Les Tomates

cherry tomatoes

The French have a lot of protests and manifestations. Some of the issues they march for are a bit of a reach and we roll our eyes. And it’s annoying when the trains and other forms of transport go on strike and you need to get somewhere. But on the other hand, it’s good that they feel strongly about certain issues, enough to hit the streets. So yesterday there was a mouvement social in my neighborhood. But the one yesterday was an issue I could easily get behind.

Many people have an image of France as being an agricultural country, packed with farmers growing produce and selling it at local markets. This is pretty true outside of the major cities, but only two of the outdoor markets in Paris are “farmer’s” markets: a majority of the merchants buy produce from Rungis, which they boast is the largest market the world, and the produce gets resold at the open air markets sponsored by the ville de Paris.

At the market, if you look at the signs over the fruits, meats, fish, and vegetables, the country of origin is written on each one, which is an EU directive. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, and as I tell visitors who think the people at the market are growing the produce, “Are the fishmongers out there catching the fish that they sell?” That was probably true years ago, but nowadays, of the over one hundred markets in Paris, only two are “farmer” (producteurs) markets and the rest are a mix. My market is the largest in the city and there are only two or three vrai producteurs who are there.

In response to the lack of connection between les producteurs and Les consommateurs the Parti communiste française set up a guerilla market in my neighborhood. The flyers they were handing out noted the purpose of the market (among many) was to “…support the producers”, to encourage développement durable (sustainability), and to make food available at a prix juste (fair price). There was a lot of other tenets in the leaflets they were handing out, including a jab at American agribusiness, the scourge of capitalism, and a demand for more regulations on imports in France. Oddly, there was nothing about regulation on exports from France.

prix tomato boxes

I managed to get out of the house fairly early so I took advantage of this extraordinarily rare moment of morning energy and took a walk over there. It was bustling with people crowded around the tables, with produce in boxes, crates, and plastic bags (which, paradoxically, are sustainable…depending on what your definition of thinking about ‘long term’ is) piled up for sale. A list of prices was printed up on stacks of paper. Am not sure why they couldn’t just print up one and affix it somewhere, but it was interesting to see that even the French communists believe in lots of paperwork, too.

There wasn’t a giant selection of items; pears, nectarines, potatoes, tomatoes, and prune plums, and they weren’t as sexy and tempting as what I saw at the Greenmarket in New York last week (no leafy tangles of stewing greens tied together, no braids of heirloom garlic, no baskets of dewy, just-picked raspberries), I was still excited about the idea of being able to buy food direct that would aid the producers instead of passing through a bunch of channels before it landed on my kitchen.

As I walked a few blocks home from the makeshift market hauling two flats of produce, two people stopped me to ask where I got my stuff. I directed them toward to market, and went home to finish my coffee.

after market

About an hour later, I decide to go back with my camera and take some pictures. And my wheeled shopping cart, too. Even though this temporary market/protest was supposed to last until noon, when I arrived at around 10:15am, all that remained was a substantial pile of empty boxes and some people milling about wondering where the food was. The communists had obviously underestimated the needs of “the people”. Adjacent to the area where the boxes were piled up were tables set up for lunch under an awning, set with paper plates and plastic utensils, and plastic water bottles, which I presumed were for the people who worked that morning.

(I’m glad they could sit down to a meal together, but in addition to all the plastic bags, was I the only one who caught the incongruity of people who espouse communist principles buying water from a private, for-profit company when a publicly paid-for option was available for free?)

market woman prune plums

Many people think that the French shop daily for their foods, but like the rest of the people in the world, the French go to school, take care of their families, work at their jobs (even the communists), and not all have the time to leisurely shop the markets on, and wait in line for at all the various stands to buy their food. A fantastic program has been set up to sell produce in some of the train stations to the suburbs in paper (!) bags so people can pick one up easily on their way home from work. But for the most part, they go to the supermarket, which are the worst places in France to buy produce, and Picard, a very popular chain of stores that sells frozen foods. In the countryside, it seems like every town, larger and small, has at least one giant hypermarket, like Carrefour and E. Leclerc, whose vast parking lots are always packed.

It’s interesting that the French made a concerted effort to improve the quality of the bread in France (the government passed laws creating standards in 1993) and although out of 100 to 150 raw milk three raw milk cheeses disappear each year in France, people still eat a lot of French cheese, pasteurized and unpasteurized, both industrial and fermier (farm).

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of “Let’s eat local!” going on here in France. I’ve heard a few explanations as to why, but the one I’ve heard with resonates the most to me is “Everything from France is local to us.” I guess coming from the United States, where France could fit neatly into a space the size of Texas, there’s some truth to that. Coming from San Francisco, I don’t consider produce from Los Angeles ‘local’, but I suppose we’re used to vast spaces and distances which explains the difference. But it’s been one of the great unanswered questions for me.

