Shopping at the outdoor markets in Paris is not only a treat, it also offers you an inside view of how the French live. Known for their excellent food cultivation and preparation, the French people we encountered were often very particular about all the foodstuffs they purchased. Eavesdropping on their conversations at markets provided details we would never have found in books.
It is easy to locate the outdoor markets in a French city or village. Many of them are listed in guidebooks. And everyone local knows which markets are held where and when. You can inquire at your hotel, at the bakery, or even at the bookstore.
All of the markets we explored were extensive and vendors offered bread, sausages, meat, chickens (raw and cooked), produce, sauces, fresh-caught fish, sea salt, and much more, including, from time to time, essential oils and facial products.
Cheese tasting at the markets is a “must.” With its 1000 varieties of cheese, French cheese makers know that a selection of cheeses usually follows the main course. Before you go, check out this extensive list in Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_cheese
The real bonus is that the shoppers are encouraged to sample the variety of cheeses.
Goat Cheese. At first, because of allergies to dairy products made with cows’ milk that I had experienced in the US, we tried the many varieties of goat cheese such as Cabécou, a soft, tart, spreadable variety. There were also firmer rounds of goat cheese whose name I seem to have forgotten but may be called “un crotin de chevre”. Shaped like a hockey puck, they were excellent for grating into salads.
Cheap Cheese. One Saturday, I noticed a small card listing the milk source of one of the cheeses as “brébis” – or sheep (ewe, to be exact). “Ah, bon, on peut goûter ce fromage de brébis?” (”Fine, may we taste the sheep cheese?”}
“Ah, a fine cheap cheese! Yes, try it, try it.” (Following the pattern that had been established with the cheese vendor, I spoke to him in French and he answered in English so that we both got to practice our foreign languages.)
Even though I was pretty sure that jokes do not translate well, I replied, “It does not seem cheap to me; it is even more expensive than the Tomme de Savoie.” A blank look appeared. “It is a fine cheap cheese,” he replied.
Because the young man selling the cheese had shared with us his goal of entering international politics after completing college, John and I thought it urgent to correct this error in speaking. “Your English is very, very good and so you will probably want to correct this word. Cheap means “bon marché” while the English word for “brébis” is pronounced “shhhheeep.”
“Yes, sheep. Soft ‘sh’.”
“Ah, bon, merci.” (”Okay, thank you.”)
The next Saturday, we returned to taste and purchase more cheese because we had greatly enjoyed the three varieties from the prior week. And, luck of luck, there were a couple more sheep cheeses. “On peut goûter ce fromage de brébis?”
“Yes, yes, a very good cheap cheese for you!”
Raw milk. It was very common to purchase raw milk in France. In fact, pasteurized and homogenized milk was primarily available in supermarkets. For years, I had avoided dairy products because of a “milk allergy” or “lactose intolerance,” neither of which seemed to bother me in Paris. The French cheese makers suggested that it was likely processed milk that made me sick.
Shopping and Shopkeepers. The French shopkeepers and clerks loved to share information with us. When buying vegetables at the organic market (le marché biologique), vendors suggested recipes for fresh leek and potato soup, where to find the best wine to accompany the dish, and even where to buy the certain spice for sublime flavoring.
When we asked about pastries or chocolates, a story of the origin, ingredients, and baking process was often given. French shoppers tend to be very curious and want to know the history of what they are buying. Some take buying “local” very seriously and will not purchase any food item that is grown more than 100 kilometers away (67 miles). We enjoyed these conversations very much, especially when compared to the impersonal supermarkets back home that we did not miss at all!