France’s covered markets rank amongst our favorite places. A covered market (marché couvert in French) is typically a large open building. Inside fixed stalls line the aisles. On market days the vendors behind the counters hawk all the ingredients needed to prepare a fabulous French meal. Marché couverts were the supermarkets of their era. Many remain today still commercially viable and vibrant. Our recent visit to the halle in Dijon Burgundy’s center reminded us of how much we love these spaces.
We visited Dijon’s covered market after the vendors departed. Inside light beamed through the high windows bathing the interior with an evening glow. The stalls sat vacant with blankets hiding their goods from view. Sunlight revealed the details of the ornate, pastel-painted ironwork supporting the old roof above. The halle echoed with its emptiness.
When the customers are gone, covered markets are lonely and private. But during the day, when the floors are active with shoppers, the space is alive. The chatter of vendors and patrons continuing their daily conversations competes the operational clatter of business. Fresh, brightly colored food shines like art. Each area has its own odor. A blindfolded visitor could easily tell when a flower vendor or a fishmonger’s stall is near. In action covered markets are a collision of sounds, sights, and smells.
A wander through a marché couvert is a gastronomical tour. Exquisitely fresh fish from the coast sits not far from meats produced in the region. Beef and lamb are staples. The quality on offer is so clearly better than that offered by mega industrial supermarkets around the world that one wonders how the French, as some do, could shop elsewhere. There are also more exotic items. Duck, rabbit, game birds, and venison are common. And it is also not unusual to see a stall or two that specialize in selling horsemeat. Incredible prepared meats and a vast array of French cheeses ranging from stinky and runny to hard and nutty sit not far from the vegetable stands.
Marché couverts in France are for us a happy place. If the doors are open we can’t just walk by. And though it is our eyes that draw us in, it is our stomachs that keep us lingering inside. Ultimately, when time forces us to leave, the first step back onto the streets is reluctant. Why would we want to leave?