Upon closer inspection, when I took a picture of the tomates, I noticed the box of perfect, suspiciously-round tomatoes said “France Grand-Sud Ouest” (southwest France), meaning the tomatoes had been hauled up from the south. And when I started rifling through the box of prune plums that I bought when I was caught up in the excitement of the moment, I discovered half of them weren’t picked ripe, and were firm and green.

Italian prune plums

Since it was the same day as my local market, I wielded my still-empty shopping caddy through the mess and headed over there to do my shopping. By chance, I met a fellow from China (who spoke excellent French) and he started asking me questions about the market, and where the produce was from. When I pointed to the trucks filled with boxes that the men were unpacking, their haul from Rungis, his eyes almost fell out of his head.

I told him I try to buy everything from the same stand, les producteurs, and he asked me if he could come along with me. As we walked toward the stand, I pointed out the (reusable) chalkboard signs at the stalls which noted where everything came from such as Tunisia, Israel, Kenya, Morocco, Spain, and Italy, but specifically the tomatoes. There were plenty of the on-the-vine tomatoes, those grown in greenhouse in Brittany, which, I guess could be considered local. More so than the exact same-looking ones from Holland.

tomatoes tomatoes for sauce

I took the fellow from China, whose name I unfortunately didn’t catch, over to my favorite stall at the market, le producteur. And although on Thursdays because the market isn’t so busy, they didn’t have as much stuff as usual, I was so happy to see what they did have.

Around the stall, tomatoes were piled up, along with round, variegated zucchini and chard and basil, and I bought everything I thought I could eat within the next week. A common complaint amongst my American friends is that it’s extremely difficult to find good tomatoes in Paris, even in the summer. Parisians have taken with amazing fervor to cherry tomatoes, of which many varieties are sold in the supermarkets and are available year ’round. But if you ask where one can find a sun-ripe, fragile, garden fresh tomato, most will shrug. Of course, I was in heaven.

Behind them, there were bins of tomates they were selling for just €1 a kilo (about 40 cents a pound), that were dented, split, or mushy, labeled as “for sauce”. Because I am my mother’s son, I couldn’t resist a bargain and bought them all. (Disclosure: Because I bought all of their 5 kilos, 11-pounds, of squishy tomatoes, they gave me a free bunch of basil. Of course, I also bring them cookies from time to time, which helps, too.)

tomatoes tomato sauce

I didn’t buy any of the cherry tomatoes since I was pretty well-fixed in the tomato department, but when I got home, I made a big pot of pasta sauce with the ‘for sauce’ tomatoes, using the basil, onions, and garlic I picked up from the same producteur as well. The prune plums that were kinda firm and slightly sour got stewed with some sugar and kirsch for sorbet.

The undentable tomatoes from the southwest are getting their comeuppance in a slow oven right now, doused with olive oil, thyme, and plenty of garlic, to concentrate and slow-roast in some semblance of flavor. And because I was afraid if I served them raw, someone might break a tooth or something.

(Although they’ve been in there for two hours and haven’t softened—like, at all.)

tomato tomatoes ready for roasting

However before I headed home, I stopped at another stand at the market a few feet away, because I saw some radicchio that looked like it wanted to be made into a salad at my house. As I waited in line, the woman in front of me bought a hefty bag of on-the-vine tomatoes and some too-pristine looking zucchini. The squash was very shiny and the tomatoes were absolutely perfect, solid-red orbs. I didn’t look to see where they were from. But they didn’t look as nice as my squished tomatoes.



Related Posts and Links

Milk from Here

Community Supported Agriculture in Paris

French Tomato Tart

What Got Me Really Excited at My Market Today

the 64 cent fish

The Barbès Market

Preserved Summer Tomato Recipe

58 comments

  • “A fantastic program has been set up to sell produce in some of the train stations to the suburbs in paper (!) bags so people can pick one up easily on their way home from work”

    This is indeed a wonderful initiative! At my RER Station “en direct du potager” sells fruit and vegetables every wednesday. For more info:http://www.endirectdupotager.fr/. First they only had ‘^paniers’, but since a few weeks they also sell par pièce! I like the idea of buying directly from the farmers and skipping all the middle men.. Under the impression that thus the products are fresher. And you are sure to have the season’s products.

    Have fun !
    Nicolette

  • Oh dear – when I go to French supermarkets I am always amazed at the quality of their produce compared with what is available here. The discount chains, particularly Lidl, are very good – their produce is seasonal and (relatively) local, but the mainstream ones are dire – green beans, in season at this time of year, are airfreighted from Africa… and the tomatoes, courgettes, etc are infinitely more standardised and tasteless than they ever are even in Carrefour.

