A visit or two to traditional French markets is one of the great pleasures of visiting France. It’s wonderful to arrive in a town or village and discover that it’s market day.
The market– ‘le marché’– is an integral part of the French way of life and a key component of the country’s rich historic heritage. But don’t draw too much attention to that; they’ll want to get World Heritage status for them.
French markets – not just a weekly treat
Most towns and villages have a market once a week, but in larger towns, they may take place twice a week, or even every day. I doubt that anyone knows just how many markets there are, but the excellent jours-de-marche website lists more than 7,500, and admits to there being a great many more.
Typically, French markets are a cross between a farmers’ market and a traders’ market. There are so many stalls offering local produce straight from the farm alongside fruit and vegetables and even delicious French oysters.
Other traders sell wonderful cheeses and there are others offering a full range of edible produce. Even in Paris, fruit and vegetable markets can be found in every district of the city.
But many of the larger markets also deal in clothing, jewellery and all kinds of merchandise for the home or gifts.
Many of the street markets are attended by full-time stallholders. These traders travel around the neighbourhood markets day to day. If it wasn’t for these itinerant stallholders, many villages would struggle to get fresh produce.
Larger weekly markets, such as the whacky Tuesday market in Vaison-la-Romaine in Provence, have a rich range of specialised stalls selling organic vegetables and food specialities from the region or from other countries.
You’ll find olives, speciality olive oil and Mediterranean specialities, tools, clothes, second-hand books, garden plants, wine straight from the producer, honey and a lot more. The spice stall alone is over 20 metres in length. If you’re a home cook you’ll love French markets.
Famous French markets
A few specialised markets not only have a national reputation but enjoy worldwide fame. And each and every one of these gens should be on your ‘must visit’ list. The most famous French markets include (read about them below)
The famous flea market at the Porte de Clignancourt in Paris.
The flower market in Nice.
Strasbourg Christmas market.
The amazing olive markets in Provence.
The fish market round the old port in Marseille.
Porte de Clignancourt Flea Market
The Clignancourt flea market attracts almost 200,000 visitors every weekend so that’s a testimony in itself. But this truly is a sight to behold with more than 3000 traders gathering here to display their wares.
What’s wonderful about it is that the market is made up from several areas both undercover and open air so you get to experience a different atmosphere as you walk around. And since the market has been running since the late 1800s, this further proves how popular it is.
But what a lot of people don’t realise is the sheer size of the market. The Clignancourt flea market is actually the largest of its kind in the whole world! When you’re headed here, it’s certainly worth preparing yourself to make a day of it.
You’ll find everything here from vintage cameras and a plethora of antiques through to toys, Knick knacks, books and fashion. There is a section in the south part of the market that particularly appeals to the younger crowd. Here you’ll find fake versions of designer brands and niche items like incense. While it might be a little less ‘well to do’ than other parts of the market, it’s certainly an experience.
As you’re perusing the stalls, you might find yourself niggling for a spot to eat but don’t worry, you’ll be spoiled for choice. Many restaurants have now opened up among the retailers so you can stop and fill up before continuing your shopping experience.
Most of the traders at the Clignancourt flea market will only take cash, so make sure that your wallet is filled before you go. You’ll also need to be prepared to haggle and if you can speak French, the sellers are usually more inclined to give you a bargain for your efforts. Now, where did I put that phrasebook?
The Flower Market in Nice
The Flower Market, or the Marche Aux Fleurs as it’s known locally is a sight that one absolutely has to see when visiting this stunning French city. The market has been going strong for more than a century and today remains as popular as ever before.
The Marche Aux Fleurs is located near the port in Nice in the Cours Saleya and is the perfect choice for a lazy sunny afternoon. But it isn’t only beautiful blooms you will find here; the Flower Market is also famed for its vast array of fruit and vegetable stalls. If you’re a keen chef looking to whip up a storm on your visit to France, this is the place to grab your ingredients.
Back in the day, the Marches Aux Fleurs was open to wholesalers and it was only after their visits in the early morning that the public were allowed to browse. Things have long since changed and you’ll find thousands of people flocking to the market every day.
If you’re keen to sample some local favourites, then the Flower Market is the place to be. There are several stalls serving up tasty treats throughout the day. There are quaint little tables where you can sit and enjoy and soak up the local culture. You can even get your hands on a delicious glass of vin to go with your snack.
If you really want to immerse yourself in local life, then the Marches Aux Fleurs provides you with an excellent opportunity to do this. Even when it isn’t open, there are other markets in its place including a crafts market and an antiques market so there’s always something to enjoy.
