Touching Moments at the French Market

After twenty years of living in France, there are still many items on my French fascination list. One of them is touching fruit or vegetables at the farmers’ markets.

As a Paris new arrival, you can imagine my shock seeing ‘Ne touchez pas!’ prominently written on blackboards above stacks of grapes and bananas at our local street market. It was in the 7th arrondissement’s rue Cler, which is a permanent market street (as opposed to temporary market stalls that set up at certain times in the week) and just a 10 minute walk from the Eiffel Tower. Tourists would pop along, grabbing just one or two fruits to go, which made the touchy Parisian sellers go bananas.

Hey! How come Madame is serving herself?

I learned my lessons in these early days, pathetically trying to state my case with a pigeon French accent before disappearing à l’anglaise down rue Cler, tail between my legs, carrying the forbidden fruit that I’d touched in little brown paper bags. It’s no wonder we had to move to les banlieues, on the outskirts.

Here, at our local market in St Germain-en-Laye, it has taken a while to avoid the rotten surprise apricots at the bottom of the bag or the mouldy bottom layer of loose expensive Gariguette strawberries. I’d play safe and go for the pre-packaged.

Was it the accent? Was it being polite and remembering your s’il vous plaît and merci talk, which the French – quite rightly – love?

My first tactic, to avoid them hearing the accent, was to push my French children forward and let them do the talking. En plus, they received freebies for their girlie grins and cute curls. Gradually, with more confidence and just taking the French language by the sweet corns, the best way has been simple: just be your chatty self (chatterbox=bavarde, meaning you salivate a lot, ahem).

Case of the rhubarb last week: greeted seller with Ah! La rhubarbe! – using the couple of back-of-the-throat spitting ‘r’s in there (throwing the arms in the air, trying not to knock over the old lady next to me) – and, as I quickly passed over 4 large sticks, asked if I could help with these, as it was a long stretch over the stall for him. Voilà.

BTW, if you haven’t tried them yet, you must make these rhubarb and strawberry gratins to serve with your macarons. It’s the archive recipe of the month on the Bonus Recipe List.

As for these Plougastel strawberries straight from Brittany, you can see our job is just to hand over the Euros. No touchy.

Sniffing melons is another case. There’s something extremely fun watching the male sellers seriously juggle their melons about. The French take it for granted that if a Provençal melon from sunny Cavaillon is to be served in 2 days, they need to sniff to check it will be perfect by Sunday lunchtime. Normally they expertly sniff for you and get it right. You want to sniff them yourself? Flattery is the buzzword. Tell them they have lovely looking melons? Nope. You try that one! (I was just checking to see if you were still reading at this point.) Seriously, though, squished melons from prodding are not fun.

Admiring the bundles of asparagus, at least you can see if the produce is fresh by the looks of their spear heads (firm, compact and dry). If you haven’t already tried it yet, taste this Asparagus Clafoutis from Le Bristol’s chef, Eric Fréchon (using green or white asparagus), another recipe in the egg yolk collection.

Now, if you were caught touching and checking out this fresh horseradish from Germany, cellophane-sealed in all its glory, what on earth would happen, do you think?  Would they take you seriously or would you seriously be taken away by the local Gendarmes?

Madame was kind. She politely went straight up to the seller and asked if she could help herself to the kiwis and, before he could even answer, she was in there picking the best ones out. The seller pretended not to look and was remaining calm, although do you wonder how he felt inside?

Quick! Nobody’s around here. Let’s be daring and touch a pineapple! Fancy a sticky pineapple recipe? Coming up next on le blog.

25 replies
  1. foodwanderings
    foodwanderings says:

    Love this cultural tour of the markets in France. I am still marred by their rudeness when we visited years ago. At least I know it’s not only me they served the old crepe that was sitting aside to while making fresh ones to for the rest. Told you, marred! 🙂 Beautifully written post though> 🙂

  2. Hester @ Alchemy in the Kitchen
    Hester @ Alchemy in the Kitchen says:

    Hilarious, Jill ! I am right there in the market with you, watching Madame pick out those choice kiwis. I did something similar in Dublin once and nearly got beaten up. The seller rathered I have her choice of decaying fruit. I rathered not. We did not do business.

    Yes, something sticky and pineappley sounds wonderful.

  3. Thomasina
    Thomasina says:

    I have half a pineapple waiting patiently in my fridge for the promised recipe. I love French markets too.

