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Old Iron and Hams

photo: ham, cheese, wine, music

Cheese, ham and wine are staples of this brocante.

On the Ile de Chatou

Paris:– Saturday, 13. March:– I remember the last and only time I went to the annual 'Old Iron and Ham Fair' near Chatou. It was cold, muddy and raining without pity. The wine was so–so and the ham and sausages were fine, and my feet got good and wet. It was freezing cold and it must have been about 1978.

Things, including the weather, are better these days. All the same, today's return visit has been carefully planned, with particular attention being paid to newspaper and TV–weather news predictions. Today, according to these expert sources, will be the best there is.

This 'best' includes low winds and temperatures forecast to be above 10, semi–sunny skies, and no rain on any horizon. It is, in fact, hardly normal for March – so it is like a bonus day.photo: barbie parts March, even in the 21st century, is usually like it was back in 1978.

To get way out there, I start with the RER 'B' line at Denfert and switch to the RER's 'A' line at Châtelet for the ride out west, beyond La Défense. There are a fair number of fellow passengers on the first train – going shopping downtown or to Roissy for longer trips – but the 'A' train is nearly empty.

I don't, but you might need a vital 'Barbie' part or dress.

My memory tells me that the station at Chatou is a medium walk from the Ile de Chatou, and I'm pretty sure I've heard the RER station in Reuil–Malmaison is closer, but I've never been on the ground there.

At Chatou there are signs pointing the way to the fair on the island. They are pointing in two different directions. Taking one, I immediately recall that the approach to Chatou is a maze for drivers – and today it turns out to be one for a pedestrian. The good news is, no matter which sign you follow, it will get you to the island if you don't give up.

From the RER station, the best approach is from the Pont de Chatou – the one you'd automatically getphoto: fiat van, crepes if coming from Reuil–Malmasion – because it gives a view of the large fair area, which you won't get if you come the way I have.

Not for sale – this '60s Fiat van still serves hot crêpes.

Low and up close, the fair's area doesn't seem impressive. There are some flimsy green sheds and some small mud puddles. in fact, the fair is huge. It is like a temporary small town full of antique peddlers and a few ham merchants. I wonder when they dropped the term 'ferraille' – or 'old iron' – from the name.

The shape of the fair's area is triangular. There are fairly open spaces at two ends, four wide interior alleys, and about 20 other narrower ones. In the centre there are long sheds where the alleys are covered.

For reasons unknown to me, I have been at several 'brocantes' within the past year. There is a little one currently having a ten–day session in my quartier. I have been to Vanves a couple of times, and to Saint–Ouen once. I was told about Montreuil, and Dimitri lost his wallet a couple of weeks ago coming back from it. I thought all the pickpockets worked Saint–Ouen.

I am not a potential buyer for anything costing more that a euro – such as a busted Kazoo – and I am not any kind of connoisseur of antiques. My 'expertise' of jukeboxes comes from a book I have.

But still, trailing though junk this past year has given me a bit of an appreciation for the overall effect. Vanves is funky, with possible treasures. Saint–Ouen is big and professional, with the café there as a bonus. I have to take others' word for Montreuil.

But this 'old iron and ham' fair seems to be somewhat more. The first thing I notice is the tin toys are in better shape. Much of the furniture doesn't look so sad and raggedy – some of the 'modern' pieces look like they were designed for avant–garde homes in Boulogne – the best stuff from the '30s, in other words.

There are old carpenter's thick–planked work benches too. And hand–made tools thatphoto: bug spraygun looked like they should be in the Tool Museum in Troyes. There is really a lot of really good–looking items.

Sometimes you never know what you're really looking for.

But the fair is big. Stall after stall contains something to catch the eye if not the wallet. Many have glass–topped display cases holding the smaller treasures. Some have specialties, like old pocket watches, while others are diverse collections from a variety of eras and lives.

There are big items as well as small. Need a giant cigarette lighter? Some of the wooden cupboards would require very high ceilings. You would need a big apartment if you intended to carry off the 1.5–metre high straw elephant. Some of the stuff has come from peasant farmhouses, and it's sitting beside the leftovers from a château.

How do you see everything? Or everything worth seeing? A plan is needed – proceed along a 'rue' until reaching a wide side–allée, swivelling the head to either side – or simply plan the pass through every 'rue' and 'allée' twice. It could take all day.

I guess this is where the ham comes in. One of the "rues' – these all have names – is entirelyphoto: loto box taken up with hot food booths. Many do have ham, and there's one with Spanish mountain hams.

One 'resto' has a huge pan full of sausages and frying onions. The pan reminds me of a paella operation I saw on a beach in Andalusia that was about two metres in diametre. This one is a bit smaller, but not by much. I order a 'toulouse' with frites. The sausage is good and the frites are just frites.

Tired of losing money? This Loto set keeps it at home.

There is getting to be more blue sky than clouds and it is not cold at all. The mud puddles are drying out. After going through a couple of the roofed 'rues' full of stalls it begins to become too much. There is way too much, too good. At most other 'puces,' it is the other way around so it's easier not to look too closely at too many different items.

If things haven't changed, this is one of France's 'international' antiques fairs – although it advertises itself as merely 'national.' There must have been somebody I know in the business, who told me dealers come to this one from all over Europe.

At any rate, there is an on–site 'expert' available. When the site's loudspeakers aren't calling photo: slot machine for Mr. Martini to move his car from in front of the fair's commissariat, they're directing the 'expert' to booth or stand so–and–so. I don't hear any calls, seeking lost parents.

Finally, three hours is the limit to my non–buying spree. Taking the main exit I see where it leads up to the Pont de Chatou. Get up there, and get across the road, and the RER station at Reuil–Malmaison is not far to the east.

After buying this – it's even better for keeping money at home.

68th Foire à la Brocante et aux Jambons – was also known as the 'Old Iron and Ham Fair.' This annual food and antiques event continues until Sunday, 21. March. Entry costs 5€. Open hours are 10:00 to 19:00 daily, with the main entry from the Pont de Chatou. On the Ile de Chatou, between Chatou and Reuil–Malmaison, in Yvelines. RER 'A' stations: Chatou–Croissy or Reuil–Malmaison; which is slightly closer. InfoTel.: 01 34 80 66 00.

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