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How to Ace a Farmers Market in France

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Marchés (marketplaces) are part of the French way of life, an all-season commodity. In Lyon, the Marché de la Croix-Rousse is a local institution. It is open all mornings except Mondays and has an organic extension every Saturday. Merchants and locals often take breaks and chat, so it's a great place to learn more about the neighborhood.

"I’ve been here for twenty years!" exclaims Ginette, as she prepares platters of sliced cauliflower. She works at a stall belonging to Les Quatre Saisons, a farm located about 3 miles north in Caluire; it has been part of the marché since the 1920s. She works with Kevin, who has been helping the farm for two years. "I have a BA in literature. I went to London for music and worked in a bookshop. I taught, too. Then I worked in a luxury hotel in Paris. And now here I am!" Ginette doesn't know, but at home, we refer to their stall as les dames ("the ladies"), because the first time we went, it was only ladies in their fifties, including Ginette, tending to the stall and shouting deals at the top of their lungs.

Photos by , Carrie Speaking

When I was a kid in southern Provence, shopping for groceries at the market was a weekly ritual; when I moved to Lyon fifteen years ago as a student, it became a financial necessity. Bless the cheap vegetables and the discarded boxes of ripe fruits with which I could make free jam! I moved to the Croix-Rousse neighborhood six years ago, and its famous marché still feels like a treat. It is located just a flight of stairs away from my home. Every single time, upon reaching the top, I turn around and marvel at the view.

The view from the top of my stairs.
The view from the top of my stairs. Photo by Carrie Speaking

What to Do When You Get There

I cheese.
I cheese. Photo by Carrie Speaking

Today, I'm making cervelle de canut (“silkweaver’s brains”). It is a very easy-to-prepare Lyonnaise specialty, and it isn’t really brains. It is based on fresh local cheeses and named after the canuts, the 19th-century silkweavers who made the fame of the Croix-Rousse neighborhood and of Lyon’s silk industry. It makes for a convenient appetizer that still gives us a strong sense of local identity—a local alternative to hummus or tzatziki, especially when we have guests from out of town. Here are a few tips for you to experience the Marché de la Croix-Rousse at its best—and that includes shopping for ingredients you can turn into a lovely snack.

  • Exit the subway at Croix-Rousse; you’ll be right there at the market. The market is liveliest after 10am, on Tuesdays, Fridays, and weekends. Shoulder your way down the boulevard and spot the local farmers (petits producteurs). They generally only sell seasonal products from their own farm and have shabbier stalls. Their signs won't say Spain, Poland, or even just France, but obscure toponyms like Rillieux, Chassieux, Loire, Mornant. If you really need a wider choice of goods, head for the bigger stalls, with merchants selling products from a selection of farms all over France—or even merchants selling products from all over the world, at a much cheaper rate than in the supermarket.
Photos by Carrie Speaking
  • Look for the farmers' “by-the-platter” deals (plateaux). If the vegetables or fruits inside look too ripe or bruised, then it is silently agreed that the fruits are meant for compote and that the assortment of vegetables is meant for ratatouille.
  • By all means, taste the cheeses, the baked and fried goods. My heart goes to criques, potato-based pancakes. If you eat pork, try the rosette Lyonnaise, an iconic and excellent kind of saucisson (dried pork sausage).
Photo by Carrie Speaking
  • You will find excellent bread at the stalls, but make sure you try L’Atelier du Boulanger, a local favorite. It is right there on the boulevard—on weekends, people typically queue outside. The bakery makes great croissants, and bakes fresh bread several times a day, up until 5 p.m. A well-baked flute (a large kind of baguette) will taste great with our cervelle de canut.
Photos by , Carrie Speaking
  • If you plan to buy extremely perishable goods, like fish or tripe, remember Lyon is nowhere near the sea, and tripe has to be cleanly cut and fresh. Sanitary controls are extremely frequent and the merchants take their job very seriously, making this marché very safe. But use your common sense, and don’t make your purchase if it is a very hot summer day and that fish looks blind.
Photo by Carrie Speaking
  • However, if you can't quit that seafood craving, just stop en-route in another local institution, Bistrot Jutard, a few steps away from L’Atelier du Boulanger. Treat yourself with a platter of fresh oysters with buttered bread and lemon, and a pitcher of local white wine. L'Ecailler du Jutard is Bistrot Jutard's partner. They bring their super-fresh oysters from Charentes-Maritimes and Normandy right to Croix-Rousse every week, and serve them on weekends, starting Thursday evening, from September to May. Customers may take their oysters home, eat them on Bistrot Jutard's terrace, or next door in Paddy's Corner, which also serves their oysters.

Making Le Dip

How to put l'amour into your food.
How to put l'amour into your food. Photo by Carrie Speaking

In a bowl, mix some cow milk faisselles and fresh (very white and soft) goat cheese. Pepper and salt to taste. Faisselle is made of unpasteurized raw milk. If you are unsure about this, or ill, or pregnant, you may find faisselles made of pasteurized milk in local supermarkets. In any case and for better results, carefully drain the faisselles (which come in little individual molds, typically in a six-pack) before mixing. Add about 1/2 teaspoon of finely cut shallots, 1/2 tablespoon of parsley, and 1/2 tablespoon of chive. Then add 1/2 tablespoon of strong olive oil, 1 tablespoon of sour cream, 1/2 tablespoon of dry white wine, and a drizzle of vinegar. You may add a pinch of red chili pepper and a pinch of paprika if you have it. Cover and let it rest for at least 2 hours, ideally for 1 or 2 days in your fridge. Eat it chilled, not icy, with well-baked or toasted bread. This serves two people, or one very hungry mademoiselle.

Tags: Travel, Farmers Markets