Marché volants de Paris, the Roving Food markets of Paris, France
“Claude clapped his hands at the sight. He found something extravagant, crazy and sublime in all the jaunty vegetables. He insisted that they were absolutely not dead but, after being pulled from the earth the day before, were awaiting the next sunrise to make their farewells from the cobblestones of Les Halles. He also claimed to hear in the market the death rattle of all the little gardens on the outskirts of the city.” The Belly of Paris, Emile Zola.
Zola’s novel was set in and around the legendary Parisian market, Les Halles in the late 1850’s, and so vividly evokes the old Paris market place, that as I turned the book’s pages, I was sure I could smell the pungent aroma of aging cheeses, hear the chop of the butcher’s cleaver, taste the newly picked strawberries.
Back in the day, one fifth of Paris relied on Les Halles for their weekly grocery shopping, yet the market, which was in need of major repairs closed in the 1970’s. There’s a common saying in France, that “You can buy almost anything in Paris, without going into a store.” and today, Paris still enjoys a vibrant market culture, with some 75 neighbourmarkets spread across the 101 or so arrondissement (or administrative districts). Open on different days throughout the week (Check here for the complete list ), vendors set up their open-air stands selling fresh fruits and vegetables, cheeses, fish, meat, as well as wine and flowers. The market places are also a great place to kick back and relax, and many of the larger markets, such as the Rue Cler market, are surrounded by cafés and restaurants, where you can watch the market world go by.
France is known as the gastronomic capital of the world, and it is no surprise when considering how important the market is in a daily Frenchman’s life. The bulk of the produce sold at the markets directly come from French farms. France has a diverse climate and benefits from both vast expanses of agricultural land as well as the sea’s bounty to both the North and South. France is also very proud of its regional cuisine, from the fragrant herbs of coastal Provence, the richer, slow cooked stews of Bretagne and the spicier, Spanish influenced dishes from the Basque, cuisine is respective of it’s home terrain.
Unlike in other countries, a French farmer or fisherman is a revered profession, as the French place a high degree of importance and emphasis on their national produce. Whilst of course the country is experiencing pressures from the increase in industrial farming, there is protection for farmers and France is currently the largest beneficiary of farming related subsidies from the European Union.
French cuisine varies according to the season. Now with the start of spring, shellfish are becoming more and more common in market stalls, and oysters are in abundance. In summer, the markets come alive with fresh fruit and vegetables, and by September, when the hunting season begins, game of all different kind, including pheasant, partridge, rabbit, duck are taken home from the markets and then dressed up and feasted on like a prize.
Everybody has a take on why the French enjoy some of the world’s finest cuisine. In my own point of view, I think it’s largely because the French treat food simply – they respect ingredients, they use what they have on hand and keep to what they know best (and they do this fabulously well). Neither are the French fond of trends – whilst they’ve adapted to the times and the passing of haute cuisine has been replaced by the healthier, lighter nouvelle cuisine, you are not going to find complex, deconstructed, unpronounceable menus. But you will always find the juiciest stake, the flakiest pastry, the freshest salad, and you will rarely be served a bad wine, the wine will suit the meal and the wine will be affordable – it’s a must!
I’ve been to Paris almost annually and sometimes biannually since moving to North America and asides from feeling guilty over eating way too many chocolat éclair, I’ve never been disappointed with anything I ate. My favourite time of the day is l’heure de l’apéritif, which is essentially happy hour, and was spent at one of the many outdoor bistros in Paris and usually includes a shared platter of charcuteries ( a selection of patés, cured meats and hams, some pickles), which always goes well with a refreshing glass or two of either Kir or white wine.
So in honour of the apéritif, and the advance of the Northern Spring, I went down to our local market and put together a small selection of charcuteries for a dinner party we had last weekend. Included was some Jambon de Paris (Parisian ham), an Ostrich and maple syrup paté, Saucisson (cured sausage), some Chorizo, a bowl of cornichons (tiny gherkins) and of course a baguette. As it turned out, by the time I came out with a glass of Chablis, the eight kids we had over had practically eaten it all up, so back to the kitchen I went for top ups. Bon Appétit!