I’ve just returned from two weeks in France. We were in the Languedoc but it really doesn’t matter. Wherever you go in France there are great markets. There is a real danger of this becoming an urban myth – actually the markets are no better than the ones anywhere else but they seem better because of the holiday context. This made me try a little harder to analyse: why are French markets great?The first point is that the produce is generally unusual and excellent. There are small stalls with people selling their melons and peaches. Not necessarily the best looking produce but home grown, appropriate to the region and really tasty – I bought nectarines as soon as I was home and they clearly degrade during travel. The fruit and veg stand aren’t necessarily bigger but they just have more produce on them. The stallholders are also proud of their product. Fruit will be cut in half to show, cheese slivers will be cut off at a whim and the stallholders seem a little disappointed that you don’t want to know more before you buy. Rather than two acres of displaying a narrow range in large piles they will have smaller quantities but have five varieties of tomatoes. The cheese stalls have two thirds devoted to local products and the others are tucked away at one corner. Do they have better produce than we have in the UK? I really don’t think so. Do they know about what they sell and sell it well? They certainly do.
The other thing I noticed is that it isn’t necessarily cheap. The local product tends to be good value but we spent a lot of money – probably more than a supermarket shop – but we felt confident that what we bought would be good and we weren’t disappointed. This brings the second point. There is a bond of trust between buyer and seller in France and they support each other. The French housewife probably has a narrower range of cooking than we have in England but what they cook is part of their heritage so the ingredients are used over and over and they know a good vegetable and a bad one. They also generally only sell what is in season and cook accordingly. This is a huge stereotype and I did see plenty of shoppers in the supermarkets buying convenience food. In Britain though I think we have lost the ability to buy without help. My parents and their generation would push, smell, pinch and prod with the best of them to find the best items on the stall. We have lost the ability to appraise and we have ended up relying too much on the least important sense – sight – and have bought every marketing slogan going. The supermarket influence is universal – we arrived quite late in Perpignan and so we called in at a Carrefour for convenience and bought what we thought was a pretty good melon until we bought three for 3 euros – scabby and uneven – at a market later. We could smell the perfume in the car and they were magnificent to eat. We paid much more at the supermarket. In England the imbalance is far greater. We pay far more for better looking fruit and vegetables and sacrifice taste as growers are forced to play to their market.
The cheese and saucisson stalls are wonderful to look at. I have no idea what half the products are but I know I want to try them. I am such a novice I have no idea whether I am trying a good version or the one for the tourists but I am willing to learn. This is another failing of both seller and buyer in England. Too often the new trader is punished for trying something new by unadventurous buyers. We may be in the downward spiral that the only people going to markets these days do so to get a bargain rather than to get the best. On the French markets were small punnets of foraged mushrooms, rendered duck scraps, fresh herbs, and odd varieties of plum and grape. They didn’t mess with the basics. Nectarines had either yellow or white flesh.
I mentioned that I paid a premium and this surprised me. It didn’t feel that it was expensive but it did add up. But what I was buying was meals rather than odd ingredients that I may waste. A favourite was the rotisserie stalls selling excellent chicken (really good chicken not the pumped-up beasts we get dumped on us) with potatoes roasted in the fat at the bottom. A chicken with potatoes cost 18 euros but fed four of us in crusty bread with dijonnaise magnificently. If you have a limited budget the argument still holds true: the best-priced, best-tasting vegetables and fruit will always be on a market compared to the supermarket. N0-one should ever buy fruit and veg from a supermarket unless they are looking for something unusual or have no access to a greengrocer or market – it’s that simple.
The final thing I noticed was just how many people were at the markets. The customers rolled up in their hundreds in their French cars and bought the local produce in exactly the same way they all go to their local Boulanger to buy their bread. They have an innate love of their land and what it produces. They respect the artisan baker and guarantee them their custom in return. Would Spencer’s shop have closed in the town if we all bought a daily loaf there? They would need to open early and late to allow for commuters. One of the poorest sections in French supermarkets are the bread aisle. There is always some long life stuff there but generally they are poorly stocked compared to their English cousins as result of the local baker. The French also buy their local produce wherever possible. It’s why so little of the good wine makes it out of the country.
So what are the lessons for Ashbourne, and indeed any, market? For the traders it is a message of hope. A thriving market is a thing of beauty and there must be many who are disheartened, like our farmers, that they have to cater for our ignorance. There should be no such thing as Farmer’s markets, farmers should be welcomed into the same space and encouraged. Markets should be subsidised completely and stalls made available to all at very little cost. All rules about the numbers of traders should be got rid of. By all means they should be in proportion but it creates healthy competition. For us consumers we should ride on the back of the messages of many of the abundant cookery programmes. The trend is for good ingredients cooked well rather than fancy technique.
I hope it is not too late.