One of the joys of self-catering holidays in France is the chance to go shopping for fresh produce in its bounteous markets. The atmosphere at France’s local markets is lively and friendly, with locals chatting to each other and filling their capacious baskets with fresh vegetables, cheese and charcuterie. Buying direct from the region’s producers is also an eco-friendly way to shop, the food miles being inevitably short, plus you might find produce that you won’t find elsewhere, such as locally grown fruit or unusual cheeses. If you have a smattering of French, don’t be shy in chatting to the stallholders, this will give you the chance to ask questions and ask for cooking tips from them. Market traders always have really simple cooking ideas for their produce, that can be easily done in your gîte, even if the kitchen is small. Here are some of France’s best markets and what you might find in them.
Dordogne’s markets are among the best in the country, but for size and variety, it’s hard to beat the central streets of Sarlat-la-Canéda for its food market on Wednesdays and on Saturday for both food and everything else under the sun. In spring and summer, you’ll find strawberries such as the super-sweet Gariguette variety, or handcut white asparagus that you rarely find at home. Duck, in all its many forms, is the region’s main product, so snap up jars or tins of confit de canard to warm through in the gite and serve with sautéed potatoes (cook those in the duck fat too, just add garlic and black pepper) and a green salad. Alternatively, you’ll find tins of foie gras to serve on slices of toasted baguette, along with onion chutney. Autumn is a particularly good time to be in the area, staying at such gites as La Badoussie, as that’s when the walnut groves along the banks of the River Dordogne are in harvest. Buy the fresh nuts to sprinkle on salads or your cheeseboard and buy the walnut oil to drizzle on as dressing. Alternatively, buy walnut wine, a heady aperitif made by macerating the young walnuts in alcohol and blending with red wine. It will get any evening off to a great start in properties such as Chartreuse de Montfort, with its sun-dappled terrace. There are chestnuts too, and there’s no better snack than a cone of toasted chataîgnes as you wander around the stall. In winter, truffle season arrives and even though they’re expensive, you really only need a tiny bit to bring that rich aroma to dishes, just grate it into something as simple as scrambled eggs.
In contrast to Sarlat’s ancient streets, overlooked by golden stone buildings and their ornate iron-work balconies, the indoor market mixes the old with the modern and was designed by acclaimed French architect Jean Nouvel inside the 12th-century Église Sainte Marie in the heart of the medieval town.
If the Dordogne has a main rival in its ‘best for markets’ stakes, then Provence is surely it. Aix-en-Provence is a colourful feast of Provence’s sun-infused produce taking place in Place Richelme every morning of the week. In the dappled shade of the square’s plane trees, you can browse the stalls that will spoil you for choice. The beauty of much of what’s on offer is that you barely need cook it; buy fresh tomatoes to make into a tomato vinaigrette salad, charcuterie to set out on a platter with piquant olives and succulent artichokes in olive oil. Your cheeseboard will most likely feature such provençal goat’s cheeses as Banon, a soft cheese wrapped in brown chestnut leaves and tied with raffia, or Picadon from further up the Rhone Valley. Summer is the time to laden your bags with all the sun-blushed fruit grown in the south of France; juicy nectarines, honeyed melon and, late in the summer, the copious figs to cut into quarters for salads or with cheese. Aix-en-Provence’s signature sweet is the Calisson, a pointed-oval-shaped almond confection usually with white icing, that is flavoured with candied fruit such as orange or melon. Pick up a box to enjoy with coffee. And when you’ve finished shopping, take a seat in one of the café terraces on Place Richelme or nearby Place de l’Hotel de Ville (where the daily flower market is held), order a pastis, top it up with chilled water, and then do as the Provençal do and sit and watch the world go by. Then, it’s back to the gîte, such as Le Mas des Anges de Flo or Bastide des Amandiers to enjoy it all.
La Bastide des Amandiers – Le Cabanon, Rognes, Bouches-du-Rhône
La Flotte, Île de Ré
On the Île de Ré, everyone cycles, so there’s no need to battle through market day traffic when your bike gets you to the heart of the action. La Flotte’s market is quite small but has a great range of produce being sold from the wooden-beamed, terracotta-roofed stalls that surround the pebble-cobbled market square. The island is known for its delicate flakes of salt, le fleur de sel, which is harvested in the many salt pans across the island. Buy a packet to take home, or those with a sweet tooth can try it in the salted caramel sweets.
There’s also an abundance of glossy fruit and vegetables with which to make an easy ratatouille to go alongside something from the fish stall. Assemble a cheese board from the fromager including raw milk cheeses you won’t find in supermarkets, and then pick up dessert from the Baba Gourmand stand selling jars of locally made, ready-to-eat, boozy desserts based on the rum baba. There are several varieties; the cake spheres come soaked in rum, or coffee and cognac, or lemon and vodka; they’re delicious served with whipped cream and fruit. They also sell freshly made waffles, filled with lemon and honey cream, or vanilla, which make the perfect snack on which to refuel for the bike ride back to your gîte, such as La Villa Baronnie or Fisherman’s Cottage. One of the best things to buy on the Île de Ré is the local aperitif, Pineau de Charentes, a sweet and moreish tipple with which to get your evening meal off to a great start.
