French Etiquette & Culture – At the Market
One of the best ways to experience the most delicious food that France has to offer is at an outdoor market (farmer's market) or marché. Every town or village in France either has one or is next to a town with one. In Paris, you have them throughout the city in each of the arrondissements, so there is always one to shop at!
Before you head out, I'd like to share some tips and tricks – French market etiquette – that will make your experience more enjoyable and your interactions with vendors more pleasant.
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The markets come in various sizes and shapes and some markets are better than others or are known for certain products or characteristics. The best way to find what you like is by exploring, you can go to a different marché every day. You can see more information on how to find them at the end of this post.
I've said it before. Many, many times. When you enter a restaurant, a store, or walk up to a market stand in France, do not do anything else, or say anything else, before you say BONJOUR. Bonus if you add “Monsieur” or “Madame” after it. I cannot stress this point enough.
It is your key to any interaction in France. One of my favorite authors, a couple actually, Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow, have written really great books on French culture. Their third book which came out at the end of last year called The Bonjour Effect: The Secret Codes of French Conversation Revealed is an excellent read, particularly on why saying “Bonjour” matters.
Waiting on Others
When a vendor is helping someone with their purchases, they will (usually) not help anyone else. Even if it is a 95-year-old woman taking her damn sweet time to choose her purchases. It is not you. It is the same respect that they give to every client. The vendor may or may not acknowledge you, but they know you are there. Sometimes this takes an infinite amount of patience.
From time to time when I am the client being served and I am still making selections I will tell the vendor he can help the next person while I continue to think about what I want, they always look at me incredulously but I think it is nice. Sometimes they will, sometimes they won't. Just be prepared that they usually help one client at a time.
The number one rule that most tourists break – and I have to admit even (the French) Mr. Misadventures got in trouble for doing this at a fruit stand on Rue Montorgueil… don't touch the produce! I know in the U.S. we grab/touch/poke/test our fruit and vegetables, etc. But it is a big no-no in France! (By the way, this is also a no-no in Spain and Italy.)
It is a hygiene issue – although lord knows, I've seen so many other unhygienic practices going on at markets, but it is what it is. The vendor will serve you. They are the masters and they will choose the “best” for you. However, do not let your eye off of them for a second or you may get something that doesn't look as optimal as it should!
The only time where it might be okay to pick your own is if you see plastic or paper bags in a pile available to you. That's (typically) a sign that you're welcome to pick out your own produce.
A coin purse is something I always pack when I am going to Paris (or other European destinations). You can't imagine how fast coins accumulate! You don't have big bulging pockets and most wallets don't accommodate the number of coins you will be dealing with. I have one with two sides, I put 1 and 2 Euro coins on one side and the rest of the denominations on the other.
It makes paying at the market quicker. Alternatively, if you don't want to feel flustered while counting out coins, bring small notes to pay – you'll end up with more coins but you won't have to worry about (a) ensuring you heard right for the total amount or (b) scrambling for coins.
The bags, plastic or otherwise, at the market are not that solid. And after you buy 2-3 things, your hands are full. I always bring multiple tote bags – ones for more delicate items, another for sturdier things, another for hot items, etc. We usually walk and/or take the metro to the various marchés so tote bags usually make transporting far easier.
Also, we were there in the spring when it was raining, and a lot of the paper bags disintegrate when they get wet. I often keep the sturdier plastic bags you get at some bakeries to double bag things, like chicken as the bag can be greasy. Tote bags don't take up a lot of room in your suitcase, alternatively, you can buy them for fairly cheap, or as souvenirs.
Where to find the markets?
Everywhere! But each market has its own schedule so if you are looking for a particular one, check out these resources:
In English: Food and specialist markets from the official Paris info site.
In French: All the hours by marché by day from the Ville de Paris site.
During our most recent trip, we visited the Marché Richard Lenoir in Bastille when it was open both Thursday and Sunday, it is one of the best in Paris. We also love the market streets Rue Poncelet and Rue Montorgueil.
What to Buy
Well, the answer is, it depends! If you are staying in a rental apartment/home like an Airbnb, which is what we had during our last visit to Paris, then the answer is lots! In particular, I highly recommend:
The love for a good roasted chicken runs deep in the veins of any Frenchman. King Henry the 4th of France most notably says “I want there to be no peasant in my realm so poor that he will not have a chicken in his pot every Sunday.” When I lived in France we had roasted chicken with potatoes that we bought in our local marché every weekend.
