Eat your heart out in Paris

Mike Gerrard learns the art of buying fine food on a tour of the French capital's specialist shops and markets

ood doesn't have to be organic to be organic, Paule Caillat tells me as we explore the food stalls at the Popincourt Market in Paris. "I don't hold with buying expensive `organic' stuff," she adds, "when you can buy food that's just as natural. Take this stall here, selling apples and cider. This guy has his own orchards about 50km north of Paris and comes here every week to sell it. His fruit is organic but he doesn't stick a label on it to say so!"

Paule should know - she was born in Paris, in the now fashionable Marais district, a short walk from where we met. She combines teaching cooking, mostly to Americans temporarily resident in the city, with leading walks for foodies - or Promenades Gourmandes, to give them their proper title.

Every walk is different, tailored to the interests of the walkers, usually couples or groups of friends. "What do you want me to show you?" Paule had asked on the phone. The best markets, I had said, and some specialist food shops - and I'd love some tips on where to eat.

I asked Paule what other requests people had made, as we made our way to the market at the start of our promenade. "Sometimes they are interested in one thing, such as chocolate, and they want to see the best shops. In that case, I always include a visit to Debauve and Gallais on the rue des Saints-Peres, for the beauty of the shop, which dates from about 1800, as well as for the chocolates."

As we reach the market, the smells of fresh produce make me want to stop and eat a five-course meal, even though I have only just finished breakfast. Smell the sea on those mussels, the earthy mushrooms, the cheeses, the freshly baked bread.

"Here's a stall that's a dying breed," Paule points out to me, "a triperie, which sells offal. My American cookery students don't like offal, so I keep it out of the lessons. But I love it. The rognon de veau, or veal kidney, is of the finest quality, the veal tongues are delicious, and the onglet, a succulent cut of meat from the spine, is also known as le morceau du boucher, the `butcher's bit', because it is so good that butchers like to keep it for themselves."

Paule tells me to look out for the "Producteur" sign above a stall, meaning the stallholders grow their own produce. We compare the price of fish for a fish cookery course that Paule is teaching later in the week. "I just want to see what's around. Look at that colinot (codling) there, at FFr76 (pounds 8) a kilo. At a fish stall on the other side they were selling it at FFr35 a kilo. Of course, I tell myself that this must be twice as good, but how can you tell? Well, in Paris you have to develop a good relationship with your supplier, of fish, of meat, of vegetables, whatever. I have a very good butcher near where I live, and I trust him to tell me the truth because I am a regular customer and spend a lot of money with him because of my cookery classes. If he tells me something is expensive because it's top quality, I believe him, and if he tells me it's expensive only because it's a bit scarce this week, I'll buy something else. For me, as a cook, the product is the beginning of everything. You can have the finest of recipes but if the ingredients aren't top quality then forget it."

We hop on the Metro to Bastille and walk to the Aligre market at the back of Faubourg St Antoine. This proves to be three markets in one, and we start with the covered market in its typically Parisian glass and steel building, of the type that in Britain would have been knocked down long ago and replaced with something soulless. This is the place for fresh truffles, and for game - rows of unplucked pheasants and partridges dangle from some of the stalls. From one of them, a whole wild boar is suspended. At the fish stall, Paule raises an eyebrow to see colinot priced at FFr99, almost three times the best price at Popincourt. "But," she says, "this market is where you get top-quality stuff at top prices."

Outside is a cheap and cheerful market, mostly manned by North Africans, from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. "They get the best bargains at the wholesalers," Paule tells me, "so they offer the lowest prices, but you have to be careful as the poor quality is mixed in with the good." Alongside the food market is a junk market: clothes, books, bric-a-brac, but nothing like on the scale of the original Marche aux Puces, which takes place at Saint-Ouen, on the city outskirts, and has some 3,000 stalls.

From the Aligre market we cross the Place de la Bastille and enter the Marais district. "It is very fashionable these days," says Paule, "and I know it well as I lived here as a child. The rue St Antoine is great for specialist food shops, like this one, Au Cheval du Marais, the horse- meat shop. These are disappearing, too, like the triperies. I've never tried it but it's supposed to be a very healthy meat, and it's very cheap - we don't kill horses specially to eat them, it's the meat from horses that die naturally, a cheap source of meat for poor people in the past."

Paule then takes me down a turning to a shop I would never have found by myself, the glorious Izrael - Le Monde des Epices, on rue Francois- Miron. To call it a spice shop is like calling Harrods food hall a grocer's. Izrael seems to have the best of everything from around the world, crammed into a shop so small that when you turn round you risk sending half the spices of the Orient scattering over the floor. There are vanilla pods from Tahiti, peppercorns from Sarawak, lentils from Turkey, dried peppers hanging from the ceiling, sacks full of couscous and bulgur wheat, there is feta from Greece, rum from Guadeloupe, vodka from Russia, curry powder from Madras and mustard from Colman's of Norwich.

I feel the hunger pangs coming on again, so we break for a coffee before continuing our tour, and I ask Paule where she would recommend eating. Having quizzed me on what I like, she gives me half a dozen recommendations, and I waste no time in checking one out that evening.

Au C'Amelot has a fixed menu of five courses for FFr160, with no decisions to make except for a choice of three puddings. I'm served a Jerusalem artichoke soup, followed by a confit of cod with haricot beans, in a sauce made from the fish, the beans and added bite from chorizo sausages. The main course is wild boar, in a plum and honey sauce, and I wonder if it's the one that was hanging in the Aligre market that morning. Paule told me that the chef here does his menu according to what he buys in the market each day.

Stuffed to the gills, I pay the amazingly cheap bill and book a table again for the following night. I waddle off down the road, more of a Promenade Greedy Pig than just Gourmande, but still, when in Paris ...

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