standWhy go to an air-conditioned supermarket when you can buy most of what you need from local producers under the shade of plane trees, and stop for a coffee or apéritif with friends at a café terrace afterward?

prunes
Prunes are plums in French.

The Saturday morning market is the high point of my week. It’s a sensory cornucopia. It’s practical. It’s social. It’s the heart of la belle vie française. It’s part of the French savoir-vivre–knowing how to live. Because making your errands enjoyable, social moments of beauty and pleasure is the way to live the good life simply.beans

tomatoes ugly
Directly from the producer to the consumer, the sign says.

Many–not all–of the stands are local producers. That means the person who grew the food is standing there selling it to you. They increasingly are going bio, or organic, but it involves lots of paperwork that some don’t want to deal with. As a friend told me when I first arrived in Carcassonne, most of the people in the region are way too cheap to use a drop more fertilizer or pesticide than they absolutely have to and will go without whenever possible. So I don’t sweat the bio label and just stick to the locals.

garlic
Garlic!

Although I might have a list of things I need, it’s short–along the lines of don’t forget garlic. Instead, the best way to shop the market is to listen to the market. It will tell you what’s in season.

cherries close
Earlier this summer, cherries. No more.
apricots
Apricots arrive, overlapping with cherries and still around.
nectarines
Then come peaches and nectarines (white and yellow. We like the yellow ones). They’re still tasty and plentiful, therefore it’s still summer.

The other tip is to go early, which I often am guilty of not doing. You get the best choice, it’s less crowded, and it’s important not to hurry. Take the time to assess the produce, and also to assess the protocol of each stand. Some serve you and get riled if you touch anything. These usually have lines, and cutting will bring the wrath of the regulars down upon you. Others are a jostling jungle requiring you to reach between arms and torsos to get at the pile of produce and then to get the attention of the vendor to weigh it and to pay.

figs 1
Figs. So delicate. To avoid smashing them, just buy and shove directly into mouth.
figs cut long
Figues longues d’août–long August figs

First, walk around the entire market. It’s the best way to gauge what is bountiful at the moment. The vendors usually align prices, but you might see that one has particularly good-looking beans, or another has a bumper crop of zucchini for a bargain.spices bagsspices cinnamonIf you say hello and smile, and if the stand isn’t too busy, the vendor will likely start up a conversation, or join in one if you initiate. That’s where magic happens, where you get a family recipe or a really good idea for dinner or a restaurant recommendation–sometimes from the vendor but sometimes from other market-goers picking out their produce next to you. And if the vendor likes you, you’ll be rewarded with a bunch of parsley as a gift, or an extra onion, or some such.

cheese
Goat versions of popular cheeses. Note the two-month-old tomme on the right; there are different ages, all marked.

Many stands offer samples–taste the melon, the ham, the hard sausage, the cheese. A good way to discover. It’s how I learned that ugly flat peaches are amazing.

strawberries bernard
Charlottes. Because there are MANY kinds of strawberries, all different.
currants
Currants from M. Fraise
blueberries
And blueberries from Ariège

I have a rollerbag for my purchases; they’re just too heavy to carry in baskets, and the car is parked blocks away. I start at the strawberry stand, because sometimes they sell out before the market ends at noon. Being a regular has its advantages–Bernard, the vendor, will hold my strawberries for me while I do my other shopping.

melon close
From Marseillette, a cute village near Carcassonne that had a big etang, or shallow lake. The water was drained in 1851 to reduce mosquitoes, and the land is particularly rich for farming rice and fruit.
melons diablo
“Diablo” melons from Spain. I passed.

Next I try to buy the heavy stuff, like carrots and melons, that can withstand having the other produce piled on top. Then the fruit like nectarines and peaches, which are heavy but risk bruising. Then light but sturdy things like peppers or lettuce. Finally, the delicate items, with the tomatoes and then the strawberries on top. It means I ricochet around the market like a pinball, rather than circling it. Drives the Carnivore nuts.

potatoes
They taste like they’ve already been buttered.
onions
Still dirty. Good sign.
zucchini with flower
Hard-to-find, ephemeral zucchini blooms.
peas
Sweet peas…earlier this summer.

