It’s 6:30am on a Saturday. You might think this was the beginning of the day, but the small rabble sitting on the next table are having wine with their lunch. There is a small amount of time for them to breathe. The cafes are open, but the market as yet is not. In half an hour, they will lift the worn hessian covers and reveal their pristine, straight-from-the-horses-mouth (so to speak) produce. For now though, they drink wine and break bread with their competitors and colleagues alike. Some, like me, opt for a more sedate cafe au lait and croissant.
The market runs until 1pm, but I know full well that by then, the stalls will be all but empty, the carparks will all be gone, and the tables at all the best cafes already seated. It’s not punishment, even on a holiday to be here at this time. Three of my favourite things all rolled into one – travel, food and shopping. I also have this quiet moment to myself. At a more reasonable hour, my family will join me at a restaurant nearby, where I will show them my treasures and share a pichet de rosé over something simple and delicious like a salade de chèvre chaud.
Soon the stall owners move. One grabs the remnants of the bouteille de vin by the neck, and tucks it under his cheese display. As the sun moves its way over the rooftops and into the square, the shrouds are lifted and the vicinity simultaneously fills with people and colour.
I stroll the narrow aisles, simply tables and umbrellas propped against shop-fronts or under awnings. Seafood sits in a bed of crushed ice, scallop shells arranged to form divisions between the species. Saucisson and chevre in coated in varying degrees of mould, rind, ash, and other forms of gorgeous putridity keep each others smelly company in baskets or chilled compartments. No time for window shopping – there is too much to cover. Luckily I have a cool bag, and a selection gets popped in for dinner. There is a chicken rotisserie spinning, potatoes at the bottom, gathering the heavily seasoned dripping. The chicken is not ready yet, but the spuds are. Breakfast number two.
Of course, there are the fruits and vegetables. Arranged like something out of a designer magazine, with simplicity and flair. The colours are sublime, and they are often organic (biologique). They smell like a bouquet – so sweet and fragrant, particularly the strawberries and tomatoes. They taste so good, it’s like they have been injected with magic.
Then the condiments. Spices, shipped from afar, but of course presented with unique french style. They are expensive, but again, today they are organic, and surprisingly fresh. They are sold by bohemians in overalls, knotted headscarves and dreadlocks. They tie the paper parcels with raffia and a cinnamon quill or a dried chilli. There is honey, usually with a nuance of provincial lavender, and also available on the comb. Preserves and relish are on the next stall – mismatched glass jars with matching gingham caps.
I wander down side alleys, and soon arrive in another tiny arena. This one is fillled with table linen – either provincial yellow with gaudy lavender, olive or cricket (grillon) designs, or classically white or neutral. They are cheap. So cheap for the quality – I must be missing something in translation. Bedspreads, quilted or lacy are next, and I purchase an entire quilted queen set with massive cushion covers for 50 euros. It’s the kind of thing I wouldn’t get under $500 in Australia.
I am joined by my late-coming family while I take an espresso break. Buskers play guitar and clarinet, and tweenagers sell cheap and nasty toys out of baskets – bird whistles that trill when watered, water-spray fans to cool us, and glow sticks to keep the kids quiet. Hambone takes the heavy bags, leaving my hands free to buy more.
Another wander off the main strip takes me to clothing. It’s trashy but sweet and summery. Next are the bags – all woven coloured straw in fuchsia, emerald, cobalt, mustard, terracotta and saffron, accompanied by wide-brimmed matching straw hats. Some of the bags are crafted in the shape of little houses, cars, flowers and hearts, joined with contrasting blanket stitch.
The wine stall is jumping like a neighbourhood party. I’m not entirely sure if much wine is being sold, but it is definitely a successful tasting. There is a grotty old ghetto blaster on the table playing JJ Cale – out of place, and yet also not. A harpist competes unsuccessfully about 30 metres away. Does she not move because of the licensing, or is it because it would be harder to replenish her plastic cup?
Today we are lucky – this market also has brocante. Hambone groans and suggests he finds the table for lunch, and while I am enjoying another moment of solitude in the throng, I spot my partner-in-brickabrak-crime, Lulu, whose husband also deserts her in preference of wine and food. We look at every row of “antiques” on the ground, and purchase art deco prints, Parisian cast iron street numbers and a rose glass vase with dragonflies. By the time we are finished, the men are halfway through the pichet, and we realise we will be driving home.
