Friday, Part 2: The Food

This man wants you to taste his sausage.

La foire nationale à la brocante et aux jambons (the antiques and ham market) takes place every spring and fall out in the Parisian suburb of Chatou. It began in the middle ages, when during holy week vendors would gather to sell their hams right in front of Notre Dame. Over the ensuing centuries, the market was subsequently moved to various other spots in the city. Over time, other flea market-type vendors joined the market, and eventually, in 1970, it ended up in Chatou, right under the RER station (which makes getting there from Paris extremely easy).

My last post covered some of the lovely antiques to be found there, and this one is about the ham. The center aisle of the fair is given over entirely to food: apart from the booths selling region-specific charcuterie, including foie gras, there is also some wine, cheese, and a number of stands selling prepared food. Since this section is not unlike a much, much smaller version of the Salon d’Agriculture that I visited in Paris and wrote about last week, I’ll go light on the photos. Charcutepalooza notwithstanding, I’m sure you don’t need to see twenty different pyramids of salami to get the idea.

I do like this shot of the crêpe guy doing his thing. Because this is the Internet, I am required by law to point out the jar of Nutella. I think it’s pretty funny that the latex glove he’s wearing gives the whole thing a mime-y vibe.

We had lunch at the joint with the big “Jambon a l’os” (ham on the bone) sign, where whole hams rotated on rotisseries, with flames licking them to a ruddy sheen of positively erotic proportion.

They carved the meat to order, draping it on plates heaped with various vegetables they had sizzling in colorful piles on large griddles along the front: endive, tomatoes, potatoes, and zucchini. I made sure to order extra couenne, rind, but somehow only Cathy’s plate got it. She shared, though, because she is a team player and there’s no “je” in “équipe.”

After lunch, we continued our tour down the food avenue. Of all the stands we saw, there’s one I want to talk about because both the wares and the vendor were so compelling. The name is also awesome; Bac à Saveurs (“Tub of Flavors”) is an outfit from the Ardèche, which is just North of my old stomping grounds in Vaucluse. Apart from his awesome Harpo Marx hat, the vendor, whose name I have lost, was ebulliently convivial and generous with samples of meat, cheese, and wine from a wooden cask behind the table.

He had a few cured sausages and ham on offer, and all were superb. The ham, which you can see below, is unlike any I have seen elsewhere. Right after slaughter, our host explained, they bone out the hams and then skin them, removing just about all the fat from the outside. Then they reattach the skin and salt and weight the hams for forty days. When the reattachment is done immediately, the skin bonds back on  under pressure. If you look in the fat at the bottom, you can see a thin line running through it halfway between skin and meat. That’s where it was cut. After salting, the hams are hung for fourteen months. The pork is soft, tender, and profoundly flavorful It also slices like a dream thanks to the lack of fat and bones and the compressed oblong shape. It was hard to resist buying a whole one. He gave us lots of information, and wine, and even sang us a little song.

The smaller sausage above on the right was a fine saucisson with black pepper. Next to it, stuffed in beef bung and traditionally eaten at Christmas, is called Gros Jésus and it was phenomenal. The larger size meant that the meat inside was softer, with a marvelous deep and porky richness. Creamy, velvety, meaty goodness. To the left of that, with the black pepper all over it, it a large sausage that they make with the previous year’s hams once the new batch is ready. They chop them all up, stuff them, roll them in pepper, and let them cohere a bit. Apart from the genius reuse of their beautiful ham, the result has a delightful texture and a twice-cured sort of character that plays beautifully with the sharp, peppery outside.

His cheese wasn’t bad either, especially the Tome de vache with the famous Ardechois chestnuts and walnuts in it. Any of these things is worth seeking out. I’m going to try a few of them at home, since if I had to guess I would say that not much of this sees our shores.

I must add here that the weather was astonishingly nice for my entire trip, especially this day. Paris was mostly gray, but it didn’t rain, and Gascony had a couple of showers but only at night when I was indoors. It made an exceedingly enjoyable sojourn even better, and the beaming sun made this day trip magnificent. As lunch caught up with us and our pace began to slow, we strolled back to the train so we could rest and change before the big dinner, which will be part three.

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I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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