Provence, Part 2: To Marché, to Marché; (1)
In my previous post I described how I center my Provence travels around the glorious marchés. If you are fond of markets, there is really no other place I think of where you can indulge yourself as much as you can here.
Some marketing tips
- There are three types of marchés that sell food: the regular marché, the marché Provençal, and the marché agricole. A regular marché is meant for local customers as well as tourists, so it will have a large variety of foodstuffs, clothes, and other everyday items; however most regular marchés have lots of touristy stalls that sell cute embroidered towels and the like too. A marché Provençal has a focus on items that appeal to tourists - gift items, crafts, and so on (though you can find food too). A marché agricole is a farmer's market, and has few or no non-food stalls.
- Besides the food marchés, you'll also see signs and flyers for antique and brocante markets (flea markets). You might also see signs for Vide Grenier, which literally means "clear out the attic". These are the equivalent of British car boot sales - garage sales held in one location, usually a parking lot or something. Most of these are one-off events, though some towns (such as L'Isle-de-la-Sorgue) hold weekly brocante markets. (I'm addicted to these...)
- All regular marchés are held in the mornings, from 8 am to 12 noon. At 12 the majority of stalls, especially the ones selling food products, shut down promptly. So, plan your day accordingly.
- Most people who tell you how wonderful the Provence markets are will not mention the big downside of the popular ones: the agony of finding a parking space. It really pays to go as early as possible to secure yourself a decent parking spot without having to fight for it. (Our Designated Driver almost got into a fist fight with a grey haired Dutch woman one day...)
- Repeating myself: you really do need a cooler with ice packs to keep your purchases fresh and safe! Otherwise, limit yourself to items that don't need refrigeration.
- The basic rule of all markets is ne touchez pas - don't touch, unless the stall vendor lets you choose your own (you'll see little baskets provided in that case). For things like delicate peaches and apricots in particular, don't try to squeeze the produce. And whatever you do don't poke your fingers in the attractively displayed baskets of spices and herbs. On the other hand, chances are the vendor will be handing out small slices of their best and ripest fruit as samples. One spice and herb vendor was doing great business by scattering a pinch of the fragrant stuff into peoples' palms. Many of the vendors will be offering all kinds of tasty samples. It's all part of the fun of the market.
- Not all the produce you see is produced locally - remember that the markets are not just for tourists, they are where regular people do their grocery shopping too. For local produce look for the word Pays on the price signs. You will also see the term Artisanat on many items - handcrafts, sausages, cheese, etc. That means that the product is hand made, usually using traditional methods.
- Many market stall vendors are terrific salespeople. They can charm you into buying anything! So remember to stand firm and not buy things you don't intend do. (This last time we bought two huge loaves of sourdough bread that we didn't particularly like from the samples, just because the stall owner talked us into it.)
Things to buy or not to buy at a marché
The array of items for sale at a Provence market are so attractive that you might be tempted to buy everything. Not everything is going to get safely though customs when you fly back home though. Also, some items can be found for better prices and/or quality elsewhere. Of course there are always exceptions to the rule, so your results may vary.
Things to buy:
- Any produce or food items that you intend to eat right away.
- Honeys and bee products - make sure they are from the region though and not imported.
- Homemade preserves - sample first! Some are way better than others.
- Cured olives and related products (such as tapenade) provided they are well packed. Again, sample the wares - they will encourage you to, so why not?
- Dried fruits - the prunes (yes, prunes) and figs available here are usually outstanding.
- Those cute embroidered towels you will see everywhere (but comparison shop!) Likewise for tablecloths and other linens.
- Handmade items such as pottery, wood carvings, santons (small figures of saints and ordinary people that are used in a Christmas crêche) etc. You can tell what's handmade and what's not after some research (by which I mean looking at lots of items!)
- Olive wood kitchen products. I love the olive wood spatulas I can buy here - they are a bit flexible, have a sheen to them, and don't scratch non-stick surfaces.
- Handmade soaps and related items such as lotions. The prices for these at the markets are a bit cheaper than at stores that sell this kind of thing most of the time. Be sure you're buying regional products though.
Things not to buy (or to be careful about):
- Olive oil: I think you can buy better quality olive oil from stores or the producers themselves. If you do buy olive oil at a market though, make sure it's really the good cold pressed stuff. Don't get bedazzled by a pretty bottle. (Believe me, I've been there!)
- Prepackaged Herbes de Provence: You will see these everywhere, packaged in such cute little sachets and sacks. Ask yourself though - will you really use such a big quantity of Herbs de Provence within a reasonable time at home? I would much rather either make my own mix, or use the mixes that come in small, airtight containers - which can be purchased (gasp) at a supermarket. (I do however buy small quantities of herbs and spices that I can buy exactly the amount I want of.)
- Wine: Most of the wines sold at markets seem to be of the tourist-bait variety. Buy your wine from a cave instead.
- Dried sausages: Actually, dried artisanat sausages are great things to buy - if you are going to eat them while you are in the area. Bringing them home may be a problem - U.S. customs for instance will not like them. The same applies to cheese.
- Provençal fabrics: I am not sure about the quality of the yards and yards of fabrics being sold at market stalls. For quality at a price, I prefer to go to a Les Olivades or Souleiado store (there is one of each in most of the large towns); for quality and great prices, there is a wonderful fabric store near Avignon...that I will describe in a later post. In any case check what you are buying carefully.
I'll list some of my favorite markets in the next post in this series.