The power of Paris’s street markets

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Michel and Pierre Huot at the market on Avenue du Président Wilson

At 5.30 on a Tuesday morning in September, Michel Huot bustles into a supplier in the vast wholesale food market at Rungis, just south of Paris, on the first stop of his busy week as a butcher trading in the street markets of the French capital.

Ça va, jeune homme?” he calls cheerfully to a worker in the warehouse-like store, who has prepared Michel’s order of cooked ham, terrines, pâtés and one of his favourites, jambon persillé. This ham with parsley set in jelly is made by a supplier near Chablis in Burgundy and is, says Michel, pinching finger and thumb to his lips, “truly exceptional”.

Clad in the obligatory white coat required of all traders and buyers at Rungis, Michel pays his bill at the glassed-in cashier’s desk with more jovial greetings to the women behind the counter and hurries on to his next stop.

Rungis is the biggest wholesale food market in the world, set up in the late 1960s when the historic Les Halles market, in the heart of Paris, was knocked down. Products from its sprawling meat, fish, fruit, vegetable and flower halls are the lifeblood of the 6,000 traders who work in the 80-plus street markets that still animate the daily life of Paris and defy the march of the supermarket chains such as Auchan or Carrefour. With their bounty of seductive fresh produce and timeless ambience, the Parisian markets are far more deeply rooted than the farmers’ markets now so fashionable in the UK – though they may have to fight hard to survive.

“We started out with a shop,” recounts Michel of La Petite Bourgogne, the business he has run for the past 12 years with his son Pierre. “But after a while we gave it up and started working the markets instead.” The Huots prefer the hustle and bustle of the street, the rapport with customers and fellow traders, despite the tough hours and the daily hard work of preparing and packing up their stall. “In the shop, you would not see a customer for the first two hours. Then an old lady would come in and ask for one slice of ham – thin!” jokes garrulous Michel.

But he needs to get on. He has produce to collect from the meat and poultry halls as well as from the pavillon de la triperie – a gallery of sanguinous offal. Then he must meet Pierre to load up their battered white Mercedes van and head for the market at Mouton-Duvernet, in the 14th arrondissement, in time to set up and open at 8am. He hurries through the poultry market, passing boxes of quail, grouse from Scotland and dozens of types of guinea fowl and duck. Among his purchases are chicken, a number of rabbits and rabbit sausages. “My Russian customers buy a lot of rabbit.”

He visits a number of wholesalers depending on which have the best specific products. Veal liver, lamb kidneys, lamb brains and ox tongue are on his list from the triperie. He passes by the unprepared tripe but does sometimes sell tripes à la mode de Caen: cooked tripe with vegetables in jelly, to be eaten cold (delicious, if you like that sort of thing) or melted and warmed in a pan (challenging).

With ancestral roots in Burgundy – though he is the first butcher in the family – Michel favours the region’s meat. He buys beef from a farmer with a herd of Burgundy Charolais cattle near Dijon. “I think Charolais has more taste than other breeds,” he says. He prefers his beef well hung but remarks that Parisians “like to buy their meat a bit red”.

After battling the early rush-hour traffic on the notorious périphérique, Michel and Pierre pull up a little late in the Mouton-Duvernet square where the market is held on Tuesday and Friday mornings. The pair do both days, as well as Wednesdays and Saturdays on Avenue du Président Wilson in the very bourgeois 16th and Sundays at Place Monge, near the Jardins des Plantes in the 5th. They make an early morning run to Rungis on Fridays as well as Tuesdays to stock up for their three busiest days. Thursday is an admin day.

The City of Paris subcontracts the management of the street markets to companies that have perfected the process of setting up and taking down the stalls. Squads of workers sweep along the streets the night before a market opens in a clatter of steel poles and awnings, erecting the coverings. When the market is over – traders must vacate their stands by 2.30pm on weekdays and 3pm on weekends on pain of a stiff fine – the squads return to whisk away the stalls and clean up the debris. All trace is gone within an hour or so.

Pierre does most of the heavy lifting, hauling the fold-up, glass-fronted cooler units that make up their stall front. It takes about an hour, with customers first appearing around 8am. By now there’s a discernible scent in the air as a florist, fishmonger and greengrocer all set up nearby. Michel banters with a woman who runs a charcuterie backed against La Petite Bourgogne. “She has been here 30 years. She is a great character. Her stall does very good business but she is not so happy that I also sell some charcuterie,” Michel chuckles.

As customers begin to approach, Michel slips into the role of amicable salesman, offering samples of his vaunted jambon persillé (“A little salty,” says one woman, but buys a slice anyway). Pierre sets about preparing cuts of meat, cleaving cutlets, rolling roasts and slicing steak.

On a Tuesday not long after the summer holiday, business is relatively quiet. By the end of the morning’s trading, La Petite Bourgogne will have served just under 50 customers, each spending mostly between €5 and €20. At weekends in high season, the number can rise to 150 a day, with double that spend. “We’re busiest from October to March,” Michel says. “People eat more meat in the winter and they make more elaborate dishes.”

