The first time I visited a farmers’ market in France was on rue de Buci, in Paris. I was on an errand for one of the chef’s at La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine, fresh off the plane from Seattle, jet-lagged and shy about my French. But spinach was on the menu, it hadn’t come in with the produce order, and I was a stagiaire and had to do what the chef said, Vite!
No Cell Phones
I had to consult a Taride, or map, to find my way (no cell phones), and then I had to race because class was beginning and chef needed spinach. There were no Velib’s or scooters, just the bus and the metro which were too slow so I ran. Down rue St. Dominique, then the Boulevard St. Germain, then a sharp left at café Mabillon onto rue de Buci where I stopped dead in my tracks.
The Belly of Paris
I’d never seen anything like this little Parisian street given over entirely to a scene from Victor Hugo’s Le Ventre de Paris: hawkers yelling, produce spilling into the street, aromas of cheese, hunks of meat, fillets of fish, crowds jostling, color everywhere. And amidst all of this glory I had to find spinach.
The Spinach Kept Trying to Grab Me
A knot in my stomach – how do I ask for it, will I have the right money? – propelled me into the crowds and I wound up at a vegetable stand with a long line; I needed the time to compose my request, and when it was my turn and I asked for 2 kg (4 pounds) of spinach, which was so fresh and alive it almost grabbed me. I had a basket with me, and the vegetable merchant filled it (no plastic bags then), packing down the leaves which kept wanting to jump out. I handed over my francs, got a jangle of centimes in return and, with a backward glance and a big inhale to capture the incredible aromas, I sprinted back to school.
Unforgettable Market Moment
I’ll never forget that market moment. Forever after until the rue de Buci gentrified and the market disappeared, I went there. One of my favorite spots was a teeny wedge of a shop amidst the produce stands, where the most handsome older man cut and fried potatoes, serving them blistering hot in a paper cone with a shower of sea salt. My first “frites” and still my reference.
I first tasted Comte there, I learned about clementines with flavor, apples with crunch, fish that smelled like the ocean. As I became a regular I made the kind of friends one does at the market, which includes a friendly “Bonjour” and maybe “bon poids,” something extra.
One day I had a hankering for broccoli so off I went to the rue de Buci. Up one side of the street, down the other, no broccoli. But…it was the season, the air was chilly, there was cauliflower, broccoli’s cousin. But no. I did the tour again. I wasn’t sure of the word for broccoli but I threw myself in asking for…”brohcohleee”. Blank stares, sorry lifts of the eyebrows. There was no broccoli in France then, I confirmed it with the chef at school. It was my first, and only, deception at the marche de la rue de Buci.
Drama, Aromas, the True Heart of France
My love affair with markets stems from those early days, when everything was a discovery, and I learned the true meaning of flavor. It has never waned. I am a regular at my local market, early in the morning before the lines form, even if I have nothing to buy. I LOVE drama, the aromas, the color and light. If I’m down, it lifts me up. If I’m up, it lifts me higher. It’s a map of the seasons, a living testament to the persistence and skill of the grower and the seller, a look into the real heart of France.