A French Affair – Baskets, Bread and Cheese
Once on a trip to France, I noticed how indispensable the shopping basket was for the French. Whether on the streets of Paris, with a baguette tucked into the oval basket, or brimming with fresh vegetables and fruits in a tote, those classic French-style baskets were definitely part of daily life. A French love affair with the basket, bread and cheese, isn’t it ?
In the quaint town of Blois, on a summer morning, I stumbled upon the country market. Following women carrying totes I admired the strong, durable leather straps . Made of palm leaves or straw, the baskets are very durable and eco-friendly. I walked the narrow, cobbled streets leading down from the majestic chateaux towards the mighty river Loire. And behold! there was the weekly market, buzzing with activity. The colour of fresh fruits and the lively chatter of French customers made this weekly market a great place to experience.
Every Wednesday and Saturday, from 7am to noon, the street became epi-centre of the town. Men and women, tourists and locals, young and old, made a bee line to catch the freshest and best produce. Wait! I almost began counting the number of shopping baskets, and admiring the shapes too!
‘Oooh, la la Madame, ne touche pas’ retorted the street vendor, re-arranging the wicker – woven baskets at his stall, near the street entrance. I was in no mood to buy one. Behind me, through the narrow street corners, rose the majestic chateaux de Blois. Adjacent stone buildings with tall turrets, were remnants of the grandiose life style of the aristocrats who often spent summer in Blois.
Makeshift tables laid out displays of meat, fish, eggs. Colourful vegetables and seasonal fruits were as if, painted in the brightest colours. They caught the morning rays that shone brilliantly on them. Protecting the produce from the sun, large brown and blue awnings hung fluttering overhead. Some vendors quickly gulped down strong, black coffee or nibbled on fresh bread to energize themselves ahead of the busy shopping time.
‘Bonjour, savant?’ greeted men and women as they met friends. Shopping is a social affair at a French market. Small town people know each other better than in big cities. Clutching baskets in hand, greeting with a quick traditional French kiss on the cheek, they settled into conversation. Time stopped.
Finding a bread stall is not difficult, choosing the right bread is!
The market had more than a dozen vendors selling bread or pain, as it’s called in French. A lady vendor explained the 4 basic ingredients for baking: flour, yeast, water and salt. Thanks to the creative French bakers – we now have as many varieties of French bread as their regions!
Take the baguette – it’s a long stick-like crusty bread. When horizontally cut into a slice, it eaten with cheese or soup. Often one finds hungry people heading home from work, tearing a piece to nibble along the way. Or just make a quick sandwich, like this vendor. Stuff fresh greens, cheese, ham or tuna into a pre-cut baguette and voila! A meal on the go.
I settled for the healthy Boule – a large, round, crusty bread made with 6 grain cereals .’Slice small portions as you need, store in a paper bag, for a day or two’ suggested the lady. ‘ Did you bake these yourself ?’ I inquired. ‘Oui Madam’ yes she said, it’s family run business. French are very particular about the choice of bakery or boulangerie. ‘My father was a traditional farm baker, but I attended bread baking classes in the city’ said the lady. ‘We learn the history of French bread, importance and measurements of products, and packaging and storing bread.’
Did you know that, shortage of bread in the Revolution of 1700’s caused street riots? The rich and wealthy ate wheat and white bread, the poor ate flatter loaves with less cereals. Today multi-grain is replacing white flour, towards a healthy choice.
There’s special bread for dessert. Don’t just put jam or honey on the baguette! Choose from Pain au chocolat, almond croissant, sweet buns filled with cream and raspberry, orange loaf, banana bread, brioche, pain au noix studded with walnuts or head to the nearest boulangerie.
Like the French, I too was particular. I stood for 15 minutes to get this loaf sliced.
Move on to cheese stalls. A 1000 varieties ?Only in France is this possible. There is one cheese for every year. (un fromage par jour de l’année). Did the number of cheese stalls exceed that of bread, I wondered.
French prefer local cheese to industrial mass production. People discuss ‘what and where’ the cows have eaten. Often when buying cheese, the vendor would offer a small slice to taste, as if it’s bait. Unable to stand the strong smell of Blue Gruyère cheese offered, I hesitated. ‘Try it’ said the lady, ‘c’est frais’. I bit through the texture. Amazing softness! The cheese was so salty. Yet, I bought 4 varieties of fresh cheese, that would make a perfect French style dessert for my lazy picnic by the river Loire.
Cutting cheese is an art. With a special knife, gloves worn on hand, the lady placed the cheese on a wooden board. Meticulously she cut a wedge – from middle to the rind ensuring every customer gets soft and firm bits.
French cheese comes in hard and soft varieties. Milk from cow, ewe, and goat is processed, aged and flavoured and packed. Like bread, cheese forms an integral part of food culture. An old French proverb says ‘a meal without cheese is like an eyeless beauty’ (Un repas sans fromage est une belle à qui il manque un œil. Brillat-Savarin). A platter of cheese will generally have 5-7 varieties. At the end of the meal , chesse and fresh fruit like grapes, kiwi, strawberry are served. ‘It would be funny to have cheese for breakfast’ said the vendor. ‘The French don’t do that.’
Popular French cheese is: Emmenthal, Camembert de Normandie, Roquefort, Le Vieux Lille, Le Munster, Le Cantal, Brie, Le Mariolle and regional products.
Now, wasn’t that a lovely way to understand French culture? A great way to spend a summer morning as a tourist too. No, shopping basket for me – my cloth bag would suffice. Pushing in fresh lettuce, crunchy cucumbers and sweet seasonal strawberry, I took one last view of the sounds and colours of this weekly market.
For who knows? If you don’t visit Blois on Saturday…the market would be in another town.
Avoir Blois, avoir Paris, avoir France.
Tell me about a town market you have visited. Or the food of that region.
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