pomme de terre beckoned us. Smoke rose from a stand like genies escaping bottles. Two men stood next to their griddles with spatulas. They moved with well-practiced choreography: pouring golden batter, flattening the cakes so they spread into dessert-plate size, flipping them until both sides turned a shiny golden brown, and taking money from customers who formed a line. That was our first market purchase. And a small price to pay for what turned out to be my favorite food memory. The first bite, hot and crisp, opened up to a soft center. Shredded potatoes, mixed with onion (or garlic? my memory is murky on that detail) and a hint of cheese, released their rich flavors. I gobbled that first galette on the spot, licking every last morsel off my fingertips. The galette de pomme de terre warmed me up, literally and figuratively, for the research project that lay ahead. (Later I learned to buy extra to take back to the apartment and reheat.)
For the following six months, I explored markets throughout Paris for six days each week. I visited many of them several times over to check my original impressions and gather further details and photos. The research took me to every arrondissement. I explored not only the open-air food markets but also covered markets, flea markets, antique markets, book, flower, stamp, bird…and more. All told, the book covers over 120 markets. Dixon and I include practical tips and share some of our personal favorite restaurant suggestions.
In Paris, market outings are not only about shopping and eating. They’re also a chance to experience the city in a new way or get to know it more deeply. Our perspective as outsiders might give us a slight advantage in the sense that nul n’est prophète en son pays. In any case, our book turns out to be a love letter to the fine French art of markets. And a way to make them more accessible to everyone. May the markets of Paris continue to thrive well into the future. My favorite memories, of galettes and otherwise, surely will.
Marjorie R. Williams is a writer whose work has been featured in magazines and travel blogs. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago and an M.F.A. in creative writing. Williams lived in Paris while researching and photographing the markets for the second edition of Markets of Paris (The Little Bookroom/May 2012). For more information, visit her website at http://www.marjorierwilliams.com.