market produce – behind the scenes

by Sharon Santoni

carrots for sale at market

Buying local market produce is always a good idea.    The food is fresher, it hasn’t spent days in a cold room or refrigerated truck, we are taking part in the local economy, there are no plastic wrappings and often everything is organic.

Here in France we shop in local markets all year around, but buying in the south brings its own particular pleasures.  The warmth, the light, the accents and the local peaches, melons and apricots which are difficult to find in the same quality elsewhere.

market day in the village

When we holiday here in the south, we are always quite a crowd, with many mouths to feed.  This means that we buy a lot from the local producers and are always greeted with a smile.   They kindly put crates of market produce like zucchini flowers, or trays of peaches, or bunches of herbs to one side for us, and that works for me.

We have bought from one of our favourite producers for years now.   In true southern tradition he goes by the nickname of Chichi (which is pronounced Sheeshee).     He works hard, tending his gardens all year around, and selling at several different markets each week.

produce for sale on french market

His stands always bring a touch of glamour to the morning fare, as he is generally accompanied by his beautiful wife, or one of his lovely sisters or his charming mama who generally turns up in a cute hat and jewellery.

selling produce at french market

Together they are a dream team, weighing the peaches, handing out the bottles of olive oil, and generally keeping the many regular clients happy as they chat to customers while they work.

Last week, while talking to Chichi about how the summer crops had been growing, I asked if it would be possible for me to come along one morning and take photos.  “I’ll be very discreet, I won’t get in your way”, I promised, hopeful of a positive response.   He looked at me surprised, but after only a moment’s hesitation it was arranged that we’d meet the next morning at dawn, and he’d ‘show me around’.

The next day I was early to our meeting point, with my camera, and wearing boots.   He turned up in his old red van, filled with tools and some empty vegetable crates and told me to jump in.

organic vegetable garden

We set off cross country, both slightly amused to find ourselves in this unlikely situation.  I later discovered that although many people have asked to see his gardens, I was the first to get through the gate!     As we drove I asked him questions about his growing techniques, and how he managed the seasons, and his water supply and many other things, and I could tell that he was reassured to see that I had some knowledge of gardening.

organic vegetable garden

We arrived at his first garden, in a green valley, with a source of cold clear water emerging from the ground nearby and running along the edge of the garden as a small stream.   Here Chichi is growing the last zucchini and tomatoes of the summer;  rows of cabbages for the winter months; a wide band of beautiful green parsley; jerusalem artichokes; walnuts;  carrots and much more.

carrots freshly picked

I snapped away while he started picking and filling crates.  He showed me the river and let me wander all around.  When I had enough shots, I offered to help pick, and in no time I filled two crates with tomatoes, then watched him deftly cut parsley and tie it into neat green bunches, ready to sell.

bunches of parsley from the garden

He dug up some beautiful baby carrots of all colours and tied a few bunches , and was very surprised to learn that the carrot flowers he discarded would fetch a fortune in any chic Parisian florist.

organic vegetable garden

From this garden we drove to four other spots where he grows, including one where he had polytunnels set up for the zucchini that he’d sell this autumn.  In each garden he has to tend and pick, manage the watering and plant the right number of plants for the coming season.    The day before we met, he had started at 6am, and by 8.30 had planted 1500 salad plants.  This man works very hard.

young zucchini plants in the garden

 

Chichi was very generous with his time, and I didn’t get back to my car until nearly three hours later.   I left with an unexpected gift of some Jerusalem artichoke plants for me to introduce to my own potager back home.  But more than that I drove back smiling, so happy to have had this privileged insight into the daily work of someone who loves his job.

There is no climax to this tale, or moral.  Unless it is to say that if you are lucky enough to have people growing locally then support them as much as you can, and never ever underestimate the work required to bring those fruits and vegetables to the market.

produce for sale on french market

25 comments

Marla September 3, 2019 - 6:38 pm

Sharon
That was a fantastic piece. It’s a great reminder for all of us that these fruits and vegetables don’t just appear at our local markets. It does indeed require hard work and dedication. To all the Chi chis, thank you.

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SuSa September 3, 2019 - 10:46 pm

Thank you Sharon, I quite enjoyed seeing this and reading your experience. And oh my: how lovely are those french ladies! XXX

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Taste of France September 3, 2019 - 6:46 pm

At my market in Carcassonne, there are many characters (and many chic wives of the farmers) with similar names like LouLou and FuFu and KéKé. The locals often line up at the farms at specified times to buy directly, which is easier for loading into one’s car than carrying things in a caddy from the central square in town. I go to the farms when I buy 15 kilos of tomatoes at a time to make sauce, but otherwise I enjoy the animation of the market too much to forgo it for convenience.

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Jo September 3, 2019 - 6:50 pm

We have many local producers in this area of South Carolina, USA. They provide great food to local restaurants, farmers markets in the height of the season, and CSA (customer supported agriculture) boxes by subscription. We enjoy the fresh quality, the organic choices, and the farmers are almost always eager to share their love of the land. I’d say we have much in common with you. Thanks for sharing your part of France!

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Kim cotton September 3, 2019 - 7:37 pm

Totally agree Sharon and really enjoyed this little vignette. I shop at our local Potts Point market every Sat and I get a lot of joy buying my beans in a paper bag or pouring vegetables and fruit straight into my bag, and being served by the growers. Touché

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Trish September 3, 2019 - 7:49 pm

One of my favorite articles. My best memories of France and French people came from knowing those around me. I gained a sense of their unique commitment to living a life full of joy deeply embedded in their enjoyment of simple things like good food, great cooking, close family & friends. It’s true of all of them – from those who live at the highest levels to those who grow their food.

