You may have noticed that any cooking show about food and France always shows someone shopping in a market, sniffing veg, squeezing fruit and generally making out that a French Market is Am-aaa-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. That all changed when we moved to France.
First and foremost what makes a difference is the sheer quantity of markets. Almost every village, even the smaller ones, have a market. The bigger ones sometimes two in a week. Essentially, within our area we have access to a market every day. It certainly makes it much easier to shop for veg and more. And interestingly the supermarkets carry very little veg, just the basics, so they don’t (or aren’t allowed to) kill off the local markets.
Our favourite market is in Joigny, open Wednesday and Saturday mornings. It is an old covered metal building, always freezing, but even on a quiet day it has such a wonderful atmosphere. What makes it special, besides being indoors, is that there is a stall for everything, and they are often changing. A stall holder might not show up every time, or every week. In contrast, 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. I loved to buy from him as he was such a character.
What is best about a French market is that anything is fair game (and we’ll get on to meat shortly), from the wonky carrot to the giant parsnip, the 10 different varieties of lettuce to the over ripe tomato. Oh, and let us not forget the mouldy cheese.
You generally have straight forward choices in a good market; whether to buy from someone who has bought from a wholesaler or whether to 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.
I’ll tell you a little story. We take care of 3 rabbits. They love, love, love broccoli and carrot tops (forget the carrots themselves, old wives tale). We would bring them these from our 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, and are lucky to be able to do so, when we can’t pick it from our own garden.
The other great thing, particularly if you are Fearnley-Whittingstall inclined, 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 their 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. I believe it makes me more appreciative.
In Joigny’s market the central section is where all the veg, and cheese, can be found, and the odd macaroon. Along the walls are built in stalls, 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.
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 and he, or she, will look over their wares, testing, poking and prodding until they find the perfect melon for me. If I go to the butchers, planning to make Boeuf Bourguignon for 7 people, I can simply say I need beef for a Bourguinon for 7 people and the appropriate meat and amount will be sorted for me.
Each transaction in a market is specific to that person. You have to wait your turn, listening in on the transaction ahead of you 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?
But then we are lucky, we live in France, where we are able to shop at a market almost every day.