My report from the trip to France wouldn’t be completed without a visiting les marchés paysans (farmers’ markets). Visiting traditional Farmers’ markets I feel always welcomed, safe, uplifted and inspired.
For me the traditional markets represent the heart and soul of the community. No matter where you travel you will always find them in the center of town. The market is usually held on Saturday or Sunday. ( at least in France it is)
You can take your time and feel like you are part of a special tradition. This is a place where people of all walks of life meet, talk, joke, share… It is upbeat and convivial.
“Authentic” vendors, the ones who actually have a farm and/or actually produce, raise or catch what they sell, are really passionate about their products and are always very eager and excited to talk about them. Passion, advice and service that can never be found under the neon lights of a supermarket. The people who go to the market are mostly knowledgeable and passionate about food and are happy to share recipes. All you have to do is dare to ask! Some will also give you advice on which vendors you should (or shouldn’t) go to. Don’t be afraid to ask the older folks. They always know who has the best of anything. The products are grown/produced/raised/caught locally (I am still referring to the “authentic crowd”). They are also in season, fresh and mostly organic.
All the colors and smells that jump at me when I entered the square are unimaginable for someone who has never visited one of them. Every town and city has its own market it is a part of the culture and local scene. This is a place when locals get their grocery done. It is not only a source of breads and pastries, prepared foods, freshly butchered local meats, wines and cheeses, but it’s also a gathering spot for coffee or a full meal as well as events.
Coming to the states my taste buds went through a shock how little the ordinary food here tastes… I always thought that Food should taste like what it is. Fish, for example, should taste like fish and not (as many Americans have been trained to think) as a vehicle for breaded toppings that make it taste like Ritz crackers..
France is justly famous for its markets, they really are still a part of every day life and always have been. They are not recently invented fashionable "farmers' markets" selling superfoods in designer eco packaging but genuine places where ordinary folk get their daily food. Not everything is locally produced by any means, much comes from the wholesale markets on the edge of big cities, having been shipped in from around the world. You can usually tell these stalls as the fruit or veg is uniformly perfect and polished and the prices may be a bit cheaper than on the local stalls. But mixed in with these generic sellers are plenty of local producers selling their wares direct, offering the best in quality and the lowest carbon footprint. And that's what makes markets in France so interesting. Regional variations in cuisine are so great that a market in Normandy will focus on entirely different produce than one in Provence, or one in Alsace. Don't go to a market in the south expecting a selection of Camemberts, nor hope to find a range of olive oils in Lorraine!
My advice is to get there early - it starts around 7 am - and enjoy the best produce without the crowds. Take your time to chat to the sellers, and even if your French is limited, a friendly "bonjour", "merci" and "au revoir" will always be appreciated and will almost certainly get you better service and possibly better produce too. You can always ask to sample a bit of what you're interested in, or ask for advice. Did you know that it's normal to ask for a certain product, such as a cheese/melon/avocado, to be ripe for a certain day? (For example, you want a fresh goats' cheese for a dinner you're having in 3 days' time, so tell the seller and s/he will pick you out the perfect one for that day). Even if you're just looking and photographing, still make eye contact and smile - it makes a huge difference! By the time everyone else arrives as the morning wears on you'll be ready to sit down and watch the world go by over a coffee in the Place des Arcades. You'll still be right in the thick of it, but at one of the coveted tables on the terrace rather than squabbling and pushing with the masses. Wandering between the stands I felt like I came back to my roots.