February 10, 2014

An Introduction to Markets in France

Despite the ubiquity of supermarchés, the French remain anchored to their markets, unable to resist the pull of fresh, quality food in the center of town.  They use them as places of inspiration (“what should we have for lunch?”), socializing (if everyone is there, you’d better be, too), and complaining (“this isn’t as good as it used to be; the products here are lamentable; que c’est chère!”).

Markets take place in villages, towns, and cities across the country. They happen every day of the week with some communities hosting several per week. Unlike New England, from whence I come, markets stay open year-round, weather be damned. The seasons take their toll, however, with many markets shrinking by up to 90% during the winter months, so try to visit during different times of the year. Even so, within a 30-minute drive of anywhere in Burgundy, there is likely a quality, substantial market.  Some are small (there is one a few kilometers from us that features one merchant). Others are orgies for the senses, clogged with hundreds of vendors. The merchants shout prices and encouragements as they sell fresh produce, smelly cheese, specialty oils, candies, pastries, bread, wine, and animal parts of every color. These latter range from spectacular (roasts tied in immaculate bundles; sausages that beg for the frying pan) to the edge of queasy (half a pig’s head, pale and gelatinous, perfectly bisected through the snout; a slab of slick, crimson beef liver, resting in a pool of blood).

Aside from food, men of questionable scruples peddle clothes, tablecloths, knives, handbags, and, occasionally, beds. 

Once on site, it is very important to adopt a Market Strategy. Take time to experiment and discover your own rhythm and needs, but a few points are worth considering.
  • Bring a basket.
  • Generally speaking, lines = quality. When it comes to gastronomic affairs, the French wouldn’t line up to buy subpar victuals to serve their friends and family.
  • Be patient. This usually includes doing a full tour of the market before making any purchases. Speaking from experience, profound remorse awaits if one buys ingredients in haste. The roast chicken from the first rotisserie can suddenly seem small and shriveled in your basket when you encounter the plump, juicy birds of the next roaster.
  • Sample everything.
  • Keep an open mind and take a risk. Unfamiliar ingredients can result in great pleasure and culinary excitement. And, lastly, if you don’t know what to do with a certain product…
  • Ask questions. Even though the French think you are a pitiable neophyte in all things food, they are happy to share their expertise and advice.

Overall, going to a market is quintessentially French and an easy, affordable, and delicious way to live like the locals. No trip to France is complete with un tour au marché.

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