BY CHERYL ANDERSON
When looking at my French market pictures, memories of the warmth of those perfumed moments shopping at the Municipal Marché in Menton, France, wash over me: carrying my basket filled with a cheerful bouquet of flowers, a bunch of basil, a cluster of lavender, un tranche (slice) of a tasty Brie or a cheese I’ve never heard of, and a fresh crusty baguette.
I love French market outings, exploring what each has to offer. Most towns have their own markets, each with its own special character and characters. One encounters markets full of fruits and vegetables, flowers, cheese, all sorts of breads and charcuterie, while others offer all else imaginable. Surprisingly, a few very “local” markets even spring up in parking-lots around the town during the week (in Menton, anyway). A bonne idée is to plan your visit to line up with your destination’s market days.
Travelers abroad often find themselves side-by-side with the local residents strolling amongst market displays of goods, gaining a sense of the country being visited and feeling part of the community. All the while, you’re invigorated by the constant and fast-paced action, languages from around the world buzzing in your ears. I find the atmosphere at markets is friendly and very enjoyable—shoppers are buying what they most want to eat, items that will make them happy or that they intend to share with friends and family. Interactions between buyers and sellers sometimes become very animated.
I am most familiar with the massive indoor Municipal Marché in Menton, situated on the road running along the sea front. Built in 1898, the covered food hall was conceived by local architect Adrien Rey, a protégé of Gustave Eiffel. Before the Belle Époque building was there, five plane trees sheltered the market sellers. Needless to say, it was difficult or impossible to keep perishable food fresh in the summer. Originally, the covered building was privately owned until 1912, when it was bought by the city. It’s a real standout on the coast of Menton.
At the Municipal Marché, I find all sorts of freshly baked breads, patés, pastas, cheeses, meats, charcuterie, fruits, and fresh herbs and vegetables. It’s difficult to resist buying just a bit of all the choices spread out before me. My personal adventure each time I visit France is to taste a variety of patés and cheeses whose names I have never before heard. It never fails that I find a new favorite.
The sellers inside this market are professionals, in the strictest sense—very particular about how they operate their stands and the “manners” they expect from the buyers. Many of the sellers have rented the same space for years. Word of caution: woe be to anyone who touches the produce! I was startled once when a lady all but leapt from behind her stall to caution me not to touch the tomatoes. Needless to say, I now closely adhere to the unwritten rule.
The market is open every day, except Monday, until around 1:00 pm and houses approximately thirty vendors inside. Sadly, one particular vendor I adored is no longer there. His display was seriously beautiful, with an amazing selection and arranged as though for a painting. It was such a wonderful display one was tempted to stand and stare at it. At the time I knew him—he serviced Alain Ducasse’s restaurant, Le Louis XV, in Monte-Carlo (he may still, but I don’t know). His wife once took me with her to deliver fruit and veg to one of the magnificent villas on the Cap Martin point facing the Mediterranean—it was a thrill to have the opportunity to enter one of those remarkable residences, whose gates I had passed by for years before.
If a vendor asks when you might want to eat a particular piece of produce you’ve chosen, take advantage of the offer: you will have the most perfect piece chosen for aujourd’hui or days hence, when it will be perfect for consumption. Honestly, even now I don’t know how to choose the “best” Melon de Cavaillon, a remarkably tasty melon. This melon is so delicious that it’s important to have this information so that it will be the optimum ripeness.
Don’t be timid or shy if you don’t speak French very well—gesturing and pointing both go a long way in the marketplace. Always say bonjour upon arrival and bonne journée (have a good day) when leaving! Have a good time delighting in eating fresh-baked baguettes with creamy Camembert or Brie cheese and, if it’s summer, you will have the distinct pleasure of biting into a remarkably sweet peche blanche (white peach)—a veritable explosion of sweetness in your mouth.
Surrounding the Marché building and its many indoor vendors, are familiar smaller displays offering eggs (the best I have ever tasted with yolks that are nearly orange), spices from around the world (the same sellers have been there since I started going to Menton years ago), teas, flowers, soaps, socca (a chickpea flour crepe), honey, jams, fresh fish (the occasional seagull may just drop in, lured by the smell of the oh-so-fresh fish), fruits, and veg.
On Fridays, antique dealers are set up across the street from the Marché under palm trees and on Saturdays, stalls fill the parking lot adjacent to the building. There you’ll find everything from bracelets to sweaters, scarves to handbags, shoes to cookware, and Provençal fabric made into placemats and tablecloths.
So now I’ve shopped, having bought a tranche of cheese to go with a freshly baked baguette and a piece of fruit. But where to enjoy it? For me, the perfect place is sitting on a park bench facing the glistening sea or on a shaded bench in front of the large open plaza in front of the Jean Cocteau Musée. A simple meal, it’s true, but a memorable venue, for sure.
As I relax in the warm sun, my modest repast tastes more delicious. Oh, how easily one slips into feeling part of the local scene. The blue sky above and sea have a way of pulling you into its intoxicating atmosphere. A perfect ending to this perfect meal is to have a coffee at one of the many nearby cafés.
Sometimes I would simply return to my apartment in la vieille ville and sit at the table, looking out my window over the sea towards Italy and listen to the sounds carrying up from the passageway below and the church bells chiming every hour. Delicious memories!
I can’t guarantee your French market experiences will be memorable but it will, at the very least, make for a very enjoyable hour or so. To this day, when I crush fresh basil leaves and the distinct aroma reaches my olfactory senses, I am thrust back to my sunny days on the Côte d’Azur. Glorious!