The butcher takes a slab of lamb, cuts it deftly into small pieces and pares away the fat, forming a pile of almost perfect cubes. He brushes them into a bag with the flat of the knife and hands the package to me. “That should do it”, he says, having not only fulfilled my request for a piece of lamb suitable for making Moroccan brochettes, but also doing half the job for me. When I comment to that effect, he winks. “Don’t tell madame”, he advises. “She will think you are a grand chef”.
The butcher’s stall is located in Marche Cadet, my local market in the 9th arrondissement of Paris. In many ways of French capital is more modern city than one might imagine, but it retains the timeless features that make it such romantic tourist destination: the cramped cafes with their bustling terraces, the surprising number of carousels, the green advertising columns thick with theater posters. And the street markets. Almost every quartier seems to have one, the barking voices of the stallholders and the immaculately displayed rows of bright fruit stubbornly resisting the march of time and supermarket chains.
In fact, Parisian markets are growing in number. There are currently 95 in total – including bric-a-brac, clothing and antiques-compared to 51 in 1860. Of these, 82 are food markets, 13 of them covered and 69 in the open air.
Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoe, know for his “green” initiatives – from tram extensions to the provision of free rental bikes – believes markets make the city a more liveable place. They respond to a growing demand for fresh, locally produced or organic products, confirms the mayor’s office. Plus, they offer a one-to-one contact with the stallholder, as well as a sociable shopping environment.
The establishment of additional greenhouses in the Paris region has spurred this development, as well as the rise of 100 percent organic markets such as the one in rue Raspail, over on the left Bank. On a sunny Sunday morning recently, this modest street market – which takes up a narrow strip of land in the middle of a boulevard- was packed with well-dressed families buying homemade bread, olive oil and organic vegetables, as well as wine from tiny producers. There were also stalls selling genuine panama hats and ethnic cotton scarves. That’s not the only attraction, one customer added. A lot of stars shop here, too.
There were no stars to be seen in Marche d’Aligre, one of my favourite markets. In a scruffy square not far from Bastille, it combines a small covered market with outside stalls selling food, clothing and bric-abrac. It has existed since 1779 and looks not a day newer. There are few finer things to do on a weekday morning than stroll around here with a vague idea for dinner on your mind, inhaling the fabulous blend of aromas and listening to the stallholders yelling. “Allez, allez, un euro les melons!”…’Au choix! Au choix! And when you’ve made your choice, around midday, you can restore yourself with a glass of red and plate of Corsican charcuterie at Le Baron Bouge, a crowded wine bar that seems almost as ancient as the marketplace itself.