Le Marché

   I know that this is the third time so far that I will be addressing French food, but honestly, I just cannot help myself!  It is not that I necessarily view French food as superior to its American counterpart - in fact, America is a significantly more vegan-friendly place.  What 
draws me in to French cuisine, I think, is the complete integration of its old standing traditions into modern culture and the fact that gourmands, like me, can be found in any social status.
    While I have no scientific data to support my assumptions, I would venture to say that the French must spend a significantly higher proportion of their income on food.  From my experience it is obvious that preserving deeply-rooted culinary traditions is not only important to the wealthy but also to the population at large.  During my travels in l’Hexagone I rarely ate a meal that was not prepared from scratch, something that most Americans consider a luxury.  In all honesty, I think the only pre-packaged food I ate on a regular basis while staying with the Tremblais-Vignalou house was pâté brisée used to make some yummy tarts!
    I think the general French population not only appreciates the results of a laboriously prepared meal, but also has a keen sense regarding the quality of ingredients.  In America, we value the convenience of being able to shop in one all-encompassing supermarket where we have the ability to purchase produce, meat, dairy, eggs, bread, etc.  While I do not consider this in and of itself a problem, per se, the fact is that this mélange of our dietary needs in a single location has a seriously detrimental impact on the cognitive and social processes involved with food preparation.

   Some of my fondest memories of my sojourn in France are of my frequent trips to the market with Odile, my host mother.  Around nine on a Saturday morning, Odile and I would walk a few streets away from our house in Bois Colombes to the petit les halles - she would carry a good-sized wicker basket and I would be in charge of the rolling cart.  When we arrived at the market, Odile had a highly systematic way of navigating the crowded stalls and streets.  First, we would see her favorite produce vendors, which if memory serves me right, were a trio of French-Algerian brothers who had fair prices and bright smiles.  Whenever I tagged along and asked about some fruit or vegetable I didn’t recognize, the nice men would inevitably throw it into our order free of charge.  Consequently, Odile and I were able to afford and taste a great variety of fruits that were typically off limits, like fresh figs, lychees, and passion fruits.  After procuring our produce, we would shuffle through the marché aux puces-style kitsch to see if there was any jewelry worth taking home to Odile’s fabulously enviable collection.  With our fruits, vegetables, and possibly some sparkle in tow, we would weave our way into the grand hall.  Inside this bustling microcosm of Paris, Odile and the hundreds of other patrons would inspect, taste-test, and haggle while the bouchers, fromagères, fleuristes, and confiseurs chopped, weighed, and wrapped their customers’ orders.  With all of the specialty shops in one place, you can imagine the noise level inside the tile-floored hall and it would never be long before we wanted to escape outside for our last few stops.

Around the back of the market hall, Odile and I would often visit a cart full of linens and fabrics.  Being a pair of DIY women, we never failed to ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ over the textiles and imagine reupholstering the chair in Odile’s bedroom or the ottoman on the first floor.  More often than not the salesmen would pull out dozens of bolts of fabric and we would leave empty handed, but Odile and I always relished the opportunity to handle such beautiful textiles.
    The last stop before heading back to Rue Heynen was the boulangerie.  Unsurprisingly, fresh bread became a staple of my diet while I was abroad.  This may have contributed to the embarrassing amount of weight I gained in five months, but regardless, having fresh bread every day is essential to the function of a French household.  Like any mother would, Odile always bought my favorite kind of baguette (aux cinq céréales or muesli) and often a viennoiserie for my host brother, Benji.  While there are breads available in the supermarket, both fresh-baked and shelf-stable, sliced varieties like the ones that fill our supermarket bakeries, I rarely ate bread like that.  In fact, I would have rather toasted my stale tartine into oblivion before topping it with a smattering of beurre doux and confiture de Bonne Maman than eat the stuff from the supermarket!  Luckily, Odile was vigilant and there was never a shortage of tasty bread on the breakfast table in the kitchen.
Now that I have moved to California, I have reconnected with the market, since I live within walking distance of a once-weekly farmers’ market.  Every Friday, I walk downtown carrying my basket and rolling my cart.  I may not have Algerian brothers to haggle with, but I have made a lovely acquaintance with Farmer Steve and I always come home with a basket full of the freshest fruits and vegetable around.  Whenever I share the dishes and baked goods I have concocted using said produce, my friends graciously lavish me with praise, and I cannot help but think that I am making Odile proud.  So while I may physically visit the market in downtown La Mesa all alone, I know that Odile is right there with me in spirit, like a little ange gourmand

*Please excuse both my month-long hiatus and the issues I am currently having with formatting - grad school has taken over, but I promise to get on top of regular posting and I am having issues with getting photos in the right spot - I'll figure it out soon!
*Unfortunately,  I cannot take credit for any of these photos, hopefully they are hyperlinked back to the flickr accounts of their fabulous photographers!

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