I say “art” because the colorful, open air markets found in France are truly an art form. Yet a trip to le marché can seem more like loosely organized chaos than a sensory experience. That's where a few simple tips, those unwritten rules in French market protocol, can come in handy:
1. Get there early (or late) to avoid the crowds. This one is a bit obvious, but still worth mentioning. Most outdoor markets usually open super early in the morning, around 6 or 7 am. I’d say the peak traffic hours are 10-noon, with most vendors closing up shop around 1 pm. Early birds get the best selection but going late has its own advantages. After a certain point, sellers sometimes lower their prices just to get rid of produce that’s about to go bad. I once walked past a market just as it was closing, and a guy gave me a bunch of overripe bananas for free!
2. Look for the lines. Okay, this advice is admittedly a bit contradictory to the first point. Even if you manage to arrive before 10 am (and if you do, I’m impressed) there will inevitably be more people certain stands. While your instinct may be to steer clear of the busiest spots, this is your biggest clue to finding the best produce.
3. Beware of produce that looks too perfect. Especially out-of-season fruits and veggies. Fresh lettuce and apples from real producteurs will look like it came straight from the field or orchard they were grown in, dirt included.
4. Take a quick tour before you buy. Walk through once, just to compare prices. Tomatoes might be 3 euros/kilogram at one stand and 1.50 at the next! You want to find the vendors offering the best rapport qualité-prix, or the best value. Also take note of where they are set up as certain stands often operate in the same general area from week to week. This will help in formulating your plan of attack. For example, if I just want to buy apples, I'll pop in on the side, between stands, where I know my apple guy is, rather than walk through the whole market.
5. Chat with the vendors. They may just share a recipe for that strange-looking vegetable you just bought, or throw in an extra apple for free. True story. Most market vendors are super friendly, especially if they recognize you as a regular. At the very least, they will happily advise you on how or what to serve with your celery root, and in some cases, they might even sell you the cut of meat to go with it. Last week I was in line at my favorite veggie stand, and the old man handed over what looked like a frozen duck to the woman in line ahead of me. I was a little startled but nobody else seemed to bat an eyelash at this exchange.
6. Don’t be in a hurry. It took me a while to get the hang of this one. Once you learn to just slow down and enjoy the sights and smells, not to mention the people watching, shopping for food seems more like a fun activity than a chore. Before I moved last year, I admittedly had an all-business approach to grocery shopping. Get in and get out, as fast as possible. I aspired to be as efficient as my roommate, who had her bi-weekly shopping trip down to a science. She spent $50 on food, which would somehow last her for two weeks, and she made the entire trip door-to-door in under an hour, sometimes 30 minutes. As impressive as that was, and still is, to me, there is something to be said for the French way of food shopping. It’s done more frequently, often more than once a week, and it’s a much more enjoyable experience. Of course, the supermarkets with their infamously long checkout lines are a different story. What I’m talking about here is the bustling neighborhood marché. If you have the time to appreciate it, the atmosphere is unbeatable. Bon marché, alors.