© Rhonda Carrier.
© Rhonda Carrier.

Top Tips for Enjoying French Markets with Kids

By Fiona Joyce

Going to market in France is about what you can see, hear, smell, touch and taste – and can be one of the best bits of your family holiday if you do it right. Remember those pre-kids days when you and your spouse wandered around Sunday markets then lingered long in cafès over the papers? Well in one sense, taking your kids to market is like that – an experience, and one not about consumerism but about being alive. But in another sense, you need to let go of your memories of aimless, childless, market days in order to embrace something altogether different.

'One highlight at the market in Ganges is live produce, especially fish – you choose the fish you want and the guy scoops it out of the tank, knocks it over the head with a piece of wood, whacks it on the scales, rolls it neatly into a sheet of paper and hands it to you.'

On the way to a French market in Lodève in the Hérault in the Languedoc-Roussillon with a friend’s children, we prepare them for their first French market by asking what they expect. What do they think the differences between a market in southern France and one in the UK might be? Ryan, aged 13, lives close to a market in England.

‘They don’t sell food’, he says. He thinks the surroundings will be interesting too. ‘Different buildings.’

In France, markets vary a lot from region to region and town to town. One highlight at the market in Ganges, also in the Hérault, is live produce, especially fish – you choose the fish you want and the guy scoops it out of the tank, knocks it over the head with a piece of wood, whacks it on the scales, rolls it neatly into a sheet of paper and hands it to you, all in one swift practised motion. In nearby Clermont L’Hérault, the only live produce I have seen are crayfish, but there is a band of Red Indians in traditional costume playing pan-pipes and making whooping cries…

Arriving at Lodève market, the first thing the children notice are the wonderful smells of fruit and fresh bread in the air, but the first stall they’re really taken by sells a huge range of semi-precious stones, gemstones and fossils. Ryan and Harvey (12), spend ages deciding which stones they like best. Some other children arrive to take a look and Harvey nudges me

‘They’re German!’ he says. He’s learning German at school.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, lots of Algerians, Tunisians and Moroccans emigrated to the south of France – a fact that is evident in the Arab-style dress of some of the stall-holders as well as the exotic produce they’re selling: djembe (African drums), beads, spices, hand-made bags and baskets. There are plenty of European settlers too, plus holidaymakers, many from Scandinavia. We stop for an ice cream at a friendly cafè, The Miniscule, run by two German women, and the kids carry on listening out for different languages.

We visit the food bit of the market next, where I have a series of missions for them – all about buying lunch. The first is to find and buy a good goats’ cheese; the rule is that they must taste at least two before buying. During the course of the afternoon, they also buy bread and fruit, and besides cheese they get to taste saucisson, melon and olives. We adults trail them at a distance, watching but not interfering. I notice that just saying ‘Bonjour’ can result in an interesting exchange.

Missions accomplished, and the children are elated at their success; I feel proud of them. Now Ryan buys himself a pair of sunglasses for €5 and we return to the gem stall, where Harvey buys a quartz stone. A busker is playing djembe as we head out cradling our purchases and looking forward to a delicious lunch.

Tips for Visiting French Markets with Kids

• It's easy to think ‘the bigger the better’, and that is indeed often the case. But smaller markets can provide more opportunities for tastings and conversation because of the slower pace.
• Give children challenges such as ‘Use at least three French words’, or ‘See how many different languages you can identify'. And/or try getting them to choose and buy fresh produce for lunch. But make sure to give them one small task at a time.
• Teach children that it’s normal to say ‘Bonjour’ to stallholders whether you buy anything or not, especially where they are less busy at the smaller markets (and remember to do this yourself!).
• Ask children to take photographs of the things they find most interesting or ‘most French’
• Plan for a separate adult day at the market too – to see the things you miss out on while you’re focussing on the kids.

Read more about family holidays in Languedoc-Roussillon in southern France.

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