Summer Vacation in Provence: 5 Tips for Shopping in Provencal Markets

Summer Vacations in Provence: 5 Tips for Shopping the Provencal Market The markets of Provence are world renown.  They are bustling, beautiful and bursting with mouth watering produce, cheeses, meats, breads, olive oils and wines. Just to name a few specialties. And, once your hunger and thirst have been quenched, you will notice flowers, linens, jewelry, artisan  products, gifts, clothing and more. A perfect  vacation day in Provence begins with a market tour. And just wandering the markets can be great. (Though we also like to send clients on a hunt for specific picnic or cooking class ingredients –part of the fun is learning to find and purchase.) How do you decide which of the cheese stands has the best cheese? How do you find the best baguette or artisan breads? Below are some tips for getting the most out of the Provencal markets.

  1. Tips for buying Produce. Buy local! French law requires that all produce be marked not just with its category  I, II, III (rating), but also its origin. I always stress buying and eating seasonally. I also believe local is better. So, first, look for the country. If it doesn’t say France, don’t buy it. Then look for the specific area of France.  Most people think that a sign that says “Provence” is a sign indicating “locally grown”. And, to a degree, it is. But, if you look carefully at the market produce stands, some will not just say Provence –but will say the town’s name. That’s when you’re at a truly local (and probably organic) stand. That’s where you want to look to buy first.  (And, if you know anything about the micro climates/towns, you’ll be able to decide whether you prefer strawberries from Carpentras or Aix-en-Provence –because you’ll know that they each have their own flavor –much the way wine from North Burgundy is different from wine from Southern Burgundy –even if they’re both Pinot Noirs.)
  2. Tips for buying cheeses. There are great cheeses from all over France. And certainly, importing cheese does not impact the quality the way it does for produce. Still, there are small local producers whose products are high quality, specially made, and cannot be found elsewhere. In Provence, this means goat cheeses.(There are no cows in Provence –so there are no cows milk cheeses made there..) The fresh goat cheeses  are local.  So try them. Look at what else they carry. If the cheese monger has a wide selection –he is likely to be an expert —  a knowledgeable collector of a wide variety of cheeses. If they carry one thing –just goat cheeses –then they are probably producers, and can provide you with a unique artisan product. You should look for one of these extremes.  They indicate special expertise, in two different ways.
  3. Tips for buying Meat and  Fish. Look and smell. Fish should look glossy and the eyes should look good. There should be no smell. Meat should look moist and fresh and also have no smell. It should be clear they are being kept cold. If you smell something, or it looks “tired”, this is not what you want. (Believe me, you know more than you think.)
  4. Tips for buying oils, jams and other “bottled and canned” products. The same principle applies. Look for a small artisan producer. Find a family business. Focus on small quality production. Look for handwritten labels (but proper canning procedure.) And taste. If you can’t taste, don’t buy. Artisan producers are very proud of their products and as such, offer tastes. They are convinced that you will buy it if you taste it. That’s the culture. So, if they won’t allow you to taste, that’ telling you something.
  5. Wait in line! If there are three vendors selling the same type of product –and there usually are –choose the one with the longest line (of locals). Why? Because these vendors come every week, have the same physical location at the market each time, and become as well known to market regulars as your local grocery is to you at home. If there’s a long line (of locals), there’s a reason.
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5 Ways to Know: It’s Beginning to Look a lot Like….Paris at Christmas!

1. Christmas Markets…Biensur!

2. Bouche de Noel…Fanciful Christmas specialties in every window!

 

3. Bistrots are all wrapped up like pretty little presents!
4. Pizza is a thing that is served with truffles and sliced potatoes…OMG. You truly do want to lick the window. (The literal  translation for the phrase to “window shop” in French.)5. Macarons –in gold, with decorations, made to look like (yep, you guessed it) a Christmas Tree (or is that Treat).JOYEUX NOEL A TOUS!

6 Holiday Shopping Tips: How to shop in France

Shopping, that “all American sport” is one of those cultural obsessions we share with the French. Paris is one of the shopping meccas of the world

And, although it’s done differently, it’s something, especially at this time of year that both the French and the Americans do with gusto! Holiday Shopping. Whether you visit the Christmas markets, the shops, Paris or Provence, here are some great tips for how to pick up the best gift and also make the experience one to remember.

Here are some tips to make the most of your experience.

1. The French are more formal than Americans in their commercial encounters. Begin each transaction –indeed, each entry into an establishment, with a formal “bonjour”. Always say “merci” and “au revoir” as well. We Americans like to pop in and out of stores and, if we aren’t seriously considering a purchase we don’t like to “bother” the staff. The French see it differently. Whereas we might find it rude to ‘interrupt’, they find it rude not to say hello and goodbye.

2. Comment on the items for sale. Talk about them. Ask questions. Find out where they’re from, or how they’re made, or how to wear them etc. There’s a lot of merchant pride and there are a lot of small artisans and producers who take great pride in their work, and they will likely show you even more special things, once they see that you care about their craft. Plus, you’ll learn a little something and connect with someone. (Bliss always makes it  a point to introduce people to at least one artisan producer or craftsperson on our trips so people can learn about the product but more so, connect with a different person and culture –the raison d’être for travel!)

