In January we moved back to Maisons-Laffitte – a beautiful little town North-West of Paris. It is close enough to Paris that you can jump on the RER and walk out onto the Champs-Élysées 20 minutes later yet feel that when you come home you are in a country style town. There are after all horses trotting up and down streets in the parc du chateau which our daughter takes great delight in, as well as numerous country walks, nice views, fountains, cycle paths and blackberry picking in the Autumn. It’s a pretty special place and we love it.
One of the biggest things I’ve missed in Australia has been the local market. Yes there are farmers’ markets and the like and Australia has some fantastic produce but it’s just not the same as a French market … mais non!
Some of my childhood memories are of holidays in France where we bought goats cheese, honey sweets and invariably sunglasses and holiday trinkets. Maisons-Laffitte I’m happy to say has a fantastic market twice a week. It is under cover which makes everything a lot more convenient and a real destination. When we first lived here about a decade ago we lived right opposite La Place du Marché and I’m sure I was the first customer there most Saturday mornings. Note to self – markets are great but don’t rent an apartment literally on its doorstep unless you want a very early start to your weekend!
We now enjoy a leisurely walk each Saturday morning to stock up on provisions. The first time we went back was a momentous occasion. My whole being came alive – how I’d missed the hustle and bustle and the smells, the sounds and the array of produce. When I found my two favourite stall holders were still there with the same staff/owners manning them I was delighted. It was as if time had stood still. As you approach the market there is a sense of coming together, the town literally all seem to get up and go to this place, like a mecca for gourmets.
There is the smell of French cigars and cigarettes, sweaty stall owners and Fresh flowers, poultry, cheese and the aroma of bitter coffee which many stallholders are clutching a cup of. It’s a great place (except for the coffee – don’t get me started on the average French cup – I’ll have many a future blog post to highlight some great places in Paris for coffee but this will never be one of them) and I feel right at home.
There are many different ways of approaching the French market. You can do the tour d’honneur and get an overview of where to buy what and see who’s selling broccoli at the best price that week, you can, if you like, go by the look of the stall holder and size up the quality of the produce and whether you think you’ll get ripped off, or you can, as I do, look at if its a “producteur”… ie. they grow it themselves. There is a particular stand from Orgeval which I think is my favourite. You can watch the year and seasons pass by the contents of their stall. They have many types of apples and pears including a great deal of €0.80/kg for the not so pretty ones which I turn into fantastic compote which is so sweet you don’t need sugar. They have old wooden crates full of dusty potatoes, celeriac, carrots, leeks, onions, cabbages of different colours, stunning spinach and mache at this time in the year and soon they’ll have punnets of raspberries, red currants, blackberries and all things summary and sweet. I just love it. The best thing is you can taste the quality and if ever I’ve left some vegetables in the fridge they are still going strong 10 days+ which I can’t say for anything supermarket bought elsewhere. This is what inspires me to put up with the other frustrations in living in France and to celebrate the goodness of life and simplicity of buying things from the person who grew them. It’s how life should be!
There is a poultry stand which has row upon row of birds and duck and all manner of interesting things. On a side note I’m crazy about duck – just love it! However that particular day I wanted to roast a chicken and commented that it looked a bit smaller than the one behind it. I was assured it would be succulent and all things good and so I took it. The French man cracked a joke he must have told so many times but it still put a smile on my face. He asked if I wanted the head chopped off which of course I said yes to (seriously what would I have done with it?) but he suggested that if I left it it could “surveiller la cuisson” … ha ha ha! Well the joke was on me as after cooking and tasting it I remarked it had a stronger flavour and was a bit dry. My husband replied well it isn’t a poulet it’s a poule! I can’t believe with all my years of French I hadn’t picked up on this vital fact but we were in fact eating a hen not a young “poulet”!
The other thing I secretly love about French markets is the queue. I normally hate queues but somehow standing in line at the marché is more amusement than an arduous task. In a country where they hate following just about any other rule, at the market they queue without question and wait their turn. There is no loud sighing you often get across la Manche as a little hint that you’ve had enough and no-one bats an eyelid that the little old lady in front of you is passing the time of day with the stall holder as he wraps her leeks and offers to cut off some of the green ends. For everyone knows that when it is their turn they will get the same committed service. There are no pre-packed or minimum packs here. You want half a cabbage well they grab a cabbage and cut it in half for you. You want 1 onion and 2 carrots… fine… whatever takes your fancy!
The French Market for me represents an era that has been lost in so many other places. Don’t get me wrong … I LOVE Waitrose supermarket in the UK, delis and great foodie finds in any corner of the Earth, but somehow au marché time has stood still and life has a rhythm and pace that carries on from generation to generation. The only thing I have to worry about is not getting too carried away as I often get home and realise I’ve bought enough to feed an army rather than my husband and almost 2 year old daughter! Thankfully vegetables feature high on our menus and we always seem to eat through the kilos of goodness we bring home on Saturday mornings.