We struck out early on a cool and cloudy morning for Marchè d’Aligre. It was the first of many marché visits we made over the course of our two weeks together in France. It was everything you would expect of an outdoor French market. There were stalls abundant with vibrant fruits and vegetables, boisterous competing vendors attempting to solicit sales from passersby with a running commentary about their superior products, and a calmer indoor enclosed section featuring meats, cheeses and other specialty items. As the group separated to explore and shop individually, I immediately turned away from the flea market section towards the glorious produce. When I picture the French way of food shopping I tend to idealize their custom of buying select fresh, seasonal and gourmet items at alfresco markets for that day’s family meal.
As I made my way towards the food section I moved slowly, taking in the bounty before me from each stall. The items were largely familiar, yet many made their appearance in a uniquely French fashion – yellowy-white asparagus at least an inch thick in diameter, plump red heirloom tomatoes ribbed up to their green stems like a piece of fresh mozzarella tied in a knot, little golden apricots akin to soft-skinned gems of sunshine, perfectly manicured green artichokes with deep purple streaked tips, and oblong bright ruby French breakfast radishes with white tips and lush tufts of vibrant green leaves. It was difficult to not stop at each stall to take pictures and buy one of everything but the assignment of the morning was an investigative walk – just window-shopping. Sadly, despite my longing, I was not on a mission to shop for an evening dinner party. As I watched the patrons go from stall to stall, haggling and then buying items, I imagined the family dinners they would go home to prepare with the spoils of their shopping trip. There would be a large group sitting leisurely around a rustic wooden farm table, set with simply elegant white dishware and cloth napkins, an energetic political discussion heating up as they passed loaves of fresh bread around for each person to rip off casually and dip into the juices of a luscious tomato salad or top with an oozing, creamy, raw cheese. Would they serve a red, a white or a rosé wine? They would probably have more than one choice on hand.
This reverie immediately transported me back to my childhood summers spent with my extended family in the south of Greece where we would enjoy daily midday lunches together. That scene, hardly as romanticized, was of my large, loud, multi-generational family packed around an assortment of mismatched tables, covered in patterned plastic tablecloths brought from American each year at my aunt’s insistence, organized in the side yard under the shade of the grapevine trellis. We ate eat off of light blue plastic plates, also smuggled in our suitcases from home, so there was no concern when someone inevitably dropped one on the ground. As the table was set with heaping bowls and platters of food they would be covered with white domed fly nets until we were ready to sit down and eat. There was always talk of politics and the current state of Greece but it came across much more like arguing as voices quickly heightened and the occasional hand slammed on the table for effect. It was the food on the table, straight from the family farm, that was what truly connected these two daydream moments for me. Walking through the French market I could once again see the summer spreads of my childhood vividly – an overflowing platter of long slender string beans slick with olive oil, a mounding bowl of juicy tomatoes, crisp cucumbers, red onions and fresh local goat cheese crumbles, a steaming plate of skin-on chicken straight from the oven coated in spices, and loaves of hearty white and brown bread scattered across the table for easeful grabbing.
Further into the market I not only observed the panoply of food on display but also the people shopping in the stalls. One of my favorite things to do when traveling is to get out of the touristic areas to get a real sense of how the locals actually live – my preferred method is to go to local markets. Food can be a great way to get a more genuine sense of a place, as in the real place, and not the one constructed to accommodate outsiders. What was eminently obvious from perusing the stalls and watching people at French markets was the universal passion, pride and love of good food the French have – to them eating well is a human right that they value deeply. This was also true of my Greek family growing up – food was and is the center of all important events and high quality and quantities are a given. One of our most basic, primal human needs is sustenance – food and drink – and how a group meets this requirement is quite telling about their culture and it’s norms and values. It is something I often find missing in many circles in the United States.
After the last outside produce stall I made my way into the enclosed section and encountered an array of butchers, fishmongers, dairies filled with eggs and cheeses, pungent spice stalls, and booths with prepared foods including bins of shiny olives and trays of perfectly manicured Pâté en Croûte. After a few loops around and obligatory samples, I settled on cured meat at the charcutier. It was a bright, oily slice of Rosette de Lyon that lured me in as I peeled away the outer layers of casing before placing the salty, pink and white-flecked slice of meat into my mouth. The shopkeeper layered a heaping stack of slices on to wax paper as he worked adeptly at slicing the meat. He then skillfully folded the paper and sealed it with a piece of tape before placing it into a plastic bag. As I took one last stroll through the aisles of the market, eagerly gazing around, I excitedly anticipated what the others might bring to our picnic meal to share and how it might also evoke memories of those abundant family meals of my childhood summers.
Written for my Global Cultures study abroad class in Paris the Food Studies Master's Program at NYU Steinhart in July 2015. The original assignment has been edited and revised for this purpose.