3. When you make a purchase in the United States, you hand the money to the merchant and they put the change back in your hands. In France, the money goes on the little tray in front of the register and the change gets put there as well for you to pick up. Rarely do you see a “hand to hand” transaction.

4. More than likely, if you buy something, you will be asked if it’s “a gift”. If it is, it will be charmingly and uniquely wrapped for you. It’s so great to return home and give a gift that not only is unique, but looks unique. So, if it’s a gift, by all means say so!

5. Remember to visit some of the smaller shops and boutiques, as well as window shopping (or as the French phrase translates –licking the windows!) the big named designer shops. So you can get a taste of the region and culture instead of the world popular market.

6. If you’re in the countryside —Provence, for example, find out what the specialty of that town is, and then visit those shops. If you’re in Sault, it’s Lavender. If you’re in other places it’s pottery or paint pigments or cherries or a particular type of cheese or candied fruit…You get the idea. Local is extremely significant in France. And local means a very small area. (Let me tell you a story. One evening I was sitting at a friend’s dinner table, in a small village in Provence. She had a fabulously delicious olive oil on the table. I complimented her on it and asked if it was local (almost rhetorically, because I assumed it would be). She said no. I was shocked and said, “really?” Her response was telling: “No, it’s not local, it’s from my grandfather’s tree.” Now, that’s really local!!!

Have a Blissful Holiday shopping experience! And write us if we can help!Wendy@blisstravels.com

Paris: Top 6 Culinary Treats During the Holidays

One of the great things about French food is that it’s so seasonal….Unlike our large supermarkets where you can find “n’importe quoi, n’importe quand” (anything, anytime), that’s not the case in France. April/May are for strawberries and asparagus. July and August for peaches and melons, and so on. Well, the December holidays, though not during a “growing” season, have some of the most special culinary treats of any time of year. This is the time of year for….

1. Foie Gras. Too hot to keep well (and too rich) for summer. This is prime time for foie gras. Best served with dried fruits, fruit breads, chutney…Don’t miss out on this. There are even “stands” at some of the Christmas markets that serve this as street food. And also, there are fabulous specialty places that make or bring in the best of the best. We have a restaurant we frequent who does this beautifully.

foie gras by the “master” (photo by Anthony Bianciella)

2. Oysters and Champagne. Yes, you can have this along the streets or by the river bank during the holidays only. The vendors are set up, and a heater or fire is not too far away. Contemplate the lit up night sky while having these treats. Best of the best, at the best time of year. Walk to find the best market streets or by the river bank, where the views are “manifique”.

3. Chestnuts. In many forms. Roasted, and sold on the streets, or pureed and served with lamb or venison. Or candied and soaked in cognac (and sold by the best gourmet shops. Try Fauchon for this special treat. They do it particularly well.) A nutty but sweet flavor, that can be an accompaniment to both savories and desserts (think, Mont Blanc)!

photo by Sarah Miller Photography

4. Anything…in a Truffle Sauce. (Still remembering that dish as it simmered for Christmas Eve dinner in a little –very little– bistrot we frequent, on the Left Bank). I met the chef that morning as I was out shopping and he was taking a cigarette break. When i commented on the heavenly smell coming from his kitchen, he invited me in. He showed me the boudin blanc and the truffle sauce he was making. Also cooking a stuffed game hen for the night, he gave me a personal recommendation –Get the hen, and then ask for the truffle sauce on the hen. Sublime!

 (And just as an aside, I have to tell you the most amazing story. I was in Provence, finishing a very small group trip, when a 2 star Michelin chef asked to speak with me to thank me for bringing my clients to his establishment. He asked what he could do for me, and I jokingly said, “you can give me a truffle” and pointed to the huge (and I mean huge) box of truffles sitting a few feet away….He laughed. And a few minutes later started barking orders to people in the kitchen. Within 30 seconds a bag was handed to me with 3 giant black truffles, and a warm thank you. I was in shock –and very, very grateful. I shared my good fortune with the people who had helped make the trip a success, and we used the truffles to make eggs, truffle butter, top pasta, and marvelous sandwiches with cheese. Yum.)

5. Warm Wines. As we stroll the Christmas markets, there are vendors who sell warm mulled wine, both white and red. They add calvados or cognac to them for an added degree of “warmth” and you take your cup and stroll along the miles of markets looking for your favorite artisan products or gifts. Highly recommend this. We visit several of the markets each year. One with art and antiques, one with traditional gifts and crafts…And always some with fabulous gourmet products.

6. Chocolates. This is the time of year the really fine, and very perishable chocolates come out of hiding–and in full view. Perhaps you’ve heard of the wonderful Maison du Chocolat. Truly a great place. But, there are some remarkable, amazing, smaller (lesser known outside of Paris, but feted as masters in Paris) chocolate houses….And dare I say, it’s worth going to Brussels to experience some of this magic. We often do day or overnight trips to Brussels for just this purpose (along with some mussels, or amazing savory waffles). One year, I insist, I’m doing this over the Holidays with a group. You don’t know what you’re missing!

Brussels, at Christmas (photo by Sarah Miller Photography)