They’re some of the most colorful places in the city, where the smells transport you to the open fields and where conviviality is de rigueur. French markets are a kind of garden where you can fill your fridge with fresh, local wonders. For the French, it’s a great place to socialize and (much like a cafe) it’s always easier to connect than at the supermarket, isn’t it?
A bit of History
The market is the oldest form of selling in France, and it continues to grow every year: about 6500 towns and villages have at least one, if not more!
Paris has no less than 82 markets, the oldest of which dates back to 1615. But t The very first Parisian market, however, dates back to the 5th century, a time when Paris was still called Lutèce! It was located in the heart of the île de la Cité, then moved across the Seine until the 12th century on the current Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, formerly Place de la Grève. Later, the whole Les Halles market district was designed and developed.
In Paris, La Rochelle or elsewhere, sometimes the covered market or the ‘halles’ open every day, and you’ll find market gardeners, producers, merchants of fruit and vegetables, cheese, bread, and other edible foods invade the streets of their stalls. It’s usually such a bouquet of colors and smells that I can’t help but to pass by, even if I have nothing special to buy. And then I end up leaving with nut bread, a honey pot, or beautiful tulips.
In La Rochelle, the market dates back to the 19th century. It was built between 1834 and 1836. It’s made of beautifully designed wrought iron, glass to let the light through, and typical red bricks. All around you’ll find shops offering you everything the market might lack and cafés to drink a little coffee (a little “noir” as they sometimes say) while contemplating the passers-by once your basket is full.
Choosing freshness and buying directly from farmers
Local products guarantee your fruit and vegetables have not spent hours or even days in the fridge before reaching your plates. Freshness also means more taste, more flavor, and maximum vitamins!
Eating local, farm-fresh, and seasonal produce is good for the planet as well as your health. Even your wallet benefits: in my experience, fresh, organic, products are cheaper to buy than many of the products offered in supermarkets. Choosing fresh and local produce is an incentive to cook more and considerably reduces the consumption of processed dishes. Buying directly from producers offers farmers and consumers financial security. You’re guaranteed a stable price, as well as the sustainability of the farms.
In recent years all over France, a new type of sale has emerged that relies on direct relations between consumers and producers. One of them is “La Ruche qui dit oui”, a system that covers the whole of France and focuses on local, seasonal, organic, or sustainable agriculture products. The principle is simple: we order in advance online, then we meet once a week to get our products. This relationship ensures the producer travels with exactly the right volume of products ordered, no more and no less.
Every Wednesday at 6 pm the La Ruche de La Rochelle receives a new batch of fruits, vegetables, bread, eggs and good local honey – and lots of other things, local beer included. Everyone knows when Wednesday comes around, it’s time to exchange a few words, recipes, and even taste new products. In short, it’s convivial.
In my bag, some local and typical products
What I particularly appreciate about food markets is that there is natural lighting (no neon lights) and sometimes no cash register. As for the noise you hear in the surrounding streets, it’s all talk about the quality and freshness of the products. The little word to take some news, or the farmer asking you “How was the ‘chèvre frais’ you got last time? What about some chabichou for today?”.
Poitou-Charentes is the main French region to produce goat’s milk, so goat’s cheeses appear in all their forms in the market stalls: the ‘mothais sur feuille’ (presented on a chestnut or plane tree leaf), the ‘chabichou du Poitou’ (in the form of a small cone) or the ‘chabichou du Poitou’ (inspired by camembert). In food markets, you won’t be able to miss them.
Next to the chabichous there were seasonal fruits and vegetables, bread made from spelt flour, and several typical products of the region.
The salicorne, for example (also called “sea bean”), looks like seaweed but it’s actually an ancient vegetable that grows on the edge of salt water lagoons and in marshes. It is an excellent condiment, full of iodine – just the way I like it.
There was also some “white gold”, i.e. salt, and more precisely “fleur de sel” harvested in an artisanal way in the salt marshes, especially on the Ile de Ré and the Ile d’Oléron. Be careful – unlike coarse salt, it is mainly consumed “raw”, usually as a finishing touch to dishes and not during cooking. All the students who came for the immersion course brought some home with them!
Finally, there was also a “galette charentaise au beurre AOP” (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée Poitou-Charentes) – the best butter you can find. It’s a typical delicacy that is not to be missed in the region. It is eaten plain or with jam made out of angelica (a plant from the Marais Poitevin) or blueberry. You can even have it with salted caramel butter.
Have you ever been to France? What did you think of food markets? What local products did you try?
If you feel like visiting La Rochelle and nearby, join an immersion course: not only will I make you discover local food markets but you’ll have dozens of opportunities to practice and hone your French skills!
As a bonus, here is a list of vocabulary and expressions that you’ll need in French food markets 😉