By 9:30 on any Tuesday or Friday morning, the outdoor market in my neighborhood is abuzz with customers. At the produce stands, all the fruits and vegetables have been carefully and artfully displayed, each with a small handwritten card marked with its price and place of origin. Jean Jacques, the cheese monger, is having a cup of espresso at the café across the street leaving his wife, Josette, to tend to the early customers. The butcher has such devoted customers that the line forms early. Some of these clients were buying meat in the same place when his father ran the business.
Where is this market?
On the Square Jacques Demy in Paris, specifically in Montparnasse, the 14th arrondissement. Until a few years ago, it was simply called “Place du Marché” but as often happens, a place name is changed to honor a distinguished neighbor. Neighbor Jacques Demy, who died in 1990, was a famous film director whose work included The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. His wife, Agnes Varda, herself a very important film maker, still lives in the neighborhood and was on hand for the dedication of the little square. In his speech, Mayor Castagnou of the 14th suggested that given its beauty and simplicity, the little square could easily have been the setting for one of Demy’s movies.
Surrounded by the soft yellow stone of Parisian buildings, the marketplace in this Left Bank neighborhood is a plain stretch of asphalt with a few trees. On Monday and Thursday afternoons, city workers arrive to set up all the metal supports and canopy covers necessary for each stall. The following day at the close of the market, the workers reappear, remove all the equipment and with their hoses and trucks, set to cleaning every inch of the square.
This market is but one of dozens of neighborhood fruit and vegetable markets all over Paris. There are covered markets such as Marché des Enfants Rouges in the Marais, the oldest market in Paris started in 1615. The Marché Beauvau, also called the Marché d’Aligre, in the 12th arrondissement is one of the cheapest and liveliest covered markets in the city. On the left Bank, the ‘Bio’ market on Boulevard Raspail which only sells organically grown produce, is the chic and expensive place to shop. For two weeks in September, Parisians are treated to a floating market from the southwest of France with barges lined up at the Quai de Montebello loaded with all sort of regional delicacies such as foie gras, cassoulet, magret de canard, stuffed prunes and floc de Gascogne, an aperitif.
While workday schedules prevent many from shopping regularly at their local markets, Parisians are nonetheless passionate about preserving the custom. They believe the food is fresher, they enjoy seeing their neighbors and they have a personal rapport with the vendors.
Are things cheaper at the neighborhood markets? Non! Quality over quantity is the driving force for frugal French shoppers.
Food in France is expensive compared to American prices but a typical French family does not spend a lot more than its American counterpart. The reason is simple: the French buy and consume less food. While they pay more per item, their spending overall is within reason. It is completely acceptable to buy small amounts at the markets and even in large grocery stores. For example, if you only need one or two stalks of celery to make a broth, that is all you need buy. The vendors at the produce stands have their knives ready to slice off a few ribs of celery. In the early fall, pumpkin or melon is sold by the slice and herbs are sold by small handfuls.
Shopping for one is quite common. An enormous number of Parisians live alone, many of them elderly and many in buildings without an elevator. It goes without saying that most of these solitary city dwellers do not own a car, do carry their purchases, and depend on nearby shops. My neighbor, a lady on a very slim income, enjoys a slice of ‘jambon à l’os’ for her dinner which she purchases from the market’s charcuterie. This slice of ham costs her about $3.00 but it is her main meal of the day, augmented by a small salad and a few slices of baguette.
At the butcher, the purchase of a thin sliver of ‘onglet’ (hangar steak) is treated as seriously as any other purchase. “Pour combien de personnes?” (How many are you serving?) is the first question the butcher asks and the appropriate (i.e. modest) portion is cut. I was at first astonished to see small pieces cut from whole beautifully tied roasts but now I appreciate the lack of waste and respect for the customer. You will be told exactly how to cook your purchase. With a tiny oven in my apartment and little experience with its temperature gauge, this advice proved to be a godsend. I was surprised at how often the French eat meat. Daily. Not a lot, mind you, but quite regularly. Ordering a ‘bifteck’ or ‘filet’ was easy enough but I was astounded by all the other cuts and each has its own special preparation. Notice the two diagrams of French cuts of beef. The difference between American and French cuts of beef (which Julia Childs explained so well*) is that French butchers separate the meat along the muscle and do not cut across the grain. The result is a large number of smaller nuggets of meat each with their own flavor and cooking method.
To make beef Bourguignon, for example, a French cook might use a mix of cuts such as from the shoulder(macreuse or paleron), the cheef (joue) or thigh (gite). This mixture, of texture and flavor, gives the stew it deserved reputation. (And the wine it’s cooked in!)
