Like many people, I first came to Normandy to visit the D-Day beaches and study a monumental chapter in World War II history. One of the things that keeps me coming back is the weekly outdoor markets.
During the past decade my husband, Ken, and I have become converts to slow travel, lingering in places long enough to absorb the local culture while I write from wherever we happen to be. Though the French countryside is dotted with restaurants, shopping for food that we will prepare ourselves gives us a way to interact with locals around a subject that brings people together. Markets, which are a social gathering place, also provide a window on regional culture. They reveal the way people spend money, nourish themselves and interact with strangers.
At outdoor markets, it’s possible to buy food closer to the source of production, which means it will be fresher and more flavorful. This is especially true with the many varieties of apples as well as dairy products found in Normandy, but it also affects livestock. There’s lamb from sheep that have grazed on the salt marshes; pork from free-range pigs; and beef and veal from animals that have fed on the area’s rich grasses. All this contributes to the terroir – the taste that food derives from the soil, atmosphere, weather and other factors associated with its production. Even those who prefer not to cook on holiday can enjoy these benefits by making small purchases – say for snacks or picnics – at the markets.
To be sure, one can also find giant supermarkets, or hypermarchés, as they are called, throughout France. From the looks of it, lots of folks patronize them, including families and cost-conscious pensioners. Their prices for fruits and vegetables are sometimes more reasonable than at markets, they carry products from all over the country and they’re open for long hours, whereas markets tend to fold down by 1 p.m. But, for the most part, I plan itineraries – and my menus – around weekly markets.
During three trips to this part of France in three seasons, most recently for the month of June, I’ve been to eight different weekly markets, some of them multiple times. A couple could be easily visited on the same day as nearby points of interest. For example, the market in Bayeux (Wednesday morning on the rue Saint-Jean and Saturday morning at the Place Saint-Patrice) can be combined with seeing the famed Bayeux tapestry, depicting the Norman conquest of Britain.
Likewise, one could provision for a picnic at the Courseulles-sur-Mer market (Tuesday and Friday in the Place du Marché) and consume it nearby at Gold Beach, where the British landed on D-Day. From there it’s a scenic walk west for less than a mile along a promenade that leads to the seaside village of Asnelles. Along the way you can see an old German block house; have a spectacular view of the temporary harbors known as mulberries; and gape at the elegant 19th-century mansions that were billeted during the Nazi occupation and fortunately not destroyed.
With any luck, you will reach the main street in time for the afternoon reopening of Les Sablés d’Asnelles – a local tea house (2 Pl. Alexander Stanier) run by the company of the same name. It produces much prized sables – cookies rich with butter from the nearby village of Isigny. If you find their storefront closed, you can buy these luscious biscuits for the same price at supermarkets.
Efficient as this touring strategy might sound, though, it doesn’t include the following Normandy markets that deserve to be the main event in an itinerary.
Sunday morning, Quai Philippe Oblet
This town, which served as a fueling station during World War II, is still an active fishing village, and many people come here to buy fresh fish on Sundays. It’s possible to do this both at the outdoor market and at a separate fish market at the western end of the quay (every day except Monday from 8:30 to 12:30).
With its scenic location along the harbor, this market attracts its share of tourists, as well as village residents. When we first spent a week here, in 2014, one could spot the latter by all the kissing on both cheeks as merchants and town folk greeted one another. In the time of Covid that custom seems to be at least temporarily on hold; though France no longer requires masks and few people wear them or observe social distancing protocols, we did notice fewer public displays of affection.
On our most recent visit, the day before the 78th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, we saw World War II reenactors, wearing vintage or reproduction uniforms and driving around in Jeeps. At the market, we turned our attention away from the men in khaki costumes and focused on the produce. There were early spring vegetables – fluffy heads of lettuce, peas and two varieties of radishes – inspiration to make a salad.
Cherries, too, were abundant, and vendors had no objection if you asked for just a handful (“une poignée”); they want you to consume fruit at the peak of freshness and become a loyal customer. Charentais melons – small cantaloupes with a very sweet, bright orange flesh – were getting snatched up. At this time of the year, they come from Spain or Morocco, but for now the French are happy to bridge the gap with imports.
This market tempts even those who enjoy cooking to take a day off. A rotisserie chicken, bought straight off the spit, with a side order of pan-fried potatoes, fed us for several days. On another Sunday we shared one portion of paella from L’Andalouse. Rich with one-quarter of a chicken, a generous scattering of shrimp, mussels and chorizo, it cost 6€ and seemed like a bargain compared with food prices back home.
