Paris Market 101

By Rick Steves
Outdoor Market Shoppers, Rue Cler, Paris, France
Locals check out the colorful produce along Rue Cler. (photo: Laura VanDeventer)

I grew up thinking cheese was orange and the shape of the bread was square: slap, fwomp...sandwich. Even though I'm still far from a gourmet eater, my time in Paris, specifically in the Rue Cler street market, has substantially bumped up my appreciation of good cuisine (as well as the French knack for good living). Come shopping for a picnic with me on my favorite street in Paris. Rue Cler, lined with shops that spill out into the street, feels like village Paris — in the skinny shadow of the Eiffel Tower.

Parisians shop almost daily for three good reasons: refrigerators are small (tiny kitchens), produce must be fresh, and shopping is an important social event. It’s a chance to hear about the butcher’s vacation plans, see photos of the florist’s new grandchild, relax over un café, and kiss the cheeks of friends (the French standard is twice for regular acquaintances, three times for friends you haven’t seen in a while).

Produce shops are stocked with the freshest fruits and vegetables. Each morning produce is trucked in from farmers to Paris’ huge Rungis market, near Orly Airport, and then out to merchants with FedEx speed and precision. Locals generally shop with a small trolley cart rather than use bags needlessly. Also notice how the French resist needless packaging and go with what’s in season.

Parisians shop with their noses. Smell the cheap foreign strawberries. Then smell the torpedo-shaped French ones (gariguettes). Find the herbs. Is today’s delivery in? Look at the price of those melons. What’s the country of origin? It must be posted. If they’re out of season, they come from Guadeloupe. Many locals buy only French products.

The fish monger sells yesterday’s catch  —  brought in daily from ports on the English Channel, 100 miles away. In fact, fish in Paris is likely fresher than in many towns closer to the sea because Paris is a commerce hub, and from here it’s shipped out to outlying towns. Anything wiggling? These shops, like all such shops, have been recently upgraded to meet the EU-mandated standards of hygiene.

Nearby, smell the fromagerie (cheese shop): wedges, cylinders, balls and miniature hockey pucks all powdered white, gray, and burnt marshmallow — it’s a festival of mold. Ooh la la means you’re impressed. If you like cheese, show greater excitement with more las. Ooh la la la la. My local friend held the stinkiest glob close to her nose, took an orgasmic breath, and exhaled, “Yes, this smells like zee feet of angels.”

In the shop, browse through some of the 400 different types of French cheese. A cheese shop is known as BOF (beurre, oeuf, fromage) and is the place where people go for butter, egg, and cheese products. In the back room are les meules, the big, 170-pound wheels of cheese (250 gallons of milk go into each wheel). The “hard” cheeses are cut from these. Don’t eat the skin of these big ones...they roll them on the floor. But the skin on most smaller cheeses — the Brie, the Camembert — is part of the taste. As my friend says, “It completes the package.”

The charcuterie sells mouthwatering deli food to go. Because local apartment kitchens are so small, these gourmet delis are handy, allowing hosts to concentrate on the main course and buy beautifully prepared side dishes to complete a fine dinner.

At the boucherie you’ll sort through pigeons, quail, and rabbit. You’ll see things you may want to avoid in restaurants: rognons (kidneys), foie (liver), coeur de boeuf (heart of beef). Hoist a duck and check the feet; they should be rough and calloused — an indication that they weren’t stuck in an industrial kennel but ran wild on a farm.

While Americans prefer beef, pork, and chicken, the French eat just as much rabbit (lapin), quail (caille), lamb, and duck. Horse has gone out of fashion in the last decade. (The meat came from Eastern Europe where safety standards were questionable.) The head of a calf is a delight for its many tasty bits. The meat is seasonal. In the winter, game swings from the ceiling.

Locals debate the merits of rival boulangeries. It’s said that a baker cannot be both good at bread and good at pastry. At cooking school they major in one or the other and locals say that when you do good bread, you have no time to do good pastry. If the baker specializes in pastry…the bread suffers.

Remember: Whenever popping in and out of French shops, it’s polite to greet the proprietors ("Bonjour, Madame") and say "Merci" and "Au revoir" as you leave. Bon appétit!