Grenoble Life’s Christina Rebuffet-Broadus walks Les Halles Sainte Claire, Grenoble’s foremost covered market and former convent, now site to a “divine experience of another kind”.
France wouldn’t be the same without the places that fire the wanderlust of francophiles everywhere. There are the cafés for people-watching and sipping an espresso in the sun. There are the Gothic cathedrals with spires straight out of a Victor Hugo novel. Then there are the open air markets, a sort of grand mass for the foodies of France. Almost every Sunday, I show up for service at Les Halles Sainte Claire for my weekly indulgence.
The Sainte Claire site once offered a divine experience of another kind. From the 15th century, Clairisse nuns saved the city’s soul from inside the convent that once stood here. As industrialization conquered 19th century France, the citizens of Grenoble needed physical rather than spiritual nourishment and the city decided to build a modern marketplace—the Halles Saint Claire, in 1874. The Grenoblois have been “going marketing,” as Julia Child would say, at Place Sainte Claire ever since.
Inside the Eiffel-esque glass and metal building, all those things that we expats love about French markets swirl about. There are a few cheese stalls with wide selections of what France does best. A baker offers classic baguettes and an assortment of more sophisticated pains. There are meat, fish, and poultry sellers for the protein. A few stands offer ready to eat delights if you can’t face the stove or wait to get back home to dig in.
There are a few stands that have upped my consumption of certain dishes. I’m almost on a first name basis with the sauerkraut lady (I said almost) of La Fée Maison. This young woman is like my French food fairy godmother. Ever tried to find good take-home choucroute in Grenoble? Well, here it is. This woman hails from the hearty land of Alsace and regularly goes back to select her cabbage farmers. She’ll also help you pick out the meats to serve with all that fermented cabbage—there’s a secret to choosing, but you’ll have to ask the expert.
Al Dente is the other stand that makes mush of my will power. Their homemade gnocchi measures up to the store bought stuff about the same way discount Carrefour glace does to artisanal Italian gelato. They always have a few olives set on the counter for sampling, but it’s the colorful antipasti and dried fruits that will catch your culinary eye.
Les Halles Sainte Claire isn’t just about the food—the sellers are as much a part of the experience as the food they sell. There’s the Harley riding chicken man that invited my husband and I to a rockabilly soirée at a neon-lit biker bar somewhere on the route nationale between Crolles and Chambéry. If you’re looking for a juicy poulet de Bresse or a jumping Teddy Boy joint, he’s your man. Catty corner to the chicken man, there’s the Chesire cat-grinning butcher. This man was born to be a butcher. Not so much for the kooky smile as for the savory paupiettes de veau that he ties up by the dozen. Go early if you plan on picking some up.
In fact, go early period, especially on Saturdays. Like anywhere in France, Saturday is synonymous with shopping crowds and trying to navigate the alley ways with a caddy full of groceries can be an exercise in patience and learning to live without personal space. Accept now that you will be trampled by little old ladies. That’s when it’s time to shop not in the halles, but around the halles.
“Ooh, pour ça il faut voir avec ma femme là-bas, c’est elle qui fait la cuisine et je suis pas encore mort! C’est que c’est pas trop mauvais!”
Much of the brouhaha outside comes from the vegetable man who converses with his customers as if they all wore hearing aids. That’s how everyone in line learned that the secret of sautéeing buttery chanterelles baffled me. But I got a good recipe from his wife, not to mention a free bouquet of parsley, and a complimentary kiwi before being sent off with a few kilos of fruits and vegetables (my mom would be so proud) for around 10 euros. The quantity of produce carted away always seems to defy the low price and really, who doesn’t love those hollering market sellers?
The market at Les Halles Sainte Claire is convenient as the sellers set up shop every day except Monday, until around 1 p.m. On Fridays and Saturdays, the inside stands even stay open until 7 p.m. so that shoppers can prepare for weekend dinners with friends. Shopping starts as early as 6 a.m., so technically you could pick up some groceries before going to work.
Marketing can be hard fun. After a morning of poring over produce and poultry, you’ll find me at Le Zinc, a postcard of a bistro that usually has a few tables set up just opposite Les Halles. Watching this picturesque part of France from behind a grand crème offers the perfect reward for loading up on all those vegetables.
Sainte Claire, paradoxically, is unique and much like the outdoor markets all over Grenoble. It reminds us of the France that Julia Child loved, the France that M.F.K. Fisher praised, a France that still exists somewhat, defying the million metre carré Carrefours. A France that wants to enjoy grocery shopping as foreplay to a good meal. Customers come to savor the food, not just consume it. The nuns may be gone, but Sainte Claire still serves up a certain spiritual nourishment for the gourmets of Grenoble.