A fig and a pear that I bought at the market. This almost looks like a painting.
For a food lover, there is no better place to be than a Paris market. Produce exploding in their freshness side by side with dazzling displays of food fuel my mental menus for a fantasy lunch or dinner. My Bin, my sister and I are ready with our paniers (baskets) and it’s off to market we go!
French markets play a vital social function in that they’re a place for the farmers and their regular customers to meet, and often, there’s no bargaining. Most of the stall- owners also prefer to serve the customer rather than to have them help themselves.
There are different kinds of markets that are open on different days of the week: marchés découverts (open air markets), marchés couverts (covered markets, also known as les halles), and independent rue commerçantes, a row of stand-alone shops spread onto cobblestone streets complete with outdoor stalls.
Of course the best thing about markets is seeing what the season brings. Since it’s autumn, the stalls are awash with redcurrants shimmering like rubies; apples of every variety paired with their byproducts of juice and cider; fresh dates still on the stem, perfect for pairing with blue cheese and a glass of white wine; white grapes that look like transparent torpedoes and their darker counterparts heavy with must (the grayish film on their skins). There are also plenty of green figs, ripe to the point of eruption — one stall owner has split one open and I see the fig’s gooey red insides, its seeds creating a kaleidoscope. The air is heady with the aroma of roasted châtaignes (chestnuts), the one sure sign that Christmas is just around the corner.
In this fast-changing world, France itself is not immune to modernization — there are plenty of monster supermarchés (supermarkets) menacing the markets with their one-stop shopping and longer opening hours. The desire to cling to l’art de la gastronomie for the sake of tradition however, ensures that the usual French standbys are here in their proudest glory.
Nothing is more French than pain (bread), and there are lots of stalls selling baguettes, the long and thin loaves that we commonly know as French bread. When fresh, they’re utterly crisp but become terribly stale and hard within a few hours. (No wonder the French invented pain perdu [bread pudding]). Cheeses of all kinds, some smelly enough to stink up a barn are waiting to be cut by the fromager immaculately dressed in a white lab coat; my favorite cherry tomatoes sporting jaunty green stems that look like stars from afar; stuffed bulots (snails) and puff pastries; fresh walnuts; roasting poulet (chicken); and pastries galore.
My eyes pop out when I catch sight of the most GIGANTIC mushrooms I’ve ever laid eyes on: as long as my forearm with caps as large as dessert plates, they’re just begging to be wiped clean and chopped into a fluffy omelette with a dash of truffle oil and fleur de sel. Good lord.
Of course the best way to sample Paris’ specialties is not just in the restaurants but the food bought from the market. With our baskets heaving, we spread out a blanket on a grassy knoll near a magnificent cathedral, and we have ourselves une pique-nique. Nearby, a family is playing futbol, their dog barking noisily, trying to join in the fun. Sometimes, it can’t get any better than this.
Tomorrow: the search for the perfect French hot chocolate.