Today I set out to storm the Bastille. Actually, I set out to find a food market in the neighborhood where the famous fort-turned-prison-turned-rallying-cry-for-freedom once stood. For me, traipsing alone through a city whose language I don’t speak and whose locals are not exactly known for their friendliness, the mission required a revolutionary zeal and courage of its own.
As I emerged from the Bastille metro stop, I easily found the first of two markets, the Marché Bastille and the Marché d’Aligre, which I’d read were among the best in Paris. A beautiful, open-air market three rows of stalls wide and nestled in the wide median of Boulevard Richard Lenoir, it stretched for blocks north of the busy traffic circle that marks the site where the Bastille once stood.
Sellers offered fruits, vegetables, fish, beef, pork, eggs, cheese, flowers, herbs, spices, breads, prepared foods, bulk rice and grains and pastries—all with a size and scope and spaciousness that put New York City’s best green markets to shame. There were stalls of national specialties such as Lebanese, Italian, Portuguese, and “Northeast European” (herring fillets and salads) alongside regional specialties from Breton, Normandy, and the South of France. A long line of Parisians toting chic baskets and shopping carts queued for the charcuterie from Alsace.
The fish options alone, I could not believe: each stall—and there were several of them—was four or five times the size of the single fisherman’s table at my local market in Manhattan. There were whole fish, filleted fish, shellfish, mussels, even sea urchins with their strange, dark, spiked bodies. I discovered a fish called Carrelet with bright orange polka dots and a big, ugly brown one called Barbue, neither of which I had heard of even in their English translations. I saw the slimy dark bodies of lamprey eels coiled on their bed of ice. Mackerel, which I certainly recognize on my favorite sandwich in New York, I did not recognize here as the beautiful specimens with green geometric patterns on black bodies reminiscent of snakes.
I was overwhelmed. I was also growing frustrated by my inability, as I was staying in a hotel room, to buy and then cook any of the appealing things I saw. Finally, on day four of my quest to see as many of Paris’s food markets as possible in a week, even I had had enough.
So I set out to elevate my mood with some artistic and intellectual diversions. I wanted to visit Saint-Eustache, the large church just northeast of the Louvre, which I had never before seen. I was attracted by its Gothic architecture, its history—it is where Molière was baptized and married, Mozart had his mother’s funeral mass, and Voltaire was buried—and its art; in particular I wanted to see an altarpiece that was the final completed work by artist Keith Haring.
But it seems that I cannot escape the farm, not even there in the church of Mozart and Molière. For as I stood in the center of the sanctuary reading of its history, trying in vain to find the Haring altar piece, which turned out to be on loan, what I discovered instead was this: After those French revolutionaries stormed the Bastille, they banned Catholic practice in this church. They turned it, this very place where I was standing, into—what else?—a temple for agriculture.