Cookware shopping in Paris -- more than pots and pans
No one needs to be told that Paris is a food town. Even the least gastronomic of tourists cannot avoid a trip to view the display of pates, cooked meats, perfect fruits and vegetables, and other delights at Fauchon's on the Place de la Madeleine.
In its day the central market, Les Halles, was also a magnet, with otherwise lazy vacationers rousing themselves at 5 a.m. to trip over crates of stringbeans and eat onion soup at one of the all-night brasseries on the market's perimeter.
Well, Les Halles is no longer there. In its place is what Parisians call le trou des Halles (the hole of Les Halles), part of an urban beautification program that has been under way for some years and also included erection of the Pompidou arts center and major restorations of buildings in the beautiful Marais area.
Needless to say, the officials in charge of this mostly commendable project do not call their brainchild ''the hole of Les Halles.'' They call it le Forum des Halles, and to give them credit, the complex is far more than a mere hole. It is a multi-level shopping center built around a central courtyard three stories below the street.
The shops are, with one exception, small ones, including pricey clothes boutiques, jewellers, and gift shops.The exception is FNAC, an excellent book, record, photography, and high-fidelity-equipment outlet.
But, perhaps in keeping with the history of the site or perhaps just because Paris is the food town it is, there is a disproportionate number of restaurants, snack shops, and food shops.
There are croissanteriesm , serving mediocre but freshly baked variations on the croissant and brioche.There are boutiques selling decent foie gras and other luxury products at fairly elevated prices.
There are herb and spice shops, fancy groceries, and full-scale restaurants ranging from awful to palatable.
There is even a Chinese restaurant, Le Mandarin du Forum, serving dim sum and roast meats, including quails, plus the usual range of Cantonese dishes.
It is all very new and very slick. Depending on what time of year it is and what time of day, the Forum is either bustling or empty. When it is empty it is somewhat forbidding, especially as it has begun to attract groups of young hooligans - who pose no real threat, as the whole center is well covered by the police.
Shops, regular denizens, ease of access by public transportation: all of that should give the Forum a vitality of its own, but somehow there is no heart in it. It may come in time, but for now all the real excitement is outside, three floors up on the streets.
While the market is no more, you see, the surrounding neighborhood remains intact, and there is much to see and be tempted by. The rue Montmartre, running north from the Forum, still has something of the Halles atmosphere about it with its wholesale butchers, poulterers, and fishmongers: whatever is in season in France is to be seen in quantity. This is the place to buy foie gras.
My very favorite food-related shop in Paris is in this neighborhood, and it sells nothing edible.
E. Dehillerin, 18-20 rue Coquilliere has been in business since 1820, and it is probably the best kitchenware shop in the world. What hits you as you walk in the door is the copperware:
Tin-lined, nickel-lined, silver-lined, unlined. In heavy-gauge copper for serious cooking and in lighter weights for use at the table. Saucepans, casseroles, gratin dishes, saute pans; all absolutely of the best quality imaginable, and all at prices far lower than you could ever find in the US even from wholesale kitchenware suppliers in New York.
But if it is the gleam of copper that catches the eye before anything else, a few minutes in the shop are enough to make it clear that there is far more to Dehillerin than four-pound frying pans.
The complete lines of le Creuset and Cousances enameled ironware are available, as are full ranges of stainless steel and aluminum pots and pans, all , again, at attractive prices.
If, on the other hand, you are doing all right for basic items like those, turn left as you enter the store. There you will find knives you never knew existed, gadgets for every conceivable need, and molds and decorating equipment enough for you to open up your own branch of Fauchon.
For instance, there is a knife with a V-shaped, double blade for use in cutting lemons and tomatoes into halves with zig-zag edges. There is a larger version of the same device for use with melons. There are decorative skewers, topped with designs ranging from swans to lobsters.
There are diamond-shaped kettles for poaching turbots and elongated ones for poaching hams.
There are nickel-plated duck presses for getting all the good out of the bones and trimmings.
There are ice cream molds, chocolate molds, butter molds, pate molds and aspic molds.
There is a special combination knife and fork for use by disabled people which also lends itself well to buffet service as it frees one hand for holding the plate. There are melon and vegetable ballers as small as buckshot size.
This is all housed in very businesslike surroundings, ill-lit and rather dowdy, which somehow makes it intimidating for the first-time shopper.
But, surprisingly, the sales people are very willing to spend as much time with you as you need - it is not only their major commercial accounts they are interested in.
Even more surprisingly, many speak enough English to be a real help if your French isn't up to describing a sloping-sided sauteuse in tin-lined copper with an iron handle.
Dehillerin takes no credit cards but, for any order over 500 francs - about $ 70 - is more than happy to prepare the forms that will enable you to claim a substantial tax rebate on your purchases when you leave France.
Orders that are to be mailed to the US, rather than carried by the purchaser, are tax-free anyway.
Since few vacationers have access to a kitchen when they are traveling, most of your wanderings in the food shops of the Halles district will be limited to window-shopping, but at Dehillerin you can surely find something that will make your kitchen remind you of your trip to France.