And we never go to Port-en-Bessin on a Sunday without stopping at the Monique & Claude Belleteix boulangerie for a brasillé – a many layered, buttery puff pastry named for the fact that it was originally cooked in an oven of hot coals. The one at this bakery has burnt sugar on the top and is available either plain or filled with apples. Typically, we share a small one, seated on a bench a few steps from the bakery. My husband calls it breakfast. I say it’s fortification for the market.
Tuesdays on rue Alsace Lorraine; Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays on Place du Général de Gaulle
Astrategic junction that was the site of a key World War II battle, until it was finally liberated six weeks after D-Day, Saint-Lô today is a culinary crossroad. People who love to eat and want the most for their money come here with shopping lists, to buy meat, produce, cheese and dairy products. The quality is generally outstanding, and the prices less than I have seen elsewhere. Like other markets, this one is liveliest on weekends, when French people of all ages can be seen relishing it.
The bells of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, which dominates the upper part of Saint-Lô, were just chiming 10:00 a.m. as we arrived at the market on a Saturday morning in early June. But some shoppers had already finished their business and were wheeling their carts toward the parking lot. We followed those heading in the opposite direction, to this city’s most important market of the week.
Before buying at a market, I walk up and down the aisles to gauge the buzz. Cherries were still in season, so I made my first purchase at a stand where they were plentiful. From there, I followed a discriminating shopper to another stand with an array of tomatoes. Those came from Brittany and were almost sold out.
Next, I joined the queue at Fromagerie Héloir, a third-generation business whose wide assortment of seasonal and regional products have won it a strong following. Except in Paris, storefront fromageries have largely been replaced with trucks like this one that make the rounds at weekly markets.
Here the long line gives me the opportunity to peruse the offerings and observe what others are buying. A girl standing beside me, who looks to be about nine years old, enthusiastically approves her father’s purchase of beaufort d’été – a fruity French alpine cheese that hints of the wildflowers cows eat during the spring grazing season.
I begin my order with that, before raising the question that surely brands me as a tourist (if my halting French hasn’t already): “Which of these cheeses are from Normandy?”
The farm-produced Camembert that I buy is sold by the piece, which in this case is half a wheel because it is a delicacy. Its rind has been rubbed with a blend of apple cider and Calvados (distilled cider). Bottled, the liquid is sold as an aperitif in this apple-producing region and makes a perfect accompaniment to the strong Normandy cheeses. This Camembert, I later discover, smells pleasantly like wet wool, and when cut, looks like a lemon cake batter that has been sprinkled with apple crumble. I let it melt on my tongue, which registers the Calvados only faintly, before yielding to the perfectly ripe nuttiness of the Camembert.
Finally, I find my favorite vendor at this market, who is parked around the corner from the covered fish market, opposite the war memorial. This is La Ferme de L’Isle, which produces La Confiture de Lait Normandy – a caramel spread that is similar to dulce de leche, but is made with whole milk instead of condensed milk. With empty containers at the ready, people also line up for their many flavors of fromage blanc – a creamy substance that is like a cross between Greek yogurt and sour cream, and is served for dessert. I could eat the apple-caramel flavored one, chunky with diced apples, three times a day.
Though we don’t usually shop for meat at outdoor markets, preferring to patronize village butchers, we make an exception at Saint-Lô, to take advantage of the ethnic offerings. Most recently, we stopped at the Boucherie les Trois Chefs, a Halal vendor, to get veal sausage, lamb sausage and kafta to grill.
Tuesday morning on four town squares: Place des Halles, Place des Costils, Place de la République and Place du Presbytère
If your schedule, or Normandy’s notorious rainy weather, keep you away from weekend markets, you can make up for it with a Tuesday morning trip to this picturesque medieval village, which is about 35 minutes southwest of Saint-Lô. What the market lacks in energy it makes up for in gastronomy. Samples of cooked blood pudding at gourmet meat stands can refresh your recollection about whether you like it or not. And you can’t walk by the farmer hawking goat cheese without him beckoning you to buy.
At the cheese truck operated by Le Spécialiste du Fromage, which appears on other days at the Saint-Lô market, I buy farm-fresh Neufchâtel – a classic cow’s milk Normandy cheese that is more often factory produced. These days it’s generally heart-shaped, perpetuating the legend that the farm girls of Neufchâtel-en-Bray gave them to their English occupiers during the Hundred Years’ War.
This mild cow’s milk cheese is easy to love. With its bright-white bloomy rind, it resembles a little frosted cake. It tastes like a slightly salty lemon. And its 45 percent fat content gives it a somewhat crumbly consistency. I like to eat it with something sweet, which could be jam, fresh cherries or apricots.
