I know Farmer’s Markets.
I’m a dedicated follower of the one in Austin, going with my mother each Saturday I’m home. We pick up the CSA box, peruse the stands, and buy far too much produce and a ludicrous amount of pork sausage. It was there I bought my first bag of fish heads (sparking a long and beloved affair with the best part of any fish), tried my first fresh chevre, and beheld carrots that were -gasp!- not orange.
I fell in love with the small yet genuine Farmer’s Market held on Tuesdays and Fridays in the town square near my university in upstate New York. I made friends with the Chicken Man, bought buckets of Northern apples (which I assure you, are quite different from Southern apples. Namely, they taste better), and made boatloads of tomato sauce from a flat of tomatoes that I simply had to buy (when you can get 100 tomatoes for five dollars…there is NO OTHER CHOICE).
Then I found myself in New York City, and I managed to keep a slice of country in my life by exclusively shopping at Farmer’s Markets (known as Green Markets in the Big Apple). I frequented McCarren Park, Brooklyn Borough, and of course, Union Square, which is famous for it’s size and quality of products. I established a relationship with a fish monger, bought copious amounts of a hard goat’s cheese called Manchester, and ate twice my weight in summer strawberries, peaches, and cherries.
But the Sunday Marche in Rouen? It beats them all. It wins in so crushing a landslide, that the other contestants never make it past the water table – the one set up halfway through the race, where one refuels before toughing out the second half. Just sit, New York. Enjoy your Gatorade. You have no chance.
This isn’t to discount my other Market experiences – they have all been precious, all been appreciated. But there is something about France. Sunday morning is special, sacred, even. All the shops are closed (by government mandate), and all the people descend like a flock of hungry, stylish vultures onto the Market Square, armed with small bills, wheeled grocery baskets, and a gleam in their many eyes that screams “Do not mess with my bunch of radishes”.
One begins with the flower stands, which offer up some of the most breathtaking arrangements I’ve ever seen. I’m falling in love with poseys and tulips and fragrant berry stems. After floating through a haze of perfumed air, one finds oneself in the midst of another, saltier, odor. The fish mongers! Whole fish stare out at me, nestled between squid, oysters, and a myriad of crustaceans. Fish heads are no longer free – they’re prized. Old women, their heads covered in floral scarves, order the last of the sardines. Oysters smell of clean, pure saltwater.
Of course, it’s only fitting that the butchers and masters of charcuterie lead one from the fish to the cheese. The choices are endless. You want pig ears? Take a bucket. You like pate? Get ready to choose from at least a dozen. Blood sausage, whole duck, cow heads, HEAVEN. And I can’t even start on the cheeses. I get emotional (we’ll save the cheese love for another day).
And this all precedes the main event, which is obviously the produce stands. Piles and piles of already-cooked beets (perfect for a sweet and crunchy beet, cucumber, and mandarin salad), mountains of brussels sprouts. Everything has its roots, and good, real, dirt clinging to said roots. I ask for a bag of endives, and a mustached, portly man tenderly picks out the best looking six. One doesn’t meet his standards, and he throws it away in disgust. Just-picked salad greens nestle up against purple and yellow and white carrots.
And we eat. Or, more appropriately, we taste. Everything. We try the sweet, succulent, so-juicy-I-melt oranges from Spain, and the jolly round pears from the coast. We try a dozen olives, and then pick our favorite varieties to be slung into little plastic bags, their juices oily and peppery. I sample smoked almonds, and salty cashews, and freshly shelled hazelnuts. There are men roasting whole chickens for sale, and a stand offering fresh paella, almost redundant with shrimp, chorizo, and chicken thighs. We pick up little anchovies, and basil stuffed red peppers, and a roasted duck breast that almost makes me weep with joy.
The atmosphere is jovial and communal. People wait for their favorite seller, and no one is ever rushed. If one needs to hem and haw over the amount of parsnips they want, then hem and haw they should, and fie on the customer that gives them the stink eye. The producers ask “is this for tonight? For tomorrow? I think these tomatoes would best suit the rocket”, intent on maximizing your relationship with their food. When I explain I’d like to eat the pear I’m buying that day, the vender worriedly snatches it back, and tells me it would be waste of money, for her pears need at least two days to ripen properly.
It’s clear I’m not French, but everyone is kind. And it’s like I’ve found where I was always meant to be.
I think my heaven is an endless French Market.