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The old vans and lorries will start wheezing in some time after eight, unloading prunes and geese and greens and oysters while the children are passing through on their way to school. The stall-holders in French village markets aren’t the sort of people to knock themselves out coming at dawn. That’s the whole point. The Friday morning market has probably taken place here since the Middle Ages, and today it’s a symbol of liberty, and a refuge for everyone from the clock-driven, bureaucrat-infested life of the cities. Free men and women come and go when they damn please; there are no receipts, and no VAT that can’t be avoided; no advertising, no special discount offers, no Styrofoam, no bar codes; just real food, scents, colours and conviviality. Perhaps this is that Free Market they’re always chattering about in the newspapers.
The village market is the reliable country calendar of France, and all of us down here measure the seasons by the asparagus, spring onions, raspberries, wild strawberries, melons, cèpes and chestnuts that rise and pass across its firmament, each at its appointed time. It is also the best way to check on the state of the land. Even vendors who are middlemen are willing to discuss the relative merits and demerits of their produce, with a long discourse on the weather responsible for them if they’re not too busy. Farmers who bring in chickens will recount their life stories, and tell you to which special fate in the kitchen they think each of them best suited.
If you’re not in the mood for such discussions, and even if you’re not intending to buy anything, you’ll come to the market just the same, for the sensual assault that makes it the climax of the week. Best are the fish stands—glistening rainbow trout, pink rougets and prawns, inscrutable sea urchins and lithe purple Art Nouveau squids (and a tielle, a little Languedocien fish pie, to take home for lunch). Next door are flats of spring flowers, ready for planting, and across the way the green spectrum of the vegetable stand has been arranged with a master’s eye for the maximum effect of colour. There’s a touch of colour in the market people, too; the rosy flush that comes from spending most of their time outdoors.
The French aren’t adverse to noise. One thing that distinguishes many villages is the vintage air-raid sirens that bellow out from atop the mairie to mark midday (when the market closes) as if to say ‘Bon appétit!’ If they go off unexpectedly, flattening delicate sensibilities for miles around, it’s probably to announce a fire; French villages depend of volunteer firemen, that doughty crew that comes roaring up to your house with lights and sirens ablaze just before Christmas with their calendars (you buy their calendar, they’ll come to your fire).
And every village with an alert syndicat d’initiative has wired itself for sound, providing a little canned music to regale shoppers at the market. You may get accordion music, lukewarm rock, or morose Parisian crooners; in ours, the girls at the SI have grown fond of a tape of Ella Fitzgerald with Chick Webb’s band. (Ella got her start with Webb, an excellent drummer; his band spent a lot of time in the Apollo and the Cotton Club in the late 1930s, Edgar Sampson provides the arrangements and sax solos). They play it all the time, and under the plane trees at nine o’clock, at the market, everyone seems to think it hits just right.
The music isn’t the only eclectic element. In our market, there’s a solemn Dutchman with dirt under his fingernails who sells organic bok choy, Jerusalem artichokes and spiky African melons. Lots of Dutchmen, passionate gardeners from a space-starved country, come down here for a little tranquillity and a little good earth. An Englishman who grew up here provides sweetcorn in late summer—the best you can get in Europe; the seeds come from Pennsylvania. Even some of the French have gone exotic. The space cadet at the natural foods stand will sell you popcorn, Canadian wild rice, or fat-free nacho chips, and just around the corner a lady with a smile like the first sunny day in April is frying Vietnamese nems . Near the librarie, next to the fellow who’s cooking a gigantic paella in a 4ft-wide pan, there’s the pick-up truck selling live trout in the tank.
All this may seem a bit disconcerting, if you’re the sort given to fantasies about finding a bit of ‘unspoiled’ rural heaven in deepest France. But the flagrant cosmopolitanism of many of village markets has done no harm to their more traditional aspects. One can still pick up live geese, or rabbits and chicks in wooden cages, and farm wives still set up folding tables to sell carefully braided strings of garlic and onions, home-made walnut cakes or delicate-looking but potent discs of goaty cabécou.. Unless a comet collides with the Earth, you can bet five centuries from now they’ll still be doing it (though maybe by then the list of traditional delicacies will include sweetcorn and nems).
Not long ago, on a chilly, drizzling day in early autumn, we saw a thoroughly miserable old farmer, staring blankly out from under a flowered umbrella. A shrewish pinchpenny wife had undoubtedly chased him out in the rain to sell the one treasure he had brought, a sinister-looking courgette the size of a steam boiler, precariously balanced on a wooden box with a sign: 1 euro/kilo. Five centuries from now, he’ll probably still be there too.
© Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls
Re: The Cadogan Guide to the Dordogne, Lot, and Bordeaux: What a delight and what a help! Just returned from two weeks based mostly in Sarlat and Toulouse and used the guide extensively. Better than the Michelin, for sure.