France: Still alive and kicking among the food stalls

By Peter Bills

Butter clearly would not have melted in the little girl's mouth.

Dutifully ambling through the French market hand in hand with her father, blond hair tumbling down on to her little shoulders, nothing seemed to disturb the equanimity of this youngster.

But the markets of France hold a surprise and attraction at every turn. Not far into one of France's famous Les Halles, a covered market, she spied a fish stall.

On the slab twisted and twirled a couple of eels that were about to be dispatched to the next world. One slice of the fishmonger's knife and two heads lay separated from their bodies. At which point, the blond angel pulled her hand out of Daddy's, seized one of the (still twitching) eels heads, held it high and proclaimed, "Look Mummy, a real fish. Can I take it home, please?"

Those nearby took one thing, evasive action, as the girl's sister ran screaming from the scene.

An everyday occurrence in a French market? Well, visitors really can't say they have seen proper French life unless they have visited a couple of the famous markets. They offer a unique insight into the life of this nation.

Fish offered in many countries look tired and old. The supermarkets' dominance of the food chain in New Zealand - and many other countries - often means that the production line from supply to point of sale is long. In France, discerning shoppers require something completely different.

Unless the produce is beautifully fresh, they are not interested. It means that as you stroll through the local market, it is normal to see some fish still jumping. They'd have been caught early that morning and transported at once to the nearest city or distribution point.

This might not be an encouraging sight for the faint-hearted. But it guarantees the quality of the produce available.

The covered markets of France are more established affairs, normally a collection of stalls inside a building as at Les Halles market near Paris' Gare du Nord station.

If you head for the open markets go early because most will be finished by lunchtime. But at both, you will find a wealth of quality on offer; vegetables freshly dug from the soil, tomatoes grown in season and meat from locally reared animals.

Last winter, on a freezing cold day in the little historic French town of Albi in the Haut&45;Garonne, I shivered while touring an open air market. But the sight and smell of a stall selling magnificent loaves of all kinds, many still warm from the oven, was inspiring.

France's love affair with the meal goes back to the year dot. The farmer and food are central to French history. Marie Antoinette's unwise putdown for the poor - "let them eat cake" - cost her more than the price of a decent meal.

And as recently as 100 years ago, after a series of widespread farm protests in 1907, the Languedoc region was occupied by the French Army.

Every French politician of recent times has baulked at moves that would bring the farmers on to the streets. Their ability to block motorways and disrupt life is still feared throughout this nation.

You can buy just about anything edible from French markets: fresh snails, goat's milk and cheeses, olive, walnut and tomato bread, homemade cider and juices, honey, jam and every kind of meat.

The sight of a pig cut in half, its head still intact but eyes closed by the knife that had done its work, is not for everyone. But you can be assured the quality is exceptional. And no part of any beast is wasted. Ox tongue, cow's stomach, bull's kidneys, pig's heart are readily available.

At some markets, you don't just buy the product and take it home to eat. You can consume it right there, as with fresh oysters and a crisp glass of dry white wine, normally muscadet.

In these small, often impromptu gatherings throughout the country, can be found the produce of sea and earth. They are the essence of true French life.

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