Shopping at a Parisian open-air market

I love farmers’ markets, as my blog attests. So I was very excited to learn that our local marché, or open-air food market, is not only just down the street from our apartment, but is open three times a week (Tu/Th/Sa)! On non-market days, you can walk that stretch of the Boulevard de Port-Royal and see the blue awnings all folded up against the walls. These daily marchés are a big deal in Paris, and every neighborhood has at least one (and usually several).

We paid our first visit to the marché on Saturday, just two days after we arrived. We were so stunned I completely forgot to take any pictures. There were probably two dozen vendors there, selling heaps of amazing-looking food: crates of grapes, gigantic Savoy cabbages and compact bunches of tiny French radishes, wrinkly brown crottins and big yellow wheels of cheese, legs of jambon ready for slicing, gleaming skinned flounders and rays, baskets of langoustines, big opened scallops for Coquilles St-Jacques, tubs of hummus and trays of kebabs, fresh-made couscous, every kind of sausage, sacks of walnuts and dried pears and apples, rows of pastéis de nata… we wandered up and down in a daze, barely able to respond to the vendors’ friendly “bonjours.” Finally we made a few simple purchases and crept home, eyes still bugging. We ate pastéis de nata all afternoon (well, they were cheaper by the half-dozen!)… and scrambled eggs, broccoli, and bread for dinner.

Today we gave the market another try, armed with a few more days’ practice with French speaking, and the knowledge of what we were facing. Fortunately, the Thursday market is much less overwhelming. There were only (!) two fishmongers, three produce vendors, and one cheese-and-dairy seller, along with a handful of specialty vendors. To stave off decision- and foreign-language- fatigue, Erik took charge of buying lunch, while I was to get groceries.

At home, market stands are often self-service: you grab what you want, bag it yourself, and bring it to the cashier to be weighed or the sum totaled. Here, the vendor does all that for you, which is why we were so intimidated about buying anything on Saturday. I’d forgotten the names of many of the fruits and vegetables, and had no idea of how to say “one bunch” or “one basket” or what have you. But today I was a little braver… and I realized each stand had names and prices chalked up on little boards above their wares (so I could see that bok choy was sold individually, not by weight).

Bok choy


{as always, mouse over images to read notes, or click to enlarge}


Comice and Conference pears


Dairy was a little more complicated. I knew I wanted yogurt, but there were several kinds and I didn’t know how to decide (just like shopping in Istanbul!). I thought of asking what the differences were, but wasn’t confident I’d be able to understand the explanation. So I just pointed at the closest one and said, like a fool, “ça” (“that” or “it”). The cute glasses-wearing guy gave me an extremely attractive smile and asked, “Le bleu?” Turns out the blue-lidded pots are whole milk, while the green-lidded are part skim.


Little pots of yogurt


I also asked him for “six oeufs plein-air” (six free-range eggs). As usual, I felt ridiculously pleased when he understood me. I didn’t have to point or anything! HaHA! To my great amusement, the egg cartons we’ve gotten here have opened from the short end, not the long.

Closed half-dozen egg carton


Six brown eggs


At home, one of the great things about farmers’ markets is the fresh bread, but in Paris — where there is a boulangerie every couple of blocks — you apparently can’t get bread at the marché. Well, that was no problem; there’s a boulangerie-pâtisserie just at the end of the market block. So I popped in and got a loaf of brioche. Parisienne, the shape is called.

Brioche parisienne


At this point Erik caught me up, with a laden bag in hand. We walked back through the market together, stopping at one of the fishmongers. Buying or ordering fish in a foreign country is really an adventure, because most of the fishes are unfamiliar, even if their names are translated! I thought of just telling the vendor that I wanted something to cook Chinese-style, but I couldn’t remember the word for steam. (“À la vapeur,” I think you would say; just as well I didn’t ask, because all I could think of at the moment was “fume,” which means smoke!) So I just bought a likely-looking filet, and when we got home, I found this cool chart that tells you fish names in seven languages — though it didn’t help me much to know that the English name of “lieu noir” is saithe, since I’ve never heard of that! But it seems to be some kind of pollock, so it’ll probably steam just fine.

As we crossed the boulevard to go home, Erik told me that he’d bought our lunch from the Lebanese-food vendor, who had given him samples of nearly everything. I’d seen the younger man rolling out flat rounds of dough, and as we were leaving the market, the older man had waved happily at Erik. “And he gave me a garlic cream for free,” Erik said.

Lebanese lunch: filled flatbreads, hummus, eggplant dip, tabbouleh, garlic cream


It was a very tasty lunch. One of the flatbreads was filled with a mixture of chopped spinach, cheese, and onions; the other contained a delicious combination of chicken, chunks of lemon peel, tabbouleh, and some sort of creamyish sauce (maybe more of the garlic cream, or perhaps something tahini-based?). The bread itself had the good wheaty flavor of a pita or a flour tortilla, but the chewy, mildly moist texture of slightly undercooked pizza dough. I loved it. The whole assortment cost 16€, or just over $20.

Oh, right — and I forgot again to take pictures of the actual market. Or rather, I didn’t forget, but I was reluctant to break out my camera. Almost all the Parisians we’ve met have been super polite and very nice, to the point that I feel weird about taking pics without permission. But here’s a pic of the market on what looks like a sunny Saturday, and another from a rainy day.