One of the reasons I was so excited about moving to France was the French fish markets. The amazing array of sparklingly fresh seafood in a poissonnerie makes me feel like a hungry child in a sweet shop, and since living here, I’ve really made the most of them! I have been curious as to whether French fish shops felt business slacken due to supermarkets and changes in fashion, just as the British fish mongers did when they had to start closing. In fact, there were lots of things that I wanted to find out about the day to day running of a modern poissonnerie, so I went to meet the owners of a local fish shop, which happens to be called ‘Poissonnerie Moderne’.
Pascale Mercier and Phillipe Ducreux have owned Poissonnerie Moderne in Périgueux (Dordogne) for over seven years, although Pascale acquired and ran her first fish shop twenty years ago. She doesn’t look old enough! Pascale started helping out at a friend’s fish shop at the age of twelve. She later studied retail and then ‘poissonnerie studies’ in Paris before she took the plunge, whilst Phillipe has learnt his trade through years of practical experience. Here’s what they had to say about their work…
Tell me about learning the art of fish preparation.
Pascale – “Well, it has to be a labour of love, to work in this trade, because it is difficult to learn and can sometimes be hard. I studied with a college, but the best school of all is working with the seafood itself for the maximum amount of time possible, and one absolutely needs to maintain that hands-on approach in order to stay agile with one’s knife. A carefully prepared and filleted fish is like a lovely sculpture. For me, anyway!”
(Pascale can fillet 1 kilo of anchovies in 15 minutes – it takes me a couple of hours!)
I’d agree with that! I’m always impressed at the amount and variety of your very fresh stock. How is it possible to maintain such a quick turnover of seafood?
Phillipe – “We have lots of restaurants on our books, from all over the Dordogne and even as far as Lot et Garonne, who place orders with us. This means that we have massive quantities of stock going through our shop every day, and we know that if something doesn’t sell immediately, one of the restaurants will take delivery of it, because it is still extremely fresh. We have to maintain not only freshness but a high quality product, otherwise the restaurant orders would dry up, and we could not have the variety of fresh seafood that we currently offer.”
Where do you buy your stock?
Phillipe – “Pascale had better answer that, as she does all the buying!”
Pascale – “Well, it depends on what I want to buy. If I want shellfish, I go to St Malo, then Roscoff is for lobsters, then I head down to Isle d’Oléron for fish. In Normandy you can get great quality fish from the little boats which fish off the west coast. There is a wholesale fish market, but I never go, because I prefer the seafood that comes from the little fishing boats, which is better quality and fresher.”
Phillipe – “Some of our stuff comes from Spain, too, and Scotland! We get scallops, langoustines and wild salmon from Scotland.”
Pascale – “Yes, but we order them over the phone. They fax us with what came in that day, and whatever we order is with us by 3:30am the following morning.”
So what time do you get up?! Please can you tell me about a typical day’s work?
Phillipe – “Well, we start at around 3, 3:30 in the morning”.
Pascale – “But we get up at 2:30.”
Phillipe – “I’ll tell you about fridays, which are busy. We start at 3:30, when we get pallets of stock delivered. We check the stock, price it up, and prepare it, for example, a lot will need to be filleted. Then we load up the vans, which deliver orders to the restaurants…and after that we prepare the shop for opening. We’re ready to open at around 7:30. From then until midday, we are totally occupied by serving customers in the shop. We open again at 4pm and are busy right through until we close at 8pm. On saturdays, we don’t have a morning delivery, so we get to sleep in until 4am!”
(They work 7 days a week! When the shop is closed, Phillipe and Pascale have to deal with ordering stock, and processing all the admin.)
So how much sleep do you get?
Pascale – “4 or 5 hours.”
Phillipe – “It’s enough, you know!”
Me – “Not for me it isn’t!”
Do you prepare all your own delicatessen products?
Phillipe – “Yes. We do have some help with the facilities at the caterer’s down the road, but it’s all freshly prepared by us or our staff. But we don’t have that much at any one time – just around 10 or 12 different prepared dishes, and then there are the terrines, marinades, smoked salmon.” (!)
Do you find that people buy as much seafood as they did when you started in this industry?
Pascale – “No-”
Phillipe – “Well, I think so, yes. It’s not really that we sell less, but that the market has changed. With supermarkets selling low quality, cheap seafood, and more and more of it, people have started buying seafood according to the price, rather than the product, which is not how it used to be. However, with people being interested in diets, the public do still want to buy seafood because of the low fat content, and the other health benefits.”
Pascale – “And we sell lots more fillets nowadays, rather than whole fish, because people have less time and want the convenience.”
Phillipe – “And people don’t like filleting their own fish these days”.
Do you have any plans for the future of your business? For example, changes in the way that you run things?
Phillipe – “Only expansion!”
Finally, do you still like eating seafood?
Phillipe and Pascale – “Yes, of course!”
Phillipe – “Of course! But we only save ourselves the best pieces, because we only like the best!
I told Phillipe and Pascale about people in the UK regretting abandoning the traditional fish mongers for supermarkets, and that now many brits would be willing to pay more for produce like theirs but that it’s too late, because most fish mongers have closed. Phillipe said that he had heard about it, but couldn’t understand the lack of British passion for seafood, especially as it is an island. Then he said, “Hey, we should move there and open a shop, as our expertise would be in demand!”. I was horrified at my big mouth and the thought of losing their shop! Luckily, Pascale did not seem at all keen on the idea!
Poissonnerie Moderne, 13 Place Coderc, Périgueux. Tel; 05 53 08 00 70.
© Gem Driver 2004