You may have noticed that any cooking show about food and France always shows someone shopping in a French market. Sniffing veg, squeezing fruit and generally making out that this is Ah-maaa-zing. But is it?
Now I am a foodie. Yup, I love food. But not just to eat, to cook too. I thoroughly enjoy cooking, trying new recipes and eating foods I have never tried before. So I was very excited to move to France and try out their markets.
Sure, I went to markets when living in the UK. And even where possible in the USA. But they weren’t something I got overly excited about. Many of the markets were often overly organic in that everything was lovely, often unusual or exotic, and very very expensive. That is how they can compete with supermarkets. (I will say though that the markets in Norfolk are the best that England offers.)
So, what is different about a French Market?
First and foremost what makes a difference is the sheer quantity of markets. Almost every village, even the smaller ones, have a market of some sort. It may be a man in his butchers van (ours comes on Tuesdays to the village square) or a huge street filling collection of stalls.
Usually they are once a week. Some of the bigger, permanent ones can range from twice a week to every day. Essentially, within our area we have access to a market almost every day. It certainly makes it much easier to shop for veg and more. And interestingly the supermarkets carry very little veg. They have just the very basics, so they don’t (or aren’t allowed to, given this is France) kill off the local markets.
A very real difference here, is that usually markets cost less than the shops. Not always as it does depend on the artisan and what has gone into his growing or making of what he is selling. But to shop at a French market is to anticipate it being fresher and less expensive.
What makes a good market?
Our biggest is Chagny Market on a Sunday. However, our favourite market still, though now too far to go to, is in Joigny. Open Wednesday and Saturday mornings. It is an old covered metal building, always freezing, but even on a quiet day it had such a wonderful atmosphere. What makes it special, besides being indoors, is that there is a stall for everything, and they are often changing.
Markets are always changing. A stall holder might not show up every time, or every week. Also anyone, even the smallest veg grower, can sell their veg in the market, which is true throughout France.
When we house sat in southern France a number of years ago there was an old man who only sold a handful of onions and potatoes from his garden. They were delicious and I loved to buy from him as he was such a character.
Choices, Choices, Choices
What is best about the French markets is that anything is fair game (and we’ll get on to meat shortly). From the wonky carrot to the giant parsnip, or choose from 10 different varieties of lettuce to the over ripe tomato. Oh, and let us not forget the mouldy cheese.
Generally you have straight forward choices in a good market. You can buy from someone who has bought from a wholesaler. Or, buy from a farm who are managing their own stall. The difference? How pretty the veg will be. The retailer will have boxes of beautiful and sometimes exotic veg (by exotic, read out of season). So when you want broccoli in summer or something that grows more naturally in another country, these are the stalls to visit.
As for the farmers stall, they are easy to tell by how misshapen their veg often is. Ugly and dirty. Why dirty? Well for one it shows that the veg has not been processed, eg. cleaned up and sprayed to keep longer.
Why Markets over Supermarkets?
I’ll tell you a little story. We took care of 3 rabbits. They loved, loved, loved broccoli and carrot tops. (Forget the carrots themselves, old wives tale). We would bring them these from the veg garden and be greeted by some very excited, leaping about rabbits. They were a real treat.
Then they went out of season and we had to buy them in. But, we found, the rabbits wouldn’t touch them. It made us wonder. And made us re-think our veg buying. We now buy only seasonal veg from the farmers, when we can’t pick it from our own garden, and are lucky to be able to do so.
The other great thing, particularly if you are Fearnley-Whittingstall meat inclined (his book linked below), is the fish mongers and butchers you find in a French Market. Again, like the veg, everything is on offer. And I mean everything. The French know how to cook it all. There is an amazing blood sausage maker in Chablis’ market, who makes it then and there. His arms up to his elbows in blood and bits. Ewww!… and fascinating at the same time. Me, I like when I can actually see where meat is coming from. It certainly makes me more appreciative.
Something for Everyone
In Joigny’s market the central section is where all the veg, and cheese, can be found. As well as the odd macaroon. And olives. Along the walls are built in stalls. These are the ones with electricity so they can have refrigeration (hence the constant cold in this market). These stalls are generally meat or fish orientated consequently.
What I love about this is that each meat stall is dedicated to a different animal. There is the horse butcher, the rabbit butcher, the goat butcher… You get the idea. In amongst these are the Poissonniers, or fish mongers, who showcase a wonderful variety of fish and other sea foods laid out on ice.
Help is at Hand
But you know what my favourite thing about a French Market is? That you can ask the stall holder to choose for you. If I need a melon for that evening and want to be sure it is ripe, I simply say to the purveyor that I need it for today. He, or she, will look over their wares, testing, poking and prodding until they find the perfect melon for me. (They prefer you don’t squeeze it yourself.)
If I go to the butchers, planning to make Boeuf Bourguignon for 7 people, I can simply say I need beef for a Bourguignon for 7 people and the appropriate meat and amount will be cut up and provided to me.
Loyalty and Time
There is a pride in finding you the best, as ultimately they wish you to come back to them next time. Competition abounds, so cultivating loyalty is a very real reason to make sure you receive the best.
Of note, as a foreigner here, I have learned it is worth mentioning in some way that I live here. In other words, I will be returning. This generally ascertains getting the better quality. (If not, the have lost my custom.) And no surprise, because of my accent, I am often remembered when I do return.
Each transaction in a market is specific to that person. You have to wait your turn. Waiting is never a chore as you can listen in on the transaction ahead of you (a good way to learn French), whilst you peruse the goods in front of you. Or chat with the person next to you in the queue. You can’t be in a hurry. But then when you can experience such a wonderful aspect of French culture, who would want to rush it?
* Fearnley-Whittingstall’s meat book is a must have if you are into learning how to cook different types of meats than the norm. Linked here as we are affiliated with Amazon, and they can deliver it to your door. Should you wish to read more about our affiliates, check out our Nourishing Pumpjack & Piddlewick page.