As a part-time Paris resident for the past several years, I have begun to understand the workings of the local markets a bit better. Some of the farmers go to only one public market a week; others, such as the butchers, travel to several a week. The stands vary a lot in quality, price and variety. The most cherished vendors are the small producers from nearby farms. Some work seasonally such as the lady who drives from Normandy twice a week with her oysters, bulots (sea snails), and small clams. One farmer, Monsieur Guy, sells year ‘round but in January, his stand has mainly potatoes, onions, walnuts, a few winter fruits, and a limited number of chickens. These individual farmers have less to sell and at higher prices but customers value the quality.
For bargains, there are large vegetable stands that have every possible fruit or vegetable from all over the world. This produce comes directly from Rungis, the big wholesale market outside of Paris. As mandated by law, every item must identified by its country of origin. It is up to the customer to decide whether to buy locally or pay less for an imported product. Most do a bit of both.
I can not go to the market without a visit to Jean Jacques, the cheese man earlier mentioned taking his morning break. His business is artisanal as he only sells cheese, butter, cream, and yogurt from very small selected producers. The man loves cheese and I have been thoroughly educated about cheese by this cultivated and voluble expert.
He offers a typically French approach to the customer. One Friday, my husband consulted Jean Jacques about what cheeses to serve for a dinner party we were planning. Even though there were several customers waiting, Jean Jacques immediately had a barrage of questions. “What is the menu?” “Are your guests French?” How many are coming?” and so on. None of the waiting clients were the least disturbed by the lengthy conversation carried on in both broken English and French and in fact, some left with a wave and a smile to return later. Having guests to dine is a serious matter in which civility, hospitality, and even amour propre (self respect) are at stake. Later that evening, when our friends exclaimed over the extraordinary selection of cheeses, we were grateful indeed.
In the next stall, the charcuterie, which is akin to a delicatessen, is also artisanal and a traveling operation, going to various Parisian markets during the week. The selection of patés, sausages, hams, prepared salads and cooked dishes is nearly bewildering not to mention the great many items that are hard to identify. However, unlike shopping with the cheese monger, one must be ready to order. The lines are long and the charcutier will gladly answer questions but does not feel obliged to provide an education. I quickly discovered that the only way to figure out what all those mysterious charcuterie items were was to ask other customers. Waiting in the line, there was time to chat with the person next to me. This is where speaking French (or as reasonably as one can manage) has come in handy. I used this approach:
“Ma’am, I’m a stranger in these parts. What do you usually buy here?” Or “What’s that long white thing next to the ears?”
In this way, I ended up with a kind of cone of de-boned ham hock covered with crumbs. The lady explained,
“I’m 86 and I’m buying this for my neighbor who’s 92 as a treat but I don’t need it all. Tell you what, I’ll buy half and you’ll buy the other half.”
It was done and it was delicious.
Buying fish was a challenge until I went shopping with my friend and culinary professional Francoise Meunier. As with the butchers, the fishmongers know their product and are prepared to do much more than weigh and wrap. Francoise advised buying whole fish (fresher!), having it filleted, and saving the bones for a broth. She recommended mackerel, especially the very small ones called lisettes. For special occasions, Parisians go to the market with their platters, have the fishmonger open oysters on the spot, and then dash home to celebrate.
Other artisanal stands offer breads and cakes, ‘Bio’ or organic produce and a real rarity: the horse butcher. As I scurry by, I notice her offerings of horse steaks, roasts, sausages and ground meat are not in great quantity but everything is sold. There are two flower sellers and both do a good business, creating wonderful hand-tied bouquets to order. Plants sell well too as most city dwellers with even a small window will fill it with a box of geraniums. Nearby, the Lebanese stand is like a heavenly take-out shop: flat breads cooked to order on a hot grill, unctuous hummus and baba ganouj, stuffed grape leaves and more. As my market basket comes heavier, I make a final stop at the épicier. Dried fruits, nuts, spices and various condiments are the purlieu of the épicier. Looking for pesto? Preserved lemons? Ten kinds of olives? Orange flower water? It’s all here waiting to be weighed out into little plastic bags and cartons.
Some of the old stands are disappearing: the gentle honey seller retired last year as did the lively milk, chicken and egg man who always claimed his cream had resided in the mammary of his cow but six hours earlier. In their places, there are now a few nondescript clothing stands and a mattress seller but the focus is still the food and the experience of buying it.
By early afternoon, the vendors are packing up, folding up their cases and tables and filling up their small trucks with the remaining wares. The two butchers still in their coveralls are enjoying an aperitif at La Comedia, a small restaurant on the square which locals call ‘the Portuguese’ in deference to the proprietor. Soon, the square will be washed down and clean ready for the afternoon schoolchildren running, skating, and chasing the ball. Another market day is done at the Square Jacques Demy.
Jean Jacques’s Baked Vacherin with white wine
- 1 whole Vacherin cheese, fairly firm
- 1/3 Cup white wine
- 1 shallot, peeled
Preheat the oven to 425. In a small baking dish just large enough to hold the cheese, place the Vacherin and poke 5 or 6 holes in its surface. Pour the white wine over the top and push the shallot into the surface. Cover with foil and bake about 15 minutes.
