The Pleasures of French Markets Tuesday, Mar 21 2017
French Markets 8:56 am
If you’re like me, spending time in France’s open air markets is an endless pleasure. Pyramids of beautiful fruits and vegetables in season, fresh and aged cheeses, breads, whole fowl of every kind, rabbits and other game, charcuterie, seafood, spices, and more are a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach. The sights, the sounds, the colors, the smells, and the people all come together to create a festive and unique experience for French and non-French alike. A centuries old tradition, food markets in France are a culinary experience as well as a social one–people from all classes and walks of life rub elbows in the common pursuit of good cooking and good meals.
When I was a grad student in Paris nearly 30 years ago (!!), the colorful and earthy Rue Mouffetard market in the 5th arrondissement was one I returned to again and again as it was near my university and away from all the tourists. And it seemed to say on every visit, “I am a true Paris marché (market).” It was also where I acquired my first French market basket. Tall and sturdy with a tight weave, the light-colored fiber panier (basket) was my new best friend. With it at my side, I belonged to the French market landscape. No longer did I hike back to my Paris apartment loaded with bulging plastic bags, a sure giveaway of a non-resident. And it was delicious fun to fill my panier artistically with newly-acquired vegetables, fruits, flowers, and bread so it looked like a photo straight out of a gourmet magazine. Wonderfully enough, I still have this basket somewhere.
Still enamored of market baskets today, I have a hard time passing up the vendors that sell them. There is always some new version that tempts me. Staples are rows of traditional light colored baskets with leather handles. Fancier styles come in bright colors of various sizes and shapes. Some have cloth with drawstrings inside – perfect for use as a summer purse.
On the other hand, I can always sit at a market café and watch the market basket parade where baskets and their male or female owners walk by. It’s a great way to live various baskets vicariously. For some market shoppers, le panier (basket) or le caddy (basket or bag on wheels) is just a practical tool. For others , they seem to be a stylish accessory. And you’ve got to love the ladies who walk by in heels with their basket or caddy. It’s about being a stylish French woman no matter what you are doing. And I’ll never forget the caddy I saw on a cold February morning in Aix-en-Provence. Perfect for the cold weather, this caddy had a canvas body topped by a faux fur lid and was tugged along by an owner in a leather coat trimmed with fur! I must confess my basket tastes run on the simpler side.
Market basket in hand, how then does one enjoy the food pleasures and treasures of French markets? I often get asked about navigating the French market experience – what is the etiquette, what are the unspoken rules, etcetera. In preparation for your next trip to France, here is a quick overview of how French markets work:
1) When: Most French markets operate roughly from 8 or 8:30am to 1pm. You’ll want to get up and go early for the top offerings – and avoid the crowds. A good Provence market in summertime can be a madhouse! Depending on the town or city, markets run once a week – a favorite example is the terrific Sarlat market on Saturday mornings in the Dordogne – or two to three times per week all year long. For example, my other Paris neighborhood market is on the Boulevard Raspail on Paris’s Left Bank which happens every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday morning, with Sunday featuring the completely organic, or biologique, market. In Aix-en-Provence, the main market occurs on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, with Saturday being the biggest and most festive day of all. In some locales, markets are daily such as the Rue Cler market near the Eiffel Tower in Paris. And more cities and towns are organizing late afternoon or evening markets as well. Interestingly, the market in our nearby shopping town of Milly-la-Fôret holds its weekly Thursday market in the afternoon in the 15th century halle (photo below). Contrary to most markets in France, it’s been an afternoon market for as long as anyone can remember.
2) Seasons: Take advantage of the intensely seasonal offerings in France. Buy strawberries in May, melons in summer, figs in late summer and early fall, apples and mushrooms in the fall and winter, lettuces in late winter and spring, you get the idea. And be sure to buy local so that the food products are super fresh. French vendors are great about noting where their food is from.
3a) Choosing your purchases: Most vendors will choose food items and bag them for you. Always assume that this is the case and you won’t have any problems when shopping in French markets. Note that many vendors have spent a considerable amount of time on their displays so you don’t want to make a lovely mountain of fruit or vegetables come tumbling down!