The other thing to appreciate at the market is the variety. Half a dozen kinds of artichokes. And zucchini. And tomatoes. And eggplant. Sometimes it’s aesthetic, but often there are real taste differences, and the vendor will explain if you ask. White eggplant, I recently learned, is milder and less bitter than the dark purple kind. And don’t get me started on the differences among varieties of tomatoes. Or strawberries.peppers many kindspeppers hot

eggplant 4 kinds
Four kinds here, almost black, paler purple, striped and white! Plus another below.

eggplant japanesePrices at the French market tend to be lower than at the supermarket; the farmers’ markets I’ve been to in the U.S. have often been a lot more expensive than the local supermarkets. The market produce isn’t as uniform, and it might still sport dirt or bugs from the field, but to me those are qualities, not faults. They are proof that it was grown without a lot of chemical intervention.

flowers
Potted and cut flowers
lavender
Lavender and wheat bouquets
escargots
Snails, 100 for €10, already starved for seven days in order to eliminate any toxins from their systems. Ready to cook, in other words.

When I first shopped at an outdoor market, in Africa, I learned to use my senses to pick produce. How does it feel? Firm? Soft? Unripely hard? How does it smell? The strawberry stand is smelled before it’s seen. As it should be. The best way to pick a pineapple (admittedly not grown locally) is to sniff it. I have no idea how to choose produce that’s wrapped–hidden–in plastic.

confit tomatoes
Sun-dried tomatoes
confit hibiscus
Candied hibiscus
confit kumquat
Candied kumquats

Every town and many villages have markets, and the days will be posted someplace in town (for example, signs saying no parking on X days for market). They’re always in the morning; you snooze, you lose (OK, some tourist spots have night markets. But forget about afternoon). Carcassonne’s central square, Place Carnot, has a small market on Tuesdays, a bigger one on Thursdays and the big blowout on Saturdays. It’s not just for fruits, vegetables, ham and cheese; there’s an indoor meat/cheese/fish market two blocks away, and a housewares/clothes market two blocks further. See you there.

charcut ham
Ham…just as well it’s wrapped up. But tastings are available.
charcut
Artisinal hard sausages

 

42 thoughts on “Who Needs Whole Foods?

  1. Posts like this one are bad for me, they make me weep.

    If one does not live in London or a fairly major town in England such food of quality and flavour, especially the vegetables are impossible to buy. Of course there are markets but they cannot compare. Even the organic box delivery does not bring the vegetables that have benefited from sunshine.

    It is the remebered dreams of holidays abroad….ah!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s too bad. We are further lucky because we rarely get frost, so we have fresh vegetables even in winter. Frozen are one option–the vegetables are picked at their peak and flash-frozen immediately, so they retain most of their nutrients. But it isn’t as enjoyable to shop the freezer aisle vs. an open-air market.

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  2. People always ask what our favorite part of France is. They think we’re going to say the Eiffel Tower or the wine country. Those are great, we tell them, but our favorite thing about traveling to France is visiting the local markets and cooking dinner! Thanks for such a lovely post!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I always make a list of all t markets near t area we r visiting. They are so beautiful. Someday I would love to stay for a length of time near a good market and cook!
    Thanks for t inspiring photos.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Do you get any farmers selling from the backs of pickups? That’s how I would buy sweet corn, especially, but also melons and tomatoes. But I always found them to be expensive. I tried to include prices in some of the photos to give people an idea. Tomatoes are €1-€2 a kilogram (very roughly 50 cents to $1 a pound); zucchini, eggplant and peppers of all colors run around €1.50 a kilo (roughly 75 cents a pound); nectarines/peaches are €2.50 a kilo ($1.25 a pound)…

