A taste of the country

The food markets of Paris are the place to buy the the very best in French produce, from cheese and wine to fruit, shellfish, wild mushrooms and game. Jane Paech explores
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The Independent Travel

Gone are the mountains of strawberries, the flowing streams of summer cherries. Shopping baskets now brim with treasures from forest floors; new-season fruit from fragrant orchards; root vegetables from kitchen gardens. Stuffed with the fullness of autumn, the French countryside has been brought to Paris, its open-air markets exploding into shades of scarlet, bronze and gold. Stalls burst with purple grapes, bags of nuts and pale-yellow butter beans. Rickety crates of crimson plums are banged down next to mounds of blackberries and pears with windblown cheeks.

Gone are the mountains of strawberries, the flowing streams of summer cherries. Shopping baskets now brim with treasures from forest floors; new-season fruit from fragrant orchards; root vegetables from kitchen gardens. Stuffed with the fullness of autumn, the French countryside has been brought to Paris, its open-air markets exploding into shades of scarlet, bronze and gold. Stalls burst with purple grapes, bags of nuts and pale-yellow butter beans. Rickety crates of crimson plums are banged down next to mounds of blackberries and pears with windblown cheeks.

La boucherie, too, is a hive of activity, as frenzied shoppers order plucked pigeons, tiny quails and nude ducklings. Brightly feathered pheasants and partridges hang high above heads. Rabbits and field hares, grown plump and full of flavour on the lush green grasses of summer, are cheap and plentiful, and by November, cuts of venison and wild boar are displayed, still dressed in their coats.

The French still live by the seasons and buy regional produce whenever possible, waiting patiently with growing anticipation for each new pleasure. The first bite of a soft fig is cherished, along with the first dank whiff of wild mushrooms. Scuffles break out as paper bags are filled to overflowing with cèpes and girolles for omelettes and sauces. Whether it's apples plucked from laden trees in the Loire Valley or mussels caught in the Bay of St-Michel, fresh produce is trucked straight to the city, sold and eaten at its peak.

The rural connection remains strong, and discerning Parisians like to know the origins of produce, yearning to draw closer to its source. In a city so fiercely passionate about food, le marché not only provides a place to buy fresh regional produce, it also plays an important part in the quality of daily life. Markets are scattered throughout Paris, each with its own personality and flavour. They provide an interesting way for food lovers to discover the city, and a chance to experience its true fabric, revealing much about the character and daily life of those who live in each neighbourhood.

There are three types of produce markets in Paris: roving markets, covered markets and merchant streets. Open-air roving markets ( marchés volants) are set up at the crack of dawn under colourful canopies, a flurry of activity, only to vanish again at lunchtime. They come alive twice a week, leaving in their wake streets strewn with empty boxes and broken baguettes. With the help of hungry pigeons and an army of sweepers, the area is soon back to normal.

Straddling the eastern border of the once-noble Marais and the working-class Bastille is one of Paris's biggest, best and most fashionable roving markets - the lively Marché Bastille, which has over 200 merchants. Erected along the tree-lined boulevard Richard-Lenoir, under the protective golden wing of the Génie de la Bastille, it draws an eclectic mix of artists, designers, musicians and advertising types from hip neighbourhoods nearby. Come Sunday morning, the market is jumping with street singers, performers and dogs wearing scarves.

Originally the site of a "ham and scrap-iron fair", you are now more likely to come across oozing cheeses, exceptional seafood (especially at the flamboyant Jacky Lorenzo's stand), herb butter-filled escargots de Bourgogne, and the occasional squawking chook or baby goat.

There's a smattering of good cafés for lunch on the western side of Place de la Bastille, or cross into the Marais, a quarter spoilt with restaurants and well worth a visit for its romantic courtyards, private mansions, art galleries and museums.

Hidden at the edgy northern fringe of the Marais is the tiny, old-fashioned Marché des Enfants-Rouges (Market of the Red Children). Consisting of just a handful of stalls in the 1500s, it was set up next to a mission housing the countless homeless children of Paris, who were dressed in red from top to toe. As the oldest marché couvert (covered market) in the city, it dates from 1777, when the mission was abandoned and the market extended and covered. An accordionist does sometimes liven things up, but generally, small covered markets in Paris are slowly dying, unable to compete with supermarkets.

Across town, the Marché Président-Wilson is the smartest, most genteel roving market in Paris, catering to the well-heeled inhabitants of the 16th arrondissement, a residential quarter and home to embassy families, wealthy executives and celebrities. Under the watchful eye of George Washington on his horse, Avenue du Président Wilson is transformed twice a week into a banquet.

With a clientele that demands quality produce, you can be assured of immaculate cheeses, choice cuts of meat a pristine selection of fruit and vegetables, and a vast array of cut flowers. There are also crêpes, huge pans of steaming paella, and foie gras to taste.

It's only a short walk to the Avenue Montaigne, a sophisticated street filled with haute-couture shops, and the cafés of the Trocadéro, but if you'd prefer somewhere less touristy to eat, cross the river. The eastern end of the market runs into Place de l'Alma, and from there you can stroll over the bridge to the smart 7th arrondissement.

