After twenty years of living in France, there are still many items on my French fascination list. One of them is touching fruit or vegetables at the farmers’ markets.
As a Paris new arrival, you can imagine my shock seeing ‘Ne touchez pas!’ prominently written on blackboards above stacks of grapes and bananas at our local street market. It was in the 7th arrondissement’s rue Cler, which is a permanent market street (as opposed to temporary market stalls that set up at certain times in the week) and just a 10 minute walk from the Eiffel Tower. Tourists would pop along, grabbing just one or two fruits to go, which made the touchy Parisian sellers go bananas.
I learned my lessons in these early days, pathetically trying to state my case with a pigeon French accent before disappearing à l’anglaise down rue Cler, tail between my legs, carrying the forbidden fruit that I’d touched in little brown paper bags. It’s no wonder we had to move to les banlieues, on the outskirts.
Here, at our local market in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, it has taken a while to avoid the rotten surprise apricots at the bottom of the bag or the mouldy bottom layer of loose expensive Gariguette strawberries. I’d play safe and go for the pre-packaged.
Was it the accent? Was it being polite and remembering your s’il vous plaît and merci talk, which the French – quite rightly – love?
My first tactic, to avoid them hearing the accent, was to push my French children forward and let them do the talking. En plus, they received freebies for their girlie grins and cute curls. Gradually, with more confidence and just taking the French language by the sweet corns, the best way has been simple: just be your chatty self (chatterbox=bavarde, meaning you salivate a lot, ahem).
Case of the rhubarb last week: greeted seller with Ah! La rhubarbe! – using the couple of back-of-the-throat spitting ‘r’s in there (throwing the arms in the air, trying not to knock over the old lady next to me) – and, as I quickly passed over 4 large sticks, asked if I could help with these, as it was a long stretch over the stall for him. Voilà.
If you haven’t tried them yet, you must make these rhubarb and strawberry gratins to serve with your macarons.
As for these Plougastel strawberries straight from Brittany, you can see our job is just to hand over the Euros. No touchy.
Sniffing melons is another case. There’s something extremely fun watching the male sellers seriously juggle their melons about. The French take it for granted that if a Provençal melon from sunny Cavaillon is to be served in 2 days, they need to sniff to check it will be perfect by Sunday lunchtime. Normally they expertly sniff for you and get it right. You want to sniff them yourself? Flattery is the buzzword. Tell them they have lovely looking melons? Nope. You try that one! (I was just checking to see if you were still reading at this point.) Seriously, though, squished melons from prodding are not fun.
Admiring the bundles of asparagus, at least you can see if the produce is fresh by the looks of their spear heads (firm, compact and dry). If you haven’t already tried it yet, taste this Asparagus Clafoutis from Le Bristol’s chef, Eric Fréchon (using green or white asparagus), another recipe in the egg yolk collection.
Now, if you were caught touching and checking out this fresh horseradish from Germany, cellophane-sealed in all its glory, what on earth would happen, do you think? Would they take you seriously or would you seriously be taken away by the local Gendarmes?
Madame was kind. She politely went straight up to the seller and asked if she could help herself to the kiwis and, before he could even answer, she was in there picking the best ones out. The seller pretended not to look and was remaining calm, although do you wonder how he felt inside?
Quick! Nobody’s around here. Let’s be daring and touch a pineapple! Fancy a sticky pineapple recipe? Try this pineapple rice condé.