French markets

We all love going to French markets. The array of misshapen and sometimes eccentric items; the banter between stallholders and customers; the sight of French people in pursuit of that most serious of pastimes, eating; the cafés where old men wearing berets are already sinking glasses of red wine at 10 a.m. – all these things are quintessentially French.

Winter markets and summer markets occupy different planets. In winter, the customers are mostly local French people, muffled up in scarves and hats against the biting wind. A hard core of stallholders sells seasonal vegetables freshly dug from the frosty ground and locally produced goats’ cheeses, sausages and pâtés. In summer, their ranks are swelled by hawkers of tourist souvenirs, straw hats and overpriced imported asparagus to holidaymakers conspicuous by their leisure clothes and peeling noses (except for this August, when few visitors will go away with a tan).

After 13 years here, I know that some markets are simply better than others. Here are my top 8 from around the immediate region, in alphabetical order:

Caussade, Tarn et Garonne

Every Monday morning. In the winter months, there is also a truffle market and a ‘marché au gras’ (where you can buy raw duck liver for turning into foie gras. I know, but it’s still a big favourite in France).

This is one of the biggest markets in the area and draws the punters in from miles around. Parking is difficult and getting around isn’t easy in some of the narrow streets. Caussade is not my favourite place; I prefer Villefranche de Rouergue (see below). As a result, we rarely go to this market, although I can vouch for its quality and authenticity.

Caylus, Tarn et Garonne

During the August pottery fair. The market hall at the end usually houses several stalls on a Tuesday morning

Every Tuesday morning in the market square and every Saturday morning in the Place du Lavoir at the other end of the village.

The former lavoir (wash-house), site of the Caylus Saturday market

I don’t know why they have chosen to put them in different places, but the atmosphere is very different as a result. Tuesday is slightly bigger and extends from under the medieval market hall right across the square in the summer. The stalls include cheese, fish, vegetables (including several local producers), pasta, charcuterie, bread, shoes and clothes (including those flowered aprons-cum-dresses that are uniquely French; the Statistics Freak often threatens to buy me one).

On Saturday, the stallholders are mostly different, although there are a few that do both markets. They include Marie-Ange, who makes and sells her own goat’s cheeses, Vincent who sells his vegetables and eggs and often bursts into song in mid-transaction, a rather taciturn man who does a roaring trade in guinea fowl and a delightful young couple who sell fruit and veg.

Limogne, Lot

Every Sunday morning. Limogne is a small town on the causse – a bit bleak in winter, but host to one of my favourite markets. A large café sits at the entrance to the market square and the stalls overflow into the surrounding streets. A wide range of stalls, including a very good foie gras stall (provided you don’t have a principled objection). Can be a bit touristy in summer, but not as much as Saint Antonin Noble Val (see below).

There is also a truffle market all year round every Friday.

Parisot, Tarn et Garonne

La Halle in Parisot, now no longer the site of the Friday market, which is held further up the road towards the centre of the village

Every Friday morning. A tiny market that was established only a few years ago in this small medieval village, which has a fantastic southerly view. It had a rocky start with only a few stallholders, and it has a lot of competition from other markets in the area, but it now seems to have taken off. There’s the usual range of stalls, plus a blind English woman who sells her own cakes (amazingly courageous) and a plant stall.

Saint Antonin Noble Val, Tarn et Garonne

Market hall in Saint-Antonin

Every Sunday morning in the narrow streets of the town. I have to mention this one, although I don’t particularly like it. I can’t bear fighting my way through the thronging tourists jamming the alleyways in summer. The prices reflect its tourist focus, too. However, it is very popular. 

Varen, Tarn et Garonne

Aveyron at Varen

Every Saturday morning. Another tiny market in a village on the banks of the River Aveyron. Only a handful of stalls, but everything you need for a picnic beside the river.

Villefranche de Rouergue, Aveyron

Every Thursday morning. Held in the market square in the shadow of the cathedral (or collégiale) at the top of this medieval bastide town. Stay till midday to hear the carillon from the clock tower .

Villefranche-de-Rouergue market in the shadow of la collégiale

This is a big market, both winter and summer, and hugely popular which means you can’t get a parking space within half a mile of it. You can buy everything you can possibly think of, from asparagus to watermelons. There are also stalls selling the inevitable tourist souvenirs, genuine Laguiole knives etc.

There’s a good pizzeria, La Gabelle, in the rue Belle Isle off the square, which serves really nice, thin, crisp pizzas at very reasonable prices. The service is friendly, too.

It’s worth wandering around the town itself. It has some wonderfully atmospheric streets overhung with medieval balconies from which people’s washing is still festooned, much as it probably was in the town’s heyday.  

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