Market day in Provence is an important day. Throughout France, market days are a big thing. France is justly famous for its markets, they really are still a part of everyday life and always have been. They are not recently invented fashionable “farmers’ markets” selling superfoods in designer eco-packaging but genuine places where ordinary folk get their daily food.
Not everything is locally produced by any means, much comes from the wholesale markets on the edge of big cities, having been shipped in from around the world. You can usually tell these stalls as the fruit or veg is uniformly perfect and polished and the prices may be a bit cheaper than at the local stalls. But mixed in with these generic sellers are plenty of local producers selling their wares direct, offering the best in quality and the lowest carbon footprint.
And that’s what makes markets in France so interesting. Regional variations in cuisine are so great that a market in Normandy will focus on entirely different produce than one in Provence, or one in Alsace. Don’t go to a market in the south expecting a selection of Camemberts, nor hope to find a range of olive oils in Lorraine!
I’ve always loved going to markets wherever I’ve been in the world and find it’s a great way to get under the skin of a place. Whether it’s a genuine farmers’ market selling locally produced food or a tourist-trap night market selling tat, there’s always something interesting going on. I remember going to Christmas markets in Prague in the early 1980s, but these weren’t the Christmas Markets of today, with chalet stalls selling mulled wine, cookies and tasteful decorations. These were functional affairs, markets at Christmas time rather than actual Christmas Markets, where you went to buy your live carp for Christmas Eve dinner, hauled out of an enormous tank of thrashing fish. Urgh how I hated those fish!
I remember street markets in Sofia a decade later in the early 1990s where sellers would hawk a handful of onions on a trestle table, or a pile of radishes, hopefully trying to make a few Lev in times of absurdly rife inflation. Just thinking of Paddington and Glebe markets, favourite hangouts during my student years in Sydney, brings back great memories of bargain hunting for unusual clothing. I could go on and on (oh the markets in Vietnam…) but I digress, I set out to write about my local market, now!
In my area there’s at least one street market in a nearby town every day of the week, and in places like Antibes, Cannes and Nice they are daily fixtures. Roquefort les Pins market is on a Wednesday. It’s small and functional, nothing to
blog write home about. My favourite local has to be Valbonne, every Friday morning. Not only does it take place in an absurdly pretty medieval village, typically Provençal, with pollarded plane trees, shuttered windows, narrow cobbled alleys and a colourful central square, but it’s so full of beautiful stuff!
The stalls ramble throughout the village, not just in one place but really, all over. Ambling around you can find everything from shoes, scarves and children’s clothing to hand-painted ceramics, olive-wood bowls, kitchenware, Provençal fabrics, artists’ paintings, lavender cosmetics/soaps and lovely flowers. And this is even before I’ve started on the food. There’s a wonderful selection of olives, tapenades, saucissons, goat’s cheeses, olive oils, honeys and spices and several fruit and veg stands.
You can find fresh pasta, chicken roasting on a spit and the most delicious bread at a tiny stand by a hole-in-the-wall, straight out of the oven. The smell is heavenly. There is surprisingly little junk, with only one stall selling iPhone covers and other such tat made in China. Just out of the main central part of the village, in front of the church, there is a section devoted to very local farmers/smallholders.
Now, Valbonne is not exactly a cheap place, and the market prices can often reflect this, but there’s at least one genuinely good value stall I head for every time. The reason they sell at such a good price is that they only sell whatever fruit really is in season that day. Take a look at what was in season the last time I went: strawberries and asparagus, perfect early summer fare.
Valbonne market can get very crowded and in high season is absolutely packed. My advice is to get there early – it starts around 7 am – and enjoy the best produce without the crowds. Take your time to chat to the sellers, and even if your French is limited, a friendly “bonjour”, “merci” and “au revoir” will always be appreciated and will almost certainly get you better service and possibly better produce too. You can always ask to sample a bit of what you’re interested in, or ask for advice.
Did you know that it’s normal to ask for a certain product, such as a cheese/melon/avocado, to be ripe for a certain day? (For example, you want a fresh goats’ cheese for a dinner you’re having in 3 days’ time, so tell the seller and s/he will pick you out the perfect one for that day). Even if you’re just looking and photographing, still make eye contact and smile – it makes a huge difference! By the time everyone else arrives as the morning wears on you’ll be ready to sit down and watch the world go by over a coffee in the Place des Arcades. You’ll still be right in the thick of it, but at one of the coveted tables on the terrace rather than squabbling and pushing with the masses.
All photos were taken in late March. Come back again in summer for a different selection of fruit, vegetables and herbs. Do you like going to markets? Do you have a favourite one? What do you think of my market day in Provence? I’d love to hear from you.
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