But home is not so bad either. My baskets of goodies are another treat in the making. I can cook, listen to opera, drink iced and watered Pastis, and watch my family in the pool in our Dordogne farmhouse. Then everyone will praise me for a wonderful dinner that is très facile, due to the incredible nature of the fresh ingredients.
- Food- contains both fresh produce and often at least a cheese section and meat stall of some form, e.g. sausages (saucisson), poultry (will include game), farm fresh meat (beef, pork, lamb) and sometimes seafood. There will often also be a stall with wine and/or condiments.
- General- This includes food, and other articles, mainly clothing.
- Brocante- This is a flea market, selling all kinds of second hand goods, particularly sweet cheap french antiques and overpriced junk (it’s hard to know which is which sometimes). It often stands alone, but sometimes will be held on the same day as an adjoining food market.
My favourite markets are:
- Nyons – Thursdays (and on Sundays in Summer), general. (map). A huge market, covers all of the central area of town, spilling in and out of alleys and plazas. Has a vibrant atmosphere, and a high proportion of organic goods, and hippy handcrafts. Street music was very lively. Town itself is gorgeous.
- Vaison la romaine – Tuesdays, general. (map). Similar to Nyons, but often has the added bonus of brocante. Food is excellent quality, as is the table linen and parking is a nightmare (go early!). Town of course is stunning, and there is a bevvy of good restaurant options. Try Le Beffroi
- Carpentras – Fridays, general (truffles in winter). Sundays, brocante. (map). Again, the food here is exceptional quality – just keep to the smaller stalls that look like they have the farmer perched behind them. The brocante market on Sundays is not huge, but is one of the better priced ones in the region.
- Nice – Daily, flowers and food (not Mondays). Mondays, brocante. Summer evenings, crafts. (map) The flower market in Nice is the main attraction. Combined with the vibrant candy colours of the buildings in the area, it makes for beautiful photographs.
- Sarlat-la-Canéda – Daily, (covered market in former St Mary’s church) all day Friday in summer, and not on Thursday in winter, Food. Saturday, general (map) Stunning town, and beautiful, atmospheric market with a little brocante. This is the one described above (with excepts from Sorgue and Mirepoix). You must get there early – parking is impossible otherwise.
- L’Isle Sur la Sorgue – General (Sunday and Thursday), Brocante (Sunday). (map)This is pretty much THE antique market to go to. The stalls cover a remarkable amount of area around the centre of the town and the river. You’ll never get through it in one go. Eat in the stunning garden of restaurant Jardin du Quai (book if you can).
- Castelnaudary – General, Monday. (map). Castelnaudary is the self-proclaimed home of cassoulet, and so as you can imagine, the presance of this, in beautiful tins and accompanied by ceramic bowls, dominates stalls. It is one of Rick Stein’s favourite French food markets. There is also a good collection of good cheap clothing seconds (not second hand).
- Aix-en-Provence – General, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday (Place Verdon). Flowers, daily (Place des Prêcheurs). Food, daily (Place Richelme) (map). Such an incredible town. The street music is exceptional. Parking garages are just out of the centre, and not too expensive.
- Mirepoix – General and brocante, Mondays. (map) This could have been my best market experience ever. The town is like a creaky wooden movie set, the food is incredible, there were some great buskers, a carousel for the kids, and super restaurants all over. Stunning cathedral to poke your head into too.
- Bandol – General, Tuesday (on the waterfront). Food, daily (map). Go to the town for the beach and the wine, and try and partner it with market day. Great paella. Good clothes. Better wine in the side streets.
- Bastille, Paris – General, Thursday and Sunday (map) also known as Marché Richard-Lenoir. OK – it’s not a country market, but it’s probably the best one in Paris, and famous in particular for seafood. Also a generous selection of touristy tack.
Pretty much every town that is big enough to have a post office will have at least a weekly market, even if it’s only four stalls. I loved the tiny ones in Grillon (simple, but walking distance from the rental house), Saint Julien de Lampon (wine was great), Les Eyzies (beautiful town), and tiny little Richerenches has one of the most famous truffle markets in France (in season). Simply google your town and “market day”, and you are sure to find out more.
Below are a couple more links to try.