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Tootsie September 3, 2019 - 8:06 pm

Those carrots look very tempting.

I wonder why I cannot come up with such a chic fashionable farmers market like the lady in the hat. She deserves a portrait.

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Virginia Kinzer September 15, 2019 - 7:54 pm

Thank you Sharon for “taking us with you” on this special outing. We love our Local Farmer’s Market and support the local farmers. There is nothing like the fresh produce to awaken the pallet. Today I am making tomato sauce from fresh tomatoes. I am dreaming of my next trip to France where I can touch, feel, see and smell the local Farmer’s Market produce.

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Diane September 3, 2019 - 8:11 pm

Loved this article! It adds so much to my ever growing knowledge of where my ancestors came from. Actually around Pau!

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Judy September 3, 2019 - 8:46 pm

Thank you, Sharon, for this wonderful article! When we are in Provence all the weekly village markets are an absolute highlight! We plan many of our days around them.

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Susan September 3, 2019 - 9:56 pm

I’m so envious of your ability to buy from farmers markets and that you were able to see first hand what goes into the operation. Beautiful photos! Great post!

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david terry September 3, 2019 - 11:50 pm

What fun…..and everyone’s right……Mama in the market is, indeed, very chic and lovely.
As for Jerusalem artichokes? They’re tasty (I harvest them in the Fall), and the flowers are lovely, but BEWARE…….they’re mightily invasive (one of the worst plants I know for this, along with Kudzu and “ornamental” bamboo). They’ll take over an entire end of a garden in a year if left unattended. Hydra-like, even the smallest bit (if left behind when you’re digging them up) wll produce a perfectly healthy new plant by the next year. So, I alway grow them in raised beds (the roots aren’t deep….just persistent).
Happy vacance to you and yours,
david terry

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Sharon Santoni September 4, 2019 - 9:53 am

Thank you for your warning, David. Indeed, I noticed how they had spread over his garden. I thought I’d maybe limit their growth by planting them in a large buried pot, in the same way I plant mint. Hopefully that will keep them manageable.
best to you

Sharon

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david terry September 7, 2019 - 10:29 pm

Dear sharon,

Friends of mine in the country circumvent the problem simply by planting the jerusalem artichokes in the roadside drainage ditches. the flowers are lovely, and the tubers don’t spread UPWARDS. I stick planting them in one, large raised bed in the back of the garden.

Advisedly yours as ever,
Uncle david

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Karen Saunders September 4, 2019 - 12:09 am

Was this market in Aix? So love that your markets are thriving and family owned. Such a delightful way to start your day. We are moving to the ‘farm to table’ in the States, if we don’t pave everything over first. Ha!

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Brigitte September 4, 2019 - 12:26 am

This is a beautiful piece of writing that highlights the simple beauty of life. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

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Cathy Batley September 4, 2019 - 12:32 am

This was a lovely article. I’ve been shopping at a Farmers Market since it opened 8 years ago. I now buy about 90% of all our meat, dairy, fruit, veg, and bread there. I feel like I know the growers and have become very curious about their farms.

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Colleen September 4, 2019 - 1:21 am

I really really enjoyed your wonderful article thank you. We do not have farmers market here, in country towns we do, but you have to travel a distance. I would shop at them for sure if they were. It would be such a pleasure to shop in markets, meet people who cultivate their produce and to have it fresh and to speak to the farmers.
You have amazing markets, those ladies are so lovely and Chichi sound like he is very warm and welcoming .. Thank you for sharing.

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Emily Heston September 4, 2019 - 1:27 am

What a treat to be able to go to that beautiful garden at dawn and be a part of this tradition. Thank you for bringing us along.

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Emm September 4, 2019 - 2:49 am

What lovely pictures, and how fortunate to be able to spend that time with the farmer.
I was lucky enough to be a member of one of the first CSA farms in the US, where you buy your share of the harvest up front (Community Supported Agriculture, thus ensuring some financial stability to the farm) — you collect the bounty all summer long, so I’ve seen how hard and how long market gardeners work. (Mentioning in case anyone has the opportunity to join a CSA — do it! Great community.) You have the added bonus of doing all this goodness in France.

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Jeanne September 4, 2019 - 9:17 am

I loved this piece – how reassuring that there are people who love growing food, and are happy to work hard to bring it to the table for others to be able to access. It’s not just business, it’s also caring. Everyone wins! <3

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Hazel Lavelle September 4, 2019 - 12:57 pm

Oh for the return of the paper bag …..
Thanks so much Sharon for sharing this lovely experience with us , it took me back to lovely holidays in the south of France
Hazel

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Joanne Fisher September 4, 2019 - 3:35 pm

Good Morning Sharon,
Thank you for that lovely piece!
Looking forward to this afternoon’s Aquidneck Grower’s Market in Newport, RI…yummy veggies, fresh oysters, and gorgeous flowers!
Thank you farmers everywhere!
Joanne Fisher

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Virginia Billeaud Anderson September 5, 2019 - 3:07 am

Thank you, this was a lovely piece.

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Emily September 9, 2019 - 5:15 pm

This is one of your most interesting articles, Sharon. It’s fascinating to learn what is behind all of the lovely produce we see in French farmers markets. We are fortunate in my area, the Monterey Peninsula of California, to have a different farmers market almost every day of the week. As you mentioned, there are no better fruits and vegetables than those picked just before arriving at the market. Like you, I have my “special” vendors who always have the best of whatever they sell. Thanks for this report!

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