Our Breton Farmer's Market - An introduction
First some history...
To whet your appetite, let us tell you about Rennes’ extraordinary market, Le Marché des Lices*. France’s second farmers market in size has been in continuous existence since 1622, when city leaders first mandated that merchants could ply their wares at the city gates. The market survived Rennes’ great fire of 1720 and Louis the XIVth’s repression of the independent minded Breton Parlement in 1675 and the Revolution - that started in 1788 in Rennes before the Bastille - The spectacular timbered homes of the “messieurs du Parlement” still adorn the plaza today.
The marketplace’s origins go further back to when the Dukes of Brittany held knightly jousting tournaments outside the ramparts of the city in the 1300’s. We are sure that the rivalries led to many a feast. The medieval fortifications were built on Roman walls dating from the Ist century AD. So, visiting Les Lices is not only taking in one of France’s leading food markets, it is also a time machine spanning 20 centuries; vestiges of which can be seen all around you.
The French outdoor market is ubiquitous from small villages to the neighborhoods of Paris. “Le marché” is as much a part of French culture as the Louvre, Edith Piaf, wine or sidewalk cafés. It is hard to believe that during the 60’s many farmer's markets faced extinction in favor of modern, clean and cheaper supermarkets. During this period in France, when old was out and new was in, some of the most remarkable markets of France vanished. At once the heart, soul and stomachs of their cities, gone are such legendary markets as, Les Halles de Paris and La Criée de Marseille.
In 1976, deemed dirty, old fashioned and in need of too much repair by Rennes’ city planners, the Marché des Lices and the Halles Martenot – the 19th century industrial structure of stone, glass and forged steel in which the market is housed – were to be replaced by a parking lot!!!. Luckily the people of Rennes, the merchants and a few enlightened politicians thought otherwise.
During the 80’s and 90’s bistro food, renowned chefs and organic farmers remade outdoor markets into centers for lost savors and culinary innovation. Many of Brittany’s best chefs embraced Les Lices and sang its praises as one of France’s best, freshest and most authentic markets.
For the Rennais, Les Lices is more than good food. It is history, tradition, a place to meet people, or start a political campaign,… most of all, it seems like all of Brittany is embodied in its 300 stalls. Every Saturday over 10,000 people line up for strawberries from Plougastel, oysters from Cancale and Cap Frehel, scallops from Saint Brieuc, bonito from Belle Isle, lobsters from Lorient, produce from dozens of independent farmers from the Breton countryside, fresh goat cheese from La Bouëxière, jams, honeys, ciders and a whole building dedicated to meats, pâtés, sausages and game. The manner is simple and sincere; merchants are genuinely passionate about what they have to sell. With a minimum of prodding, they will tell you the best way to prepare what you purchased.
An urban picnic
If you are just passing through and don’t have a place to cook in Rennes, don’t worry. This being truly one of the friendliest cities we know in France, you can literally picnic after the market at most of the cafés and bars around the market and nearby Place Ste. Anne. So load up on cheeses, fruits, breads, sausages - you can even ask one of the fish mongers to open a dozen oysters for you - then take your bounty to a café, order a bottle of wine and have a feast. You’ll see many people, especially students, starting their Saturday afternoon just this way.
*As our friend Charlie Klein pointed out the word “lice” in English doesn’t seem that appetizing! And a whole market named Les Lices sounds scary. Rest assured lice in French doesn’t make you itch, it simply means a place where jousting tournaments took place.