My local market is in L’Isle-Jourdain, a town on the border between the départements of Haute-Garonne and the Gers, about twenty minutes drive from Toulouse. Every Saturday morning, rain or shine, I spend at least one hour walking among the many different stalls of the market to buy produce for the next few days’ cooking. Depending on the season, the weather and the time of day, the sights, smells and sounds of the market are different. And I love it all.
It usually takes a few visits to figure out which stalls are the ones for you.
For example, some stalls are held by producers themselves. They can tell you all about how their lettuce is shooting like mad these days and needs to be cut every other day, or how they are having trouble with the beetroot because of the humidity.
Some stalls are held by distributors who buy their produce at wholesale markets. This often means they have a larger selection, can sometimes set slightly lower prices, but generally don’t sell produce from local farms.
Other stalls are highly specialized: Goats’ cheese. Apples. Organic bread and flour. Olives. Honey. That means more stopping for your shopping, but they really know their stuff and can advise you on which apples are slightly more acidic, or which honey crystallizes faster.
There are, of course, all the stalls who sell ready-to-eat food, like paëlla, pizza, quiche, Asian dishes… I love the smells and the sizzling, but have to admit that I probably buy from them no more than twice or three times a year. With so much fabulous stuff to cook, buying something ready-made just seems like a cop-out.
Some stalls don’t fall into any specific category. Most Saturdays, an old man who looks like a cross between an Indian Yogi and Willy Nelson provides several dozen instruments to children for free – some are improvised out of bits of wood and grains of rice, some are more classic and “noble”. He encourages even the youngest to kneel on his colorful carpet and bang and strum away while he weaves the sounds of the guitar or the violin around their noise into something resembling music. It’s torture to sensitive ears, but the kids love it and the stand has been declared “d’utilité publique” (for the common good) and is exempt of charges.
Another unusual case is an old lady, well into her 80s, who sells vegetables from her own little garden. Every week the man in charge of collecting the fee per linear meter of stall space from the traders stops by her folding table and chair, collects his couple of Euro and gently chastises her for not having the necessary date stamp on her hens’ eggs. “C’est la loi!“, he tells her, then winks at me and tells me they make an exception for her. “C’est notre doyenne!“. People bring her cups of hot tea or coffee in the winter and swap her a chocolatine for a few sprigs of fresh thyme and a chat. It’s as much about human contact as about the few bob she makes selling bunches of sorrel.
Today, my visit to the market was long and required the strong arms of hubby and two of our sons: our fridge was completely empty! So here’s a quick group photo of the wonderful produce I got:
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some cooking to do…
Some stats: A 2009 survey claims that only 14% of people in France buy their groceries on the markets. Somehow surprisingly, this figure more than doubles in the region around Paris, where 29% of people claim to favor fresh-produce markets over supermarkets. Since the survey was published, however, there seems to have bean a wider mouvement towards “barn door sales” (buying produce directly from the farm) and other solutions that seek to bring the produce to the final consumer in the most direct way possible. An article on the RTL website claims that the number of sales in this manner has more than doubled between 2010 and 2015.
For several years, we got a weekly basket of organic vegetables in a structure run by volunteers to aid the preservation of farming agriculture, called an AMAP (Association pour le Maintien d’une Agriculture Paysanne). The idea is that families pay their vegetables 6 months in advance to allow a (often organic) farmer to sow, weed and harvest without financial stress and with the guarantee that his produce will be bought. The members of this type of structure agree that the variety and quantity of vegetables depend on the seasons and can, in the event of disease, hail or other problem, be reduced or simply look ugly.
Not being able to choose what vegetables you get each week can be disconcerting, but it actually turned out to be rather stimulating from a culinary point of view. How do you cook fresh salsify? Aubergine AGAIN? People organized recipe swaps and traded scalloped squash for Jerusalem artichokes. And we found out that our children ADORE rutabaga oven chips. Who would have thought?
Our AMAP distributed more than organic vegetables. There were dairy products, eggs, farm-fresh chickens and guinea fowl, honey and herbal teas, even oysters around Christmas and New Year…
There are other, similar initiatives around the place, like La Ruche Qui Dit Oui, Le Panier Des Familles, Le Panier Paysan, and regional farmer’s cooperatives like Val de Gascogne. Some of them depend on volunteers to help run the produce distribution (which can be a little inconvenient and time consuming), others don’t expect your involvement and even deliver your groceries to your door. Go check out if there’s one near you!