A visit to the weekly French market is the best way to buy food. But don’t be fooled into thinking it is just about fish and meat, fruit and vegetables. Because it’s also most certainly about the people and their passion for the produce they are selling. It is an experience not to be missed and it is also one that simply cannot be hurried.
Standing in line eyeing up local aubergines and tomatoes this week I was getting a little fidgety; I needed to get to the bakery stand next door before they sold out of my favourite “Viking” loaves but I didn’t want to lose my place in the queue.
The lady in front of me was taking forever; I was listening as she discussed her life story from the previous week, then she moved on to talking about her extended family who were arriving next day and what she would feed them as there were young and old and she hadn’t seen them for a year. She drew breath for a second before launching into another long story about the new baker who had just arrived in her village. Apparently he was single and desperately in need of a wife! This was getting interesting and I stopped worrying so much about my bread and the fact that I had been waiting for at least ten minutes.
When I finally got to the front of the line, I asked Maureen which peaches were the best, she had several varieties. With a smile, she said this week it was the flat peaches – les pêches plates; these were by far the sweetest, and to prove her point she took one, sliced it into chunks with a small dull knife that had seen a hundred harvests, and handed a piece each to the children and myself. We all mumbled our immediate appreciation as they were utterly delicious, and naturally, we bought plenty.
That’s how the market works. We talked about the canicule – the heatwave, of the past week and the difficulty with vegetable growing this year; it’s been either too hot or too cold, too wet at the start of the season and now far too dry: in short it’s been a bit of a disaster, une petite catastrophe.
It’s the same at the fromagerie, the cheese stand, where Thomas will happily offer you a taste of anything you are unsure of. He knows his stuff; his counter has over 100 cheeses on it at any time, and he will tell you not only where they come from, but how they are made, and sometimes, why they were made in the first place. This week I learnt the difference between Morbier and Fevre, two cheeses that look like twins; it was not just a free and expert lesson in the history of the production of that particular cheese, but also a glimpse into the ancient worlds of small communities tucked away below Haut-Savoie mountain pastures where cheese is still made today as it has always been, by people who can tell the difference between cheese made with the morning milk and cheese made with the evening milk, a community who cease to make cheese as the calves are weaned.
At the fish counter Roddy will talk for ever, and the girls there now ask him questions sometimes, and advice on recipes. They are still amazed that they have a customer who can skin his own gurnard and is happy to choose his own fish. It’s a true meeting of like minds amongst the sardines and the squid!
But it’s not just the food that takes centre stage, it’s the people;
each individual and their different characters make the market a performance,
a well rehearsed play in which the customer plays an important supporting role while the main cast rarely alters. The subject too remains relatively unchanged – and that subject is mainly the produce, and everything about it. Where it’s grown, how it’s grown, who picks it or plucks it, who sells it and who cooks it – all the questions and answers buzz about the market like a swarm of wasps seeking jam.
Above all else though it’s the appreciation of food that stands out. The French are passionate about what they do with their produce, and it’s that passion that speaks to the customer; it’s why transactions simply cannot be hurried. Everything needs to be discussed. Take melons for example – you don’t just buy the first three you see; you explain when you want to eat them, and only then will Maureen select them accordingly; one ready for today, one for tomorrow and one for mid-week. And if you are unsure which olive would be best for the evening’s aperitif, then you’ll be given a few to sample; we don’t buy clothes without trying them on first and it’s the same at the market, you cannot possibly buy without first tasting.
There is much talk about French food being the best in the world. To be honest I have eaten excellent food in many countries, whether it’s been in the U.K., the USA, New Zealand, Australia, the Far East or the Caribbean. However, what makes French food so much fun is the attitude towards it; this love of food starts at the market, and continues into dining rooms and kitchens. Much consideration is given to what is actually being eaten by all the family, young and old. It’s really nothing new, this is how I grew up, but the difference in France is that here we are not in a minority. Here it is normal to know where your food comes from, and how to cook it. Almost nowhere else in the world could you have a pair of burly truck-drivers ruminating about their respective Boeuf Wellington recipes, as happened alongside me two weeks ago. No, in France it is rare to eat something and not ask where it came from, who grew it, how it was made. La belle France truly is a place where food, and the importance of it, is given the reverence it so rightly deserves.