Markets in Provence

by Wendy VanHatten

You could literally go to some type of street market every day in Provence. Really.

Whether you’re looking specifically for antiques, linens, clothes, soaps, collectibles, knives, cough drops made with balsamic, flowers, fabrics, shoes, spoons and spatulas made from olive wood, lavender everything…the list goes on and on.

Antiques had their own places at most markets. Door knobs, boules, picture frames, wooden boxes, iron toys, tools, rusted, faded signs, and more.

Then, there’s food. Olives of every color and size, fresh-baked breads, local meats, cured hard and soft salamis, chocolate and nougat candies, countless creamy and pungent cheeses, frozen and fresh fish, seasonal fruits, spices from all corners of the globe, red, black, white, and green poivre, jars of duck fat, local specialty cookies from that region, bunches of herbs, garlic bigger than my hand, colorful vegetables…this list is even larger.

You could spend all day.

So…we went. To several.

We opted for a morning here and there. Which means we spent several different times at different markets in different towns and villages. Streets lined with vendors, side streets filled with flowers, and people everywhere.

We saw some of the same vendors at multiple places. And, we discovered new ones. We now have favorites.

This is what we discovered…

Everyone was polite. No one pushed to get in line before anyone else. Everybody said ‘Bonjour’, ‘Merci’, and ‘Au Revoir.’

Locals shop for food and whatever else they need. Chefs shop for whatever is in season. You’ll find whatever they buy on the menu today. Could be ripe, mouth-dripping strawberries, which were in season in May. Maybe those would end up in desserts. Could be fat, creamy-white asparagus, also in season in May. Soup made from them looks like cream and tastes like silk with a hint of white pepper. Maybe you’ll find quail eggs, the latest flavor of sausage, or pureed beet root.

Nougat made an appearance at every market as well. Flavored with anything from pistachios to apricots to dried fruits. Sweet treat.

There are always plenty of cheeses to pick from. How about an aged Comte? Sharp, pungent, and an absolute favorite. Or, the just-made goat cheese…this came as a dessert with an apricot puree. To die for. I didn’t think it was appropriate to lick the plate when I was finished. I wanted to.

Bread vendors sell out early. Get your baguette first thing if you want one. Everybody else does. That way you can carry it like the French do. Wrapped in plain paper, under your arm or in your market bag.

We saw the same organ grinder at two different markets. No monkey. The organ grinder at a third market had a large cat with him. He was on a leash and accepted treats.

Wine vendors give out samples. Of course, every vendor gives out samples. What better way to try before you buy?

Another favorite were the spoons, spatulas, and serving platters made from olive wood. Beautiful doesn’t begin to describe them. Use them and they will quickly become your favorite.

Colorful linens for tables, dishcloths, napkins, and hand towels lit up the aisles. Brilliant blues, bright yellows, deep reds, and blinding whites… What color do you want?

Scarves and cashmere pashminas in more shades of blue than I’ve ever seen. Was the scarf guy telling me the truth when he said that color was made for me?

Baskets vied with their own colors, shapes, and sizes for attention. I could just see my cat adopting one of them. But, I’d have to get it on the plane and it wouldn’t fit in my carry-on.

Assume there is one vendor for each type of food or item…and you would be wrong. This is another thing which amazed us. The number of vendors selling the same or similar items was amazing. Each had their own twist, specialty, or way of selling.

At one market, we saw at least four olive vendors and five sausage makers. Another time, there were over seven vendors with table linens. Everybody seemed to be doing a brisk business. I guess if you weren’t…you probably didn’t return.

Did I mention the duck fat? Small jars, large jars, duck fat and beans, foie gras, foie gras with duck fat…there was definitely a love affair with duck fat. AKA…graisse de canard.

Paella cooked in yard-wide pans looked and smelled like saffron coated fish. Yum. Croissants so flaky we wore the crumbs all day. Of course, our espressos were the perfect accompaniment. Whatever you’re hungry for, breakfast, lunch, or café au lait, find your favorite food. It’s probably at the street market.

At the end of the morning, we left with provisions for that night’s dinner, snacks to eat throughout the day, linens to bring home, and memories of what we tasted and saw. Those croissant crumbs? They stayed with us.

We’re already making plans to go back. Provence and street markets…a match made for us.

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