  • Our “Wochenmarkt” or green market is there 3 mornings a week and has a variety of stands and we hardly miss a day. They buy from the giant wholesale market at the docks but all of them have something that they grow themselves and sell. When we have visitors here from the US, a market visit is always on the to-do list and everyone loves it. And what better way to learn the language than with food??

    Banana bread gets me the occasional freebie!

  • here is so many inspirations!

    have a nice time!
    Paula

  • Nicolette: It’s such a great idea to have those bags of produce at the RER (suburban train) stations. It’s a win-win idea for everyone. For a while I was getting a pannier of food grown locally. But going to pick it up always became a major project because the deliver was late and I’d have to walk back to the city hall to see if it had arrived, after my first visit when it wasn’t.

    Glad this works out well for you!

  • Speaking of reasons for demonstrations…my personal favorite was a few years back when people on unemployment had a march to protest the fact they didn’t get a Christmas bonus. What do the unemployed do when they strike…go to work!?

  • Thank you for the article. Here in Spain the big box hipermarkets have been really making inroads in the past several years. I hate it. I’ve noticed that the quality of the produce has steadily declined. Why? Because they become the only game in town and can sell whatever they want. I saw garlic from China there the other day in Carrefour. CHINA! It’s crazy. 4 years ago there were two huge developments in Madrid. Entire neighborhoods. Not only did they lack any sort of street life, they lacked central markets. The biggest flashiest building of the entire development? A mall. Located across a highway of course. All of this stuff happened in the States 40 years ago and we began to learn from those mistakes. A lot of folks here think it’s great. It’s modern! It’s convenient!

  • Enjoyed and appeciate the philosophy you espouse in this post. I find the produce in French supermarkets to generally be lower quality that what we can get at markets in the San Francisco Bay Area where we live. We also have access to great produce at the Ferry Plaza and Marin Farmer’s Markets. Having said that, I think the produce we find at the weekly market near our home in Vaison la Romaine is very good if you go to the right producteurs.

  • Don: I think that for so many years, French people have shopped at markets, that the idea of a supermarket was kind of exciting and more importantly, made shopping easier and faster since a lot of folks don’t have the luxury of spending the morning at the market (like I do!) It’s a shame to see produce from halfway around the world being sold at the hypermarkets But also because folks are frugal, they tend to gravitate toward items that are priced less, even if they’re grown far away.

    The reason this ‘demonstration’ was interesting to me was because they were acknowledging there’s a problem and the people were receptive to it. I had a nice chat with the fellow who was selling the produce and he was happy to be doing what he was doing. It was unfortunate about the quality of the produce, but it’s a move to get back in the right direction.

  • Our Paris apartment is in the 7th, just a few blocks from the Rue Cler market. Even though none of the vendors are actually farmers, I’ve always found them to be knowledgable, and, believe it or not, helpful!

    A couple of years ago, we were there in September. I asked my husband to pick up some figs on his way back from his errands. He stopped at one of the stalls, and said to the man behind the counter, “Can you choose some ripe ones for me?” The man laughed, and said, “Non! But I will teach you how to tell which ones are ripe.”

    My husband thanked the man, who then added, “That way, your wife can be mad at you, and not me, if you choose wrong!”

    I only go to the supermarkets in desperation…

  • This is an absolutely WONDERFUL article. I moved to Paris in 1968 and can confirm everything that’s said here. The continued freshness of the produce. The improved quality of the bread. The public nature of these Parisian markets. It makes SUCH a difference in the quality of life. When I’m not in Paris, I’m in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which has a real farmer’s market “downtown” on Saturday morning throughout the year and on Wednesday and Saturday during the summer growing season. In fact two other farmer’s markets have sprung up on opposite ends of the city.
    And yes, ALL France is local. But if you’re in the country, rather than in Paris, you’ll find the markets pristinely local.

  • Many years ago, there was a huge farmers’ demonstration in Paris. It was when Spain was just entering the EU and French farmers were in an uproar about cheap, inferior Spanish produce invading the French markets (sorry Don Madrid) and ruining their livelihood. The farmers marched through town, and also built a pyramid of French fruit and vegetables in the courtyard of the Louvre. It was a work of art! And at the end of the day, they handed the produce out to passers-by. I don’t know how to post a photo of it here, but if you go to my website (www.sandyschopbach.com) and look in Photographs, you’ll see a photo of it in the “thumnails” section, under the title Three Pyramids. (The color’s a bit off, such are the woes of the internet.)

  • What an interesting article. Thank you.

    At the markets here in Mexico, we have seen tomatoes (and everything else) go from ripe and locally grown, to tasteless, agri-biz disappointments. While the variety is now very large, the quality often leaves a lot to be desired. Anything local is prized and uncommon. Is this the price we pay for increased production?

