I stroll through the market as the first true day of summer strikes, the heat pulling off sweaters and pressing sticky against our skin. The coolness of the covered space is welcoming, and I stick close to the refrigerated cases and their promise of maximum comfort. The change of seasons has brought along elegant triangular stacks of glistening merguez, chipolatas and sausages, platters of beautifully layered shish kabobs of fish or chicken or lamb threaded on long, pale picks with jade green and ruby red squares of peppers, curves of onion and tiny cherry tomatoes. Marinating meat speckled with herbs, delicate chops that can fit into the palm of my hand, mountains of clams and crabs that smell of the sea, lobsters snapping at invisible hands and the French are getting ready for summer.
I have lived in France for longer than I can remember, and there are certain familiar rituals that signify summer: ice cream cases pushed out onto sidewalks in front of pastry shops, people strolling down the street for no apparent reason except to enjoy the weather; ice cream cones in hand, or sipping cold drinks on terraces now peppering the city streets; children dodging through fountains and in between the teens entwined in passionate embrace along the fountain edges; the blooming of the botanic gardens, now a cool, green haven from summer's heat. But the one thing that really makes me feel like summer has finally arrived is, of course, the "changing of the guard", as I have come to call it: the summer barbecue fare and the piles of stone fruit's sudden appearance at the market, replacing the heavier stewing meats and the last of winter's fading citrus. The fish and meat counters are now dressed for a beach party, fruit and vegetable stalls are crowded with peaches and nectarines, fragrant melons, bright red local strawberries and a tumble of cherries of red and yellow all begging to be wrapped up or slipped into brown paper bags and carried off to the seaside.
I love summer in France. And I love staying in the city after everyone else has left. The day after the last day of school, the streets empty out as every school-age teen or child heads off to the seaside, up into the mountains or installs the tents and campers with one parent or the grandparents, working parent joining them on weekends until the final grand exodus for those month-long holidays completes the scene. It's a snap finding a parking spot anywhere in the city, the supermarkets are half empty and it's only a matter of knowing which market stalls are closed for which weeks, juggling bakeries as each takes their turn, and keeping track of our favorite restaurants' closing dates, hoping that each will somehow coordinate with our own holiday!
France is like many European countries and it often surprises visiting Americans coming from the land of nothing-ever-closes! Business stops, everyone just closes up shop and leaves town, political scandals are put on hold, and the television news is seemingly now filled solely with sports results and images of cars lined up for miles and miles at toll booths, the grand "bouchons" - traffic jams - that kick off every summer migration. Instead of the usual interviews of politicians and movie stars, journalists now roam up and down the beach shoving mikes into vacationers' faces as they sun themselves or sit contentedly on lawn chairs in front of their campsites. Summer vacation is big news and splashed across every news program and show as if it were the first holiday the French population has ever indulged in. Every year. And the cities are left to the tourists. And us.
If you travel to France for the gastronomic pleasures, her culinary treats, beware! Many who arrive in July or August may be surprised to find every other market stall abandoned and covered with tarp, recommended restaurants shuttered up, the corner bakery closed. The city is calm, the sidewalks empty, and the pleasures of strolling through pleasant green gardens come with a price: family-owned businesses take their month and everyone heads to the sea. Chain restaurants stay open, as do the larger brasseries with the money to have a staff large enough to roll over in shifts and to hire a replacement chef. But, ah, the joys of summer! Slip into the cool interior of one of those brasseries and partake of the delights of the seasonal menu: start with a bowl of icy tomato, cucumber or even melon gazpacho then slide right into the beef tartare or carpcaccio served with cool, crisp salads and a bowl of perfect fries; or try the chilled fresh tuna or wild sea bass tartare served with a tangy cream sauce on the side or studded with onion, capers or dill. Cool fruit soups and homemade sorbets complete the meal. Or how about a seafood platter? Crabs and clams, shrimp or larger prawn, fat whelks or tiny black periwinkles all nestled in their bed of ice chips, served with soft, dense brown bread and salted butter. How about oysters, you say? They always warn against eating oysters in summertime, but if you go to a trusted restaurant known for serving only the freshest seafood and it's on the menu then go for it! And do try it with a drizzle of red wine vinegar and shallot instead of the usual squeeze of lemon. My only advice: check on-line or in your up-to-date guidebooks for their summer vacation closing dates! And know that in France no fresh fish or seafood is delivered on Mondays.
I have always preferred the Autumn in France, sunny and mild, the leaves tinged with gold and red and the excitement of a new start buzzing through the air. The restaurants are open and running again after the summer vacation and there is that post-holiday coolness, something relaxed about it all. But as everyone else packs up and heads out during the months of July and August and we are left behind in the city heat, I know that this is the best time to be here. Unhurried, relaxed, we can slip on shorts and flip flops and pick up what we need for a picnic at the now decidedly uncrowded market or pop unannounced into our favorite brasserie for our usual tartare. Foodwise, the French summer must be managed, but once you have noted down each neighborhood bakery's closing dates, once you've figured out which restaurants are staying open, then enjoy the calm and quiet of a city on vacation.
Jamie Schler lives, eats and writes in France. To read more of her work visit Life's a Feast.
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