I’ve always been an adventurous traveler.
Plop me down in the center of a major city and I’ll have its public transportation system figured out in a jiffy. A lovely, but off-the-beaten-path restaurant? Yes, leave it to me and I’ll find it.
So, you might be surprised that this normally made-of-steel woman became absolute mush when it came to my very first time purchasing produce at an outdoor Parisian market many years ago.
Having switched from hotel dweller to apartment resident, I knew that shopping at one of Paris’ famed outdoor markets would put the finishing touch on my “pretend I’m a Parisian” experience. But at the time, with my then limited French vocabulary, my excitement was also coupled with a major pit in my stomach as I approached one of those sprawling markets for the first time.
While tourists do indeed visit these markets, few shop for ingredients to prepare a full meal. As a result, the markets cater primarily to residents – which means, for the most part, you really do have to interact with the vendors and there is very little that is self-serve.
With my awkward French, who knew what would end up in my basket!
The produce was my biggest concern as everything had to be measured by weight and not much came prepackaged. Or so I thought….
As I approached one produce vendor, a huge sigh of relief washed over me. Glistening on the corner of a huge table filled with every vegetable you could ever want, were the exact mushrooms I wanted to cook – all neatly packaged in a little basket for one small price and no need for me to figure out kilos or grams.
I smiled so brightly that the vendor was happy to assist me. He with his broken English and me with my broken French, we somehow got through the rest of my shopping list.
I will never forget that kind gentleman and how he took a time out from his work to teach me about weight conversions and what to ask for when shopping at any Parisian market.
I have to say, that one lesson in the metric system gave me survival tools I still use every time I’m in Paris.
Although my shopping story had a happy ending, the Paris grocery buying experience can be fraught with pitfalls and perils.
As the title of this post promises, let me share with you a few more tips to make your excursion a memorable one – in a good way!
Forget saying “bonjour!” in Paris and you are in trouble!
Although the stalls can get hectic and it can look like the vendor could care less about your greeting, that one little word can spell the difference between receiving a ripe juicy peach and an only so-so one.
Truly, the first word you utter is always bonjour.
Start at the End
If you can, hold off and go to the market at the end of the market’s hours – simply because this is where the real Paris fun begins.
The vendors become animated and playful as they hawk low prices for their remaining products. You can even walk away with a bag of groceries for the price of a few croissants.
In fact, I’ve seen the vendors transform themselves into clever comedians as they draw you into their stalls with charming humor at the end of the day.
The best example of this lively display of drollery is at the Marche Aligre in the 12th arrondissement. I truly believe a requirement for selling wares there is having graduated from comedy school.
P.S. The Marche Aligre is where my mushroom tale happened and my congenial relationship with a certain mushroom vendor was born.
Become a Regular
If you’re visiting Paris on an extended stay, make a repeat visit to the market of your choice and select one or two vendors at whose stalls you’ll become a “regular.”
Believe me, doing this will pay off with special treatment over time.
Also, make sure to tell the vendor when you plan to eat the item you are purchasing so he/she can choose the one that will be ripe at that time.
For the very best fish and seafood, make sure you are at the market first thing in the morning. Despite the great bargains at the end of the day, seafood is the one thing you do not want to choose from the leftovers.
The best and freshest fish will be put out at the market’s opening.
While the feature of most Parisian food markets is fresh produce, there is a bounty of precooked foods that merely need reheating, and which are ideal for tourists, especially if you are staying in an apartment.
Among these is the item I always purchase – the spectacular rotisserie chickens with roast potatoes.
Even with my extensive culinary expertise, I haven’t been able to replicate that succulent bird as only the French can do. But why even try when an inexpensive beautiful piece of poultry is all ready to serve?
Be Ready & Willing to Stand in Line
Look for the stands with the longest lines – they are generally the best. And there’s another benefit too: Standing in line will give you time to watch how everyone else orders so you can follow suit.
Mind Your Manners
Lastly, in Paris, manners matter – far more than might in the U.S. for example.
In addition to greeting the vendor with a proper “bonjour,” don’t touch any of the produce as it’s considered ill-mannered to rifle through a pile of vegetables or fruit without the assistance of the vendor.
If it’s the type of stall that puts out little baskets or bags for you to serve yourself, that’s one thing. But if you notice that other shoppers are asking the vendor to choose their produce, so should you.
Reap the Rewards of Following these Tips
You might be interested to know that I returned to that one mushroom vendor who’d given me my first lesson in metrics the very next day. He remembered me and shared this authentic mushroom sauté recipe that remains a staple in my repertoire after all these years.
I hope you enjoy it as much as I do – but, even more, that you remember the rewards making new friends can bring every time you make it!
Perfect French Sautéed Mushrooms
My vendor shared the most perfect way to sauté mushrooms every time – so that they brown and do not release any water. His technique will ensure you get golden, rich-tasting mushrooms every time.
Makes 4 servings
12 ounces mixed wild mushrooms
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp butter ( preferably French, try Beurre d’Isigny)
Sea or kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Clean the mushrooms with a paper towel or lightly with a mushroom bush. Remove the woody ends. Slice the mushrooms thickly lengthwise ( about ½-3/4 inch slices).
- Heat a large skillet, preferably cast iron, to high heat. When hot, place your hand over your head (I’m not kidding), and if your hand feels hot go ahead and swirl in the butter and olive oil until the butter sizzles. It’s very important to make sure the butter is sizzling so that when the mushrooms hit the pan, they will begin to brown very quickly – hence my never-fail, hands-above-your-head technique for testing your skillet
- Add in only 1/3 of the mushrooms, spread them in one layer, and leave them undisturbed for 1 minute. Then, using a long-handled spoon, sauté the mushrooms for about 4 minutes until lightly browned. With a slotted spoon, remove the mushrooms to a bowl. Add the next third of mushrooms, repeating the same process, adding additional butter and oil only if necessary. If you add too much, the mushrooms will become too greasy. Repeat with the last third of the mushrooms. Add back the mushrooms that have already cooked to the last 1/3 of mushrooms and season with salt and pepper.
You now have the base for so many recipes. Add these to omelets, serve on thick slices of French bread, toss with pasta or eat as is.
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