    Kathleen

  • Sandy: I suspect the protest was more about imports (although they don’t seem to have problems with exporting of French goods, affecting the livelihoods elsewhere…French corporations, like Carrefour, reach as far away as setting up stores in China) rather than a statement about the quality of Spanish produce.

    That said, there is a lot of inexpensive and not great quality imports from Spain (as well as other countries, including France) as well as good stuff. Unfortunately the bad often gets lumped in with the good

  • Hooray for squishy tomatoes and imperfect produce! Since when is anything in the garden perfect looking anyways? I bought some local lettuce the other day and loved the fact that there were live aphids in it. That tells me that it hasn’t been sitting around for too long nor has it travelled too far. It’s too bad that it’s so hard to find real local produce in France, the very place that inspired me to cook with local food, and here in Canada it’s getting easier!

  • I can’t express how I love going to the market in our little town and talking to the farmer about his produce, the cheese makers about their cheese, the organic whole grain baker about his breads and there is even farm raised poultry that can be ordered and picked up. And they recognize you. Grocery stores you slip in and out unnoticed except for the stats your store card supplies. I know that farmers markets are not available everywhere but demand and then supply is a workable concept. It also doesn’t hurt to live next to an Amish farming community who are willing to grow organic and charge reasonable prices for the produce. Supporting local business and agriculture can literally change your life in ways that you don’t suspect

    Although you have burst a few bubbles about Paris and the French lifestyle, France is still in my traveling plans.

  • I always ask my vendors to pick out the perfect tomato to eat TODAY. They happily oblige and here in Provence, the choices are endless.The less perfect, the better. I’m a little upset about the cookie thing though. I thought that was my trick and mine alone. I’ve taken them to the sous-prefecture (carte de sejour issues), the translators office (their lives suck and their attitude is evidence), the office of drivers license (ditto the traducteur’s office) and any other place where I think it will give me a leg up. And, as you well know, it works like a charm. But it must be chocolate chip cookes. The French just can’t seem to develop a taste for this oh-so-perfect flavor. Love your blog.

  • wonderful post. i’ve been looking for information on the french food system (and suspecting it wasn’t all small-scale artisanal agriculture) for a while, so it was great to finally start reading about it.

    i was wondering, though, (maybe i’ve missed it, but) which ones were the marchés de producteurs in paris?

    thanks!

  • forgot to say….it can’t be peanut butter cookies. Quelle horreur!

  • I love tomatoes – it makes me sad to hear that good ones are hard to come by in Paris. Is that true of most of France? I would think that the southern regions would have ideal summer weather for great tomatoes.

    I’m with you on the “farmer’s” markets. Here in L.A., a lot of stuff is trucked in from the Central Valley, or SB/SD counties if we’re lucky. My biggest problem is that markets have become so chic in L.A. that most of the stalls hire whoever they can find, so there are often people working who know nothing about the produce that they are selling. I want to be able to ask what variety that peach is, dammit!

  • margie: I think because the farmer’s work so hard there, they don’t have the time or energy to work the market. You can find lovely tomatoes in the south of France, but many of them don’t make it up to Paris (they are likely keeping them all for themselves!)

    sarah: Those would be Batignolles (Saturday) and Raspail (Sunday). Batignolles is a more ‘earthy’ market while Raspail is where the fancy Left Bank people shop. Bring your Hermès shopping bag! ; )

    Laura: There’s lots of great stuff in France, and at the markets. But like the tomatoes I know where to buy, you have to be aware that not everything is what you might think–and look for the good stuff.

  • This was one of my biggest disappointments when I first realized this about France. And now I’m in Belgium where it’s not any better. In the big hypermarkets, we can’t even find local onions and garlic sometimes. And it’s come to the point where we’ll consider France local. Why does garlic need to come all the way from Argentina? Even the pannier I’ve been getting considers produce from the anywhere in the Benelux local and I’ve just found out they use a distributor. It’s “local” but it’s passing through several hands before I get it. It’s very frustrating!

  • Alas, I have lived long enough in Holland to feel for you guys. Here, in Italy, I am spoiled with good products (although they do grow intensively and in glass houses too) but I have resorted to buying things in season, which can get a little boring at time but is far more tasty. Also: I buy my stuff from a greengrocer and not from the supermarket. It always helps.

  • Hi David, I from Spain, sorry because my english is very bad, i discovery you at channel National Geographic, congratulations for great work!!! In Spain we have same problem with tomatoes, i think that is idea of UE. The spanish tomatoes is very difficult see, all go out or are very expensive.

  • Thank you for the interesting post. I adore those brightly red tomatoes and am dreaming about a delicious tomatoe sauce (of course with freshly grated parmesan cheese on top)!

