On our last evening in Provence, we debated whether to end with a farewell dinner at a nearby restaurant that served great traditional Provençal cuisine, or to go to the Velleron market. Velleron won, hands down.
Velleron is a small town somewhere in between Ilse-sur-la-Sorgue and Carpentras. Every evening from 6pm to 7pm during the summer except for Sundays and public holidays, and three times a week during the winter, an empty lot right off the exit on the main route between those two bigger towns is taken over by a troupe of small white vans. They're driven in by local farmers who bring in whatever they have fresh and ripe to sell that day.
The vans are lined up in two rows, their backs facing the central aisle. The doors open up and the stalls are set up. Some are proper stalls with awnings; some are simple foldup tables. The stalls range from fairly large ones selling a variety of produce, to ones selling just one or items. There are stalls with a sea of strawberries; an old farmer selling just a few cartons of haricot verts (slim green beans) and a couple of bags of walnuts; the garlic man who sells beautiful braids of garlic in 5 varieties. Most of the produce is labeled "Classe II", but they are fresh, ripe and amazingly cheap.
The local people know this well. That last evening, which was a Friday, we got there at 5:30, hoping to secure a nearby parking space. We were able to do that luckily, but there was already a horde of people waiting at the gate, baskets or shopping bags in hand. The bread stand right outside the gate to the market area proper was doing a booming business.
At 6 sharp, the gates finally opened and the people rushed in, elbows out, nostrils flared, shopping bags at the ready.
Since we'd been there before, we were already planning to get at least a couple of kilo of fèves (broad beans or fava beans) from the stand immediately to the right of the main entrance, which sold them for an unbelievable €1 per kilo. (That's about 60 cents per pound.) About fifty people seemed to have the same idea, and made a beeline for that stand. I watched amazed as the six stall sellers, ranging from grandpa to the grandson in his low teens, frantically handed out bags of produce and took money from outstretched hands. They sold out of their supply of beans, melons, and courgettes (zucchini) within about 10 minutes, with only a couple of kilos of new potatoes left. (We did manage to secure our share of the fava beans though!)
The other stands managed to last a bit longer. The vendors were calling out what they had to offer, and handing out samples of their wares: juicy slivers of peaches, ruby-red strawberries, the sweetest cherries.
A few tourists like us wandered down the middle of the aisle with a dazed expression, cameras in perpetual motion, trying to capture the colors of the jewel-like fruits, the bunches of fresh lettuce arranged like bouquets with huge blossoms, the delicate greens of the beans and melons and zucchini. We couldn't capture the aromas or the buzzing atmosphere, or the sheer commitment to fresh, ripe produce that is taken for granted by both seller and buyer. This, I think, is the foundation of Provençal cuisine, what makes it so fresh and good.
Since we were driving home the next day, we pulled ourselves together to buy what we wanted to bring back. We bought 5 kilos of apricots, a couple of bags of both yellow and white peaches, those precious fava beans, a bunch of pink-hued garlic, a carton of small, thin-walled green peppers, a dozen zucchini flowers, two huge Russe heirloom tomatoes, and two bags of cherries. The total cost was less than €20. There are many buyers who cart off crates of beans and several large baskets of strawberries. My guess is that they are restaurant owners.
At 7, the show was already over. The white vans started to pack up, and the customers drifted away to the parking lots. We took a few last, lingering shots of the market and went back to our car, determined to go back as soon as possible.
Note: Although there are a few stalls selling products like jams, honey, wine, oil and cheese, most of the stalls here sell fresh produce. Even if you can't carry the produce home though, Velleron is well worth a visit for any food lover. It's less busy on week days by the way, but most fun on Fridays and Saturdays.
I posted this back in 2006. In May 2010 we finally took the plunge and bought a run down little house in Provence . One big reason? Because it's just a 30 minute drive from Velleron.
See also: my ever-growing Velleron set on flickr .