Feel the uneven cobble stones beneath your feet, knocking you off a balanced path from time to time. See the brilliant array of colors in the fruits and vegetables lined across the tables. Listen to the women gossip and barter over the sounds of a muffled accordion player nearby. Pick up a carrot or turnip and touch the dusty layer of dirt on the outer skin of the freshly dug vegetable. Taste the sweetness of a perfectly ripened mango the vendor cut open for sampling.
Most neighborhoods have at least one or two weekly open-air markets, often located in a town square or open parking lot (generally 7am-2:30 pm). If you are fortunately located within walking distance of a covered market, it will be permanently open, like the old market on rue Cler in the 7th arrondissement. However, all markets, even the permanent ones, are usually closed on Monday. Your neighbors can point you in the right direction, or just follow the ladies making their pilgrimage with woven baskets and rolling carts.
Depending on the season, you’ll find tables covered in melons and berries or apples and pumpkins, and always an array of flowers, bursting with magnificent colors. Most often quantities are sold by weight in kilos or grams. (450 grams is about a pound for those with American recipes.) Good deals can be found by buying by the plateau, or dish that is pre-loaded with ripe produce. Vendors will efficiently bag your selections and announce your total cost.
Arrive at the market with an open and adventurous spirit and your overall spending will be a fraction of the cost. Going to the market inspires you to cook new dishes. Be spontaneous. Don’t arrive with list in hand. Let that day’s promotions or soldes write your menu. Shopping mid-week often provides fewer people and lower prices. You could also try going later in the day for the possibility of easier haggling on the food needing to be eaten that day.
No matter when you go to these marchés découverts, it is appreciated if you try and speak the language. Keep in mind basic shopping etiquette: “Bonjour,” “s’il vous plait,” “merci,” and “au revoir” said with a smile go a long way. As far as asking for different foods, manage what you can. There are little helpful hints peeking out of each section, as the name and price of all the items are etched in white on small chalkboards. If you become a repeat shopper, even if you only return once a week, forming a friendship with the producteur can get you the freshest pick and an idea on how to cook an item with which you are unfamiliar.
There is much more to a market than fruits and veggies, though. Selections vary at each location, but you can find fresh fish, meats, cheeses and homemade jars of honey. Let us not forget about the non-edibles too! Beautiful scarves, dainty handbags, shoes, jewelry, clothes and handmade crafts are also for sale; on sale is more like it—a necklace at a department store might cost you 25 euros, whereas you can find the same one at the market for just five.
Don’t be surprised to find goods and clothes from countries like Nepal or India, adding a different spice and another flavor to the market. Many merchants bring their items directly from such places to sell at market price. By doing this, both parties, the consumer and the seller, benefit. When a vendor cuts out the middleman, he can sell goods for a cheaper price. In turn, you gain an ornate scarf or silver ring at a bargain price, and you did not have to push through the small aisles of a stuffy store to obtain it.
By shopping at a market, you might also lose a few things as well. In the popular book French Women Don’t Get Fat, Mireille Guiliano reveals her ideas on the mysteries behind French eating habits, weight gain and “the secret of eating for pleasure.” One of Madame Guiliano’s recommendations for keeping a French figure is fresh ingredients (found at your local market). She also says the way a French woman walks everywhere provides great exercise. While you are walking back and forth from the market, adding a rolling cart for a little resistance, you have done a small workout and gotten groceries.
There is no doubt the food you come home with will be the freshest available. Each producer is an expert on his goods. You will receive one-on-one assistance picking the perfect pêche or pomme. There will not be a need to spend countless minutes reading the labels at a supermarket or hypermarket. Which is healthier, ‘free range organic,’ ‘natural,’ or ‘grass-fed’ meat? The perk of the market experience is the ability to simply ask the farmer how their animals live.
This idea works well across the stand. Instead of fingering through all the fruits, poking and prodding each one, tell the producer on what day you would like to eat your choice melon, and most will gladly pick out one perfect for the occasion. And when there are more than 350 different French cheeses, you are going to want an expert behind the table; someone who learned the trade from his father, who learned it from his father.
One tip, though, if you want farm fresh eggs: save a cardboard container from your last supermarket trip. If not, there is a good chance you will be given your dozen in a brown paper bag, playing a juggling game to see how many whole eggs you have once you reach the kitchen.
Whether it is picking up a mélange of dried fruit as an afternoon snack (instead of McDo), picking up supplies for a scrumptious picnic, or checking out the ripest produce for a delicious dinner, the open-air market is a true French advantage. Get out in the fresh air; take a stroll and find some fresh food.
By Erin Chupp
Erin is a freelance writer and photographer who recently moved back from the south of France to begin a graduate program. She has been published in both the U.S. and in France. Her passions of writing, travel and culture are often combined for creative purposes. Throughout all of her travels, her experiences are described best through her writing and photography. Erin can be contacted at to discuss the future presence of her creative writing/photos in your publication.