Despite its proximity to the Eiffel Tower and the Champ-de-Mars, tourists usually leave the quiet 7th alone. But, along the wide, windswept avenues to the Avenue de Saxe, on a Thursday or Saturday morning, you will discover a very local side of old-money Paris. The Marché Saxe-Breteuil, a large market with a village atmosphere, has set up its colourful striped canopies under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower since 1873. As you wander down its two bustling aisles, you'll see lavender honey, olive oils, tubs of tapenade and home-made fruit tarts from the Hautes-Alpes. There are also wines from Sancerre; fish transported that morning from Trouville; geese from the Périgord, and Le Nouveau Verger apple juice, straight from the orchard.

Nearby, there's even more for the food lover. Visit Le Moulin de la Vierge, a gorgeous old bakery at 166 Avenue de Suffren, or head to the busy rue de Sèvres for the Fromagerie Quatrehomme at number 62, a cheese shop that supplies many top restaurants.

Finally, you'll arrive at the chic department store Au Bon Marché. La Grande Epicerie, in the basement, is considered by many to be the best food shop in Paris, supplying everything from rustic quiches and party dishes to boxed treats from gourmet stores.

Be sure to pass by the boulangerie Poilâne, a Left Bank institution at the nearby rue du Cherche-Midi. Lionel Poilâne turned his back on the traditional baguette when he took over his father's boulangerie in 1965, and reinvented the centuries-old art of French bread-making by creating a sourdough boule baked to a crusty finish in a wood-fired oven. His loaves have become so famous that they are delivered daily to restaurants around the world, and Parisian brasseries advertise pain Poilâne on their menus. Queues can be long, especially when fresh batches emerge from the oven.

On boulevard Raspail, crossing rue du Cherche-Midi, a fashionable bio (organic) farmer's market sprouts up on Sunday morning. Eco-conscious Parisians converge on the tree-lined stretch in droves for the Marché Biologique Raspail. Farmers load up dewy pears, organic cider, vegetable tarts, fresh eggs and home-made cakes at first light, jump into their trucks and drive to the centre of Paris. Produce is grown according to strict organic regulations. Sample organic wine from the Côtes du Rhône, or a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. Look out, too, for whole-wheat galettes made on the spot.

Just up the road from the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Elysées is the vibrant rue Poncelet in the 17th arrondissement. With its wide avenues, small streets and Haussmann buildings, the Marché Poncelet caters to a loyal band of middle-class residents, many with young families. Quinces from Normandy and giant cèpes from the Auvergne assault you as you enter. Grapes hang from knobbly vines. Roasted rabbits are slipped into bags outside the boucherie, but demand is a little slower next door at the boucherie chevaline, the horse-meat butcher, easily identified by three sculpted horses' heads.

The fishmongers squelch around in rubber boots, scooping up mussels by the litre and pouring cockles on to dripping ice-beds. There's a dazzling display of fish, Breton sea urchins, bubbling tanks of lobsters and giant crabs. And piles of pumpkins and odd-shaped gourds clutter the pavement outside the florist (Hallowe'en arrived in France about five years ago).

Sample cheese from the family-run Alléosse, widely considered to be the best cheese shop in Paris. Many cheeses are selected personally from the best dairies in France and aged in cellars beneath the shop. Cheese, too, has its seasons, making it easier to pick from the almost 400 types produced in France. Livarot is being snapped up - a soft, pungent cow's-milk cheese from Normandy with a reddish skin - along with St-Marcellin, a small soft cheese with a blue-mould rind. Fromage de brebis (ewe's-milk cheese) from the Pyrenees, Charolais goat cheese and Pont l'Evêque are always popular.

Originally the city's oyster market, the rue Montorgueil in the 2nd arrondissement remains the last precious crumb of the original Les Halles, the sprawling wholesale produce market that fed the French capital for eight centuries, before its controversial departure 30 years ago. The narrow, ancient street, where Paris's chefs buy ingredients, still echoes with the spirit and grubby charm of the quarter once known as "the belly of Paris". And you can still gaze up at the golden snails of L'Escargot Montorgueil or peep into Stohrer, the lovely patisserie founded in 1730 and claiming to be the city's oldest.

By early December, the chestnut trees in Paris are bare, and the Seine's a cold grey. Parisians batten down their hatches and zip their dogs into chic coats. Thoughts turn to firewood, Christmas trees, turkeys with tail feathers, fat geese and salmon - and, once again, the city's markets reinvent themselves.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

ROVING MARKETS

Standard hours are 8am-1pm.

Marché Bastille: Boulevard Richard-Lenoir, beginning at rue Amelot, on Thursday and Sunday. Metro: Bastille or Richard Lenoir

Marché Président-Wilson: Avenue du President-Wilson between Place d'Iena and rue Debrousse, on Wednesday and Saturday. Metro: Alma Marceau or Iena

Marché Saxe-Breteuil:

Ave de Saxe from Place de Breteuil to Ave de Segur on Thursday and Saturday. Metro: Segur or Duroc

Marché Biologique Raspail

Boulevard Raspail, between rue de Rennes and rue du Cherche-Midi; Tuesday, Friday; organic on Sunday.

Metro: Sèvres-Babylone

COVERED MARKETS

Tuesday-Saturday, 8am-1pm and 4-7pm; Sundays 8am-1pm. Marché des Enfants-Rouges

39 rue de Bretagne

Metro: Temple

FURTHER INFORMATION

French Government Tourist Office (09068 244123, calls charged at 60p per minute; www.franceguide.com)

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