Dijon, France: More than Mustard
While you’re in Dijon, be sure to visit Les Halles, one of France’s largest and best-known markets. It’s in the heart of Old Town, not far from the Place Darcy, with the start of rue de la Liberte (a pedestrianized shopping street); the stunning Notre Dame; and the imposing Palais des Ducs.
A market in Dijon has been a Burgundy institution for hundreds of years, but from 1876 it has been housed in Les Halles, a large vaulted hall. The city decided in 1868 to build a new market, which was built 1873-75 on the site of the old convent cloister of the Jacobines; the old market was in the church of the Jacobines, before its demolition.
This covered market, a masterpiece of metal and glass, was built from plans designed by Gustave Eiffel, a native of Dijon. Some of the ironwork does indeed remind you of the Eiffel Tower in Paris with its steel beams. The glass ceiling fills the huge hall with natural light, even on the grey day in December that we visited. The corners of the big arches on the exterior above the main entrances are decorated with animal motifs and symbolic themes relating to the market: heads of a goat, a sheep, a cow, a boar, fish, Ceres (goddess of harvests), and Hermes (god of commerce). There’s even a lion head: not sure why, as we don’t eat lions, but maybe they are market protectors?
The market in Dijon has a reputation for excellence that extends back hundreds of years. Many say that wandering the aisles in Les Halles gives you a snapshot of Burgundy’s food culture and lifestyle.
Some of France’s most famous dishes come from the Burgundy region; think of coq au vin, escargotsand boeuf bourguignon, 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), so you can buy ingredients for these dishes at the market. In the right season, you can buy cherries and black currants, which the area famously distills into crème de cassis. Burgundy is the home of Kir(cassis mixed with dry white wine) and Kir Royale(cassis mixed with champagne), and of course in the market you can also buy wonderful white chardonnay and red pinot noir wines.
Les Halles comes to life every Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday with an incredible selection of meats, fish, cheeses, fruits and vegetables, herbs, bread, and as well as pastries and other ready-to-eat snacks. Try La Buvette du Marche, where you can get snacks, small meals, and a glass of wine.
This wonderful market triggers all the senses, no matter the season: visually with all the bright colors, stacks of fruit and vegetables; the aroma of great bread, and strong cheese in one corner, the earthy, fresh fragrance of herbs and spices and the tang of the sea as you approach the seafood stalls; the sound of people chatting and trundling their market trolleys or baskets on wheels; the wet feel of melting ice, mixed with saltiness and fish, that forms pools of water on the floor; and, naturally, taste if you buy anything.
Stalls are also outside in the square around the great hall, and lining the square are many small shops, cafes and bistros—they all looked good, so it was hard to choose one for lunch. But we did!