Forget the bulk-packaged madeleines, and commercial jams peddled in Paris' chain stores and tourist traps. The true open air markets of France are a thing of beauty to behold. Whether they are held in Paris or the countryside, or are of the permanent or pop-up variety, the French farmer's market is worth the effort to see, taste, and experience.
Different regions throughout France offer special, and sometimes unique, delicacies according to growing seasons and tradition. The French markets attract not only fruit and vegetable farmers, but local wineries, smokehouses, and patisseries. It's not uncommon to see ropes of smoked garlic strung next to displays of homemade sausages, and row upon row of sweet, flakey pastries in the next stall.
Etiquette for the Experience
Touring the open air market is not about shopping with a grocery list, it's about tasting and experiencing the wares. In France, vendors are happy to tell you about their products and offer you a sample, especially of a unique, homemade delicacy. One rule of thumb, though, is to avoid touching or picking up the food to examine it yourself. Many consider this practice rude and would rather you point to the item in question so they can assist you.
In the mountainous Auvergne, expect to find lovely, handcrafted cheese from the numerous cow's milk dairy farms dotting the region. Chunks of sharp, buttery Cantal, wrapped in paper, line up with fresh, semi-soft Saint-Nectaire and the region's famous blue cheese, Fourme d'Ambert. Jars of heavily perfumed honey from local fields of wildflowers line the stalls in abundance. Look for baked goods sweetened with the honey, especially couque, which tastes even better on the second day, making it the perfect traveler's indulgence to take back to the inn.
Sharply fizzy, hard apple cider, Calvados, and wheels of Camembert decorate the market tables in Normandy. Normans are known for their rich gastronomy, and there is no better place to experience it firsthand than at the open air market. Look for apple confections of all kinds, sausage and charcuterie, and fresh dairy ingredients. A simple bottle of fresh cream, straight from the farm, boasts unparalleled flavor and consistency.
Look to Alsace if your tastes lean toward the full flavors of choucroute, also known as sauerkraut, and earthy, nutty Munster cheese. Row upon row of Riesling and Gerwurztraminer wine bottles from local wineries can be found adorning tables, and the vintners are happy to help you find a specific vintage, if desired. Patisseries here are known for their delicacies made with local stone fruit. If a seller happens to be offering plum cake brushed with brandy, take it home with you. This is one of the region's most delectable, yet unsung, treats. You won't regret it.
Straight-from-the-sea fish and seafood can be found at markets all over France, but it is superb in Marseille and the surrounding Provence - Alpes - Cote d'Azur region. Line-caught fish, squid, oysters, mussels, and more are available fresh, on ice. One doesn't need to be a great cook to enjoy Marseilles seafood markets, though. Many fishermen sell a variety of delicious stews, including famous bouillabaisse, that showcase their oceanic wares.
The regional specialties around France are countless. One would need to spend a lifetime travelling to enjoy all the gourmet delights the nation has to offer. To satisfy your appetite without a passport, make some of these scrumptious regional French recipes in your home kitchen.