  • Tomatoes!
    As a child in Mexico I loved the squishy flavorful, albeit very round tomatoes sold at the local market. Later on, as a teen in California I mourned said tomatoes. When Mexico started exporting tomatoes to the US my family and I could not contain ourselves… we hurriedly bought a bunch, and went home only to taste the same water-flushed tomatoes one could find in California.
    I recently learned (from my French cousin, who markets French products in South America) that Mexico buys a huge percentage of French greenhouses…
    So that’s what’s been happening!
    I am now in France, eating the loveliest garden-variety Coeur de Beouf tomatoes and can’t help but feel sad thinking of the irony that the wonderful tomatoes I grew up with are now a thing of the past due to globalization and that also due to globalization I am able to eat these wonderful tomatoes that I wouldn’t have otherwise had access to…

  • Thanks for this very interesting post and for debunking the myth (I think mostly among American tourists) that the markets in Paris are true farmer’s markets. It takes some time to figure out who the good vendors are in terms of both their produce and their advice and it also takes courage using your language skills.

    (But don’t you mean “only two” of Paris’s markets are farmer’s markets? I had to read that sentence quite a few times and even then I wasn’t sure.)

    Thanks. Fixed! -dl

  • I live in England, where it is virtually, nay, actually, impossible to get a decent tomato. No matter which country it comes from, especially if it’s anywhere in the UK. There are a few good farmer’s markets in London but again, when the tomatoes are next to the bananas and kiwi fruit…

  • In shopping for fruit and vegetables there seems to be a choice of either quality, variety or convenience; the produce sold at train stations is a brilliant idea! Do you know how this came to be?

    It reminds me of a conversation I had about this. My companion, formerly from the country, told me some farmers from his town used to put the produce on a ute (pick-up truck) and drive through the streets.

  • It’s funny how we always stereotype different cultures… in my town mostly everyone shops at the farmers markets and at the many local roadside stands (where neighbors sell the surplus from their kitchen gardens and backyard laying hens) throughout the week, and we all say it’s very French of us. Though I’m not sure why, since it seems very us—Northeast farm country–of us to do so. I guess it just makes us feel a bit sexier to imagine we are like the French.

  • I have decided the only way to get a decent tomato is to grow it myself. I had a bumper crop last year, so learned to can. (And to make jam with the pears from the tree that just wouldn’t stop giving.)

    Canning is a pain in the neck, though, so we bought a chest freezer and now I am just freezing the excess.

  • A lovely post just as my tomatoes start to rippen. We are almost suffering from a glut of them already.

    My sister is off to Paris to work as an au pair in next month and I am looking forward to visiting her and some of the places you have written about.

  • Hi David,
    thank you for this post. People think food shopping and markets to be such a romantic experience in Italy, while you have expressed perfectly what the situation is here too. There is still very little awareness of carboon footprint, farmers’ markets, local and seasonal produce etc. Of course the offer of produce is probably more ‘local’ than it is in the States (for obvious reasons) and the issues regarding meat, milk etc. are not quite as pressing. But it is not quite as idyllic as people tend to think it is.

  • Hi David, despite their limitations I still love shopping at the outdoor food markets in Paris and I try (as much as possible) to always buy produce originating in France (figuring this is about as local as I can get here). Are you able to reveal which market and “producteur” you frequent? My locals are Popincourt and Bastille (Richard Lenoir) but I am hard pressed to find any vendors who look like they grow the stuff themselves.

  • Reading this post is the first time I am not despondent about living in Southern New Jersey instead of the South of France. In this instance, the hype surrounding our glorious tomatoes and peaches is justified. That explosion of flavor in my mouth as the juices drip down my chin from the just picked and still warm from the sun fruit at my farm market makes me delirious. But by the end of September, I’ll start dreaming again that I actually live next to David in Paris!

  • I think you should get out Paris and into the country and smaller towns more often.
    I just spent a week in Province and for example the market in Aix-en-Provence was overflowing with seasonal fruits and vegetables and local producer offered not only fruits and vegetables, but everything from cheeses to breads to olives, lavender, herbs and hams and sausages.

    I spent the week with French friends nearby, and yes, they do go to that huge supermarket every now and then to stock up (and let me tell you, the selection of not prepackaged fresh seafood, vegetables, fruits, cheeses, breads, was simply stunning, ), but they buy produce from a local organic farmer.

    The prune plums in your photo looks like the one called “Hauszwetschke” here – a plum tree growing next to many farmhouses – which has its particular uses, for example baking a sort of plum pizza, not overly sweet, but refreshing and a dollop of sweetened whipped cream sweetens the deal. That plum may not have the more familiar uniform blue color, but it is prized for holding its shape and great taste.

