There were three good reasons to head out to Chatou this week. Number one: I had never been there. Number two: it was the 95th Antiques and Hams Fair. Number three: it was taking place on the Ile des Impressionnistes. Art, food, and junk: the ultimate combination!
The island is located on the Seine, about twenty minutes west of Paris and is easily reached via the RER. During the mid-1800s, it became a very popular weekend destination for Parisians who were looking for cheap booze (alcohol was more heavily taxed within Paris,) dancing at the guinguettes, and nautical activities: boating and swimming were favorite pastimes. It was an irresistible draw for artists such as Guy de Maupassant and Gustave Caillebotte. August Renoir was a regular at Maison Fournaise –a restaurant and guinguette– where he painted some of his most famous toiles: Les Canotiers à Chatou and Le Déjeûner des Rameurs . Maison Fournaise still exists nowadays as a restaurant and a museum.
Since medieval times, Chatou had been the location for a large Foire aux Jambons. Pigs had to be the most valuable farm animals in the old days: they are not finicky eaters and, as the saying goes, “Tout est bon dans le cochon.” Indeed, pork butchers still cut and process every part of the pig and a lot of preparations are cured: people could store meat, non-refrigerated, for weeks or months. Even modest families would keep a ham at home.
Separately from Chatou, la Foire à la Ferraille had been taking place on boulevard Richard-Lenoir in Paris since 1869. An ancestor to our vide-greniers, it provided Parisians with the opportunity to buy and sell scrap metal, everyday objects, junk of all kinds, and more pricey antiques. But la Foire à la Ferraille was ordered to move out of Paris in 1970; it relocated in Chatou to run at the same time as la Foire aux Jambons. I imagine the Ham people welcomed the Junk people with open arms: not too many Parisians can keep a whole Bayonne ham in their très petite cuisine.
It turns out that la Foire de Chatou is the largest brocante in France, and possibly Europe, with more than 500 exhibitors. There truly is something for everyone from expensive armoires to vintage postcards. I was really struck by the variety of goods. Some displays are focused and neatly arranged; others require you to dig through boxes and baskets to unearth your treasures.
Of course, the old porcine origins are not forgotten: the food aisle is lined with pop-up restaurants and vendors who offer a vast array of regional specialties and adult beverages. I must say my braised ham with sauce Madère was succulent.
La Fête de Chatou is held twice a year, in October and March, and it runs for 10 days. If at all possible, visit on a weekday for a more relaxing experience. If you are an avid chineur, plan on spending the whole day. If not, set aside some time to enjoy the artist trail along the river and walk in Renoir’s footsteps.
La guinguette: a drinking and dancing establishment often located on the banks of the Seine or Marne
La toile: canevas
Le canotier: boater
Le rameur: rower
Le jambon: ham
Tout est bon dans le cochon: everything is good in the pig
La ferraille: scrap metal, junk
Le vide-grenier: like a garage sale
Une très petite cuisine: a very tiny kitchen
La brocante: flea market
La sauce Madère: sauce made with Madeira wine
Le chineur (la chineuse): bargain hunter, collector, a regular at flea markets