Les Halles – the Market of Dijon
You learn a great deal about the culture of food in an open market, it’s both social and commercial. Les Halles, Dijon’s Central Market, is a snapshot of Burgundy’s gourmet lifestyle, except in France it’s just called ‘living’.
Some of France’s most famous dishes hail from the Burgundy region; coq au vin, escargots and of course boeuf bourguignon, are all rooted deep in the heart of wine country. Each region of France has its own specialties and flavour profiles; in Burgundy the palate is rich, fatty and savory, balanced by the sweetness of summer cherries, and black currants (distilled into liqueur de cassis), the buttery white of chardonnay and the subtle red of pinot noir.
Burgundy is the home of Kir (cassis mixed with dry white wine) and Kir Royale (cassis mixed with champagne), pain d’épices (a sweet bread made with honey and spices), oeufs en meurette (eggs poached in a red wine sauce), jambon persillé (ham cured with parsley), and the epiphany that is the Burgundy vine.
Once a year, Dijon hosts the annual Gastronomy Fair, said to be one of the ten most important food fairs in France. Great food and great wine, that is the heart of Burgundy, the heart of France, and her people.
The market in Dijon has a reputation for excellence that extends back hundreds of years. Some of the finest ingredients from some of the country’s leading producers fill the isles of Les Halles, the vaulted covered market at the centre of Dijon. The market hall is a masterpiece of metal and glass, designed by Gustave Eiffel (who also designed that little tower in Paris). Its steel beams strap and cross, the glass ceiling fills the room with natural light, even on a wet, grey day in December.
Every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday from 6AM to 2PM Dijon shoppers fill baskets, trollies and bags with some of the best fare in France at the busy Les Halles. The noise of commerce fills the space with sound, as cheese is cut, butter is bagged and seafood is weighed and wrapped. It has the atmosphere of old world trade and tradition combined with a reverence for the craft of truly beautiful product.
On Saturday, the market spills out on to the surrounding streets, lined with charcuterie, produce, fashion and collectibles. While you pick up your escargots, you can also find a sassy little hat, trendsetting denim, coats, boots and accessories. If you begin to wane, you can perch for a moment at the indoor wine bar and have a bit of fortification. This is my kind of shopping.
Bread, baked goods, cured meats, fresh meats and condiments including Dijon’s famous mustard.
Les Halles is an essential Burgundy experience, as I wandered and shot its marvelous wares, the future in-laws shopped and the chef in my life shared his love of food from his hometown with his daughter. The visual appeal is staggering but it’s nothing compared to the full sensory assault that is Les Halles. The aroma of great bread, and strong cheese in one corner, the earthy, fresh fragrance of herbs and lettuces in the centre isles and the bite of ocean as you approach the seafood stalls. The ambient chatter as it bounces off the glass ceiling and echoes down the hall. The stickiness of melting ice that forms pools of water on the floor, laced with salt, heavy with fish.
It’s hard to miss the tourist (lens pressed firmly to the glass), but it seemed in this venue at least, the French were eager to share their love of food. Vendors smiled, and several passers-by commented as I stopped, isolating a scene or ingredient “belle photo!” they would exclaim giving me the thumbs up.
A feast in the making, a morning at Les Halles, a moment to share.