October 10, 2007
Sunday in the provinces
Actually, we didn’t leave Paris last Sunday, but we did set off in search of a street fair celebrating the culture of the people of Aveyron, a southern province of France (just north of where Montpellier is!). Allen and I have decided that anything within about two miles – oh, forget it, just anything within Paris! - is considered “walking distance.” So we set off on foot to Bercy, which used to be its own town, but is now the farther end of the 12th arrondissement.
We expected it to be about 50 degrees because that’s what the thermometer told us it was in the courtyard, but apparently our courtyard is an icebox because it must have been 20 or more degrees hotter in the sun. This was fine for me because I’d just worn a jacket over a t-shirt, but I was feeling bad for Allen who’d worn a sweater, and we tried to stick to the shaded sidewalks. Unfortunately this meant we didn’t get to walk right along the Seine, but we did avoid some of the rollerbladers and cyclists by sticking to the higher ground.
In addition to our goal of finding the Aveyron festival, we brought with us one of our City Walks cards from a set given to us by one of our cat-sitting clients. The set contains 50 walks both on and off the beaten trails of Paris, and we’ve made it our goal to do all 50 during our stay here. Some of you have heard me talking about needing structure before, and if you’re wondering, yes, it does apply to seeing the sites of Paris as well. This one promised a walk through two of former president Mitterrand’s grands projets (big projects, haha), but we actually skipped crossing the river to walk through his namesake library. In hindsight, that may have been a mistake because what we saw of the other grand projet, the Parc de Bercy, was quite impressive.
After 30 minutes of walking or more, we came upon the Palais Omnisports de Paris Bercy (or some combination of those words), which was a sports dome that had grass growing up every outer wall! Slightly less fascinating, but still noteworthy is that it contains some type of skating rink. I’ve filed that fact away. The dome was at the closer end of the Parc de Bercy, so we snuck in through some side gate. The park was easily longer than a football field, and it was filled with ponds, streams (canals, I should say), play areas, gardens, benches, a skate park, and various park buildings. It went on and on, even spanning a major street with two sloping bridges. People filled the park, walking, playing sports, enjoying time with kids, drinking wine… There were even people taking advantage of – wait for it – wifi hotspots in the park! I have never in America seen free wifi hotspots in a public park, but we need to get on that NOW! Once we’d made our way through the entirety of the park, we came to Bercy Village, a quaint shopping center filled with cafes and stores (mostly chains) built into the former skeleton of a winery storage. Even Sephora took on an old world air to it under those domed brick arches. Again, people spilled everywhere, filling cafe tables that lined the walkway between the shops. Continuing on, we saw a museum of carnival and fair equipment, which unfortunately was closed.
We came upon a little hitch at this point because we couldn’t seem to find the streets that had the Aveyron festival. We checked a map, but it wasn’t detailed enough. We wandered around some streets where it definitely wasn’t. Then, by chance, we wandered up a street to the right of the park (getting ready to head back, actually, though I regretted going back knowing we were really, really close!). We head some singing, and turned to see people in traditional costumes doing a dance. Hooray! We hurried into the throng. (Let me be clear: not to dance.)
Once we were among the boothes though, I actually became overwhelmed. People were just charging up to the booths and buying this and that, as if they knew which was the perfect pate or what that pastry actually was! Allen and I walked through the whole fair first to see what was there. What we saw were mostly sausages (including wild boar sausages and pates), pates, breads, wines, Roquefort cheese (ah!), olive and nut oils, and jams or sauces. I saw a beautiful imperfectly formed ceramic plate with a green glaze and a cardabelle etched right in the center. (If only it hadn’t been 50 euros!) For those of you who don’t know, a cardabelle is a thorny plant that looks like an evil dried up flower, and people in the south of France consider them good luck and hang them over their doorways.
Once we’d taken a look at everything, Allen and I set to sampling and purchasing a few things to try. First we choose fouace, which is a dessert bread with sugar on top and a hint of anise. We tried some jams (but Allen, who is the jam lover of the two of us, didn’t feel they lived up to the high price), and we sampled some pate. We noticed that everyone was carrying or eating plastic containers of a yellowy substance that looked like it had the consistency of cream cheese or pudding. Upon further investigation, we learned that it was called aligot, and a jolly old French man in traditional garb told me that it was made from potatoes, cheese, butter, creme fraiche, salt, and pepper – and just as much cheese as there is potatoes. Allen and I ordered a container of it and a sausage for good measure. We took it on the road, and also grabbed a piece of gallette a la broche on our way out, which is a cake made by dripping batter all over a paper cone on a spit and turning it slowly while continuing to cook on layer after layer of batter. We ate the gallette a la broche first; it was sweet and dense like shortbread. Then we moved on to the sausage, which was still almost too hot to eat. It was delicious, and I’d have been happy bringing ten more of them home! (Good thing we waited until we left!) It was moist and meaty and perfectly grilled.
Then we determined to stick our fingers in the aligot, and we got the best surprise yet! Aligot is apparently the most delicious form of cheesy garlic mashed potatoes ever made. Remember: just as much cheese as potato! Wow! We dug at it with our fingers for a while as we walked and then saved the rest until we got home (when we promptly devoured it without even bothering to heat it up). I’ve already found a recipe online, and I’m ready to try to make it on my own!
Altogether, Sunday was an extremely successful day between several hours of walking, the discovery of aligot, and some lovely Parisian scenery that’s closer than we would have thought!