Markets are an essential part of the French culture, and many date back to medieval times. Visitors to the country are usually fascinated by the great diversity of goods on offer, and most holiday makers try to include a visit in their itinerary. Towns and villages are proud of their markets, and boast signs detailing the day and sometimes type and historic nature of their own event.
It’s worth going off the beaten track to search out markets in smaller towns and villages, as some of the events held in popular holiday areas tend to cater to the tourist trade, with piles of mass produced soaps and factory-made pottery. The vast majority of markets in France now have a stall or two selling cheap shoes or clothing, but the majority of the stall holders will be selling their own homegrown or artisanal goods.
Here’s our guide to what to seek out on your next visit – remember to take a shopping bag or two with you, as many goods are sold loose.
If you’re on holiday, plants aren’t perhaps the most practical purchase, but they’re always worth a look. All French markets have a few plant stalls, some selling general flowering plants and shrubs, and some specialising in herbs, rockery plants or vegetable seedlings. A lot of the time, the plants have been grown by the stallholder, who’ll be a mine of information about planting out times, sun vs. shade and even culinary tips.
Fruit and Vegetables
Whether you’re shopping for a week’s food or just a picnic lunch, French fruit and vegetable stalls are one of the highlights of the market. The choice may seem limited, as many small growers bring their harvest and have only a few seasonal varieties on offer, but the freshness and flavour are second to none. Much of the produce will have been picked and packed that morning, and growers are usually delighted to offer cooking tips, if they’re not too busy. French stallholders, as well, are happy to let you touch or turn over the fruit to find what you want.
Every region has its own dish or produce, and wandering around a French market is a great way to find out about the cuisine of the region. From foie gras and cassoulet (a type of thick stew) in the south, to apples and cider in the north, the stalls selling regional produce are a must. The stall on the right is selling tourte aux myrtilles, a type of cake from the Pyrenees region, made with blueberries from the mountains. In addition to the traditional recipe, the enterprising stallholder has augmented his stock with his own variations, containing chocolate chips, raisins, caramel and dried fruit.
When buying baked goods, look for those offered by artisan bakers. Much of the bread and cakes offered by supermarkets and larger stores contains levure, a quick raising agent that means the bread is much faster to produce. Unfortunately, a lot of people find it hard to digest. Artisan bakers use the traditional lévain, a slow acting yeast which means a better flavour and fewer problems.
Spices, teas and olives
Another traditional stall is that selling dried fruit, spices, tea, herbs, olives and marinated garlic, all sold loose by weight. Stallholders are usually happy to let customers try before they buy, and you’ll be able to find a lot of the ingredients used in the local dishes, if you want to recreate your holiday menu back home.
Meat and cheese
You don’t need us to tell you about the fantastic range of cheeses and meat available at French markets. Don’t be afraid to ask for tasting samples, and do seek out the local products. Dried or cured meats such as sausages or ham normally have a long shelf life and travel well, if you’d like to take back some culinary souvenirs of your travels.
By Sara Walker