Markets are the essence of Provence. Most towns have a market at least one day each week — morning events where you can find the luscious products and produce of Provence. Plump green and black olives, cheese, sausage, clothes, ceramics, baskets, products made from olive wood, tools and gadgets, jewelry, Provencal souvenirs and colorful fabrics, plus fruits and vegetables and more. All outdoors in the glorious sunshine. Shopping has never been so much fun.
Reynard Bouchard specializes in "products of Provence that are grown with lots of love." He stands behind his picture-perfect display of tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, beans, nectarines, raspberries .. and offers customers an "apricot for breakfast," then proceeds to recommend making a sauce for duck with the succulent fruit. (I did — excellent) One of his patrons offers another suggestion– an apricot tart with lavender.
"I adore coming here," he says. "I can speak with everyone, give advice, explain my products… I speak of love." His truffle dog, Cerise, sleeps under the stand, ignoring other dogs who come by. (Many shoppers bring their dogs to the market, and many dogs belonging to locals wander among the stands in Reillanne. )
For cheese, I visit Daniel Nigro who sells between 200 –250 kinds of cheese from his large truck with a side-panel that opens up to a display. Nigro has a regular clientele, many of whom he knows by first name and greets with the obligatory air kiss on both sides of the cheek. He chats, he jokes, he recommends, he offers tastes. That's how I discovered my favorites — aged Beaufort and Brie de Meaux.
Like most market merchants, Nigro follows a circuit, traveling to a different town every morning to sell his products. He's in Manosque on Saturday, Forcalquier on Monday….but Reillanne on Sunday is his favorite. "The people here are very nice. It's Sunday. People are relaxed," he says.
Nigro sells goat cheese (chevre), but for that I visit Pierre Maulet, a young farmer who has 45 goats. His cremeux chevre is exquisite. Maulet, 27, said working the markets, especially Reillanne on Sunday, can be demanding. "I only had 1 1/2 hour of sleep last night," he says, explaining that he was out late at a festival.
"People think it's not trying to work the market, but it's difficult," explained a pretty woman who sells jewelry from India. She preferred to remain anonymous, but did say that she has to get up at 6 a.m. to get to the market and set up her stand. She travels to India where she spends a month every year to buy her products — silver jewelry, some with stones such as lapis lazuli, turquoise and onyx.
Clothes from India are the specialty of Sylvie and her daughter. Like the jewelry seller, she spends a month in India every year where she has the clothes made following her designs. I always admire her fashions, very trendy and chic, but out of my price range.
I like the bargains offered by Carmen Soustre, a jolly woman with a range of moderately priced tops, pants, skirts and dresses hanging from racks under a tarp. Like most market vendors, Soustre likes "meeting people."
"This is what we want to do. We meet lots of people," says Martine Caron, who, with her husband, Didier, sells products from their farm — "four hectares with lots of animals" — plus some 20 different kinds of confiture that she makes. The flavors are innovative: poires au caramel (pears with caramel), bananes a la vanille, and my favorite, tomates au romarin et vinagre balsamique (tomatoes with rosemary and balsamic vinegar). She suggested I serve the latter with cheese. She's right. It's very tasty.
Sylvaine Contour also sells confiture, 15 sweet varieties, plus 15 "salty." In the latter category are vegetable pates. She gave me a taste of Delices de Carottes au Carvi (Carrots with caraway). Delicious –I had to buy a jar, plus a jar of Aubergine au Curry (curried eggplant).
Olives — the taste of Provence — are always on my list. Jasmine Lubineau sells 13 different kinds, mostly Provencal olives, but some from Spain, plus the jumbo Kalamata olives from Greece. I usually buy some of the Kalamata, plus her Provencal melange, a mixture of different kinds of both black and green olives, with bits of onion and other tasty tidbits.
For bread, it's Pascal Boffa with 17 different kinds of bread all baked in ovens fired by wood and made without yeast. "These are products of the region made with local flours," he says. His most popular bread is demi-complet made with three different grains and rich in fiber. I prefer his nut and olive breads.
For flowers, it's Francois Bonnet, although in summer I don't buy flowers as we have an ample supply in our yard. But it's a treat to buy from Bonnet who touts the merits of special blooms, gives specific instructions on care, and painstakingly arranges gorgeous bouquets. He often adds an extra stem at no extra cost.
"He's delightful," says one of his regulars. "The quality of his flowers is the best… his bouquets last for 15 days. He's passionate about flowers."
As for Bonnet, "It's always a pleasure to sell flowers," he says. He enjoys working at the market which he calls "a happy event."
Nazmi Uzunca, A Turk and vendor of Turkish jewelry, most of which he makes, also likes the joyous ambience of the markets. For some 30 years he's been selling at between five and six markets each week. "I'm very happy in France," he says. "Turkey is beautiful, but it's changing a lot, becoming too religious. I hate religion. I believe in God, but not religion."
Viviane Angelvin is the placiere regisseuse (traveling agent) at the Reillanne market. It's her job to collect fees from the vendors who pay 1,10 euros per linear meter for their space. In summer there are about 53 stands in Reillanne, although in winter the number drops to 20. "The market has really grown in the past 20 years. It's very varied with all kinds of products for all tastes," she says "Reillanne is noted for its Sunday market. People know we have it and they come."
After shoppinig I often meet friends on the terrace of the Cafe du Cour overlooking the market. It's a delightful ritual. We sip pink wine and catch up on news.