Provence Olive Markets
Provence is an area of France that is famed for its natural beauty and stunning scenery. But this is also an area of France that is widely acclaimed for its cuisine. There are websites strewn all over the internet detailing some of the best dishes to try while in this neck of the woods.
But one thing that stands out among the crown are Provence olives. These little fruits can be found in a plethora of dishes from the area and one simply couldn’t picture a scene from Provence without thinking of a beautiful olive grove.
If you’re looking to buy some tasty fresh olives then you will certainly be spoiled for choice when it comes to markets in Provence. One of the very best olive markets is the Salernes Market located in the main square in town. Here, you will find a ton of local produce including lots of those famous Provence olives. This is also an excellent way to get involved in local life and try out some local delicacies.
If you prefer to see how the olives go from tree to plate then you might head to some of the olive mills located in Luberon, Provence. There are lots to choose from including the Domaine Lis Andi, Le Moulin d’Olivier and the Moulin Saint Augustin. Not only do you get to see the inner workings of how olive oil is pressed but there are also beautiful markets and stores where you can buy a whole host of olives and related products.
Many of the traditional Provencal markets are home to olive stalls and what’s wonderful about these is that they’re typically set in idyllic surroundings. Located in rustic towns with stunning architecture, quaint cafes and plenty of locals to talk to, there’s no better place to get your hands on some delicious olives.
Marseille Fish Market
Marseille is home to a lot of markets but one of the oldest and most famous is the fish market. This one has been running since 1909 and still attracts a huge number of visitors both from the local area and from afar.
Located right on the sea, the Marseille fish market is a real authentic experience and the perfect place to pick up some of Europe’s most tasty and fresh seafood. What’s great is that the Marseille fish market never closes, running all year round although the locals will tell you that the very best catches can be found in the very early morning so if you want the best bite, be prepared to set your alarm!
As well as experiencing the thrill of buying freshly caught fish in perfect settings, you can also watch as the little fishing boats come in and out of the harbour. There’s something magical about this that reminds you of a simpler time in a world where a lot of food is brought in sheer convenience.
Your fishmonger will even clean and prepare the catch for you while you wait, so all you need to do is head back to your accommodation and whip up a storm!
You’ll find all types of seafood on offer here including sole and tuna. But if you want something a little more adventurous then why not try some of the freshly caught octopus and eels? And if you’re in any doubt about the quality of the fish you’ll get here, just consider that most of the local restaurateurs swear by the produce; some so fresh that you can buy it directly from the boat!
More about French markets
But there are many more specialist markets to enjoy. There are wine markets in Bordeaux, and gastronomic markets in Perigueux, the heart of French truffle and foie gras country. But generally speaking, markets are just a vital part of the French way of living.
In rural areas, farmers and locals with a patch of soil to till come to market to sell just their own surplus produce: potatoes, vegetables and fruit in season, flowers, home-made cheese and bread, fresh eggs, and even a living rabbit or two, or week-old chicks.
Yet in spite of France’s attachment to its rural heritages, the smallholders selling their produce at a weekly market represent a rural way of life that is slowly vanishing.
It is unusual to see young smallholders on a market in rural France, and while the market itself, as a tradition, is not under threat, the nature of small rural markets is changing, as is rural France in general.
There will always be markets in France, and they will continue to be a fascination. In a roundabout way, it is the ability to make the most of a rural street market that prompts me to use of self-catering accommodation when I visit the country for any length of time.
What’s a traditional French market like?
There’s something a little compelling, not to mention bizarre, about the way we wander the stalls. Breathing in the aromas of cheeses, herbs, fresh bread and roasting chickens. Not to mentionthe huge dishes of steaming paella or cassoulet or something else equally stomach-destined that blend together atmospherically much as the notes of a Debussy prelude might.
In fact, that’s what it’s all about – the stomach, not Debussy – because French markets have long been the principal source of fresh fruit and vegetables for households large and small. They are an integral part of France’s tradition of eating well, and a deep-rooted institution that never died…and that’s about as authentic as you can get in France.
But of course there aren’t only the produce stalls to enjoy. There’s so much more with goods of every description making an assault on your wallet or purse. And that’s where I leave my wife to it, and go and have a coffee…there’s a limit to how much bling I can cope with, although I do confess to more than a passing interest in local and regional wines, cheeses, fresh meat and kitchenware.
Back to the market and just as I’m about to shell out for an essential chef’s knife my wife appears and reminds me that I already have over 100 at home. And so we buy cheese instead, or some olives. Just as well she wasn’t around when I bought the Laguiole steak knives, but, in my own defence, they are so clinically sharp we can now opt for a cheaper cut of meat.
Actually, I lied about the number of knives I have…it’s more than that! Well, I mean, you can’t use the same knife to slice a lemon as you would for an orange, can you?