One of my favorite topics is food. Rarely do I encounter someone who doesn’t enjoy talking about their favorite snacks and meals. Food is what brings people together; it’s a necessity for life, after all. It comes as no surprise, then, that the way we procure food is deeply entwined in the fabric of the cultures we live in.
Back home, in California, we buy our food from big supermarkets: aisle upon aisle of cereals, canned foods, sugary drinks, meats, and veggies. It’s mostly the same case here in Paris, a big city with people constantly on the go. The city is dotted with stores from the big supermarket chains — Franprix, Monoprix, Carrefour, E Leclerc — and they’re filled with most of the same things you could expect to find in the US. (Except, maybe, they have a few more aisles of yogurts, cheeses, and wines than most Americans are used to.)
However, there’s one local tradition that sets France apart from the California suburbs: the marketplace. Each town here in France has its own marché couvert, or covered market, where locals shop for fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, and dairy products. Some areas even have weekly markets, where, for one day out of the week, the local town square is transformed into a sprawling maze of stalls and booths selling produce, home goods, and clothes.
California, just like the rest of the United States, does have its own share of farmers’ markets and public markets which are similar to the French marchés. But most of these have only cropped up in urban population centers in the last few years. This practice has only begun to revitalize itself back home, but here in France, it serves as a longstanding tradition.
The French, after all, take their food very seriously. Freshness and authenticity are key ingredients in every traditional French meal.
Each marché in France has its own unique atmosphere. Even within the Île-de-France region, composed of the city of Paris and its surrounding departments, the experience in one market might be completely different from that of another. That was certainly the case when I went to two different markets for a bit of food shopping: one in the bustling suburb of Choisy-Le-Roi, and another in the quiet castle town of Fontainebleau.
In late August, I visited the Sunday market of Choisy-Le-Roi. Located just less than 15 minutes via train southeast of Paris, in the department of Val-de-Marne, Choisy is part of the banlieue. While a neutral interpretation of “banlieue” translates to what Americans know as the suburbs, the word has taken a more nuanced meaning in France in recent years. These days, the term evokes images of high-density, low-income housing projects and large concentrations of African immigrants. Often, tourists avoid these areas because of a fear of crime, but like in any big city, there’s never really anything to worry about if one takes the appropriate precautions.
Still, for the inexperienced American traveler, the market itself may come across as an intimidating challenge. Jam-packed with people from every ethnic background imaginable, the market is loud and chaotic but full of life. Vendors hawk their wares at passersby, shouting out their deals and offers. On one side, you have the enticing aromas of deep-fried Arab pastries, but on the other, the smell of fresh fish and meat lingers. In the covered area, stalls sell candies and chocolates, sausages and cheeses, olives and dates. Outside, garments in every color combination imaginable bedeck the clothing alleys: hijabs and blouses, kaftans and polo shirts. Little kids dart through the stalls and among the shoppers, laughing as they play tag. It’s a veritable melange of cuisines, religions, and personalities, a testament to the cultural mosaic of modern France.
At some point, I couldn’t resist trying one of those fried pastries. I followed the sound of sizzling oil and the smell of hot spices to a stall that sold Algerian delicacies. I bought a mahjouba, which was sort of like a really flat pancake. I got one that was filled with a spicy mix of ground beef and veggies. The moment I took a bite out of that warm Algerian crêpe, I fell in love. The savory filling was teeming with the rich flavors of North African spices. And even if I am ever so slightly allergic to bell peppers, I didn’t regret my decision one bit.
I also bought some croissants, 5 for just 2€!, and I made a mental note to next time visit the store that sold international flags. My collection could use a few more, and a European flag would look great next to the French flag hanging in my apartment.
The market of Choisy was proof to me that everyone can benefit from a diverse, multicultural society. It brought out the best of all the cultures that one can find in the banlieue, French and foreign. Everyone was sharing, albeit in a commercial, mercantile context, but sharing nonetheless. In fact, it brought back memories from my teenage years in the Philippines, when I regularly walked through a busy marketplace on my way home from school. It did take a bit of adjusting to learn to weave my way through the chaos, but the experience was, in the end, an enjoyable one.
Whereas the Choisy market was busy, the one I visited in Fontainebleau was much more calm. It was just as vibrant, but perhaps in a different way.
Fontainebleau is a town of around 15,000 people, located about an hour southeast of Paris via train. Still within the Île-de-France region, in the Seine-et-Marne department, Fontainebleau is best known for its beautiful palace, the Château de Fontainebleau. I made my way there two weeks ago, but not to visit the Château. I heard, from some French newspapers online, that the Fontainebleau had one of the best markets in the entire region. So, the palace would have to wait: I had to check out the market.
Unfortunately, I made a slight miscalculation with the schedule. Apparently, the big Fontainebleau market that the news was talking about, located at the Place de la République, was closed for the summer. (And, yes, sometimes summer vacation extends to early September in France.) But that didn’t spoil my trip at all. Fontainebleau hosts a second, smaller Sunday market in the Place du Marché. That’s where I did my shopping.
The bustling crowds of the Choisy market were nowhere to be found in the Fontainebleau market. It was a much calmer shopping experience. There was much more room to move about, but all the familiar sights, smells, and sounds were still there. The sweet scent of flowers, fruit, and freshly baked bread filled the air. Various cheeses teased the senses with their pungent aromas and their textured rinds covered in strange-looking molds. There was a jazz band playing in a corner somewhere, and a fruit salesman even broke into song for a good minute or two. It reminded me a bit of that part in the Beauty and the Beast animated film, where Belle strolled through the town greeting the folk in a jaunty little melody.
Fontainebleau’s market was, undoubtedly, a lot more ethnically French than the one in Choisy. The products on display were mostly from various regions of France, and there were just a few stalls that carried Arab and African specialties. I bought a kilo of mirabelles, little, yellow-orange plums; they make for an especially flavorful, fruity bite. I also ended up buying some brioche vendéene, a dense, almost cake-like bread, the specialty of a city called Vendée in the far west of France. I got the kind that had chocolate chips in it. Interestingly, it was sold by weight, and my American sense of scale did not expect that a 250 gram chunk of brioche, tasty as it was, would last me two weeks.
That wasn’t the only mistake I made with weights. At the deli stand, I purchased some saucisson à l’ail, a garlicky pork sausage and a specialty of the Parisian region. However, a slip of the tongue nearly cost me a fortune: I asked the man 250 kilos of saucisson instead of the 250 grams I wanted. That’s almost 600 pounds of sausage! Luckily, the vendor’s look of surprise alerted me to my mistake, and I went home with a more reasonable amount of sausage that day.
Metric matters aside, I ended up with a bag full of French delicacies to keep me satisfied for the rest of the month. Perhaps in a couple of weeks, I’ll head back to Fontainebleau and check out the big market that I missed out on on that day.
Both markets were incredibly different from each other, but each had its own particular charm. It’s definitely a tale of two markets: the hustle of bustle of Choisy, versus the calm atmosphere of Fontainebleau. Each had a story to tell, each providing a new perspective on the food that graces the dining tables of the French. From the North African-inspired delights in Choisy-Le-Roi to the regional French treats in Fontainebleau, these varied delicacies form just part of the exquisite banquet that French cuisine has to offer. Without a doubt, I’m looking forward to seeing what the rest of the markets in the Parisian region has in store.