No visit to France is complete without a morning in a traditional market
One of the most popular activities for visitors to France is visiting the local French markets in the nearby town. All areas and places will have a local market town, usually held in the same location every week for many centuries (our own town has held its Saturday market for the last 820 years and still going strong).
French markets really do still have great produce to tempt you, and you will be lucky to get away without a large bag of delicious fresh produce...and an empty purse! There are reputedly more than 35,000 traditional markets in France, so you should have no difficulty finding one.
What is so special about French markets?
In France, shopping for dinner in the open air by vendor and not by supermarket aisle, is simply the norm. In the very heart of Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Nice, Aix-en-Provence and the other great cities of France, producers and vendors arrive early in the morning to set up their stalls in markets around their respective cities and lay out their goods.
The customers arrive in throngs, baskets and market sacks across their arms. By mid-afternoon, the market has closed for another day.
In rural areas the choices may be more limited but the traditions are the same. Everyone in any given region is aware of the direction in which to head to find the closest market on any given day. Food purveyors move from village Anyone who thinks of a farmer’s market as a Sunday novelty should spend a month or two in France. There, buying produce from farmers and meat from butchers is not a way of distinguishing one’s self from market to village market during the week, choosing those most likely to bring them profits. Then, generally, they gather together on Saturdays and Sundays in the largest municipality in the area.
The typical shopper at a French market is not an urban hipster jumping on the organic food bandwagon or the slow food movement, but instead has most likely been shopping this way as long as he or she can remember. To the French, it is the supermarche at the nearby roundabout with its frozen foods and canned goods that is the oddity to be tolerated because it can be handy in a pinch.
French markets are, first and foremost, about the fresh produce, meats, cheeses and fish. Here, shoppers can fill up a sack with plump green almonds buried deep in a deep layer of soft pulp. At another stand they may find tiny Jerusalem artichokes to be split and sautéed whole, or giant bulbous artichokes with tips tight to the globe and as green as moss. Tomatoes are plump, earthy mushrooms come in all shapes and sizes, olives are marinated, herbed, and oil-cured, and shoppers have the power to be selective. It is a power that derives ironically, from the superb quality of the merchandise.
Local products a speciality?
Not all of it is local and there are no apologies for this. African produce abounds in Paris as well as along the Mediterranean, and most French markets feature dazzling pyramids of fresh colorful spices from around the world.
The markets are not, however, only about food. Artisans and ordinary hawkers are drawn to market as well. At most French markets, one will find makers of lotions, soaps, sauces, honeys, perfumes and pickles. Craftsmen bring their leather goods and entrepreneurs bring items one might find in a U.S. dollar store. In city markets, especially, everything that might be for sale on a street vendor’s table in New York’s SoHo or Chinatown will be here as well. You might find great pashmina scarves, knockoff handbags or shell earrings on any given day. Ponder your purchases as you snack on a spicy wood-grilled chicken wing from the previous stall.
Markets in France are not hard to find. Any guidebook worth its salt will list market days and times in the city or region you are planning to visit in France. By all means, take the time to visit more than one. If you’re lucky enough to be renting a house or apartment, plan to eat in at least once or twice during your vacation in order to partake fully of the bounty of the marketplace. If you are just passing through or staying at a hotel, shop anyway. Your thick slabs of olive oil soap will travel well and bring your mind and spirit back to market day as you ready for work back at home some Monday morning long hence.
If your guidebook doesn’t list the markets, just ask your concierge, or the couple at the neighboring table at the local café.
This is not the end of the story of shopping for food and sustenance in France. There is a middle-ground between the open-air market and the supermarket. These are the market streets. Lining them are actual stone and mortar stores, rather than open-air booths. The shops are small, diverse in their offerings grouped together to serve a neighborhood. They are everywhere and they are wonderful.
One of thousands is the Rue des Martyrs in the 9th Arrondissement in Paris. It is only a few blocks long, but everything is there and nothing is impersonal. It has more to offer than any supermarket could dream of and, although your pedometer will hardly register more steps than you might take at the local Piggly Wiggly, each step will bring you closer to heaven. You will buy your fish from the fishmonger’s shop and your veal from the butcher’s. Your sausage will be selected from dozens prepared by the charcutiere. Bread will come from the boulangerie, and you can take the pastries you have selected from the vienoisserie across the street to the corner café and enjoy them with a cup of deep, dark espresso. On your way home, you’ll remember to pick up some fresh vegetables from the primeur, and some fruit for breakfast or dessert from the marchand de fruits.
If you’re not in the mood to cook, or don’t have the opportunity, you can stop by at the stand where dozens of chickens are slowly being rotisserie roasted over a pan of golden potatoes. The shopkeeper will fill one foil-lined bag with tender delicious chicken, and another with potatoes that have been basted into tenderness by the juices dripping slowly and steadily from above.
Back home, when you return to your local farmer’s market, you will think back on your trip to France and perhaps linger a little longer to search out that perfect looking bunch of leeks and maybe a small log of local chevre. More of these markets can be ours if we only learn why they matter so much.
What can I buy in a French market?
The typical produce available in a French market includes cheese, fruit, sausage, meat, bread, vegetables, fish, flowers, garden plants, local specialities - honey, jam, wine etc., cooked chickens are often available, clothes (traditional French apron anyone?) etc etc
There are also regional products and varieties, with spices, for example, more common on the larger markets of Provence, local wines and ciders etc
It is the products from the 'local producers' that are usually most interesting, and most delicious. Goats cheese from a local farmer, olives in their own special mix of oil and spices, or a locally prepared dry sausage, perhaps.
Note that France markets are not usually places to haggle and bargain, and the market stall holders don't expect to haggle over the price of a piece of cheese!
Popular French regional markets
Note: this is just a very small selection of some of the more popular French markets (from our experiences or as reported to us). Almost every town in France has its own weekly market so you won't be disappointed because you can't get to one of these:
- Aquitaine: Bergerac, Le Bugue, Sarlat, Perigueux
- Brittany: Concarneau, Dinard, Saint Malo
- Nord-Pas-de-Calais: Boulogne, Le Touquet
- Normandy: Forges-les-Eaux
- Provence: Carpentras
Speciality and other markets
There are also various more specific types of market held that you might come across during your travels, including:
One product markets - eg mushroom or truffle markets during the appropriate seasons, or foie gras in the Dordogne (see also Dordogne markets). Similarly, fishing ports will usually have a fish market, often every morning.
Evening markets (marché nocturne) - a chance to eat and party in convivial surroundings, while enjoying the food and wine of the region. these are very popular in tourist regions during the summer months, and usually great fun and good value
French christmas markets: are extensive markets that are especially popular in the north of France
Vide-greniers: where all the locals empty out their attics and sell the bits and bobs at bargain prices. Be among the first to arrive for any chance of a bargain
Brocante - antiques and general old things. Brocantes were reputedly a cheap way to furnish a propoerty or find a bargain 20 years ago, but much harder now that people realise the value of things! (also known as flea markets)
See also shopping in France for some of our favourite shopping areas.