Serve with spoons and baguette.
Francoise Meunier’s Maquereau a la Moutarde
4 small mackerel, cleaned but left whole
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard (Francoise uses the Maille brand)
Several sprigs of parsley
4 bay leaves
4 sprigs thyme
Heat the oven to 400 degrees.
Arrange the mackerel on a lightly oiled baking sheet (or use a piece of baking paper on the pan).
Cut three slits along the body of each fish and daub with mustard. Stuff a sprig of parsley and thyme and a bay leaf inside the cavity of each fish. Sprinkle with pepper.
Bake the fish for 10 to 15 minutes.
Sautéed Onglet (Hangar Steak)
French beef is mostly grass-fed and tends to be a bit tougher than American beef but very tasty. Typically, steaks are quickly cooked over high heat and served rare.
Serves 2 people
1 hangar steak, about 14 oz, cut into 2 portions
4 shallots, finely chopped
3 Tablespoons butter
1 Tablespoon cooking oil
1 Tablespoon vinegar: wine or cider
Salt and pepper
Heat one tablespoon of butter and the oil in a frying pan over high heat. When the mixture is very hot, add the steaks and sauté for about 2 minutes. Turn and sauté until the top of the meat glistens (about 2 more minutes). Immediately, remove the steaks to a warm plate. Wipe out the pan; add 1 tablespoon butter and the shallots and sauté about 5 minutes on a low flame. Season with salt and pepper, add the vinegar and the remaining tablespoon of butter. Stir and pour over the steaks.
Monsieur Guy’s Beet and Walnut Salad
Serves 4 people
In Paris market, beets are sold cooked which makes the following salad a snap to make. The vinaigrette is a fairly sharp one to offset the sweetness of the beets.
4 beets, (about 1½ lbs), cooked*
3 Tablespoons walnuts
2 Tablespoons chopped parsley
2 Tablespoons red wine vinegar
¼ Cup olive oil
Salt and pepper
Slice the beets into rounds and arrange on plates.
Make vinaigrette by adding olive oil slowly to the vinegar. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle over the beets.
Garnish with the walnuts and parsley.
*To cook beets, wash them well and trim the stems. Simmer in water to cover until tender, about 30 minutes. Drain. When cool, the skins will peel off easily. Wear gloves to avoid red fingers.
Serves 6 people
The market charcuterie sells hachis Parmentier ready-made but this classic dish is easy to prepare from scratch. ‘Parmentier’ refers to Lord Parmentier who introduced the potato to France. Like its English cousin, Shepherd’s Pie, hachis Parmentier is a budget dish, often made with leftover roast or stew.
2 lbs baking potatoes, peeled
2 onions, chopped
4 tablespoons butter
¾ lb ground beef or leftover roast beef chopped finely
1 clove garlic, chopped
2 Cups milk, heated
¼ lb shredded Gruyère or Swiss cheese
Salt and pepper
Peel the potatoes, boil them until tender, about 30 minutes and drain. Cook the onions slowly in a skillet for 10 minutes with one tablespoon of butter. Add the ground beef and garlic and season with salt and pepper. Cook for 5 minutes.
Heat the oven to 450.
Mash the potatoes and add the butter and milk. Season with salt and pepper.
Butter a baking dish and put in one half of the mashed potatoes, covered by the meat mixture and finally, the rest of the potatoes. Sprinkle with the shredded cheese.
Heat for 15 minutes until the cheese is melted and bubbling.
IF YOU GO TO PARIS, here are some public market locations:
Marché Enfants Rouges – Oldest public market and as my friend Francoise tells me, it is so named because an orphanage was located next to it and the children all wore red clothing.
39 rue de Bretagne, Paris 3
Tuesday – Saturday, 8:30 am to 1pm; 4 pm to 7:30 pm (8 pm on Fridays and Saturdays)
Sunday, 8:30 am to 2:00 pm.
Place Jacques Demy, Paris 14
Tuesday and Friday from 7:00 am to 2:30 pm
Marché Raspail – This is a ‘bio’ or organic food market
Boulevard Raspail between rue du Cherche-Midi and rue de Rennes, Paris 6Métro: Rennes
Tuesday and Friday, 7:00 am to 2:30 pm
March d’Aligre and Marché Beauvau – A covered market. Very bustling on the weekends. Also, while you’re there, check out the wine bar Le Baron Rouge.
Place d’Aligre, Paris 12
Métro: Ledru Rollin
Tuesday through Saturday, 8:30 am to 1:00 and 4:00pm to 7:30 pm;
Sunday 8:30am to 1:30 pm
For a complete list, look up ‘Les marchés parisiens’ on the website: http://www.paris.fr
* see Volume I of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Chapter 7 ‘Meat’ for a discussion on American vs. French cuts of beef and how to select cuts that approximate the French ones.
Enjoy the markets in your town!! xoxo, Mary