In Europe in general, but in France in particular, it might seem that nobody buys fruits or vegetables. Stores tend to carry little uncooked food, even supermarkets seem understocked by American standards. The reason, of course is that most serious cooks buy their groceries only on certain days and only from another individual – in other words, at a market. Paris has a wonderful variety of food bazaars, with an emphasis on the neighborhood rather than on centrality.
It would be wrong to claim that the French have continued to shop the way they always have. In actuality, they've succumbed more than many to the supermarket. French people generally are prosperous, they have cars, they like variety in their diet and they have giant shopping complexes available to them everywhere - all ingredients for commercialization. If you go into any Monoprix or Intermarché, you will find people filling their carts with packaged food.
But the French also have a determined resolve not to turn their backs on tradition, and it sometimes seems that the proliferation of supermarkets has spurred something of a market-square renaissance here. Both buyers and merchants seem hungry to take part in a system that eschews sameness and offers something inimitably French.
At the concise Marché Belleville (Tuesdays and Fridays), on Boulevard de Belleville in the 20e arrondissement, white vans line the streets and nattily green-striped stands crowd together under leafy plane trees. Everything culinary is available – from frog’s legs to exotic fruits, spices to foi gras – but the vendors are fairly specialized, making shopping more about perusing than comparison.
The Marché Bastille (Thursday and Sunday), on Boulevard Richard Lenoire in the 11e, was the largest and busiest market we visited, with many more prepared foods. A kind of carnival atmosphere pervades the wide thoroughfare, with musicians and dancers performing for coins and a large contingent of tourists.
At the Marché Couvert Beauvau (Tuesday through Sunday), at the place d’Aligre, also part of the 11e, a small old market house contains meat, cheese and some canned goods. Outside, a long street overflows with vegetables and fruits. The smell of fish and cooking chicken drifts through the throng, wafting out from the permanent stores that cluster the periphery.
There is a change in the light between indoors and outdoors, and with it a shift in the centuries. Inside, the muted, dusty light and old metal grating evoke old Europe. It begs to be disbelieved as a touristy trick, but it isn’t. The people scurrying through the shadows carry baskets and crates, the mood is mercantile in a small, un-meditated way. Pates and Saint-Nectaires, anchovies and caviar are temptations. On the street, potatoes, lettuce and onions are things of utility. Outside, things are rushed and efficient - inside, it’s easy to linger and let the mouth water.
In Paris, there is something different about the markets. While there are still plenty of older women who haggle over pennies, there is also a different type of younger, more stylish shopper. People bring their children, they dress up, they are very interested in heirloom tomatoes (who isn’t, actually?). It reminds me of the American iteration, the “farmer’s market,” where the point is not only price or convenience, but partly the experience of shopping itself. It begs the question, of course, of whether the more exotic of the city’s offerings are meant to entice this younger set, who have likely turned away from the root vegetable and embraced the more obscure and delicate?
This market gentrification, if you will, helps distinguish between stands. In some countries, the volume of the seller’s voice is perhaps the greatest difference between bananas from one stand or another. Here, the origin of different goods actually appears to be quite different. Not that the vendors are quiet. They bellow and implore just as much as any of their foreign comrades and counterparts. The din invites nightmares about walking down these market streets alone, with no crowd around to cushion the shouts and demands.
Something I love about all market streets is the definite, unique patina that they acquire over time. Even when the stands have been packed up and the shoppers have all gone home to their kitchens, the concrete and stone itself seems to bear the worn imprint of a thousand frenetic mornings. The curbs and cobblestones are more polished from the foot traffic and the sweeping-up brooms, the shops along the sides are of a particular species not found on other avenues. It reminds me of a dry riverbed, where the rock has been rounded and the trees are of a different type – the landscape, even quiet and empty, shows the rush of activity that's shaped it.