We can sometimes be a bit confused by the sheer number of fruit and vegetable stalls, the bustling crowds around the fishmonger’s and the endless queue for the cheese stall. So what’s the secret to success in the market so that you leave with a basket full of the best produce?
1/ Keep your eyes open
Identify which stallholder works directly with local producers. He or she will usually be offering seasonal fruit and vegetables carrying IGP or AOP labels to indicate their provenance; their produce will often be less uniform than that of other sellers, which is an excellent sign!
“I look for small stalls, worn wooden boxes that look like they’re used week after week, and handwritten blackboards,” continues Jean-Luc Rocha. “A trestle table is also a good sign. All these small pointers are very good indicators.” “I look for a crowd. If there are plenty of people around a stall, it usually says something about the quality. It's also good to hear the stallholder talking about his or her produce and experience, and analyzing the way they sell,” suggests Thomas Debouzy from Hostellerie de la Briqueterie in Vinay.
2/ Ask to taste
It's perfectly acceptable to bite into a grape, cherry or even a quarter of nectarine before making up your mind. It creates a two-way conversation with the stallholder, who should also be able to guide you towards the freshest produce and those things that will keep for longer. Take eggplants, for example: to avoid the possibility of finding too many brown, bitter seeds, choose an eggplant that’s violet in color with firm flesh, a fresh green stalk and smooth shiny skin with no marks or roughness.
“In the Gironde at the end of summer, go for sand-grown carrots that are black and sandy; in terms of sweetcorn, choose cobs that are white, tight and firm; porcini should have a black cap and white foot. When you’re shopping for chanterelles, always go for the small ones that are slightly sandy, because the larger ones are imported,” explains Nicolas Magie. Jean-Luc Rocha: “Potatoes should be covered in soil, and tomatoes should never be all the same size. The best produce is often mis-shaped, but it smells great!”
3/ Get your sea legs
When you’re shopping for fish, stroll around the market - which is often organized by category of produce - and try to find the stall with the stiffest fish with the brightest eyes and, most importantly, iridescent flesh. A rainbow of color always indicates freshness. Think about the fishing seasons, so, for example, avoid oysters in summer and go for mussels instead. Choose the most local and sustainable fish - look for the MSC label.
“The freshest fish is very shiny in appearance, with red gills and very smooth scales. If the scales are at all raised or even a little dry, it means that the fish is already 4 or 5 days old. Always go for line-caught fish landed from small boats, and you can find out information like that by asking the fishmonger. Early September is the best time for baby squid, hake, mackerel, bonito, lobster and langoustines,” adds Nicolas Magie.
“I avoid all stalls with polystyrene, and I have no hesitation in touching the fish. I really like to see what I’m buying,” says Jean-Luc Rocha. “I always turn crabs over to see whether they’re males or females. Females have an apron on the underside containing the eggs, which of course, the males don’t have. Female crabs have more flesh and - naturally - much more coral. And that’s what I’m looking for. You can always tell when fish is fresh because it hardly smells at all.”
4/ Think seasonal, even for cheese!
For cheese, head straight for small-scale producers rather than cheese that has obviously come from a wholesaler. Here again, think seasonal: the taste of cheese depends largely on the milk used to make it, and that is directly linked to the way the animals have been fed. It has a very different flavor if the cow has spent the season grazing on fresh grass in a field or if it has been fed indoors with hay. Also pay attention to the ripening, the handmade touches and, above all, taste the cheese and ask the cheese maker for advice, because that’s what he’s there for.
“You should always choose cheese made from 100% unpasteurized milk, and the same goes for butter,” reveals Nicolas Magie. “Between June and September, go straight for goats cheese before switching to sheep’s and cow’s milk cheese later in the year.” Jean-Luc Rocha: “It's about spotting the small displays, hands that show the signs of hard work, the accent, the cap on the head, the good humor… All the signs of a life lived for the product! In the south, there are goat’s milk tommes and in the Basque country they make the same kind of cheese from sheep’s milk. Cheese makers like these will be delighted to let you sample their cheeses.”
5/ Be prepared
Take plenty of bags to avoid mixing temperatures and flavors. Keep fruit, vegetables and herbs together, but separate from cheese and meat, and keep everything separate from fish and shellfish. And in summer, remember to take an insulated bag to protect your purchases from the heat.
“You have to be careful not to crush your produce. I recommend a basket for vegetables, a bag for meat, and a separate bag for fish and dairy produce,” says Nicolas Magie from Saint-James Bouliac. “I use a wicker basket for vegetables to let them breathe, and a soft fabric bag for the most delicate produce,” adds Jean-Luc Rocha from Saint James Paris.