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Let’s face it. Open-air market shopping in Paris can look pretty intimidating, even to a shopping enthusiast like myself. Cheapos, I’ve been there. In fact, during my first few months in Paris, I avoided the food market scene altogether, sticking instead to the safe predictability of the supermarché aisles.
But I’ve changed. I have seen “tomates,” “aubergines,” and “haricots verts” in a natural light, and I’m not going back to fluorescent.
Let me show you the way. Here are a few tips (well, a baker’s dozen) for success at any open-air food market. Allons-y!
Which way did they go?
Throughout Paris, there are 70 roving open-air markets (“marchés volants”) and 15 covered markets. Everyone has their own favorites, though most markets are similarly (and handsomely) stocked with the same basic repertoire of produce, bread, cheese, meat, seafood, spices, and flowers.
What sets each apart from the others are their clientele and neighborhoods. Truth be told, preference for any particular market is usually based on its proximity to one’s apartment. Convenience always trumps whilst carrying a heavy load!
1. Get the low-down.
They don’t call them “marchés volants” for nothing. The “flying markets” appear only once or twice each week on their assigned market days, sell their goods, and then move on to another neighborhood.
2. Arrive early.
Hit the scene before the street bands begin to play, because most markets start to shut down around noon. Generally, open-air food markets open at 8 AM and close at 3 PM. Enjoy breakfast at the market with a cup of fresh white goat cheese or a chocolate cravate!
3. Am I late?
Not a problem. In fact, it could work to your penny-pinching advantage, since the merchants often reduce prices during the last hour.
Prior to rehearsing with folk band “Les Balochiens,” Violiniste Catherine Masson often heads to the frenetic Marché Barbès (just east of metro Barbès-Rochechouart) around 1 PM. Around this time, she explains, “the north African merchants start to sing out their discounts. ‘Petits Poi! Artichauts! Champignons!’ The rhythm and vibration stay with me all day. I get a deal and inspiration. It’s super cool.”
4. Cash and carry.
If you can, organize a small “till” the night before. I usually carry 20 euros in coins and small bills. Most street merchants don’t accept credit cards.
5. Buying for the week? Planning a big soirée?
Better bring a marché caddie or “chariot” (rolling cart), “panier” (basket), or a sturdy sac. During the summer season, Supermarché Champion carries a good-looking fibercloth sack in stylish animal prints for less than a euro. Collect them all!
6. I’ve got a new attitude.
Shopping in France is a social interaction. Julia Child mused that, “If a Frenchman senses that a visitor is delighted to be in his store, and takes a genuine interest in what is for sale, then he’ll just open up like a flower.” What’s more, your relationship with the vendors will really flourish if you give them repeat business. The French value fidelity.
7. Sell! Sell! Then bye-bye!
Time is money for the open-air merchant. Fast transactional turnover is what it’s all about, baby. High-maintenance shopper? Need to know your chicken’s pedigree or the soil temperature where your tomatoes grew? Not that there’s anything wrong with that! But you’ll be better off browsing at a “biologique” (organic) food market, such as Marché Batignolles (Metro Rome or Place de Clichy) or shopping at an individual specialty shop.
8. Mind your Peas and Qs
Learn key French phrases like: “Combien ça?” (How much is that?), “Je voudrais…” (I’d like), “un morceau de” (a piece of), “s’il vous plaît” (please), “un peu plus” (a little more) and “un peu moins” (a little less).
Also, brush up on your French numbers prior to your trip, since they can be tricky. For example, “quatre vingt dix huit” is 4 x 20 + 10 + 8 = 96. Whew.
9. U can’t touch this (or can you?)
If little plastic baskets or tubs are in reach, it’s usually okay to handle your own produce. An absence of these containers typically signals that the grocer will make the selections for you. And there’s usually a line, whether it’s immediately obvious or not. In any case, as you approach the stall, it’s always a good idea to make eye contact, smile, and say, “Bonjour!” That’s always been my ticket for fast and friendly service.
10. For every season turn, turn, turn.
Think seasonally! In-season produce and “fromage” tastes better and costs less. Asparagus is best in the month of May, cherries ripen in July, and apples are at their tastiest in early autumn. Meanwhile, keep your eyes peeled for those “soldes” (on sale) signs.
11. Follow your nose.
Don’t let your shopping list call all the shots. You’re better off using all your senses, following your gut, and trying whatever you fancy. Some vendors offer samples, so by all means break one of my mother’s rules: shop while hungry!
12. Big Wheel keeps on turning
There are wheels and wheels of cheeses to please us at every market, and each has its story. “Saint-Nectaire” was a favorite of Louis XIV. The streak of ash in “Morbier” was once intended to keep bugs from landing on it. “Cantal,” one of the oldest cheeses, dates back thousands of years. Locals call it “fourme,” after the wooden form in which it’s made, which eventually gave rise to “fromage.” Each wedge is a taste of France’s legendary past.
13. No market close to your hotel or apartment?
Don’t fret. Most arrondissements have bustling “rues commerçantes” (shopping districts) which have many of the same advantages, if not the same Old World atmosphere.
This has been Theadora Brack! Bon Voyage et Bon Appétit!
About the author and photographer: Theadora Brack is a writer working in Paris. Her fiction has appeared in more than 30 literary publications, including 3AM International, The Smoking Poet, Beloit Fiction Journal, Mid-American Review, and the Haight-Ashbury Literary Journal.