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  4. Just a lovely homage to the French market. Here I am spoiled – markets (in the plural) every day except Monday and Farmers market (by which I mean growers and makers selling their own goods) Wednesday through Sunday. Here, though your comment about afternoon doesn’t wash. On Thursday and Friday afternoon after the big boys have cleared down in Place aux Herbes the little guys often with only for example salade, some sort of berries and roots to sell will move in. They are amongst the best. And the figs – tiny little figs oh la la! We are spoiled. But then we made the choice 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lucky you to have all-day choices! There are growers selling out of their rickety camionettes at various roadsides and rond points, but the market itself here is only in the mornings on appointed days ((here, imagine me doing the French motion for missing out–the pointer finger swiped under the nose)). Then the square is filled with tables of the surrounding cafés.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. When in Cantal it is just a once a week affair which is raucous at this time of the year and tiny the rest … a meat stall, a cheese stall, a veg seller and if I’m lucky ‘pumpkin boy’ who grows all his own and sometimes literally only has pumpkins or pumpkins and leeks but they are muddy and real. I’m making the most of here and it is heartening to see the markets so well attended. I don’t see them dying out in my lifetime. Something else the French have got SO right – you are very good at highlighting these things 🙂

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  5. Wherever we travel, markets are always at the top of the list of attractions for us. I think that is the way to really understand another culture. Watching people in their everyday lives, interacting with each other. We all know that markets in France are some of the best in the world…..for food and entertainment.
    Ali

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Great timing — I just had a Whole Foods open up down the street from me in Atlanta last week and everyone thinks it’s just the best thing. But you are so right, it will never compare to the open air markets all across France. While the food is wonderful, the most fun is the EXPERIENCE!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t want to knock WF–they really helped organics to go mainstream. But a store lacks the interpersonal exchanges, the sensory richness, the excitement and drama of a market.

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  7. When I was still living in San Diego we called it “Whole Paycheck”. I live a few minutes from Carpentras in the Vaucluse, which has a really great market on Friday mornings. Fifteen minutes away is a “Marche du Producteurs” in Velleron, near Isle sur la Sorgue, which is quite large and has nothing but the producers themselves selling what they have grown. Obviously no pineapples or papayas ….. I have been in France since 2009 and still cannot believe how inexpensive freshly grown fruit and vegetables are here. Your comment about chemicals is so true, and we often see “non-spraye” at a market stall, growers who have not got organic certification but who do not spray their crops. We also have a farmer down the road who sells direct from his farm as well as at the markets, sometimes we just head down there. Its one of the great joys of living in France.
    bonnie in provence

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Carpentras! Truffle central!
      Around here, farms have hand-painted signs indicating they sell various produce (“cerises,” “asperges,” or just “legumes et fruits”) and the village épicerie carries tomatoes and beans from a few gardeners. At the market, some of the produce is labeled “non-traité,” or not treated.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Love this post. I would hang around until someone felt sorry for me and shared the family recipes. 🙂

    btw, I have signed up to follow you, but for some reason it is not working for me. Any thoughts?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ARGH. I am hopeless about how these things work. Did you sign up via email? Otherwise I would suggest Bloglovin’, except that you have to look at it regularly–it isn’t delivered. I will try to find out.

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  9. Is it true that one should not pick up fruit or veg in a French farmer’s market, but wait for the vendor to offer one to you for inspection, to smell, etc.?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. The melon people will offer to choose for you based on when you plan to eat the fruit. And some of the easily bruised things like peaches, tomatoes and cherries will be served, but not always.

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    1. Some stands want to serve you and they do get unhappy if you pick up the produce. I like to choose myself (I like my nectarines crunchy, while others want them soft and juicy–to each his own, right?). So I skip the stands that aren’t self-serve. Just watch what the other customers do.

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  10. Glorious fruits and veggies! On menus and in markets, I find the French handwriting to be difficult to understand. Did it take you a while to adapt?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. With Tech difficulties I missed a lot of your photos but did see those extremely ugly tomatoes! I can only hope that the taste was better than the look.
    On a morning dogwalk I am able to help myself to a fig or two from the ‘communal’ trees around the village. Lovely time of the year.

    Liked by 1 person

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