This vendor is also my preferred source for teurgoule – a rice pudding made with Normandy full-cream milk, sugar and cinnamon. Since it takes a long time to cook – five hours, according to some recipes – it’s best to get the ready-made version. Manufactured varieties fill the shelves of supermarket dairy sections, but it’s much better fresh. At the market, it’s spooned out of the large earthenware bowls in which it’s baked.
Neither rice nor cinnamon is indigenous to Normandy, raising the question of how teurgoule became a mainstay dessert and snack. Here, too, local folklore offers explanations without proof. According to one version, rice was introduced by pirates. Another holds that it was distributed during the 18th century to fight famine. Either way, one can imagine that people who didn’t know how to cook rice, but had plenty of dairy products on hand, might have improvised, resulting in this sweet, mushy concoction.
After the market, cookware enthusiasts can stop by the Metalwork Museum and Lace-making Museum, situated in a historic house. Through videos and displays, it traces the six-century history of copper production in the village. Tours of the Mauviel 1830 factory, whose copper pots are sold at E. Dehillerin in Paris, and by high-end retailers in the United States, require booking at least one week in advance. Those who acquire copper pots secondhand (they are widely available at flea markets) might be interested to know that Mauviel also offers restoration services, regardless of whether they were the original manufacturer.
On my final weekend in Normandy, I returned to Saint-Lô, this time with my own plastic containers to refill. As I waited in the queue and surveyed the bounty of the market, I thought about the rationing and food shortages during World War II, reminders of which I had seen at a number of local museums. Several days earlier, at the Pegasus Memorial Museum in Ranville, which commemorates the assault and capture by the British of the Pegasus Bridge during the D-Day landings, I purchased the book Cuisinons Sous l’Occupation (Let’s Cook Under the Occupation), by Nicole Buffetaut. After the market, I was inspired to prepare one of the menu items – radish-top soup.
Periods of restriction encouraged people to avoid waste, the author explains, and radishes from spring markets can be used two ways. The recipe acknowledges that potatoes, which are the other key ingredient, may be in short supply but can be obtained on the black market. In lieu of butter or margarine, it indicates that one could use whatever grease is on hand. But those who shopped on the black market paid dearly: A guide to the Caen-Normandie Memorial museum indicates that, by 1942, black market potatoes cost four to five times the official price, and butter six to eight times.
Not surprisingly, even with these ingredients (plus salt and pepper), the recipe sounded bland and tasteless. So, after a nod to history, I cheated, reaching for a more savory one, by the Paris-based cookbook author David Lebovitz. Having made this soup in New York early in the pandemic lockdown, I knew that it calls for one tablespoon of Dijon mustard. And ironically, that ingredient is in short supply in France right now. Supermarket shelves have been depleted of it, and there are signs attributing the scarcity to the war in Ukraine.
By serendipity, we had secured a jar from the butcher in the village of Tilly-sur-Seulles – a 20-minute drive from our Airbnb. Our destination there was the Museum of the Battle of Tilly-sur-Seulles, which chronicles the destruction of the village during World War II. Afterward, we followed the foot traffic to the superb Boulangerie Douceurs et Traditions, whose brasillé became our new favorite. Then, at Boucherie Charcuterie Simon, while Ken was occupied at the meat counter, I spotted that jar of mustard on the shelf. When I remarked to the butcher about how difficult it had been to find, he replied coyly, “Oui, c’est compliqué.” Was he referring to the shortage, his success at procuring this suddenly precious substance, or both?
While the soup was bubbling, awaiting the last-minute addition of the mustard, I combined other bounty of the market with what was growing in the garden of our Airbnb. Thyme, snipped from the raised bed, went into a steaming pot with mussels bought at a folding table in Saint-Lô; the vendor’s chalkboard sign in front indicated they came from the Bay of Granville. The crème fraîche for that recipe (and the radish-top soup) was from one of the farm stands.
Rhubarb, abundant on our property, got mixed with market strawberries, sugar and a squeeze of lemon to make a compote. Deep in the kitchen cabinet of our Airbnb rental, I found a soufflé dish large enough to hold the mélange. As at home, I multitasked, since cooking several things at once means only one kitchen cleanup.
Into the oven it went, as Ken lit the grill for the main course. That would be merguez for him and veal sausages for me. The Halal vendor did not seem to recognize us from a couple of weeks earlier. But appreciating his offerings and his prices, we had returned to his stand. As we completed our purchase and put the parcels in our market bag, we took our cues from the previous customer and said goodbye in what we assume is his language: “Salam.”
He replied in French, “Au revoir.”
Deborah L. Jacobs, a lawyer and journalist, is the author of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home and Estate Planning Smarts: A Practical, User-Friendly, Action-Oriented Guide. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.