  • That would have been “Provence” – my apologies!

  • Regarding “local” and “carbon foot print”, this article in the New York Times quite interesting:
    Math Lessons for Locavores
    By STEPHEN BUDIANSKY
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/20/opinion/20budiansky.html?src=me&ref=general

  • Hi David – Where to begin. I live in Nova Scotia, Canada. Lots of articles, Letters to the Editor about supermarkets not supporting local farmers when fresh local produce is available. It’s really all about their profit margin. Some signs say ‘Grown Close to Home’ LOL – that’s 1500 Kms away.

    Husband’s family lives in France. Been visiting at least every 2 yrs since ’87, They do most of their shopping in the big supermarkets and shop like most N.A.’s. When I lived in Brussels in ’69/70 their big supermarkets eclipsed those of Montreal.

    Unfortunately, I couldn’t put in my own veggie garden this year. Used to grow all my own heirloom toms & other veggies from seed – yummy. I miss those days. Health no longer allows me to garden as I used to.

    Penny

    P.S. enjoy reading your posts.

  • Wow! Sometimes I feel sorry for myself, living in a very little village (800 people) in the heart of central Illinois industrial agricultural land and not like you all in some wonderful place in Europe

    But at our farmers’ market last week I bought beautiful yellow tomatoes streaked with red, called “pineapple tomatoes,” that taste as luscious as they look; purple Cherokes with green shoulders and jewel-like red-purple flesh that are our second favorite; a basket of mixed cherry tomatoes, yellow, red and a purple called “chocolate berry cherry”; San Marzano plum tomatoes grown from seeds someone had sent to the farmer from Italy that immediately became sauce; and Juliets that look like grape tomatoes on steroids that I slow roasted with garlic and olive oil and are being eaten as summer candy.

    All the tomatoes I bought were grown by the person who sold them to me, and they all were delighted to tell me what varieties they were selling and why they were growing those in particular, which ones they thought were the best and which they were going to grow again next year. I also bought sweet corn, fat red sweet peppers, Swiss chard, green beans, red raspberries, red onions, white eggplant and leeks. All had been picked the morning of the day I bought them by the folks who were selling them, and none had come from farther than 15 miles away.

    I then went and picked-up some eggs laid by chickens that run around on a farm developed by some young chefs who are getting ready to start a farm to fork restaurant in the near-by city. They gave me a big bag of green beans they had just picked.

    In terms of food, at least, I suddenly feel like a very lucky person indeed.

  • your tomato photos are beautiful!

  • Dear David,
    Although I have been following your Blog for the last six months, and have eaten in Paris for a week on your recommendations, thank you, your tomato article made me have to speak out. For the last 10 years I have owned an very old farm house in the Gers and spend as much of the summer as possible here. I am passionate about tomatoes, having grown up on the Jersey Shore and having had a country house in VA where tomatoes were our major crop–maybe 15 varieties..
    When I came to France, 10 years ago, to wonderful local markets and true local food of every kind, the French had no interest in tomatoes and thought we were a little crazy to bring Heirloom seeds to start in the window. Even the seeds were not available here.
    My view was that, except for cherry tomatoes that are clearly loved and served with nuts and olives for the aperitif, tomatoes were considered a garnish, to make the plate colorful.
    I live in a small hamlet with some of the best gardeners and small but global wine makers, and their tomatoes were not the big juicy-acidic delights that make summer,– summer.
    That is really changing, the AB producers in the markets have wonderful varieties in season, coeur de boeuf, noire de crimea,and that long tomato from the Andes …etc. Also, i can buy great plants and not have to start with seeds in the window.
    In the sudwest, tomatoes are a product that is clearly improving–especially AB.
    I was even able to buy a Mr Stripy plant that is thriving in my garden. So far no French guest in my house believes that a green striped tomato is really ripe.
    Probably an American should not push the envelope that far.
    Of course, I have also become passionate au sujet de fois gras and duck in all forms.
    Merci de votre superb website.
    From France profound a Heux, Gers, Susan Walter

  • After reading your article, I am feeling pretty happy and super appreciative that my mom works hard to plant a huge vegetable garden with loads of different tomatoes, even tomatoes which she carried seeds over from Ukraine. They are the best!!

  • Wow, a great post and that really sounds like a fascinating event to have witnessed, albeit at the crack of dawn … You bring up some valid & thought-provoking points. Food has become a political issue these days & I find it all very interesting. It’s great that we’re becoming more aware about what we eat, where it comes from, as well as what our tax dollars are actually funding. Supporting the small producers puts money into the hands of the people who are best serving our interests by providing nutritional, good-tasting fresh food, which hopefully in the process has fed the soil rather than depleted it. According to the US Farm Bill, fruits and vegetables are actually considered ‘specialty crops’, which don’t receive the same subsidies as the commodities of wheat, rice, corn, soy and others. Most of those crops don’t even enter the food system directly, but get handed over to food processors or are used as livestock feed. A diet dictated by the mega-corps of tasteless tomatoes, genetically modified food and who-knows-what from China doesn’t appeal to me, so I’m even learning to grow some of my own food too.

