As I push my way through the market — dodging baby strollers and impossibly sharp metal shopping caddies; pressing through the crowd toward my preferred fruit and vegetable stall like a salmon swimming upstream; observing the guy next to me manhandle the lettuce that will soon be selected to go into my basket; seeing the utter delight, appreciation, and surprise light up the face of the elderly woman who was offered to move ahead in line by a gracious fellow shopper — I realize that a French marketplace is a microcosm.
It's a reflection of French society as a whole, with its own codes and rules of behavior — a market etiquette, if you will — that are known and understood only by those who have grown up living the experience.
The Market: An Essential French Experience
As summer gently rolls around, and more foreigners excitedly pack their bags, reserve hotel rooms, and fly off to that romantic Parisian vacation, I know a visit to le marché, the market, will be on their must-do list — right behind le Louvre and la Tour Eiffel. Visitors — entranced by the rich abundance of fresh products and quaint picture-book beauty — envision a romantic late-morning stroll through the market, filling a basket with bouquets of flowers and provisions for that perfect French picnic along the Seine or in a field of lavender.
But this movie version of a French market visit does not quite prepare the visitor for the real-life, survival-of-the-fittest experience it can actually be.
I’ve been going to le marché at least three times a week for the past 20 years to buy fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, cheese, and bread. The market is part and parcel of the French lifestyle — a guarantee of fresh, quality, seasonal, and often local products. After a brief number of years a decade or so ago — when more and more French men and women were forgoing their local markets and specialty food shops in favor of the convenience of the new vast supermarkets then popping up all over the country — the old, traditional habits are returning, and shoppers are heading back to the market.
10 Rules for Navigating a French Market
Rules exist — tacit rules of the do’s and don’ts, the ins and outs — and if one wants to get the most out of this shopping experience, I offer you an insider’s guide to French market etiquette.
1. Go early or go for an adventure!
This holds true mostly on weekends. If you are counting on lazing the morning away before heading to the market, just remember that most of the country is doing the same. Markets normally are ready for business sometime between 8:30 and 9:00, yet most people go later in the morning. The closer it gets to noon, the longer it will take you to get your shopping done. By 11 a.m., it is no longer a pleasant stroll, but rather a mad crush.
2. A dash of humor is key.
As you try and follow those who are strolling at a snail’s pace, or as you are bumped, elbowed, and pushed against by the oblivious who don’t seem to realize they are not the only ones at the market, a little humor goes a long way. Also, stay to the right and watch out for strollers!
3. Trust the vendors.
Most butchers and fishmongers are notoriously knowledgeable about what they are selling, a veritable Larousse Gastronomique. Have a recipe or a craving? They’ll suggest the ideal cut of meat for a dish, the best fish to choose, the breed of chicken to buy, as well as oven temperature and cooking time. See something yummy in the case? They’ll give you a recipe for it!
4. Patience is a virtue.
If market vendors take their time with you, they’ll also be taking their time with everyone in front of you. The men and women standing behind a market stall are often the only people some of our neighbors see all week, so this is their chance for a chat and a gossip, a laugh and human contact. Smile and wait your turn.
5. Don’t be afraid to ask!
Touching the fruit and vegetables is frowned upon, but feel free to point to the ones you want, or simply ask politely if you can choose your own – you’ll be happily surprised when you are handed a plastic or paper bag and given the go ahead. If not, just simply point and say, "This one." And if the guy next to you has been groping the salad, just ask for one from underneath the pile (and don’t be embarrassed to politely inform Mr. or Mrs. Touchy-Feely that handling the fruits and vegetables is not permitted!). If you want to buy a chicken fresh out of the rotisserie, ask when the next batch will be done and reserve one hot off the spit. And ask it to be bagged with a few tablespoons of the hot, flavorful juices. Buying fish? Ask the fishmonger to clean, scale, and gut it all!
6. Learn the vocabulary.
Mûr (ripe), pas trop mûr (not very ripe), bien cuit (well-done), pas trop cuit (less done), croustillant (crispy), pour aujourd’hui (for today) — if you simply ask for a roasted chicken, a baguette, or a melon, you will be given the one on top or closest to the front. If you have a preference for riper peaches, or want an avocado ready to eat with today’s lunch, just ask. They are more than happy to oblige.
7. Keep your place in line.
Sometimes the end of the line at any stall is clearly marked and respected, but other times, not so much. Take notice of who you show up behind and assert yourself (wave your hand, say, “c’est moi!” or just start giving your order) when you see that it is indeed your turn, or someone quicker on their toes will do it instead. Often people are polite and will point to you if it is your turn, but don’t look indecisive or all will be lost.
8. Choose the right packaging.
If you want, your butcher will wrap meat in the right paper to be stored directly in the freezer, and many a cheesemonger will vacuum-pack individual cheeses for travel.
9. Check for quality.
Don’t be surprised if you get home with a bag of fruit, only to discover half are so overripe and bruised they have to be tossed right into the trash. If you're unsure of the quality of this week’s apricots, tangerines, melons, etc., ask for a taste and many vendors will be more than happy to give you a slice. Cheesemongers will also offer you a taste if you desire.
10. Come prepared.
Unless you want to be weighed down by a clutch of cheap plastic bags, bring your own basket or cloth shopping bag. Many markets have a stall selling them if you forget, which also makes a nice and handy souvenir.
Bonus points: Try and find out where the best restaurant chefs in town shop — some do indeed buy from a stall or a producer selling at one of the local markets. I have discovered this information by asking, reading magazine interviews, or searching on the Internet, so I can in turn buy from their suppliers as well! You will also notice that stalls must display the origin of their products (on signs or selling right from the producers’ crates). This means you know when you are buying local. Check! And if you don’t see this information, again, simply ask.
Above all, don't forget to enjoy the experience. Take your time, observe the people — for that is often half the fun. Be patient yet firm, get exactly what you want, and don’t accept anything less. The French, like all people, are a mixture of the self-absorbed, the rude, the generous, and the polite; be ready for it all during your next market trip.
And forget that old adage of never shopping on an empty stomach — snack on a warm croissant or hot-off-the-griddle crêpe, an Indian samosa, or a Vietnamese nem; stalls selling prepared food are abundant and the food is delicious!