French markets … an institution!

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To understand a country’s people and culture, you need to get a glimpse of their cuisine. And to get to the bottom of it is to head to the local market. Visiting French markets when we are on holidays, is a must for me. Just like many foreign visitors might tell you, the market day is in itself an institution, it is not to be missed at any cost. We tend to collect the markets’ list from the various Tourist Offices across the small and big towns we pass by or stay close to. Now, that we have our ‘own’ market in Fontenay le Comte, our Saturday mornings are never dull.
Fontenay, Vendée

If you don’t know Fontenay, then the first thing I need to explain (apart from the fact that it’s a beautiful historic town with lots of intriguing places to explore), is that the large square which doubles up as a car park, boule pitch and all round shady retreat, sits at the top of the town, affording great views of the long, straight high street as it stretches away and which is home to some of its twice weekly market. And the square, like the town, is quintessentially French in every way with the ubiquitous Plane trees, water fountains and the higgledy, piggledy kind of parking which would torment any English parking inspector.

And as we squeezed our car into the shade of a tree and into the last inch of space left amongst the packed cars in the upper parking area, our gentle stroll down past the 10th century church, we are  greeted by the sounds of a French accordeon drifting up from the streets below along and the smell of  paella and baking and all things nice to eat, we instantly knew it was going to be a morning of heady indulgence.

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The guilty pleasure of every Francophile

The French market is a thoroughly sensory experience as you all know. There’s the African traders who have a charm of their own with their cheap trinkets and leather belts and the queue of mature ladies at the “unfeasibly  elasticated pant” and inside garb stall which will never cease to amaze me. Then there’s the compulsory tour of the inside market, with its hushed bustle, fish hall stacked high with langoustine, escaping snails and yawning fish, eyeing you from a stack of ice. While downstairs, sweet pastries, local breads and an eye startling array of cheese and cold meats quietly call you to take them home. Just outside is parked the lone fresh goat cheese seller. My husband never misses a chance to stock his alrealdy high stock at home. Probably, it makes him feel so ‘French’ to buy the quintessential goat cheese to feel he has done his bit of shopping!

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Outside, the stalls mingle with the pavement cafés, there are vegetables with more charisma than their British counterpart, spoons dripping with honey and vast vats of steaming delights which you can’t avoid lusting after, the Canbodian and Vietnamese sellers are getting bolder by their offerings, all swathed in late summer sunshine and a heady rush of bright colours, from fruits to scarves, spices, bright pottery, flowers to hand woven baskets from Madagascar.

The basket or panier is very French, one has to have one on the arm when you go to the market. Any other bag, least a supermarket plastic shopping bag would be simply sacrilege. Women and men carried or pulled them with the practiced air that comes from shopping for food at the peak of freshness, season after season. Staples are rows of traditional baskets with leather handles. Fancier styles come in bright colors of various sizes and shapes. Some have cloth drawstrings inside – perfect for use as a summer purse. I have added several of both types to my collection over the years and love how each one reminds me of a wonderful trip or of the marvelous market goods that were carried in it. Being in Dar es Salaam these days, I have not refrained myself from buying more …

Not far are some Brits quietly displaying the Indian spices, bottled pickles, ready made Indian sauces, Roghan Ghosh, Dopiaza, Tikka Masala, Marmite, Mustard and others, while large packets of Popaddums get crisper under the French sun, aligned are also some home baked cakes and muffins which say why the lady is not present at the stall. Too early labour, she is now catching up on her sleep.

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