I don’t profess to be an expert on markets in France. In fact, I’m not at all. In the past, when I visited my family as a child, I don’t remember markets. I do remember walking to shops with my grandmother in her village, getting milk, then cheese, then meat, and so forth. I don’t think I remember seeing a farmers-type market until I was much older. I also remember my mother commenting on how much prettier all of the produce is compared to the U.S.
Fast forward to married life, when my husband and I have, luckily, traveled in France and many other European countries. Because we always wanted to see the countryside, we’re typically on the move. We’ve never rented a home, spent a week, and cooked.
So it wasn’t until I visited Stéphane from the blog My French Heaven, that I really got to see markets and experience them.
In 2013, when my daughter and I went, the three of us went to a different market on four days in four different towns! But I know that the one Stéphane frequents is on Sunday in Libourne, where he resides. Which is why he refers to it as his church.
In France, as it is in many European countries, markets aren’t like a visit to a super Wal Mart. It’s about planning what to cook, seeing what’s in season, visiting with friends. It’s almost more of a social institution than just buying groceries.
After three trips to visit Stephane, I’ve been to the Libourne market many times now. I recognize his favorite butcher, who blushed when my girlfriend gave him a hug for a photo. I recognize the old curmudgeon of a foie gras guy. And there are the cute young ladies who sell seafood. And so forth. Can you imagine having such a relationship with a cheesemonger? I have none of that where I live.
If you’ve never been to a French market, please read Stéphane’s post, entitled “My Market is my Church.” It gives you tips on how to navigate a market, how to talk to the vendors, and also what not to do.
I thought this was such important information because if I’d never had guidance from my mother, I could be one of the ugly Americans, touching the beautiful produce, asking for samples, perhaps yelling when a Parisien butted in line in front of me.
That doesn’t happen in France. In fact, you keep your hands to yourself and you remain calm. Farmers are proud, and they’re not selling any strawberry or green bean that isn’t perfectly ripe. There might be dirt on the carrots and potatoes, but that’s the only thing that an American would consider imperfect. You tell the vendor you want a half a kilo of mushrooms, and he/she will place them in a bag for you. Payment is in cash.
Farmers markets are also not like our food festivals in the US. They’re not giving out food samples to draw you in. They’re too busy doing what they should be doing anyway. If you want one of their cheeses, ask for it, or move on.
There are counterfeit farmers. In Stephane’s post, you’ll read that if you see stamped eggs, for example, or if a “farmer” has baby-bottom soft hands, chances are you’re not dealing with a true farmer. They’ve most likely stopped by the French Costco equivalent and are re-selling at the market.
When my husband and I visited Stephane recently, we spent a couple of days in his home town. This was at my request, because as much as I like traveling and eating out, I can honestly say that there’s nothing quite like spending time with Stephane at his home, shopping with him, sipping the wine he’s chosen for you, and being served perfect food prepared by him.
For lunch on our first full day in Libourne, he served my husband and I steaks with a green peppercorn cream sauce, and sauteed potatoes. Followed by a platter of cheeses.
We had purchased all of the ingredients that morning at the market.
In the evening, just for me, along with my Lillet, I enjoyed cured duck filled with foie gras.
Then Stephane made us a dinner of his famous prawns in a Jack Daniels cream sauce.
How nice it must be to have a relationship with people who really understand their food, who have raised it, caught it, cooked it, and are proud of it. It’s wonderful to have trust in these vendors as well, and know their reputations. These people are so knowledgeable that they will tell you how to cook the eel they’re selling, still wiggling, of course, or even how best to prepare a cut of lamb. This is also a part of what makes shopping at farmers markets so meaningful.