One of our favorite things to do while in France is visit the local markets. And it’s market day almost every day somewhere close by. We’ve visited several since we’ve been here, and all have been a unique experience.
In any of the towns or villages you can guarantee the market will be held in the main square or plaza which, on non-market days is usually flanked by numerous parking spaces. So, on market day the fight for a parking spot is definitely a challenge. The main roads usually surround the village with smaller roads leading up to the ‘centre ville’ and on market day these are made even narrower by parked cars. We usually are forced to circle the village a few times, always missing prime spots due to having to follow the one-way systems, and with some roads sectioned off for the vendors trucks and vans, prime parking spots are scarce. We have, many times, pleaded ignorance and parked in spaces that need a special permit, which we don’t have; sometimes we’ve parked in supermarket parking lots and walked back into town, other times, we think we may have parked in someone’s yard, not really sure. Nobody came after us and in order to make sure we find the car again, we have learned to keep Marcel’s phone in the car.
Once parked, we set off with our bags – no plastic allowed – anticipating all the tasty morsels we are about to purchase. Turning into the square we are confronted with an array of colorful stalls, some with flowers, others filled with cheeses in every shade of cream, yellow and orange you could imagine, not to mention the pungent smells of the wonderful blue cheeses on offer. We stand with our mouths open, salivating at all different varieties, and not really knowing which to buy, we point at several that look familiar. The blue soft cheese is so rich and creamy they scoop it with a spoon. I had to have some, even though the fridge stank for days on end until I could finish it. The quiches are ‘magnifique’ and the crème fraiche is to die for, especially with the most delicious, red, sweet strawberries which were so juicy, and so many varieties to choose from. We did buy all three varieties on offer, just so we could taste the difference. The olive and nut stall is one of our favorites. Juicy purple, green and black olives in all kinds of dressing and oils, along with Tapenade and nuts of every variety. Prunes are always available, so moist and tasty and on our weekly list.
Fruits and vegetables dominate the market and we usually do a walk through to see what is on offer and which look the ripest. The smells are amazing, with fresh melons picked just at the right time and ready to eat. The oranges are bright, bright orange and full of juice, great for breakfast juice. We buy different veggies each week and asparagus season has just finished; strawberry season is in but at any time the veggies are all good. We’ve had leeks, carrots, mushrooms, cauliflower, all of which had wonderful, deep fresh flavors.
Butchers with cuts of deep red beef, blanketed in rich creamy fat are a regular feature also. Lamb and veal chops, which we have had frequently, are so tender and succulent. There are stalls just for chicken products - whole chickens, breasts, legs and fresh farm eggs that are so yellow and creamy – omelets have never tasted so good. Chacuterie stalls are always present, with pate de campagne, rillettes and gorgeous ham which has become one of our lunch staples – jambon beurre baguette – so simple but just yummy. There are procurers of pork products and always a fishmonger with a wonderful array of seafood, and varieties of fish that we are not familiar with but nevertheless, try and love, and deep orange shrimps that have a wonderful deep ocean flavor.
There are also stalls for makers of breads and pastries, honeys and jams and a plethora of stalls selling ready to eat food, from huge dishes of Paella to Thai cuisine and it’s really hard not to buy something from every one of them.
On our first visit to the market we were so excited we bought far too much, and I think the vendors were a quite amused to see us fill our bags to the brim and still we want more. We have since learned not to buy so much as there is a market on any day of the week, except Sunday, and even then, the chacuteries and bakers are open. Fresh food is always available, and the supermarkets that we have visited for other things, stock the local meats and produce from the nearby farms.
Everything is sold by the kilo, so asking for the right amount for two people was a bit of a challenge to begin with. Obviously, a kilo of most things would be too much so ‘demi-kilo’ has become the norm, and now we have figured out how to ask for just 100 or 200 grams, our shopping is a little more organized. With our minimal French, a lot of hand gestures and a few laughs, we usually manage to get what we want, and there is always a free bunch of parsley tucked into the bag. I’ve learned that a nice smile can often procure an extra scoop of crème fraiche too! Of course, many of the vendors want to practice their English, so the conversations are both a mixture of poor French and poor English.
No plastic bags are provided, so everything goes straight into your shopping bag, or if it is delicate, then brown paper bags are used. Also, it is cash only in most markets, so we are armed with a purse full of Euros and coins, and after figuring out the quantities needed, the next challenge is giving them the right amount of change. I desperately try to give them the correct amount, but they really don’t care for the centimes, and on several occasions the gruff farmer selling his wares waved me off, not wanting to be bothered with small change (or stupid English people), I sometimes can’t quite tell which.
One of the main products of this region is Fois Gras. This is not something we have eaten a great deal of and the methods of producing it are not especially humane. However, we have tried it since being here and although it was pleasant, creamy and rich, the flavor is quite mild and we much prefer the other types of pates on offer. Of course, duck is also one of the main products of the region and so duck fat is in everything, duck pate, duck gizzards etc. We’ve even had duck and fries for lunch, which was delicious.
We came to realize also, that the market is not just a place to shop for your produce. It is as much a social gathering of friends, family and neighbors and as we found out on many occasions, queueing is taken with a pinch of salt. Heaven forbid if it’s your turn to have your produce weighed, and the vendor’s long lost friend from last week comes along – everything stops, there’s a good amount of kissing, slapping of shoulders, shaking of hands and laughing and joking, and until that is all done, and pleasantries have taken place, no one is getting served! It was wonderful to watch; everyone shouting ‘bonjour’ ‘bonjour’ and taking time to really greet each other, genuinely pleased to be together. Even though it may have only been just last week or even yesterday since they last saw each other. We’ve since learned there is no rushing on market day. It’s a time to peruse the produce, buy just what you need for the next day or two, meet up with family and friends and then, after all the socializing and shopping it’s time for lunch – a set menu of three courses, wine and coffee, for just a few euros, and time to sit and watch the world go by. Until the next market day!
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