Wednesday, November 6, 2013

To market, to market

The French market is a wonderful thing. I’m not talking about the tourist ideal of strolling through stalls of sun-fed produce, and cheeses of all shades, ages and textures, and purple dried sausages, and glistening fish; I’m talking about the market itself. 

It can be anything from three stalls on a Friday in a village square to an entire town centre taken over and pedestrianized, as at Lamballe and Quintin. The traders arrive in their purpose-built vans, designed so that one side can be folded down or removed, and the top opened out to make a canopy; or they set up traditional trestles with sun umbrellas (no matter what the weather). They will arrive by 7.30am, and leave by 2pm – and the only sign that they were there will be a stray cabbage leaf, and the puddle where the fish stall dumped its ice. They have got clearing the site off to a fine art. 

You can find a market pretty much every day, and in big towns like St Brieuc, twice a week. To the English, the market has been seen as a place to buy things cheaper than in the shops; not so in France, where prices are monitored. The whole idea was to bring the goods to the people in their own towns, in an era when they didn’t or couldn’t travel. The quality today is as good as, and frequently better than, in the supermarket. 

At the moment there is a debate about Sunday trading – as in, there isn’t any, and the few big chains who have tried to implement it have been taken to court. There are, however, Sunday markets, though few and far between. 

There is one at Croix Saint Lambert in St Brieuc. It’s held across the parking space in front of a row of shops, and across a petrol station, right up to the pumps; and it is very popular, in spite of the fact that by the very nature of the site, there is nowhere legal to park your car.  So every Sunday, on the dual carriageway approaching the place, there are vehicles abandoned not only along the verges but along the central barrier, and round the edges of the roundabout. Drive down that way and you have to beware of car doors opening on both sides of the road, and people stepping out into the traffic with their minds on meat and mussels, not safety. It’s a nuisance, but it’s tolerated. 

The market at Neuville de Poitou has been tolerated since the 10th century. A large congregation would come for the Mass from far and wide, and it was too good an opportunity to miss: a market began to be established right beside the church. By the 16th century it had become huge, even occupying the cemetery. The Church deplored this commercialisation, the noise of which disturbed the church services, and as for the taverns – well, that sort of behaviour didn’t belong on a Sunday and should be banned. During fairs and assemblies, there was even dancing amongst the gravestones! It was not to be permitted! 

Well, it was, and it continued to be. Even the Revolutionary powers couldn’t ban it. On went the Sunday market, though they did take Easter off.  In 1829, the municipality tried to replace it with a Friday market, but as ever it was doomed to failure. And so it is still there, every Sunday, eleven centuries old and going strong. 

In 1903, it seemed a good idea to tax the stallholders, so the powers that be came up with a list of what could be sold there:
Hens, chickens, capons, cocks, ducks, pigeons, quails, rails (a kind of water fowl), thrushes, turkeys, rabbits, hares, foxes (why?), badgers (again, why?), sheep, lambs, goats, pigs, mules, donkeys, beef cattle, cows, chestnuts, hay, hemp, wool, wines of the Haut Poitou, dairy, fruit and vegetables; but also song merchants, dancers, acrobats, travelling musicians, puppeteers, hats, materials, tools.  And finally, there were eels, which since the Middle Ages had been grilled on the braziers there. They still are, and that’s a smoky scent you won’t find in a supermarket on any day of the week. (Which, on reflection, is a good thing). 

So today, you may not be able to go out and browse the shops on a Sunday, but you can go to a market and buy pretty much anything you could possibly need. Just don’t stand downwind of the eel man.
 © lms 2013


  1. What a lovely, evocative piece.. Much more of an adventure to shop in a market I often think! Lucky you to have so much choice.

  2. And here too in Leominster and other towns in Herefordshire! There is a travelling market from Normandy which comes several times during the year and gives our good old English market town a taste of good old French market, It's great!

  3. I remember many French markets, but the one in Descartes holds a special place in my heart. It was there that we got slightly pissed on wine samples shoved under our noses in things that looked like shallow soup ladles, and there that I saw a child carrying a cardboard box containing two ducklings. "To eat later?" I asked his grandmother. "Yes but don't tell him," she replied.