It is delicious, relatively inexpensive, will last a couple of meals, and is easy to prep. Not so easy to have if you are staying in a hotel, but if you plan ahead with plates and napkins and ask the vendor to cut your chicken, it still makes a wonderful picnic.
Fruits & Vegetables
No matter where you are staying while visiting Paris, you can enjoy the very fresh fruit (and vegetables) that are available at the market. Mr. Misadventures and I personally think the quality is better and the origin closer to France when you buy in a marché versus a grocery store, but I don't have empirical proof. What I can say is that French strawberries have forever ruined any other strawberry for me.
I often buy a basket of strawberries to eat while I am shopping. Could you resist these? They do taste as good as they look!
This past April/May the raspberries and blueberries were sensational. I have always been ambivalent about these 2 berries but could not get enough on this trip!
The white asparagus was in season as well. That's another thing about the markets, the stands start to look all the same because the vendors sell what is in season. Take the time to look for the best product (at the best price if you can negotiate) because you have a choice!
Market streets like Rue Poncelet and Rue Montorgueil have vendors that take great pride in their displays. Look how lovely these tomatoes look.
Also, the radishes, traditionally served with butter and sea salt once you get them home, were divine!
There are hundreds of cheeses in France, if you count sub-varieties it can be over 1000! Take the time to try 1 or 2, okay a dozen while you are visiting. Lots of them cannot be imported to the United States, so it is a unique opportunity to taste cheeses you may never see again.
When to Buy
Of course, you can shop at the markets anytime they are open but there are a couple of times that are a little more optimal than others. The first is about 30 to 60 minutes after they open. When they are first open, the vendors are a little hassled getting set up (and waking up!) so they aren't as friendly (even though French people aren't overly friendly anyway!).
After about 30 minutes the vendors are warmed up and ready to go and anxious to sell, sell, sell! You will get the pick of the best.
The other best time is about 30 minutes before the market closes – you can get great deals. The vendors would rather not pack their product back up – every time they move they risk damaging it. Word of caution, it also when you risk getting produce that is it at its top freshness, but if you are okay with a little bruising, you can walk away with 2-for-1 and more!
You can have so much fun, absorb a lot of everyday French culture and life and find many delicious foods in France's markets/marchés, I highly recommend that you explore at least one on your next visit to Paris or France. Just remember to say “bonjour” and don't touch the fruit and vegetables!
How about you? Have you visited a market/marché in France? Have any additional tips? What's the best thing you bought? Do share!
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Thank you for the rule about not touching! I would definitely have broken that one. I am used to choosing my own produce, so having someone else do that would be very different for me.
It is so nice to see the pride in their product. They aren’t just throwing it at ya and rushing you along. There is a Farmers market around me that is much like that. They don’t like you touching anything. They bag and pick everything for you. I would love to go to France. I love exploring markets in other countries.
One of my favorite things to do when we travel is visiting markets. It so fun to meet the vendors and explore all the local delicacies. France is loaded with wonderful market especially in Paris. I learned on one of my early visits to bring a coin purse. Makes the whole coin issue so much better. I like your idea of the two-sided purse. Great post!
OMG, now I’m hungry!! These vegetables and fruit look so so good! I’ve never been to France but it is on my bucket list. Knowing the culture is really important and these tips are great! Americans are so obnoxious when in other countries. We need to bring courtesy back into our mainstream culture.
These are great tips. I always am nervous about being accidentally rude. I want to know the customs and social norms. I would have never guessed that it was rude to touch the produce. It makes total sense.
First off, all of this food looks amazing, as a chef, I love fresh produce and meats, like the ones you would see at a Farmers Market. All of these etiquettes are smart to go by not just in France, but any farmer market honestly. I think the “no touching” rule is a GREAT rule to have, you never know where their hands have been.
France is on my bucket list! I never considered visiting the market while there. These are some great tips!
I was surprised about the no touch rule. There is some sense in it though. And also attending to one customer at a time is a good one. May be I too will try the chicken and potato in a pot when I am there next.
