Summer Vacations in Provence: 5 Tips for Shopping the Provencal Market The markets of Provence are world renown. They are bustling, beautiful and bursting with mouth watering produce, cheeses, meats, breads, olive oils and wines. Just to name a few specialties. And, once your hunger and thirst have been quenched, you will notice flowers, linens, jewelry, artisan products, gifts, clothing and more. A perfect vacation day in Provence begins with a market tour. And just wandering the markets can be great. (Though we also like to send clients on a hunt for specific picnic or cooking class ingredients –part of the fun is learning to find and purchase.) How do you decide which of the cheese stands has the best cheese? How do you find the best baguette or artisan breads? Below are some tips for getting the most out of the Provencal markets.
- Tips for buying Produce. Buy local! French law requires that all produce be marked not just with its category I, II, III (rating), but also its origin. I always stress buying and eating seasonally. I also believe local is better. So, first, look for the country. If it doesn’t say France, don’t buy it. Then look for the specific area of France. Most people think that a sign that says “Provence” is a sign indicating “locally grown”. And, to a degree, it is. But, if you look carefully at the market produce stands, some will not just say Provence –but will say the town’s name. That’s when you’re at a truly local (and probably organic) stand. That’s where you want to look to buy first. (And, if you know anything about the micro climates/towns, you’ll be able to decide whether you prefer strawberries from Carpentras or Aix-en-Provence –because you’ll know that they each have their own flavor –much the way wine from North Burgundy is different from wine from Southern Burgundy –even if they’re both Pinot Noirs.)
- Tips for buying cheeses. There are great cheeses from all over France. And certainly, importing cheese does not impact the quality the way it does for produce. Still, there are small local producers whose products are high quality, specially made, and cannot be found elsewhere. In Provence, this means goat cheeses.(There are no cows in Provence –so there are no cows milk cheeses made there..) The fresh goat cheeses are local. So try them. Look at what else they carry. If the cheese monger has a wide selection –he is likely to be an expert — a knowledgeable collector of a wide variety of cheeses. If they carry one thing –just goat cheeses –then they are probably producers, and can provide you with a unique artisan product. You should look for one of these extremes. They indicate special expertise, in two different ways.
- Tips for buying Meat and Fish. Look and smell. Fish should look glossy and the eyes should look good. There should be no smell. Meat should look moist and fresh and also have no smell. It should be clear they are being kept cold. If you smell something, or it looks “tired”, this is not what you want. (Believe me, you know more than you think.)
- Tips for buying oils, jams and other “bottled and canned” products. The same principle applies. Look for a small artisan producer. Find a family business. Focus on small quality production. Look for handwritten labels (but proper canning procedure.) And taste. If you can’t taste, don’t buy. Artisan producers are very proud of their products and as such, offer tastes. They are convinced that you will buy it if you taste it. That’s the culture. So, if they won’t allow you to taste, that’ telling you something.
- Wait in line! If there are three vendors selling the same type of product –and there usually are –choose the one with the longest line (of locals). Why? Because these vendors come every week, have the same physical location at the market each time, and become as well known to market regulars as your local grocery is to you at home. If there’s a long line (of locals), there’s a reason.