I confess I have never bought a fat pig at a market – chops or sausages, yes – but for me, markets are more about fresh seasonal vegetables and fruit. On that front, I have been very lucky – living just around the corner from the Marché Couvert in Albi I have been able to buy fresh fruit and vegetables six days of the week. A real luxury!
My first memories of markets were slightly more exotic. As a child in Nairobi, my mother would take me to what she called the ‘Bazaar’ where Kikuyu market sellers would set up their stalls on nothing more than a kikoi cloth spread on the road and sell their piles of maize, yams, bananas, papayas, and mangoes. In the same street, Sikh spice traders had small shops with zinc-lined wooden bins filled with pulses and sacks filled with turmeric, cumin, cardamom seeds, chilis, dried star anise and a host of other curiosities. The warm spicy smell is what I remember most, closely followed by the loud noise of haggling, laughter, and chatter. For markets are, and always have been, social occasions where people meet up and exchange their weekly news.
Years later, when my family settled in Buckinghamshire, during the school holidays I would accompany my mother to the Friday morning market in the local town of Brackley. Yes, there was a butcher, a baker, a grocer in town, but the cheapest source of fresh fruit and vegetables was the weekly market. In those days, you weren’t allowed to pick up and feel the fruit or vegetables but had to rely on the trader to give you the best. My mother would sometimes get into arguments, refusing to accept what she was given if she felt she was being sold a ‘dud’. Hugely embarrassing for her teenage daughter!
Inevitably, the market lost some of its trade when the first supermarket opened in town. Here you had the luxury of selecting your own fruit and vegetables, and the market traders were soon forced to adopt the new practice in order to compete.
As a working mum in Wales, my market days became a nostalgic memory. Food shopping had to be done in in giant supermarket shops – sometimes a two trolley shop if I was feeding not only the family but visiting friends. Everything wrapped in cling film or produce weighed in plastic bags. When the first organic fruit and vegetables began to appear in Waitrose in Monmouth, I always tried to buy some, despite the higher cost. Friends told me it would never catch on, but I argued that if we didn’t put our money where our mouth was, it would never have a chance. I feel slightly vindicated, knowing it’s now a £2.2 billion market in the UK.
When I moved to Albi in 2005, the market was a revelation after all those years of pre-packaged fruit and vegetables. I could buy just one apple, or two carrots, if I felt like it. The inevitable forgotten soggy vegetables at the bottom of the fridge became a thing of the past as I got used to buying what I needed for the day’s meals.
And the seasons came back. No year-round strawberries or green beans flown in from Africa or South America. I learned, like the canny French shoppers, to be patient and wait until the artichokes from Brittany had dropped in price, until the first locally-grown tomatoes were appearing on the stalls, until the first strawberries arrived.
As the years passed, I got to know Emeline on the cheese stall, Sandra who sold the fruit and vegetables from her family’s market gardens, Jean-Pierre, her grand-father, who manned the fruit stall on Saturday morning’s, Patrick, the butcher with his morcilla sausages, and Lionel, who sells rotisserie chickens. Shopping therefore involved a natter as well – on the weather (too hot, too cold, or too rainy); being ill or tired or just working too hard; the prices and the politics (closely allied), and of course – it being the south west of France – the rugby. They are passionate about it here, and once people discovered that I’m not English but half-Welsh and half-Scottish, they would always beam and say, “Ah! Le rugby!”
Now, in my new home in the far south of the Tarn, I am five kilometres away from one of the largest weekly markets in South West France – Revel’s Saturday morning market which takes place in the main square with its vast 14th century market hall.
When Judi (over on a working weekend) and I made our first visit to Revel market last Saturday, people were greeting each other, standing in groups chatting away, or sitting at one of the many cafés under the arcades, catching up over a coffee. We arrived early and had a coffee at the best bakery in town, situated on a corner of the arcades, and selling a veritable feast of breads, patisseries, cakes, and meringues. Being restrained, we settled for a croissant each.
Caffeined and croissanted, we then wandered down each side of the market before entering the vast market hall itself. It will clearly take many visits to get to know it properly. There were stall-holders specialising in organic fruit and vegetables, a man with an excellent selection of chili peppers all grown on his small-holding, herb and spice sellers, the local cheese producer, Marzac, butchers and charcuterie stalls, and stall after stall selling sun-ripe tomatoes, melons, peaches, nectarines, with the first few greengages and plums just beginning to make an appearance.
Judi and I were somewhat overwhelmed by the choice – and given that the kitchen in the house is still unfinished – no cooker, no sink (“Madame, it will all be finished by the end of June”, had been the promise!) – we settled for filling our basket with three different types of tomatoes.
Later, with the thermometer heading towards the high 30s, sitting in the courtyard garden under the shade of the wisteria-covered pergola, with a plateful of tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil leaves, sliced and covered in olive oil and black pepper, we sat and ate and talked and mopped up the juices and oil with chunks of pain levain. Ripened by the sun, grown and picked locally, the tomatoes were simple perfection.
I could tell you the recipe – but the photo does it for you!