The 2017 Fall fair is September 22-October 1.
Spring and fall bring more than the usual reasons to celebrate. The Foire de Chatou (also known as the Fête du Jambon, or Festival of Ham) is France’s largest semi-annual brocante, or antiques and flea market. Over 500 second-hand dealers display and sell their wares.
The fair began as a Christmas tradition in the Middle Ages. Jambon, or ham, was the choice meat eaten on Christmas Eve by nobles and peasants alike. During Holy Week, butchers from every region came to Paris to sell their meats. The fête moved to various locations in the city until 1969, when it settled in the wealthy Paris suburb of Chatou.
Just nine miles from the heart of Paris, Chatou is quick and easy to get to. From Paris, hop the RER, a super-fast metro that connects the city to the suburbs. You’ll need a Billet Isle-de-France ticket, purchased at the station for as little as 1.70€. Your first bargain! Take the A1 line from Charles de Gaulle Étoile in the direction St. Germain-en-Laye. Exit at Rueil-Malmasion for the front entrance or Chatou-Croissy for the back. Either way, it’s a 20 minute trip. If you want to drive, program your GPS for Pont de Chatou. There is limited parking, so arrive early.
Chatou’s other claim to fame is its setting for some of Impressionism’s most iconic paintings. Pierre Auguste Renoir was charmed by its scenery and the boaters who gathered there on the northwest bank of the Seine. Le Déjeuner des Canotiers, depicting Parisians lingering over a sumptuous lunch, hints at the gastronomic pleasures that distinguish this brocante from its less food-focused competitors.
Lunch at Chatou is no pit-stop between the bric-a-brac. Here, everyone takes the food as seriously as the antiques. Even the vendors pull out antique tables, fine china and crystal to dine together. Les Allées du Jambon is chock full of food stands offering an array of delicacies for a reasonable price, from ham to confit de canard to fresh Normandy oysters. Most stands have tables, and some are set up as full-service restaurants with waiters. My favorite is Jambon à L’Os, a Chatou purveyor for 40 years. Their baguette sandwiches with fresh roasted ham, and choice of grilled vegetables, topped with crispy potatoes is a mere 7.50€. As always in France, save room for dessert — a dizzying assortment of crêpes ala nutella, gauffres, butter cakes, pretzels, bon bons and honey-glazed roasted nuts bubbling in a copper pot. During my last visit, I snagged a beautiful piece of Tomme cheese from the Ardèche dotted with fresh chestnuts and walnuts.
The fair is held in an area a bit larger than an American football field. Every row has a street name that pays homage to the streets in Paris where the fair was once held. If you see something that you might want to return to later, note the name of the street and the stand number so you can find it again. The brocante website has a list of registered exhibitors that you can scan before going, if you are looking for someone specific. Otherwise, stroll the grounds and see what takes your fancy. The search is half the fun.
Fine antiques share the brocante with flea market finds. Many vendors have entire tables with items for 5 to 10 euros. On my last visit, I snatched up a beautiful vintage leather wallet originally marked 40€ for just 5 €, and two elegant glass pitchers stamped Tiffany & Co originally priced at 50 € each. I bargained for the pair and got the price down to 35€ a piece. I regretfully passed up a stack of gently worn, classic tan-and-red wicker café chairs for 22€ each – a steal. Unsigned amateur art with decorative value is another bargain. Small paintings were going for 70€ and upwards.
The selection process to show at Chatou is reputable. Vendors must have the CEFA, the France and Europe Antiques seal of approval, to sell there. Most sellers specialize and are very knowledgeable about their goods. If they aren’t certain about a piece, the expert appraiser located at the entrance to the fair can evaluate an item’s authenticity.
For larger items, call recommended carriers, such as Edet, Carmard, and Headley’s Humpers, to register in advance. (Some have English-speaking representatives on-site.) Shipping can be costly, but if you cannot live without that marble-topped 18th century chest, then arranging for shipment will still be cheaper than paying a dealer’s mark-up back home.
While the odds of making away with a lost Impressionist masterpiece at Chatou are long, you will definitely find treasures at amazing prices–and, if nothing else, enjoy a gourmet lunch for half the cost of a pricey Parisian bistro. Bon chance!
Here are my Chatou rules:
- Be there when the grounds open for the best selection and the smallest crowds.
- Always greet the merchant with “Bonjour” and leave with a “Merci, au revoir.” Those small pleasantries are the foundation of every French transaction. To ignore them will peg you as unspeakably rude – and won’t do you any favors when it’s time to talk price. Ask it they speak English; if they don’t, they usually find someone to help. Ask questions, since most dealers are delighted to share their knowledge with you and it’s a great way to learn.
- Negotiate politely. Most vendors will haggle. If you aren’t comfortable with that verbal tango, just ask for their best price. They will most likely knock off 10 to 20 percent tout suite.
- Don’t hesitate. If you want it, buy it, or prepare to live with l’grand regret when it is snatched up by someone else.
The spring version of this event is usually held in March.
Hours are from 10 am -7 pm.
For more information, go to the Foire de Chatou website.
Debbie Gabriel enjoyed a 20-year career in fashion before moving to Paris in 1996 with her husband Alexandre, owner of Pierre Ferrand Cognac. She quickly fell in love with artisanal French food and antiques and learned to navigate the city’s marketplaces for the freshest ingredients and the best deals. For her first French business, she transformed antique French textiles into one-of-a-kind pillows and duvet covers. Today, she raises her three children, works in Paris as a guide to the American fashion and home goods industries, and leads antique tours in France.