    I don’t know much about the French food system. I’m curious as to where all the produce that winds up in Rungis actually comes from & where it all goes from there. I’m wondering if there’s any difference these days between the fruits & vegetables that you would buy in a farmer’s market vs. what you would buy in say a Franprix. I know that according to some statistics, France is #2 on the list of the highest level of pesticide usage in the EU. I’m lucky to live close enough to the Batignolles bio-market, to do a lot of shopping there. It’s hard not to get carried away with all the good stuff they have. I’ve never yet made it to the Raspail market…and now that you say that a Hermes bag is de rigeur, it might not be anytime soon !

    Sorry for the long post, but this is something I really care about.

    On a lighter note, your squished tomato sauce looks yummy :)

  • I’m from South Florida and we get the most glorious “squishy” tomatoes in our farmers’ markets in the winter…..however, we are tortured by the tasteless Stepford tomatoes in the summer months.

  • I know that when I was living in Paris, there was a farmer’s demonstration all around Republique with massive amounts of farmers riding around in tractors, all along Richard Lenoir, and Boulevard Voltaire. It was sometime in April and I believe that they were protesting, among other things low buying prices, probably related to cheaper goods being found and flown in elsewhere. Additionally, when I went to this past May Day demonstration I was shocked at the number of branches of the French communist party, as well as the stalls and outlets set up (and even attached to cars and trucks, for the marchers) selling food, beer and water. There was a capitalist marketplace of communist ideas. Even more amazingly, no one seemed to notice the contradiction. In the minds of many Americans, the markets of Paris are an embodiment of the French way of living, but having worked at the Union Square Farmer’s Market for years, I was disappointed by the atmosphere, lack of politics and quality of produce at the market by my apartment (marche de belleville). I had composted at home, and tried to do so again when I first moved to Paris but when I went to L’emo (not knowing where else to go) to ask about facilities for composting, they had no idea what I was talking about.

  • Hmm–I see we get the unvarnished truth about France from your blog. The French practically invented the love affair with Local thing, but, as in many things, the US has belatedly taken the idea, run with it, and surpassed them in some ways. I”m sometimes frustrated with the markets here in Burgundy where I live (I’m American)–no heirloom tomatoes, and they don’t experiment with new varieties of vegetables. Luckily there’s one stand they grows everything they sell (including lusious tomatoes) Everything is not local in France when you’ve got summer produce from South American at the market. However, I’ve taken to bringing them seeds of fun new varieties myself, and they’ve been open to experimenting.

  • I had a great (and very rare) ‘local food’ experience today:
    a bunch of our friends got together for a BBQ and everyone brought a couple of dishes. One passionate vegetable gardener made a yellow tomato and a potato salad, all the ingredients including onions and herbs were grown by him and had been harvested only this morning. Absolutely delicious!

    Our hosts are non-dairies so I made your banana and coconut icecream with a splash of rum – great success!

  • Interesting insight into French produce! We do still have this belief that all produce in France must be grown by the local farmer down the street, but unfortunately that’s just not the case anymore.
    Great post.

  • Really enjoyed reading this post! and loving the pictures as it takes me back to my experience in Paris. Their markets are so full of life with people jockeying to make their fresh purchases.

    One major difference you’ll also find between tomatoes in the supermarket and sold by your fave grower is the weight. Organically grown tomatoes just have more goodness in them and the flavors are dreamy.

    Borough Markets in London is also another fave.

    Thank you!!

    All the best,
    Bridget

  • The reality is, is that French people aren’t that much different than people in other industrialized societies. Since the 1960s, when France was on the fast-track to modernize everything, the hypermarkets starting springing up and the shops in small villages selling food closed as the next generations weren’t that interested in farming, and people wanted to buy things quicker and faster.

    Like other places, people here buy canned vegetables when the fresh ones aren’t far away in the same supermarket. They choose industrially produced cheese when pretty good cheese is just a reach away (albeit at a higher price) in the refrigerator sections (I guess for the same reason some Americans buy American ‘cheese’ instead of cheddar). And with a boulangerie on just about every corner, I’m still surprised that people would buy packaged sliced white bread at the supermarket.

    Still, good..and great foods, still exist in France. I just hope people continue to buy them so they don’t disappear entirely.