Well, I’ve broken all of these. Maybe that is why I always have horrible experiences in France?!? Great tip on the coin purse and I never thought to serve radishes with butter, I’ll have to try that
We are thinking about visiting France in two years. SO it’s great to learn proper etiquette! Love the coin purse and tote bag ideas. Sounds like the markets there have incredibly yummy! White asparagus, fresh radish, yum!
We love to explore local markets when we travel. I had never heard about using “Bonjour” immediately, although it makes sense. My concern is often that they then think I speak much better French than I do. I have seen people use plastic bags sorta like gloves to pick up food and turn the bag inside out. Your fruit pictures had me licking my lips! Thanks for the good tip about when to go to the market!
I didn’t know about the “no touch” habit, since in Greece we tend to touch and try the products first before we buy them. Your pictures definitely highlight the freshness and quality of these French products. The colors of the strawberries and the berries really pop!
France seems to be special in many ways, and I sometimes have the feeling that I don’t get the French people. But I guess it is all about cultural awareness, respect and trying to learn new things. Many cultural differences can be observed even in such a small macrocosm like a market. By the way, the coin purse is really a smart idea!
Ha Ha. I agree with them all. Saying bonjour and Ça va to strangers was my big pastime 🙂 Last year we were in Europe for about 4 months and I returned with almost 1 Kilogram of change 🙂 🙂
Even in India we check fruits and vegetables before picking what we want. I am sure even in France , supermarkets work differently .
That is such an interesting post and it will help to learn the french etiquette to so many travelers like me. I liked how patiently the seller attend his customers and others need to wait patiently too. Carrying tote bag is always a good option. Another imp point you made is of not touching the produce. Great pictures.
the market culture was one of my favorite things about Paris! It amazes me that even in a city that size, that way of shopping still happens. The produce is so much more colorful and fresh than what we get at grocery stores or even farmers markets in the states. Good to know to always say ‘bonjour’ first — my instinct is definitely to avoid speaking to anyone since my French is so horrible.
The food in their market looks great. Those fruits look bright and fresh! I love your tips, they are real and practical. Bringing a coin purse everywhere you go, not just in France, will be very helpful!
Hi Andi, thanks for you tips. I will go to France in August this year. One question: how good was the English of the people in France? My French is unfortunatelly very poor, so I need to communicate in English.
@Max, in Paris a lot of people speak English. Are you going to other parts of France?
Hi Andi, I’ve been in La Ciotat, Marseille and Cassis. Almost no one spoke there english 😀
I knew about Bonjour but did not know about not touching the produce. This was so helpful since I am hoping to get to Paris soon!!
I just have to comment because of those raspberries! They are one of my favorite fruits and they look divine! These tips are great too, makes me want to go to a French market!
I love farmers markets! I’m intrigued by white asparagus, I’ve never heard of it! How does it differentiate in taste from green asparagus?
Thanks so much for these tips. We love visiting markets when travelling and knowing what not to do is so important.
Great tips! This took me back to my 3 visits to Paris and as a market lover I visited markets all three times with the last one being a christmas market. I especially love the coin purse tips for those 1 & 2 euro coins, and the tip on bringing a bag. I always pack one. Thanks for sharing!
Such great insight into the French market experience! I’ve lived in France and visit frequently and you’ve nailed everything. Especially the polite greetings and thanks yous – so important all over the country when you’re interacting with any people. The only issues with coming to the market towards the end is that sometimes there are a lot of things that are picked over or vendors who pack up early… but it’s true you get great deals.
My goodness the food looks amazing in France! If I was in the markets I would have a hard time not leaving with a little bit of everything. While I enjoy being able to pick out my own fruits and vegetables at the market, I actually wouldn’t mind having the grocer handle them for me for hygiene purposes as well.
I love French markets! Something so quintessentially French about picking fresh food and eating it immediately! Good to know these rules of etiquette for the next time I go though – thanks!
omg, I love this post so much! I’ve just been back from Paris and I’ve already been very excited to pass by (the two mornings) the seafood shop near our hotel!
Some of the tips are absolutely the same as those ones in Italy. I think most Europeans/Westerners are ok with that, but it might be “odd” for a lot of Asians… (I really want to pin that yummy roasted chicken image, but at the end, I go for healthy strawberries :DDD)