Over the weekend, Nick and I had the good fortune to be given free passes to the Salon Mer & Vigne et Gastronomie. This turns out too be a major food and wine fair, where people come to taste and purchase artisanal products of the ingestable sort. Their website being remarkably uninformative, we really had no idea what to expect, although soon after arriving we wished we had brought a shopping bag or two.
We walked into an unassuming suburban building and found a large room with many small booths. We noticed a full bar set up in the corner, with beers on tap and an espresso machine (hey, this is France). Near the bar some tables were set up for patrons of the few places that were serving full meals. One such establishment had a huge oyster display with a guy shucking constantly behind it.
Another employed a man who was making fresh, hot crêpes nonstop.
The first place we stopped was the Domaine des Gravennes booth, where they were pouring Côtes du Rhône. The woman there was very friendly. Upon learning that we were from the United States, she told us how much she had learned from the wineries in California in regards to accommodating tourists. The wines were quite good, and exceptional if you took the price into consideration. Generally my expectations for Côtes du Rhône are pretty low, but I actually liked these a lot.
Next we went to Pierre Matayron’s Porc Noir de Bigorre stand. Porc Noir is a breed of pig, believed to be the oldest in France. It comes from the Pyrenées region and is raised in a free-range environment. Monsieur Matayron was serving slices of cured ham (à la prosciutto or Serrano) cut right off a whole leg! He was happy to pose for a picture, as I found many of the artisans there to be, and asked me to send him a copy if it turned out well.
A whole leg, hoof and all!
Next we tasted some St. Emilion Grand Cru from a woman who was significantly less enthusiastic than her peers. We moved on to a tea stand where we met Vijay, an Indian man who gave up his steady U.S. office job to pursue his passion: tea. He explained the special qualities of each tea, including where it came from, what time of day is best to drink it, and how long to steep it. (4 minutes for most, except the Darjeeling which should only steep 3 minutes.) We learned that he is a supplier for Mariage Frères, one of the most famous and expensive Parisian tea houses. As he was brewing fresh tea every 15 mintes or so, we got to try both the Nilgiri (from the south of India) and the Darjeeling. For those of you who don’t know, I am a big tea drinker, so we bought a sampler (50 grams each of Assam, Darjeeling, Nilgiri, and Dooars) as well as a bag of Vijay’s own creation: Indian Dream. A heady concoction made with ginger and orange peel, it still manages to enhance the flavor of the tea rather than masking it, as many flavored teas tend to do.
We passed up the bowls of pre-packaged aligot and went for the olive oil chocolates. They were a little hokey, dyed green and shaped to look like olives. What olive oil flavor there was was overwhelmed by flavors of candied orange peel and sugar. Across the way, we tasted some jams and ogled the vanilla bean display.
And then there was the absinthe booth…
Wikipedia tells me that “products explicitly called ‘absinthe’ cannot be sold in France, although they can be produced for export. Absinthe is now commonly labeled as spiritueux à base de plantes d’absinthe (‘wormwood-based spirits’).” And this stuff was indeed labeled as such. However, they still have the crazy water-dripping contraption, the psychedelic-green spirit, and the distinct anise flavor. (I am not a big licorice fan, and when the woman behind the booth overheard me tell Nick I thought it tasted licorice-y, she was quick to correct me – “No licorice, only anise.”)
They were even going to the trouble of serving the absinthe in the classic way, with the sugar cube slowly dissolved into the liquor via tiny drops of water. It was actually not as bad as I expected.
After that, I really needed some food. We wandered past the provençal olive and tomato display in search of heartier fare. And then we saw this guy:
He could not have been more stereotypical, with the beret and the cutting board full of sausages. We had to try his wares. He gave us samples of 4 or 5 different sausages, each more delicious than the last, and an amazing Basque sheep’s milk cheese. We ended up buying 3 sausages: saucisse sèche Makila, saucisse sèche Basque au Piment d’Espelette, and Chorizo Ezpeleta.
A few steps further down, we tasted some fish rillettes from the Loire valley region. It was not unlike the whitefish salad popular in New York. By this point I was feeling a little overwhelmed and overstimulated, so we decided to head for the Czech beer bar to collect our thoughts. They were pouring a blonde, an ambrée, and a brune, to use the French terms. We tasted the brune, which was nutty and smooth, and the ambrée, which was mellow, well-balanced, and distinctly Bohemian.
Having been at the salon about an hour and a half at this point, we decided to take stock. A glance at the program indicated that we had barely scratched the surface, and with further inquiry we discovered that we were in the “small room!” We finished our beers and set out to see what other delights the salon had in store for us…