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By Bryan Pirolli in Paris—
Whether you’re navigating the stalls of the outdoor organic market at Boulevard Raspail or elbowing your way through the international clientele at the market in Belleville, there are a few things to know before braving a marché in Paris.
Each market is unique and offers a local and intimate peek into daily life. Regardless of which market you explore, the following suggestions should help you make the most out of your visit. (Check here for the days and times of all of Paris’ outdoor produce markets.)
Hope you’re hungry, because it’s time to stock up on some fruits and veggies… à la cheapo!
1. Look for the plastic bag
Not all markets allow you to choose your own produce, and some vendors may frown upon you touching their goods. If you see colored plastic bags (usually within easy reach) or if the seller hands you a bag, go ahead and serve yourself. If you hear the merchants shouting, “servez-vous,” start grabbing some eggplants. Otherwise, hands off!
2. Check your goods
When vendors insist on choosing the produce for you, beware. Check your bag before walking away to ensure they didn’t slip in a couple of spoiled fruits to get rid of their bad produce. Should this happens, don’t hesitate to return it and demand a better selection. After all, it only takes one moldy apple to spoil the whole bunch!
3. Keep things moving!
Lines build up quickly at many markets and there’s no time for waiting around. Have your money ready to avoid wasting time, and once you make your purchase, move on or risk getting trampled. Ironically, in a culture known for two-hour lunches and disruptive transportation strikes, the market is one place where Parisians show their impatience.
4. Buying bulk is better
Gauging quantities of food is difficult, especially when you’re living alone in Paris. Do I need two kilograms of carrots? (How much is two kilos, anyway?) But buying in bulk is always preferable and often cheaper in the end than buying just a few pieces. For items that keep (like carrots and onions), I buy in a kilo or two. But for tomatoes, strawberries or peaches, I scale down to a quarter or a half kilo to avoid waste.
5. Be polite
Aside from the whole pushy thing (see #3 above), the market is still about the French codes of politesse. Use your “bonjours” and “mercis” to facilitate any transaction whether you’re in the pristine stalls of Passy or the crushes of the Barbès market. Vendors are usually very polite, and are known to sometimes toss extra strawberries in your bag. Be a little extra nice–can’t hurt, right?
6. Go later for the deals
If you can wait until the markets wind down in the early afternoon, you can usually take advantage of vendors selling off their perishables at discounted rates. Look for baskets or trays called “panier,” often loaded with ripened avocados or overstocked radishes for a fraction of their regular price (usually just one or two euros). The selection may not be the best, but the prices are downright unbeatable.
7. Go with local produce
All markets clearly label the origins of their produce–at least the country. There’s nothing wrong with Spanish strawberries (some even prefer them to the French ones). Still, if I see that produce is coming from really far away, it usually means that it’s out of season, and I should wait to buy it until the local, fresher, and usually cheaper version comes to market. (Of course, if it’s produce that doesn’t grow in France to begin with, don’t fret it.)
8. Consider your caddy
Far be it from me to tell people not to bring their little rolling caddies to the market. All those vegetables and fruits can get heavy and I don’t expect everyone to sling their bags over their shoulders. But if using a caddy, remember to be considerate. Markets, especially ones at Belleville and Aligre, get crowded. Don’t leave your caddy in the middle of traffic or cross others’ paths without realizing that the caddy you’re pulling will cut them off. Be considerate and you’ll greatly reduce the amount of grumbling coming from behind you.
9. Price check
As soon as I arrive at the market, I always make one complete round to check out all the offerings. In addition to being a fun experience, this is the only way to make sure you don’t pay too much for certain items. If, for example, I purchase red peppers right off the bat and later find them for half the price per kilogram at the other end of the market, I kick myself. No one said being a budget shopper was always going to be easy!
10. Be prepared for anything
Take all of these rules with a grain of fleur de sel. I’m not a regular at every single market, so I’m still learning something with each visit. Anything can–and will–come up at the market. With common sense and a polite disposition, you’ll be ready for anything!
Your market tips
Do you have some tips for navigating Paris’ outdoor markets? Tell us about your market experience in the comments section. Also, check out Theadora Brack’s earlier piece for more tips on shopping at Paris’ outdoor markets.