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Lessons Learned from a Fresh Market

by Mareesa Ahmad

It was a crisp spring morning as my mother and I crept quietly out of our Paris apartment, as my father slept soundly from an exhausting day at Versailles the day before. We chatted animatedly as we crossed La Tour Eiffel, which glistened in the early morning sun.

After a few twists and turns, we arrived at the famous open-air market on Rue Cler in the 7th arrondisement. It was still early, but both sides of the cobblestone street were already lined with vendors from all parts of Paris. There were stalls creaking under the weight of huge heads of cauliflower, asparagus thick as drumsticks, dark purple eggplant, and huge, red, juicy, mouthwatering strawberries.

My mother swiftly snapped an asparagus through the middle. It made a resounding snap like a twig.

“Remember that sound. Never forget it.”

I nodded.

I murmured a shy “Bonjour” as I asked to sample a slice of cheese from the Fromagerie. It was a hole in the wall, full of cheese of various sizes and shapes from all over Paris. The smell was overpowering. My mother pointed to a wedge of Brie. She showed me how to choose a ripe wedge with its even, pale, yellow color. I pressed the cheese with my finger and it felt spongy. Perfect! I nibbled on the slice of Brie as we weaved our way among the heaving stalls.

“Listen to this,” my mother said as she smartly tapped on a plump, purple eggplant.

I listened to the hollow thud.

“This is how you choose the perfect eggplant for parmigiana,” she said.

I nodded sagely.

I spotted a flower stand full of blooms and I stopped for a moment to inhale the intoxicating fragrance.

We passed the Boulangerie full of the aroma of freshly baked baguettes and croissants. The French bake their bread twice a day – it is sacred to them.  I thought of all the pre-packaged and factory sliced bread lying on the shelves with expiration dates back home. Why could we not have something as fresh and wholesome as this, I wondered to myself.

We paused in front of the Patisserie eyeing the colorful, mouthwatering display of macarons – the sweet meringue-based confection made with almond powder and egg whites. I purchased a colorful dozen and slipped it into my wicker basket.

The fishmonger at the Poissonnerie beckoned us over to check out his heaps of fresh shrimp, crab, octopus, and salmon that lay on huge slabs of ice. Next to it, in a small straw basket, laid a pile of purple, spiky balls.

“What are these?” I asked.

“Sea urchins!” my mother said excitedly. “Sea urchins have a meaty inside called the “roe” – a mysterious delicacy that the French revere.”

As I sat at the street side café, munching on a freshly baked buttery croissant, I eyed the hustle and bustle all around me. I observed with mild amusement – an old lady and a farmer arguing excitedly over the price of an artichoke. That’s something we don’t see in the U.S.

Of all the places I had seen in Paris, as a certified foodie, the open-air fresh markets were undoubtedly the most interesting to me, and close to my heart. Over there, nothing was stamped with an expiration date. Food was meant to be enjoyed directly from the farm to the table. Just like the way it should be.

Audrey Hepburn was right. “Paris is always a good idea.”

Bon Appetit!


Mareesa Ahmad is a member of the ChopChop Kids Advisory Board.

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