The passion with which the French approach their food is surely to be admired. A brief stay with relatives in a village south of Paris let me visit a range of food markets.
Driving home from the railway station on Friday evening, we stopped at a farm where a weekly order of vegetables was waiting. Organic produce grown on-site, bought mostly by urban professionals. The farmer loaded our baskets, the week’s mix varying according to what was available.
Saturday morning involved a walk to the village square. Getting food is serious business: vegetables on display, eyed over and specifically selected; this bakery for this type of bread, the other for another; the village butcher intent on preparing your chosen chicken exactly as you want it, in front of you. The queued folk behind you wait their turn. Croissant and coffee at the hotel, the social centre and local information exchange.
My hosts invited a local couple to dinner, an event with strong traditions and expectations. The guests will bring a gift, something for the house, or maybe professionally arranged flowers.
Another food gathering trip required. The supermarket had prominent country of origin labelling. Proudly French mixed with the best from Portugal, Spain, Italy, Brazil and more. A similar range of fresh produce, but higher prices than I expect in New Zealand.
Winter vegetables on display in Fontainebleau market. “Vitelotte” looks the same as the Maori potato “Urenika” or “Tutaekuri”.
The hosts laid out a range of cheeses to welcome their guests, noting to me they should know not only where each is from, but ideally who made it. Each meal dish will be contemplated, savoured, judged. Appreciated. With wine chosen to match.
Maybe their profession as vegetable buyers for the UK restaurant trade elevated their interest. But my all-too-brief visit suggested a deep and wide community engagement with anything the locals put in their mouths.
The open air market in Fontainebleau has been running for centuries. Some 50km south of Paris, Fontainebleau was built about one thousand years ago. It is dominated by a huge palace (Chateau Fontainebleau) which probably gave impetus to the French Revolution.
Importantly, Fontainebleau has an outdoor market twice a week. We visited the town centre site on a Sunday morning, in light winter drizzle. It was packed; quality produce and the variety was considerable. Refrigerated display cabinets with meats and vegetables, fruit and wild mushrooms, breads and cheeses and delicate sweets and chocolates.
A campaign was underway and I was pressed to take a sticker, “Touch’ pas à mon Marché”. “Don’t touch my Market!” The local council wants to redevelop the market site, which will require the stall holders to shift to another part of town; temporarily. It seems no one is buying that: “If we go it will be forever!” they cry. They don’t want to be relegated to a fringe site; that would break with history (and lose customers).
Fontainebleau is a wealthy area. The market struck me as a one for the well-to-do middle class and tourists. It prompted me to recall and compare the fruit and vegetable markets of Lima in Peru. So different.
My lasting impressions are the different variety of vegetables available, the attention paid to presentation, and something special about being in an old style marketplace. But, of course, I was both middle class and a tourist.