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To market, to market in Provence

  • Published Friday, August 21, 2009, at 12:39 p.m.

Market days are an especially big deal throughout France. No single event better symbolizes the French preoccupation with fresh products and their strong ties to the farmer than the weekly market. And in no other region is it more celebrated than in Provence.

You can find an endless array of products at Provencal markets, from clothing to crafts, art to antiques, pates to picnic fare (produce, meats, cheeses, crusty golden baguettes, and pastries). The best of all market worlds may rest in the picturesque town of Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, where, on Sunday mornings, a brilliant food marche tangles with an active flea market and a good selection of antiques. I like to sip a coffee at a sidewalk table at Cafe de France and enjoy the carnival-like scene.

Arles stands out among Provencal market towns. Here the ring road erupts twice a week into an open-air market of fish, flowers, ready-for-ratatouille baskets of produce, everything but car traffic. Join in. Try the olives, sniff the lavender, and sample the wine. The beauty of Arles' market is its international flavor, reflecting how Provence remains a crossroads of Mediterranean cultures. In addition to local items, you may find spices from Morocco and Tunisia, paella and saffron from Spain, and fresh pasta from Italy.

Markets typically begin at about eight in the morning and end by one in the afternoon. Set-up commences in the pre-dawn hours — a good reason not to stay in a main-square hotel the night before market day. Bigger towns may have two weekly markets, one a bit larger than the other, with more nonperishable goods. The biggest market days are usually on weekends, so that everyone can partake.

Perishable items are sold directly from the producers — no middlemen, no Visa cards — just really delicious, fresh produce. Samples are usually free, including small cups of locally produced wines or ciders. You'll find different items throughout the season. In April and May, shop for asparagus (green, purple, or the prized white — after being cooked, these are hand-dipped in vinegar or homemade mayonnaise). In late spring, find strawberries, cherries, and stone fruits. From July through September, eggplant, tomatoes, zucchinis, and peppers come straight from the open fields. In the fall, stands sell game birds, other beasts of the hunt, and a glorious array of wild mushrooms. After November and throughout the winter, look for little (or big, depending on your wallet size) black truffles.

At the root of every good market experience is a sturdy shopping basket or bag. Most baskets are inexpensive, make for fun and colorful souvenirs, and come in handy for odd-shaped or breakable carry-ons for the plane trip home. With basket in hand, shop for your heaviest items first. You don't want to put a kilo of fresh apples on top of your bread.

Most vendors typically follow a weekly circuit of markets they feel works best for them, showing up in the same spot every week, year in and year out — though sometimes, you'll meet the occasional widow selling a dozen eggs, two rabbits, and a wad of herbs tied with string. At a favorite market, my family has done business with the same olive merchant and "cookie man" for 18 years.

Merchants take pride in their wares. Generally the rule is "don't touch" — instead, point and let them serve you. Many vendors speak enough English to assist you in your selection. Your total price will be hand-tallied on small scraps of paper and given to you. If you're struggling to find the correct change, just hold out your hand and they will take only what is needed. Vendors are normally honest — still, you're wise to double-check the amount you just paid for that olive tree.

It's bad form to be in a hurry — allow the crowd to set your pace. For locals, market day is as important socially as it is commercially — a weekly chance to resume friendships and get the current gossip. Neighbors can catch up on Henri's barn renovation, see photos of Jacqueline's new grandchild, and relax over coffee. Dogs are tethered to cafe tables while friends exchange kisses. Listen carefully and you might hear the Provencal language being spoken between some vendors and buyers. Observe the interaction between them, and notice the joy they find in chatting each other up.

Provencal life is rooted in its countryside, small towns, and lively markets. To enjoy any small French town at its vibrant best, it's worth being there on its market day.

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at rick@ricksteves.com, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, Wash. 98020.

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