market is always full of cock-sure experts discussing the morning's
Laura got more than she bargained for when
she ventured out early one morning for a spot of market research…
Above all, arrive no later than eight in the morning.
Mondays begin early in Louhans, a town of about 7,000 inhabitants in the Burgundian
part of the Bresse area. On Monday mornings for centuries, hordes of
people have gravitated here, at times swelling the ranks of locals by the
thousands. They come for one of the most authentic and vibrant country
markets in France. They know that in this, Louhans is streets ahead.
Stepping into the medieval mouth of the market's main
artery is like traveling back in time. This is the town's Grande Rue,
lined with some 157 arcades dating from the 15th and 16th centuries and reputed
to be the longest arcaded street in the whole of France. Timber-framed
houses of the 16th and 17th centuries overhang the narrow thoroughfare, throwing
market-goers into a world of bustling shadows. Until noon on Mondays, this
main street is reserved for pedestrians; proof that the market takes precedence
over everything else.
Above: "What sells first, the chicken or the eggs?" ponders this colour-coordinated
Left: A farmer waits for his blue-footed poulets de Bresse to be snapped
My eyes adjust to the dim light and an animated scene
emerges from the obscurity The Grande Rue is lined with vendors selling an
astonishing variety of wares—eggs, cheese, meat, piles of fresh vegetables,
inexpensive hardware, gadgets, honey herbs and soaps, not to mention traditional
bleu de travail (cobalt-blue work overalls).
Loud conversation and laughter fill the air in this
theatrical setting. Tourists are a rare breed here and it soon becomes
clear that the favoured method of communication is the regional dialect or
patois. To my unaccustomed ear, it is all but incomprehensible, but the
crowd's vitality and the pleasure they take in their friendly market-day
exchanges is unmistakable.
Locals, quizzed about when the market began, invariably
respond "as long ago as anybody can remember", and a friend of mine from Louhans
told me that her great-grandfather used to travel to the market every Monday
morning on horseback.
father shows his young son the ropes at the garlic stall in the place General de
In fact, Louhans' role as a trading post can be traced
back to the 9th century when the monks of Tournus founded an active port there
to transit salt from neighbouring Franche-Comté, a region which did not become
part of France until 1678. Louhans' position at the confluence of the
rivers Solnan and Seille, was clearly a decisive factor. The Seille in
particular could be navigated directly to the Saône river and was used for
centuries to transport all types of goods.
More recently, the market has thrived because Louhans is
at the centre of an active agricultural area. The Burgundian part of
Bresse is an area of low, undulating plains. Surrounding Louhans,
accumulations of sand and other sediment contributed to the success of the
maraîchers—farmers who cultivate vegetables. The arrival of the large
producer has made it harder for the maraîchers to eke out a living, yet
it remains the vocation of many families. Indeed, fields of produce occupy a
large zone stretching westwards from the town into the communes of Branges and
To my delight, I discovered a by-product of all this
agricultural activity—some of the most beautiful farms in France. In an
area deprived of stone, the resourceful Bressans built their rambling,
single-storey farms with the materials at hand—wood, clay, brick and straw.
the poultry market, prospective buyers debate the qualities of a rooster.
Nothing stops the crowds of bargain-hunters, except the long arm of the law and
the occasional 2CV. The church of St. Pierre looks on.
Meandering along the Grande Rue, I notice many people with
empty wooden crates moving purposefully in the same direction. I follow
them through a maze of animated back streets and squares and reach the large,
dusty place de la Charité. The mystery of the crates is soon solved; they
are being used to cart away chickens. At last! I have found Louhans'
famous poultry market, the epicentre for buying and selling a large variety of
fowl and other small animals, such as rabbits. However, the most prized
denizens of the poultry market belong unquestionably to the renowned local
species of chicken, the poulets de Bresse, characterised by red wattles,
white feathers and, most notably blue feet. They are much revered by
French gourmets and not just because their colours are reminiscent of the French
Poulets de Bresse are of a unique breed. Many
believe that the unrivalled taste of these free-range chickens comes from the
fact that the soil in the region surrounding Louhans is lacking in calcium,
which makes their bones unusually fine. In any case, milk-fed and fattened
on sweetcorn and other cereals, they are plumper, more flavourful and more
expensive than most other fowl.
Bressans take their chickens very seriously.
Renowned chef Georges Blanc is currently president of the interprofessional
committee devoted to poulets de Bresse. Moreover, each chicken is
designated by a quality seal of appellation d'origine controlée (AOC),
just like a bottle of fine French wine.
Above: The sinuous 'main drag' snakes into the distance, ablaze with colourful
produce and buzzing with local patois.
Left: One young girl has heard quite enough people
'rabbit on' for one morning
Huddles of beret-topped, Gauloise-smoking experts dot the
square informally overseeing transactions; observing, commenting on and
approving particularly fine specimens.
Almost everyone appears a connoisseur. The blueness
of a chicken's foot is solemnly verified. A wattle is inspected with
earnest. Feathers are ruffled and wings are spread with deliberation.
Prices are agreed upon and the squawking bird, feathers flying, is passed from
buyer to seller in mid-air, whereupon it is put into a crate and carted off by
its new owner.
After wandering around the poultry market for a good hour,
I once more joined the crowds in the main street to find a café. In the
place Général de Gaulle the market spills over from the main street. The
14th-century church of Saint Pierre dominates the square. Sunshine bounces
off the brightly coloured tiles, so typical of Burgundy, which cover its roof
and steeple. The terrace of a thirties-style cafe provides a perfect
vantage point. By now it is eleven-thirty and the once-surging crowd seems
to be thinning out.
Inside the café, the throng grows by the minute.
Market-goers are taking part in another Monday morning tradition, every bit as
sacred as inspecting poultry. Jammed in tight rows on either side of long,
formica tables, customers relish large plates of tête de veau,
accompanied by a glass of chilled, white wine. No outing to the market is
considered complete without this local speciality.
Caught up in the atmosphere of the morning, it seemed to
me a fitting, if not altogether tempting way to wind up a colourful,
entertaining and wholly French experience in Louhans—a market leader.
© 1999, Laura Bradbury & Franck Germain - All