As I toast a glass of champagne and slurp a briny oyster from its shell, I can’t help but marvel at the French passion for eating well. This would have been beyond a fantasy a year ago and yet here we are, spending a weekend at “home” that feels like a dream vacation. This is owed primarily to France’s amazing market culture, an integral part of life in virtually all French towns and large villages, including my current home base of Ferney Voltaire, where a world-class market takes over the town center every Saturday morning.
The market is truly an overwhelming gastronomic experience that requires significant mental fortitude to, at some point, give up the idea of tasting everything in one visit. Hundreds of vendors wake up before the crack of dawn and drive for hours to set up their proud stands of colorful goods before the crowds descend from Geneva and the surrounding mountain towns. By 9am there is a steady stream of human traffic coming from all directions to shop for their regular weekly groceries: wine, bread, dried fruit, seafood, every variety of creamy, hard and stinky French cheese, carefully aged and cured meats, rainbows of green, brown and purple olives in more varieties than I ever knew existed, each sitting next to their respective fresh oils and tapenades, and produce lined up in a stunning array of color. Each display is made purely of nature’s bounty and yet looks as though it should be the work of an artist’s pallette, so dazzling that it’s almost mandatory to take a moment to stare.
There is also a wide selection of indulgances that extends far beyond the typical grocery list; delicacies such as oysters and champagne, monkfish and swordfish and scallops in their shells, macarons, spice bread, and of course, TRUFFLES when they’re in season.
Every week I wonder if one of these days I’ll wake up and think “oh, the farmer’s market? I’ve been enough, let’s skip it this time”, but after nine months I still roll eagerly out of bed bright and early on Saturday mornings, like a little kid, throw some clothes on and dash down to the market to see what new fascinations are in store this week. Part of the allure is that even after becoming familiar with most of the vendors, every week still feels like a surprise as each season brings its new crops and also takes some away, a phenomenon that is still a novelty after coming from the states where everything is on display year round. Here, chanterrel and morel mushrooms appear in October, game fowl and chestnuts in the fall, and summer displays of berries, stone fruit and tomatoes shift to root vegetables and greens, squash, and truffles in the winter. I have previously marked the seasons only by the weather, but here, a glance at the produce in the market stalls is equally telling. Last weekend, it suddenly became asparagus and artichoke season. Where there had been none the week before, now suddenly every booth is spilling over with these two delicious green (and white) morsels and every restaurant menu has dedicated a page entirely to these ingredients.
I have finally tasted enough to establish my favorite spots, which usually all have a consistent line of regular customers who have also deemed it their favorite, waiting patiently for what they consider to be the best of the market. My first stop is almost always the young woman who bakes huge loaves of crusty bread that look like they should be on the cover of Bon Appétit and whose baguettes sell out within an hour; perfectly chewy and crunchy from letting the dough rise for over 24 hours and then baking over a hot fire – a quarter loaf is enough to last me the week. Next is my ritual breakfast from the woman who makes almond croissants that weigh nearly a kilo, covered in crisp almonds and powdered sugar on the outside but stuffed with gooey almond paste on the inside so they melt in your mouth and then sit in your stomach reminding you all day how delicious they were, and making you never want to eat anything else. Then it’s on to the Italian family who brings their fresh pasta truck each week selling homemade pastas, mostly stuffed, italian cheeses, and a fresh spit-roasted boar whose rump is split wide and slowly disappears as the day goes on. If we want lunch, it’s the rottiserie chicken stand with the juciest chickens, potatoes strategically placed underneath to soak up the fat and spices until they’re saturated and crispy.
Each visit to the market has also allowed me to slowly understand some of the rules of French culture. Politeness goes a long way. A greeting, just a simple “bonjour”, is required when passing or approaching anyone in order to avoid being considered cold and rude, and vendors will generally warm to you if you use basic phrases like “un comme ça, s’il vous plait”. The French do not rush. Food is a serious matter, and matters like this require serious deliberation and quite a bit of time. These culinary experts must choose the right ingredients for the evening meal, which can only be done after picking them up and examining them one by one, then asking enough questions about their pedigree to make sure they are of the correct quality. Then, it is not uncommon to have a lengthy conversation with the vendor on the latest gossip before the next customer is allowed to take their turn. You should also be aware that there is a very particular way to cook, eat, and drink everything when it comes to French cuisine. When you buy meat at the butcher stand, ask how to cook it and he will spend 10 minutes explaining exactly the way it must be done, and what you should have with it, accompanied by extravagant hand gestures to make sure you understand. Ask the baker which bread to go with cheese, and she will explain that it depends what kind of cheese – certain breads have too much flavor themselves to go with anything but mild cheeses, while others with a thicker crust and less flavor are for the stronger cheeses. And then of course, for every type of food there is a particular wine, only that wine, that can be appropriately paired with the meal.
And each week, when our stomachs and bags are full, we leave the bustling scene behind and make our way back home to begin the next part of the adventure…figuring out what, exactly, we’ve just brought home with us, and how to turn it into something delicious.