3b) Part 2 of why vendors consider it their job to choose your food items: After all, this is their métier (career) and they have the expertise to pick perfect peaches or a camembert that will be ready for your lunch tomorrow, if that is what you want. In this interaction, the better the rapport you have with the vendor, the better service (and often better products) you will get. Markets are really all about the people. So how to you get a vendor to warm up to you? Compliment him on his products and his know-how—and he’ll give you the world, or almost. I love what Julia child said in her autobiography My Life in France (2004):
“Shopping for food in Paris was a life-changing experience for me. It was through daily excursions to my local marketplace on la Rue de Bourgogne, or to the bigger one on la Rue Cler, or, best of all, into the organized chaos of Les Halles—the famous marketplace in central Paris—that I learned one of the most important lessons of my life: the value of les human relations.”
3c) NOTE: A few vendors will let you choose your own food items—keep your eyes open for a sign such as the one below so you’ll know it’s ok to serve yourself!
“Bags – please serve yourself. Merci.”
4) Prices: Market prices on food and the like are usually not negotiable. Sometimes vendors will throw something in for free, however, particularly as they wrap up for the day or occasionally you get a price break for buying multiples of something. Purchases are payable in cash so have some euros on you.
5) Tastings: The French love to offer tastes of their products. You can almost make a meal out of tastings at some markets. If you sample a product a vendor is offering, you are not obligated to buy. Say, “Merci beaucoup” and move on. But usually everything is so good that you’ll end up wanting to buy it anyway.
6) Ready-made foods: Some vendors sell prepared foods such as this paella vendor in Aix-en-Provence. If you want some paella for lunch, be sure and buy it early as he regularly sells out!
7) Don’t always buy from the first vendor you see: When visiting markets and vendors for the first time, I like to check out the entire market and then come back to the ones that have the best quality and/or price. If in doubt, note which vendors have the longest lines—the French always know good food and good bargains.
8) Lines: Speaking of lines, it is necessary to faire la queue (stand in line) to be served. When it’s your turn, you can make sure the vendor knows by saying “C’est à moi” (sayt ah mwa), or “It’s my turn.” When it comes to food markets, the French are pretty good about lining up in an orderly fashion. However, it can be a free for all in other venues such as the French post office, so beware!
9) Crowds: Note that weekend and summer markets are the most crowded. This means they are more festive but it can take longer to see what’s on offer and make your purchases.
10) Key phrases for use in the markets: It’s good to have a few French phrases handy to enable smooth market transactions and relations…and also to know how much to buy since the French use the metric system.
“Bonjour Madame / Monsieur!” (Always greet French vendors with a Bonjour and Ma’am or Sir. This goes a long way towards a good shopping experience.)
“Je voudrais un kilo de pommes, s’il vous plaît” (“I would like about 2 pounds of apples, please.” Since a kilo is about 2.2 pounds, you can ask for a pound of some by saying “un demi kilo,” a half kilo, or “400-500 grammes” which is about a pound.)
“Une tranche de pâté, s.v.p.” (A slice of your paté, please.)
“Encore un peu, s.v.p.” or “un peu moins, s.v.p.” (A little more, please, or a little less, please.)
“C’est combien?” (How much is it?)
“C’est parfait, merci.” (That’s great, thanks.)
“Merci beaucoup, Madame. Au revoir.” (Thank you, Madame. Good-bye. Be sure and close your shopping transaction with a nice thank-you and good-bye–it’s required French etiquette.)
Final tip: After you’ve finished shopping, take a rest at a nearby café with the locals. You’ll overhear the latest gossip and can enjoy people-watching as the market winds up for the day. Have a coffee or do as many French do and celebrate market day with a glass of wine or pastis—even in the morning!
French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter
To find great markets wherever you are in France, consult guidebooks for the towns or cities you’ll be visiting. Markets are always noted there. In addition, you can browse the French tourist office websites “Office du tourisme” which will post market days. For a good tour of Paris or Provence markets, check out these books below. Bonne lecture!