When tourists visit Europe, one of the favorite activities is going to the market filling the town squares with luscious fruit that looked as if they were plucked from Eve’s garden, vegetables freshly dug from the earth , whole milk and cream squeezed from the dairy cow that morning.
Like everything in France, there is a savoir faire to open market shopping, an unspoken etiquette for waiting in haphazard lines that the locals would never breech for fear of a tongue lashing by their neighbors. As an American, I never understood the rules and was always overtaken by jumping little old ladies far more savvy. Forget the la crème fraiche; I’d be stuck waiting till the dairy cows came home! Same with bargaining. Social interaction at the market is a delicate interchange. Nor was I clear on the amounts measured in metrics. I order fruit and vegetables by number rather than kilo. How many cherries make a half-kilo? Nor was I fast on my feet counting out change and hold up the line waiting while I fumbled counting coins.
French open markets are a must see; however, visitors beware, street markets are not for the faint hearted. Shopping at a French open market is like trying to play a sport without knowing the rules. Here are few tips.
1. Bartering – friendly bantering over quality, quantity and price. Must be a native speaker to understand the peasants accents and expressions. Also helps if you understand metric system.
2. Etiquette – who’s turn? Lines as Americans know them, do not exist. Instead waiting in line the « queue », (also the French word for tail) has no end, or beginning. First come first serve rule does not apply- line cutting is also a fine art. Elderly French women, with years of practice, are very clever about this. Only a native speaker understands the innuendos to put someone in their place politely. Youth loses every time. Old ladies are best at this.
3. Choice – if indecisive like me, impossible to pick which item. Only medical students could positively identify animals body parts on display. We aren’t just talking liver, kidney, intestines. Noooo, French enjoy spinal column, pigs feet, tail, cows tongue, brain, etc.
Each part of France displays regional specialties. For example in Normandy, in addition to charcuterie, butcher, cheese stand, peasants sell « bootleg » calvados and cider pressed from the orchard. I once counted over twenty varieties of olives. How can anybody survive working the open markets only selling olives ?
4. Pasteurized in France has different meaning. It does not mean sterilized, what it means is animal rights- freedom to grow up out in the pasture. Cow’s organic milk straight from the field to farmers bucket to market. Free range chicken. Wild hare, quail, and turkey.
5. Fish should still be flapping. In seaports, boats dock at the quay and sell fish caught that night.
6. Don’t be discouraged if you find that the produce in your basket does not look quite as nice as that on the stand.
7. Best trick is to take a native along. If someone who regularly goes to market, the better.
In Normandy, the Parisian weekenders throng the marketplace elbow to elbow. My husband, now a foreigner living in Switzerland, would never be served without his mom. A loyal client at the same stands for forty years, she knows generations of farmers who sell their wares locally. Since she is so loyal, they would never think of giving her soured creamed or bruised fruit meant only for tourists, for she would be the first to elicit shame with her sharp tongue.
Customer loyalty is at a premium in open market where regulars will always get the best cut of meat, ripest melons and freshest fish. Just as referees always favor the home-team, merchants favor the hometown loyalty.