It’s hard to pin down figures for the share of the Paris markets in the city’s food economy – the city hall department responsible for the markets says it does not have them. But they’re estimated to account for about 20 per cent of the city’s overall fresh food sales. The city hall says the number of markets is stable, though Michel is afraid that their share is slowly declining. He complains that not enough is done to promote them to a public bombarded with advertising from the big retailers.

The majority of street-market customers tend to be middle-aged or older. It suggests the culture of shopping in the markets may be declining. “The young just eat a lot of pasta,” says Charlie Perrault, stall manager at Mouton-Duvernet, as he calls by La Petite Bourgogne for a chat.

“I try to help my young customers as much as I can to encourage them,” says Michel. “I suggest good cuts of meat, offer them good prices and give them recipes.” He hands out printed copies of his grandmother’s recipes and is always ready with advice on how best to cook different meats.

Yet French enthusiasm for traditional cuisine is still strongly in evidence. La Petite Bourgogne offers at least 30 different products and cuts of meat, from classic entrecôte and onglet steak to curled lengths of boudin noir black pudding and fat andouillette de Troyes tripe sausages.

Buying a piece of onglet, the slightly ragged looking cut from near the kidney, Jacqueline Lucas, 92, declares brightly: “It doesn’t look very good but it is very tender and has a very good flavour.” She’s been coming to Mouton-Duvernet for 70 years. “We must keep the markets,” she says. “You don’t get the same quality in the supermarkets.” She, like most market shoppers, cites the convivialité of chatting to the traders and meeting neighbours.

The markets can’t compete with the big shops on volume, range and, in most cases, price. But the quality of fresh produce in Parisian supermarkets is often alarmingly poor and market traders do try to offer some staple products that are competitive with those of the mainstream stores.

Delphine Thibault stocked up for the week for herself, her husband and three children at La Petite Bourgogne, buying pork chops, chicken breasts and beef. (“Only €19.80!” chirped Michel as he totted up her bill.) “It’s part of the culture of my family to shop in the market,” she says. “We cook a family meal every day. It’s cheaper than in butcher shops and the price is good considering the quality.”

By 1pm, Pierre and Michel start to dismantle the stall. As the customers melt away, the banter starts again among the traders. “Hey, Poisson!” calls Michel to the fishmonger. The organic greengrocer passes over some surplus grapes. Michel suggests they make jam from the leftover fruit. “You make it and I’ll sell it,” comes the reply.

Pierre, who has worked with his father since he left school, heaves the stall units back into the van before they head home to clean their equipment ready for the next day’s business. “It’s hard work. I’m not sure that I will do it all my life,” he says. “But it is outside, you are always moving about and it is better than sitting in an office.”

Hugh Carnegy is the FT’s Paris bureau chief

For Michel Huot’s grandmother’s recipe for blanquette de veau go to ft.com/parisfood

For a list of markets go to meslieux.paris.fr/marches

Photographs: Lauren Fleishman

Michel Huot’s grandmother’s recipe for Blanquette de veau (veal stew)

Preparation: 20 minutes. Cooking time: 1 hour + 15 mins for the sauce

Ingredients
1 kgveal, cubed
2carrots
2onions
Dried thyme, bay leaves, parsley (or a bouquet-garni)
Juice of one lemon
1punnet sliced or fresh mushrooms
For the sauce
2 dspbutter
2 dspflour
2 dspcrème fraîche
Juice half a lemon + 1 egg yolk
1 glasswhite wine
  1. Peel the carrots and onions. Chop the carrots into 1cm rounds and slice the onions finely. On a low heat, put the meat in a casserole dish or high-sided frying pan with the onions, carrots, thyme, bay leaves and parsley (or bouquet garni), salt, pepper and 750ml of water,plus the wine and the lemon juice. Cover and bring to the boil.
  2. Once boiling, reduce the heat and leave to simmer until you can slide a knife into the meat – this will take about an hour. Once the meat is cooked,remove it from the pan and put to one side. Strain the remaining cookingliquids through a colander and keep.
  3. Melt the butter in a medium-sized saucepan. Then stir in the flour and keep stirring the mixture on a very low heat, making sure it doesn’t stick to the pan. While still stirring, gently add 500ml of the strained cooking liquids.
  4. Once the sauce starts to thicken, leave it to cook while just stirring it occasionally for about eight minutes: add a little water if it starts to get too thick. Then add the mushrooms, turn up the heat and cook for a minute, thentake off the heat.
  5. Mix the crème fraiche, egg yolk and lemon juice together in a bowl. Then add a couple of spoonfuls of the sauce and stir it in quickly. Put this mixture back in the pan with the rest of the sauce and stir (do not turn on the heat). Taste and check for seasoning.
  6. Put the veal and the sauce back into the cassserole dish or frying pan on a very low heat – do not allow to boil. Once the meat has been heated through, serve with rice, potatoes or pasta.
  7. Wine choice: try a light red or white. Good reds includea St-Nicolas-de- Bourgueil, a Beaujolais AOC Régnié or Morgon or a Côtes de Bourg; for whites, try a Chablis, a Riesling, a Sancerre or a Beaujolais.
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