  • I know what you mean about finding real farmers, the smaller markets in and around St. Louis (US) seem to have mostly farmers, the larger markets have produce from all over (the world) The farmers themselves will mix their home grown with outside crops. I stopped at a little farm stand in the suburbs that looked like it sat on about 3 or 4 acres of land. When I saw bar codes on the watermelons and plums I knew much of what was there was not what they grew. Farmers only appear as farmers.

    There are a number of European Union countries that have laws limiting the size of mega stores, Finland for one. Urban design has to insure a place for the small business, outside New York, America is overrun by chains and mega stores. The hypermarkets come with a lifestyle of driving rather than walking and transit, I’m not sure that is true in Paris though. In any case an auto orientated environment encourages the mega store over small purveyors.
    Last year there was an article by John Jacob in Cite magazine (a planning magazine out of the Houston area), the title was “Can Houston Fed itself?” That is a fair question “Can Paris Fed itself?” It is a fair question all over the world.

  • GMichaud: Hypermarkets aren’t allowed within Paris city limits, although there are a few just outside that are reachable by métro. They are usually quite busy, especially on weekend. In Paris there are plenty of outdoor markets but virtually all of them operate during the morning although there are now a few that are late afternoon-early evening, so that people can work can also go shopping for food, which is great.

    During the 1960s-1970s, when George Pompidou tore down Les Halles, built skyscrapers in Paris, and had highways built through (and under) the city, declaring that cars would be a priority in Paris. That’s been changing now because everyone is seeing that most of those projects didn’t quite work out as planned.

    I think “Can Paris feed itself?” is a good question. The answer is, of course, no. But France is a small country with deep agricultural roots and they have a great train system that is capable of moving food around quickly and inexpensively. Most of the land in France has been turned over to agribusiness and the number of small farms disappearing is staggering. But like this communist manif, there are some wake-up calls that things need to change. So it’ll be interesting to see what happens during the next few years here.

  • Luuuuuurve the boulangerie!! The experience of the “bonjour” as the aroma of fresh baked bread floods your nostrils is memory to savour. It is surprising as you say David that people would buy packaged sliced white bread at the supermarket.

    Just like the people in other industrialized societies, do you think it’s the convenience factor kickin in?

  • Dear David,

    Thank you for this article. I’ve been living in Paris for 2 1/2 years and have grown more and more sad with realizing that we are surrounded with very non-local produce. Like many people, I had the misconception that the produce in Paris would being coming from local surrounding regions and while there is product that may be coming from la france it can mean that it is coming as far away as Reunion which troubles me particularly when I think back to buying directly from farmers at my Berkeley farmer’s market. Thank you immensely for the information on the 2 Paris farmers markets, I’ll be checking them out later this week and hope I will find farmers to support.

    Best,

    Michelle

    ps I read your blog regularly and I truly enjoyed your Paris book, you captured facets of true Paris life so well and so hilariously.

  • If you have time to go 20km out of Paris, you should check out the Cueillette de Gally (http://www.ferme.gally.com/), where you pick your own fruit and veg. You can’t really do more local or seasonal than that, the prices are pretty good, and they grow their produce according to principles of agriculture raisonnée (integrated farming?). It’s a great place to take your kids as well!
    Oh, and the tomatoes are to die for! We buy them still green and let them ripen in the sun on the balcony. There is no comparison with the “plastic” uniform tomatoes you find elsewhere.

  • Thanks for another fine article Mr. Lebovitz. My family and I spend June and July in Paris (the 5th) this past summer and very much enjoyed the city. I read your blog almost daily and searched your archives as well. Many of the restaurants we enjoyed could be directly attributed to this blog.

    We had lived in a near-downtown, Chicago neighborhood for the past 13 years before traveling to Paris for two months and now live in Minneapolis. I had the misconception, like many Americans, that Parisians just walk down to their local market and buy farm fresh produce. That was simply not the case. After growing my own vegetables on the roof of my condo in Chicago (Flickr page: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8435740@N05/), I feel I’m able to spot “fresh” produce. I found very little at my regular markets. I did find one vendor at the Bastille Sunday market that seemed to be a local farmer or at least had access to a local farm and their peas were fantastic. Overall though, I was very disappointed in the produce we ate this summer and was happy to return to the farmer’s markets in the states. Minneapolis has a wonderful farmer market community which rivals (or maybe even surpasses) Chicago’s. The first thing I did was buy a few pounds of tomatoes for BLTs.

    If you can’t get local produce in Paris, try growing your own. With the Earthbox system I used in Chicago, it’s definitely possible.

    Thanks again for your wonderful blog.

    -Russ

  • RussC: Love those garden boxes! The problem here is that there’s not a lot of shade so in the summer, anything on my rooftop burns and wilts. (Like my herbs..) Will have to live vicariously through your tomatoes : )