Saturday, August 10, 2013

To Market, To Market

(originally posted 7/8/10)
During the past two weeks, I’ve been checking out area farmers markets. Even when I’m not shopping for anything in particular, I just love the displays, the variety, the color, the aromas, the feeling of possibility that comes from being surrounded by produce, baked treats, flowers, and cheeses. However, I must admit that even the most expansive markets I’ve seen in central Pennsylvania are dwarfed by the multitude of neighborhood markets I recently saw in Paris.

We visited several Parisian markets, but I would have to say that the hands-down winner for variety, beauty, mind-boggling size and bustling atmosphere is the Marche du Pont de l’Alma on Avenue du President Wilson in the 16th arrondissement. You could spend hours there, snacking all along the way, and come home with everything you need for a monumental meal, right down to the wine and table linens. Watch for the stalls with the longest lines, including the one that specializes in freshly-made pasta and Italian delicacies. Try to keep your ankles from being bruised by the little old ladies wielding their rolling metal carts like riot shields, as they load up for a family dinner. Eavesdrop on the men chewing the fat (literally) with the sausage maker, and on the stylish women debating the merits of one pastry over another (while you wonder, how could people so impossibly skinny be buying all those rich desserts?).

French open-air markets are a great place to learn about French attitudes toward food. In Paris, domiciles are small, refrigerators often miniscule, and storage is at a minimum. People shop almost daily, and there is an expectation that fresh, attractive, locally-grown foods will be available in one’s own neighborhood. In the midst of one of the world’s busiest cities, you can enter an avenue of stalls and tables displaying what seems like acres of gorgeous produce, artisan cheeses, freshly-butchered meats and hand-made sausages, seafood, flowers, herbs and a stunning array of prepared foods.

The French love to eat, and they are not squeamish about food. Both traditional French soul food and high-gastronomy cuisine often consist of animals (or parts of animals) that all but the most open-minded and open-palated Americans would consider beyond the pale. Frogs’ legs and escargots have become mainstream fare in the U.S.; but the likes of tête de veau (calf’s head), pigs’ feet, snouts and cheeks, smoked ox tongue, and the various other organs and glands that are common in Parisian restaurants and butcher shops have not really gained popularity on this side of the pond. More to the point, however, is that even when considering more mundane foods (like chicken or pork), the French do not kid themselves about what they’re eating. Forget about boneless, skinless chicken breasts crowded onto a Styrofoam tray and shrink-wrapped in plastic. At a French market, expect to see recently (and often only partially) de-feathered birds with the heads and feet still attached -- the easier to identify the choice “poulet de Bresse,” with its blue feet. Ditto for many other critters in the butcher’s stall, including rabbits, calves, pigs and sheep.

 At the poissonerie (fish stand), the langoustines crawl off their piles only to be periodically gathered up and thrown back on top as the busy fishmonger takes orders. Weird, bulging-eyed, eel-like fish (what ARE those things?) are displayed with their tails in their mouths.
Tightly-closed mussels, clams and oysters are bathing in a shallow pool. Shiny whole fish in an array of sizes, colors and shapes are arranged on a bed of shaved ice as if swimming through a sea current.

And then there’s the produce: an astonishing abundance of fruits and vegetables, virtually spilling off tables, mounded to impress or carefully arranged like pointillism. Heaps of golden chanterelles. Bound bunches of delicate wild asparagus. (I’d never seen it before.) Perfect pyramids of peaches and nectarines. Baskets overflowing with cherries. Vast tubs of glistening marinated olives. Oblong radishes attached to long, deep-green stems. Boxes of tiny, jewel-like wild strawberries. Ridiculously fragrant herbs of every imaginable variety, as well as custom-blended mixtures of fresh and dried herbs with scrawled signs outlining their suggested uses. Potatoes and beans, eggplants and peppers, berries and melons…everything so beautifully and purposefully placed that you feel certain that the art you are witnessing here is every bit as moving and real as all those oil paintings across town in the Louvre.

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