There's something quite special about French markets. I can't decide whether it's the authentic use of wicker baskets balanced on the front of bicycles, the attack on your senses as you see brightly coloured fruit and vegetables, smell the aroma of freshly baked croissants wafting from tucked away boulangeries whilst hearing the constant chattering and bartering of the French locals or simply just the fact that you are in France and there's just something so romantic and pleasing about that aspect as opposed to battling the cold winds and freezing cold sheets of rain that can make up a visit to a market in Britain.
Whatever the reason whenever we go to France I always have to find out when the local market is taking place and then strong arm everyone into attending with me.
I just love it.
This also means that I have picked up some tricks along the way which can help you when visiting a French market for the first time and I will start by saying that there IS an etiquette. Going to a market (or le marche) is part of the French way of life and many will choose to head here to pick up their weekly groceries rather than going to the supermarkets. For that reason there is a sense of etiquette which should be followed and although I have found French people to be genuinely quite tolerant of my bumbling attempts to 'fit' in (and I know they can see us coming a mile off) it still pays to take some time to try and get it right.
I know that the idea of having to get up early when you are on your holiday might fill you with dread but it has to be better than fighting your way through the crowds which will have descended by mid-morning. Make like a local and go for the start of the market, typically between 8.30am-9am. Not only will you get the freshest and best produce, but you can use your buys for a delicious traditional picnic...and you are very unlikely to see hoards of tourists. You might also find that by lunchtime the market has started to wind down so if you wait until the afternoon to arrive, there might not even be a market to visit.
Patience is everything
I can't count the number of times I have approached a stall only to see a snaking queue of locals waiting their turn. Although this is a good sign, it also is a sign you'll need patience. Vendors don't like to hurry, they will often spend time chatting with the person they are serving and this means you can be waiting a long time for your turn. Likewise people just don't rush around markets in France the way we do in England and you are very likely to end up frustrated if you don't take a deep breath and slow down. It's almost inevitable that you will get stuck behind the oldest, slowest moving couple on the circuit so try not to get to harried.
It isn't considered good form to handle the fruit and veg, even to test for freshness. That said, most Vendors don't mind if you want to bag your own selection, just ask! Many will speak some English (although I always recommend at least trying out some French) and will be happy to hand over a bag for you to fill yourself.
Learn some phrases
My Spanish is a million times better than my French but that doesn't mean I don't at least try and give it a go. Yes, they will probably know you are English a mile away but I have never yet met a person from abroad who doesn't appreciate the effort to speak their language. Key words to keep in mind include 'mûr' (ripe), 'moins' (less) 'plus' (more), 'pour aujourd'hui' (for today...tell the stall holder if you plan to eat today and they will give you a suitable piece of fruit/veg), and 'un petit goût' (a small taste...I've not yet met a French vendor who wasn't happy to let me taste a small piece of what they were selling), then of course there are the basics such as excuse me, please and thank you which go a long way.
Sometimes it is obvious that there is a line at a stall and other times it can be a bit of a free for all. Don't be afraid to assert yourself if needed. 'C'est moi!' exclaimed loudly should ensure that you get your turn. I have been ousted by enough miniature old French ladies to know that sometimes you just have to go for it. There's no need to be rude but you will need to be firm.
Bring your own bag
A lot like the new rules in England, you won't find many stalls offering bags so it pays to bring your own. On our last trip to France James bought me a gorgeous lined basket at Brantome market which not only made a fantastic souvenir but also means that when we went down to the market for the rest of the holiday I blended in, just like the locals. Always bring your own bag or basket.
And remember, finally to enjoy yourself. There's nothing like strolling around the French market and taking in the sights and sounds, even if you don't buy anything. Many markets take place right in the heart of the town which usually means there are plenty of cafes dotted around to stop and enjoy a hot drink when you've had enough of the bartering for one day. They are also often in beautiful surroundings so don't forget to take a moment just to appreciate where you are, rather than being caught up in the stalls right in front of you.