    • Jill
      Jill says:

      Oh dear, Thomasina. I am so sorry. Trying to cope with home affairs just now and so rather behind. I hear you. I’ll get writing something today! Merci xo

  4. Fran @ G'day Souffle'
    Fran @ G'day Souffle' says:

    Jill, I remember the market stall sellers as being friendly, as they try to get you to buy from their stall. At least they don’t break into English as you try to practice your French. My favourite Paris market is the one at Avenue du President Wilson, across from the Eiffel Tower- it is HUGE! I look forward to hearing more of your tales and recipes!

    • Jill
      Jill says:

      Interesting, Fran, thanks! You’re lucky – when I first arrived I found it hard to even practise my French, as they’d turn around and say, ‘I theenk eet is betteur eef we speak Engleesh’, which was totally demoralising. Yes, I know the one well on President Wilson, as used to pass it on the bus to work every morning. Thanks for popping by!

  5. Ann Mah
    Ann Mah says:

    Ha ha, I’ve met my share of cross market vendors. But I think things at the rue Cler might have changed… most of the produce is now serve yourself (inconceivable, I know)! Maybe the tourists wore finally them down 😉

    • Jill
      Jill says:

      Hehe – I am so glad that Rue Cler has finally changed after all those years, Ann. Of course, that must be your local! We would have been neighbours if I was still in rue Bosquet.

  6. June S
    June S says:

    This blog is so funny Jill – I need a fix of the markets. I remember Rue Cler very well – it was a lovely studio flat with the market in the next street with all the bizz. I do remember you had a special interest in the fish stalls – must be your roots hen! Yes, your girls are very handy for us too – they are great interpreters especially when we are frowned upon with our pigeon French. Love the look on the sellers’ faces when they take over the transaction and the attitude changes immediately. Bet you’d still like to berry pick in Pencaitland though. We still keep in touch with the Cuthills even though Andy said we were greedy because we picked so much.

    • Jill
      Jill says:

      Aye – the fish stalls and your grandchildren translators. Yes, Pencaitland berry picking can never be matched here. Thanks for popping by, Mum! Means so much. xo

  7. claudine fraser
    claudine fraser says:

    giggle, snigger, gaffaw, laugh and smile, yes I do love reading your blog Jill! (half French, half Scottish (menopausal) woman living in NZ

  8. Parisbreakfast
    Parisbreakfast says:

    Oooo I like the prices at your marché!
    Good deal on the asperge a blanc.
    I’m heading yr way. So what if my marché is just out the door.
    Can’t wait for the annanas ow that I have a special cutter though I should be lifting weights to use it.

  9. Tony
    Tony says:

    If everybody lived in Provence choosing veggies would be easy….. 🙂 i still prefer one “unhealthy piece” in the pack rather than the packaged ready-made “literally pasteurised” offering of some supermarkets…..

  10. Helene D'souza
    Helene D'souza says:

    The sellers are nuts. I can’t imagine that we can’t touch the fruits in a market. My mother would go angry and anyway I don’t think so they would dare to say anything. lol
    My mum would sniff melons in the Austrian markets and the seller used to look odd as if she was mad. But then sniffing a melon is a must and as I know it now is actually quite common even in India. Thanks for your market tour, I enjoyed the fresh European breeze here in Asia.

  11. Liz Small
    Liz Small says:

    Jill – I want to move to Paris – or least book a holiday! Your stories are entertaining and funny. I can picture the scenes. Thank you for this (talking of rhubard I tried DemiJohn of Edinburgh’s rhubarb vodka last night. Bet the French stuff would be better! thank you for cheering up Friday afternoon…

    • Jill
      Jill says:

      Thanks for saying that, Liz. You’ve made my day. And that American Express UK have me on video on Facebook! Yay! Best go pack. I’m off again.
      Bon weekend!

  12. Jamie
    Jamie says:

    There are many things I have realized: the French touch without a bit of reserve or self-consciousness – and the sellers don’t say anything. Or rarely. Once the French get in and grope and manhandle the salads, all we can do is point to the one we would like, one not touched. I have also discovered that if you ask politely, they do let you select your own. Just don’t squeeze any you won’t be taking (if you discover one is rotten, just hand it to the sellers and say it is rotten and they will toss it). Gosh, Jill, now I feel like I should go back and dig out my own post about French markets that i actually never posted!

    Enjoy the spring and summer fruits and veg. I am!

    • Jill
      Jill says:

      Too right, Jamie. Squeezing is in and yes, they toss them if you find them first without it being sneaked in. When that happened at our local, I stormed back and told them off in front of a big queue and didn’t go back again. Possibly a mistake as I could’ve got some freebies next time and now it’s too late!

      Enjoying the fruits but now we want the warm sunshine to appear. You better in Nantes? Get that post out, Jamie!!



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