In France everyone knows that good food starts with the best ingredients. And the best ingredients are not found in a supermarket where products are stored in coolers, or wrapped in cellophane. The best ingredients are sold by the people who grow them, on a busy farmers market; or sometimes in the shade of a tree on a quiet village street.
I learned how to buy food (and how to cook as well) when I came to France. I was instinctively drawn to the busy colourful farmers markets, and quickly understood that here I was not only going to find my food but also a new layer of my education. When I was a student, I used to buy from a cheese monger at my local market who decided he was going to educate me. Throughout the year he would advise me on which cheeses to buy, tell me where they came from and how to recognise a good cheese from a lesser quality product.
My education continued with my husband, who taught me that you never go to the market with a list. You go to discover what is available to buy, and then you decide what to eat. Today we go to specific markets or vendors for our favourite products and only eat food that is in season locally.
In the South of France at the moment, there are a lot of tourists in the region, and the markets can get pretty hectic, but if you know where to go then the quality if still there. The bigger markets combine food with baskets, hats and even clothes or household textiles, and the whole experience is fun and lively.
When I need something a little quieter I like to find the individual producer who sets up a stand in a quiet village, and who is the local best kept secret. A few tomatoes and onions picked from the fields the evening before. Some potatoes, a selection of aubergines and peppers. A great deal of discussion about how to keep the basil fresh, or which is the best flavour olive oil to accompany the tomatoes and clients leave with full baskets and broad smiles. There are no specific opening times, just arrive early and when everything is sold the pack up the table and drive home.
Added to the pleasure of knowing that you have bought good food, is the whole experience of chatting with other buyers, and then maybe wandering down a street to sit down for a coffee on the village square before returning home. It’s all about taking the time to enjoy the little things and remembering that luxury is not always about money.