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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.