Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Market Day

It’s an assortment unlike any to be found in the U.S. There is donkey salami, horse meat, duck paté, goat cheese and wild boar ham. Olives of varied hues and seasonings are available, as are spices in burlap sacks, and pastries from the Middle East. Eggs are sold next to a sign listing the hatch date. Oysters, mussels, scallops and squid are abundant. The usual produce is also available: tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, celery (buy only as many stalks as you want), endive, scallions and leeks.

Want the food already cooked? No problem. Two purveyors will scoop up plastic containers of paella from what looks like a huge wok. Roast chickens are available. Turkey legs, quails, and smoked meats are also turning on spits. A Thai woman serves up Asian specialties. One truck dispenses pizzas. If food is of no interest, maybe woven baskets will draw attention, or maybe tablecloths and place mats. Used books are available along with CD’s. Several vendors sell knives of every shape and size. One guy, flying an American flag, offers what seems to be army surplus. Leather goods abound, along with ceramic pots, t-shirts, hand crafted wooden spoons, forks, salad bowls and cutting boards. For those whose hungers are spiritual, one display features bibles and various religious pamphlets.

Men go back and forth into the back of a truck. It turns out this is a “dressing room.” They are trying on pants. Wearing their new purchase, they might want to stop by a florist, picking up a bouquet for their wives. Feeling generous, they might want to drop a Euro or more into the container of a street musician or mime.

Although the assortment might sound odd to Americans, it’s just another day at an open-air market in Provence. Such markets represent a historical relic, a sort of living fossil. The local town of Carpentras claims that its market dates back to the 12th century. Visitors entering the town of Sault are greeted by a sign that reads: Open Air Market Every Wednesday Since 1515.

Not surprisingly the size and scope of the market depend on the weather. While “hypermarkets” (what “super centers” are called here) benefit from heating and air conditioning, the outdoor market is completely dependent on the elements. In our village the market is just now, as Easter approaches, achieving its full and varied complement of stalls. In January and February, it was composed mostly of a loyal base of food vendors.
As the number of stalls grows so does the crowd of shoppers. This is a vacation area, where the population triples in the summer. Already, as the Easter vacation kicks into gear, we are noticing that the shoppers have moved from uniformly French to a polyglot set of folks.

That markets continue to exist is, in one way surprising. They cannot compete with the low prices of the big chains. One day, accepting a sample, we loved the taste of an organic sheep cheese from the Pyrenees. Buying a smallish slice lightened our wallet by 20 Euros, about 26 dollars. It’s hard to get away with a piece of fish for under 10 Euros. We have learned to be careful about weights. 450 grams, for example equals about one pound. 300-350 grams of fish filet is ample for two. Small goat cheeses, not necessarily organic, offer a good bargain. We have also been known, occasionally, to content ourselves with just a few ribs of celery.

The markets also do not provide what is uniformly a local product. Oranges in January do not come from local growers. Nor do the tomatoes, strawberries, canteloupes and lemons. Salami vendors and olive oil purveyors consistently offer, by contrast, their own wares. Cheese purchased from the merchants may not be their own, but has been selected from producers who care about quality more than quantity.

So, what is the draw that keeps 21st century people attracted to an ancient practice. Partly it has to do with supporting the vendors, small business people whose daily treks from market to market keep them self-employed. Partly it is the quality of the products. For us this is especially true of the cheeses, the salamis, and the fish. The markets also offer something humane. They personalize time, offering a rhythmic pulse that marks the passage of a week less mechanically than do calendars and clocks. Finally, since humans are social creatures, markets represent an opportunity for gathering and festivity, dimensions absent from the hurried and harried crowds at hypermarkets.

1 comment:

  1. One day at a market in the Luberon a vendor asked if we would watch her stand while she ran to the bank to get some cash. She returned 90 minutes later after doing some shopping, catching up with friends, etc. She was very pleased at the quantity of goods we had sold on her behalf and invited us to dinner at her house!

    Ken Wallace