La Villa Baronnie, Saint Martin de Ré (Ile de Ré), Charente-Maritime
Just as its famous tapestry is laid out at length for all to see in its museum, Bayeux’s Wednesday morning market stretches the length of is main street, Rue Saint-Jean, and on a Saturday along Rue Saint-Patrice. Cheese-lovers will love discovering Normandy’s four signature cheeses as they all have different characteristics. Camembert is the most famous, look out for varieties made with raw milk for the truly local flavour; you’ll recognise Neufchatel from its heart shape, its soft, bloomy white rind encases a slightly salty cheese with a gentle milky flavour, it’s ideal with tart fruits such as raspberries and red currants so pick up a punnet of those too. Livarot is recognisable from its five bands of raffia around its circumference; you might find some stalls selling quiche made with this cheese as it lends itself to tart recipes. And finally Pont-L’Évêque, is a square, orange-rinded cheese that is deliciously creamy.
The nearby coast may be better known for the Landing Beaches from World War II (the gîte Domaine de Ravenoville is near Utah Beach), but it is also where scallop fishing takes place in the autumn, winter and spring, so if you’re there in those seasons, look out for those; they can be easily fried in butter, garlic and lemon. Normandy is known for its cider, of course, but look out for pommeau, a sweeter aperitif; the local pear cider which is called poiré (no guesses for how we came to call it perry!); and calvados – you could even flambée those scallops with this apple brandy.
Tucked down in the corner of France, just before the steep, red-soiled coastline runs into Spain, the town of Collioure is a feast of Catalan delicacies. At the Wednesday morning market in Place du Maréchal Leclerc, under the shade of plane trees, look out for the town’s signature product: big, fat, juicy anchovies, which are fished off the coast here. They’re served in olive oil or with various flavours such as garlic or peppers; they’re ideal to eat alone or with a green salad, and quite different to the skinny, salty ones you find in tins. You might also see another speciality, cargolada, grilled snails, to try hot from the griddle. As well as its plentiful fish, the area is also known for its lamb, so buy some cutlets to serve with sautéed potatoes. The hills inland are known for their soft fruit; so in late spring, expect to find punnets of Céret’s signature cherries, easily baked into a clafoutis, or simply chomped through one by one while reading a book on your gîte’s terrace (the nearby Gîte Le Roc sur L’Orbieu has an impressive one). Later in the summer, the sun-blushed nectarines and peaches come into season and are so easily sliced and served with ice cream. And, when it comes to the wine, buy a few bottles of the local appellation Vin de Collioure; you can’t miss the vineyards that cling to the steep hillsides overlooking the coast road when you’re exploring this area of Roussillon. When you’ve explored the market, take a stroll down to the harbour by taking a detour via the narrow lanes, lined with bright yellow and orange-painted houses and bedecked with fragrant flowers.
Gîte Le Roc sur l'Orbieu, Saint-Pierre-des-Champs, Aude
Unlike many other regions of France, Brittany doesn’t have a history of markets, but Rennes’ Marché des Lices has long bucked that trend by being the go-to place to shop on a Saturday morning for as long as four centuries. Overlooked by the city’s colourful timber-framed town houses, the covered market and the boulevards around it welcome some 250 producers each weekend. Together they demonstrate the incredible range of produce Brittany is proud to grow, catch and nurture; from the north coast, traders will bring the incredible vegetables grown on the fertile soil, such as Roscoff’s gentle pink onions and Coco de Paimpol beans. Meanwhile, from the region’s 1700-mile coastline, you’ll find myriad fish that can be simply fried in butter for a delicious supper. The butter itself is an iconic product in Brittany, so your baguette will be topped with the best farm-produced beurre. When it comes to cheese, there aren’t any famous ones from Brittany, but you will find artisanal goats’ cheeses and Tomes made by small-scale farms.
If you’re hungry for something to eat on the go, then Rennes’ signature ‘dish’, or rather street food, is the only thing to order: the galette-saucisse is a good quality pork sausage wrapped in a buckwheat galette. It’s not the done thing to ask for sauces such as ketchup, but the locals sometimes accept mustard as an addition. For those with a sweet tooth, search out the stands selling the butter-laden pastry called the kouign-amann (which means butter cake in Breton) to take back and eat with coffee in the comfort of your gîte’s living room. At the Maison Pléneuf-Val-André, the living areas were made for this.
Carolyn is one of the UK’s leading food and travel writers and an expert on France. She likes nothing more than telling a good story, packed with expert insight and inspirational recommendations. Her writing for The Guardian, The Times, National Geographic Traveller and many more has seen her cycle across France, seeking out its beauty, culture and delectable produce in search of some of the most delicious and exciting experiences in travel.