A visit or two to traditional French markets is one of the great pleasures of visiting France. It's wonderful to arrive in a town or village and discover that it's market day.
The market– ‘le marché’– is an integral part of the French way of life and a key component of the country’s rich historic heritage. But don’t draw too much attention to that; they’ll want to get World Heritage status for them.
Most towns and villages have a market once a week, but in larger towns, they may take place twice a week, or even every day. I doubt that anyone knows just how many markets there are, but the excellent jours-de-marche website lists more than 7,500, and admits to there being a great many more.
Typically, French markets are a cross between a farmers’ market and a traders’ market. There are so many stalls offering local produce straight from the farm alongside fruit and vegetables.
Other traders sell wonderful cheeses and there are others offering a full range of edible produce. Even in Paris, fruit and vegetable markets can be found in every district of the city. But many of the larger markets also deal in clothing, jewellery and all kinds of merchandise for the home or gifts.
Many of the street markets are attended by full-time stallholders. These traders travel around the neighbourhood markets day to day. If it wasn’t for these itinerant stallholders, many villages would struggle to get fresh produce.
Larger weekly markets, such as the whacky Tuesday market in Vaison-la-Romaine in Provence, have a rich range of specialised stalls selling organic vegetables and food specialities from the region or from other countries.
You'll find olives and Mediterranean specialities, tools, clothes, second-hand books, garden plants, wine straight from the producer, honey and a lot more. The spice stall alone is over 20 metres in length. If you're a home cook you'll love French markets.
A few specialised markets not only have a national reputation but enjoy worldwide fame. And each and every one of these gens should be on your 'must visit' list. The most famous French markets include:
But there are many more specialist markets to enjoy. There are wine markets in Bordeaux, and gastronomic markets in Perigueux, the heart of French truffle and foie gras country. But generally speaking, markets are just a vital part of the French way of living.
In rural areas, farmers and locals with a patch of soil to till come to market to sell just their own surplus produce: potatoes, vegetables and fruit in season, flowers, home-made cheese and bread, fresh eggs, and even a living rabbit or two, or week-old chicks.
Yet in spite of France’s attachment to its rural heritages, the smallholders selling their produce at a weekly market represent a rural way of life that is slowly vanishing. It is unusual to see young smallholders on a market in rural France, and while the market itself, as a tradition, is not under threat, the nature of small rural markets is changing, as is rural France in general.
There will always be markets in France, and they will continue to be a fascination. In a roundabout way, it is the ability to make the most of a rural street market that prompts me to use of self-catering accommodation when I visit the country for any length of time.
There’s something a little compelling, not to mention bizarre, about the way we wander the stalls. Breathing in the aromas of cheeses, herbs, fresh bread and roasting chickens. Not to mentionthe huge dishes of steaming paella or cassoulet or something else equally stomach-destined that blend together atmospherically much as the notes of a Debussy prelude might.
In fact, that’s what it’s all about – the stomach, not Debussy – because French markets have long been the principal source of fresh fruit and vegetables for households large and small. They are an integral part of France’s tradition of eating well, and a deep-rooted institution that never died...and that’s about as authentic as you can get in France.
But of course there aren't only the produce stalls to enjoy. There's so much more with goods of every description making an assault on your wallet or purse. And that’s where I leave my wife to it, and go and have a coffee...there’s a limit to how much bling I can cope with, although I do confess to more than a passing interest in local and regional wines, cheeses, fresh meat and kitchenware.
Back to the market and just as I’m about to shell out for an essential chef’s knife my wife appears and reminds me that I already have over 100 at home. And so we buy cheese instead, or some olives. Just as well she wasn’t around when I bought the Laguiole steak knives, but, in my own defence, they are so clinically sharp we can now opt for a cheaper cut of meat.
Actually, I lied about the number of knives I have...it’s more than that! Well, I mean, you can’t use the same knife to slice a lemon as you would for an orange, can you?