A pair of greedy Americans pig out during a day at the French National Ham and Antiques Fair.
The day I took David Sedaris to La Foire Nationale à la Brocante et aux Jambons, I thought he might hyperventilate from exhilaration. "An oxygen tank!" he begged, theatrically gasping for air, as we toured the 400-odd booths at one of the oldest and most important fairs in France, which celebrates antiques, secondhand ware and ham.
I knew he'd love it. After all, David--a fellow American and the author of the best-selling Me Talk Pretty One Day--had dragged me to flea markets all over Paris when I needed to furnish my new apartment there. David took almost as much pleasure in my finds as he did in his, patiently setting me up with all the implements of a French household, from Le Creuset pots to gilded mirrors. Bringing him to the fair, which runs for 10 days every March and September, was my way of returning the favor.
As the train pulled into Chatou, 10 miles from Paris, we saw what appeared to be a refugee encampment with smoke billowing out of the center. Handsomely dressed dealers, many with dogs in tow, carried out huge candelabra, piles of linen and baskets of china. Anything but a refugee encampment, it was a small village filled with green wooden stalls surrounding a food area where something (ham, we assumed) smoked away.
Both David and I had been wondering what ham had to do with antiques. We learned that during the Middle Ages, pork butchers from every region in France came to Paris during Holy Week, leading up to Easter, to sell meat. As the years passed, vendors at the Foire aux Lards (or Fair of Fat, as it was then known) began selling not only pork but the equipment to cook it. Now you can buy everything imaginable there, we observed, from oyster dishes and butcher blocks to four-poster beds. While I have never been one for flea markets at home in San Francisco, this was something else entirely. It was as if we'd stumbled upon the detritus of a musty old French attic or a recently sold château.
In my flea-market forays with David in Paris, I'd come across several vendors with exceptional taste. One of my favorites, Madame Claudine Peltot, was in Chatou that sunny fall day. Madame Peltot began collecting linen as an antidote to the stress of her job, as mayor of a small town. Finally, she amassed such an enormous supply that she needed to sell some so she could buy more. At the Bastille Brocante in Paris, she'd given me a crash course on French linens; along the way we learned that we shared a passion for cooking.
Madame Peltot has always inspired me with her creativity--pairing a chartreuse linen tablecloth with purple napkins, for instance. I bought that tablecloth (I couldn't wait to top it with a centerpiece of tangerines and persimmons) and a lovely side table that Monsieur Peltot agreed to deliver to my apartment. Their dog, Nini, oversaw all from an antique daybed, her head resting on a pile of pillowcases.
At half past noon, the antiques dealers paused almost in unison for lunch. David and I continued to shop, waiting for hunger to scratch our stomachs, and interrupted a proprietor to ask about an item that caught our eye. The man carefully wiped his mouth with a white linen napkin and politely replied, "Excuse me, Madame and Monsieur, but as you can see, we are lunching. May I ask you to return when we are finished?" Well, we thought, chastened, this was a normal response from the French, who take their meals seriously. Then we scrutinized his table for hints about what we should sample for our lunch.
Despite those clues, we had a hard time deciding between roasted pork with grilled endive, at one booth; tartiflette (warm potatoes with bacon), at another; and sausages and sauerkraut, at a third. Finally we found ourselves at Monsieur Sepre's booth, admiring huge rotisseries of pork that had been brined for weeks, and bought baguettes filled with thin slices. On our way to sit, we were sidetracked by Soler Fils, a lively stand with a canopy of pork legs, where we bought lard for preparing lardons--just the thing for topping a salad made with frisée and warm poached egg.
As we ate, David became increasingly agitated about the vastness of the shopping opportunities ahead of us. Distracted, he accused one of the vendors of stealing his jacket from the back of his chair. Later, after he'd made a few more purchases and calmed down a little, he remembered that he hadn't worn a jacket that day.
As we were leaving the fair, Monsieur James Jaulin's objets culinaires stopped us in our tracks. Monsieur Jaulin showed us an old lamp that came with a little strainer for turning used cooking oil into fuel. Then he gestured at a display of polished copper molds, pointing a flashlight at them so they glowed. "But do you notice," he asked, "how the shine is not reflective?" He explained that the molds were created with imperfect facets, to prevent glare.
Waiting for the train, David and I took stock. In addition to my purchases from Madame Peltot, I'd been unable to resist a huge mortar and pestle and a candleholder from Monsieur Jaulin. David had amassed three paintings, a wooden pharmacy box, two dish towels, some old photographic developing paper, a yogurt jar and a crocheted angora kitten as a gift for his partner, Hugh. ("He clutches it in his arms as he falls asleep every night," David told me later.)
It was a glorious way to spend the day and to learn more about the French. Aesthetics are so important to them, for instance, that dealers thought nothing of moving their lunch tables right into the middle of an aisle to catch the long, low fall light.
Indeed, when Monsieur Peltot delivered my side table, he didn't hesitate to give me his opinion about where it should be placed. "Near the window, as the table has a lustrous top and will catch the light there," he insisted. And we took great pleasure as we caught a bit of light in the city that is all about light.
Peggy Knickerbocker is a longtime resident of San Francisco, where she writes about food and tends to the business of renting her Paris apartment by the week.