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Monday Morning Blues in Burgundy

Story by Laura Bradbury / Photos by Franck Germain
As published in France Magazine, Autumn 1999

The poultry market is always full of cock-sure experts discussing the morning's transactions.

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.

A farmer waits for his blue-footed poulets de Bresse to be snapped up.
"What sells first, the chicken or the eggs?" ponders this colour-coordinated trader.

Above:  "What sells first, the chicken or the eggs?" ponders this colour-coordinated trader.
Left:  A farmer waits for his blue-footed poulets de Bresse to be snapped up.

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.

A father shows his young son the ropes at the garlic stall in the place General de Gaulle.

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 Sornay.

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.

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.
At the poultry market, prospective buyers debate the qualities of a rooster.


Above:  At the poultry market, prospective buyers debate the qualities of a rooster.

Left:  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 flag!

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 Rights Reserved

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