Bonjour again from Provence! Our family is enjoying two weeks back in Bonnieux at the end of our European summer. We’re taking full advantage of the local markets as we shop for our daily meals. And despite our many trips to Provence, we’re always on the lookout for special purchases to take home.
In our last post we provided some background about the markets of Provence. In this post we’ll focus more specifically on what to buy and how to shop at the markets.
What to Buy
The larger markets (Apt, L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Aix-en-Provence, St. Remy-de-Provence) have hundreds of sellers, meeting the needs of locals and tourists, especially during the summer months. Here are our suggestions of some of the best offerings at the markets:
Food to eat during your stay: fresh fruits and vegetables—whatever is in season; fresh eggs; mushrooms; cheese (including locally-produced goat cheese); meat, poultry and fish; bread and baked goods; olives, fresh tapenades, and other spreads; nuts; dried sausages. In the Luberon we love to buy local produce, often direct from the farmers: the small, sweet melons from Cavaillon, strawberries from Carpentras, cherries from the Calavon valley around Apt, and tomatoes from Bonnieux.
Food products to take home: locally-produced honey in many flavors; jams and other preserves; herbs and spices; olive oil (much of it local); jars of dips and spreads.
Prepared foods for a picnic: rotisserie chicken and other meats, roasted potatoes, asian food, pizza from the pizza trucks, paella, tarts and cakes. (See our post A Picnic in Provence for more ideas for a picnic lunch from the market.)
Wine from local wineries. (Tastings are probably available!)
A bouquet of flowers to brighten up your rental house or B&B room.
Pottery: dishes, bowls, pitchers, olive oil containers, olive dishes.
Olive wood products: cutting boards, bowls, spreaders, spoons and other utensils.
Artwork: paintings, sketches and photographs, usually sold by the artist.
Handmade jewelry: necklaces, earrings, brooches, beads. The best thing about buying jewelry is that it takes up very little room in your suitcase.
Fabric products in bright Provençal patterns and colors: tablecloths, napkins, placemats, bread baskets, potholders, dish towels, aprons. (I buy lots of the Jacquard dish towels to take home as gifts during the year.) Measure your table in centimeters before you go, though typically you just need to know the shape (round, oval, square or rectangular) and the number of people the table seats.
Clothes: tops, dresses, even underwear at a variety of prices. The women in our groups especially enjoy shopping for scarves, which is a distinctly-French purchase. If you’ve forgotten something, you can also find “flea market” clothes at very reasonable prices.
Straw baskets and hats of all types and sizes.
Lavender: dried bouquets, oils, and sachets.
Soaps and oils: in a variety of scents.
Flea market finds: hardware and tools; kitchenware and gadgets; perfumes; clothes; socks and shoes; books and music; children’s toys. Sometimes you can find some real deals.
Brocante: A friend once described “brocante” as somewhere between “antiques” and “junk.” Some markets have brocante sellers, offering a variety of older collectible items, perhaps from grandmother’s attic. At the famous L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue market on Sunday mornings, there’s an entire area of brocante. You might find something interesting to take home.
How to Shop
Bring a basket or bag to carry your purchases, as you’ll likely accumulate a number of small bags during your morning at the market. There might be a basket in your rental house; if not, buy one at the market. (Then use your new basket as a carryon bag to transport purchases home.)
Take small bills and change. Credit cards are normally not accepted by market sellers. Use 20 euro notes from ATM machines in restaurants and shops, and hold onto smaller notes and coins for the market. The seller will usually give you a register ticket with the total price. If you don’t understand the price or can’t figure out the money, ask the seller to help you pick out the right coins.
Buy what you like when you see it. In the big markets, it it’s usually impossible to find your way back to a particular tablecloth stand after you’ve looked at tablecloths at six other stands all over town.
Speak some French, even if it’s just a few words. You’ll be more respected for your efforts than if you just burst out in English. If you try to speak French (and it will be very clear that you aren’t French), the seller will often respond in English if they can. Many market sellers do speak some English. It’s also amazing what can be communicated in sign language.
Be polite and respectful. Use the basic French terms of courtesy that hopefully you have learned. Wait until it is your turn to get help and then know what you want. Say “Bonjour Madame” or “Bonjour Monsieur” before placing your order. Smile. Communicate your order in French or sign language and be sure to say “s’il vous plait.” And then complete your transaction with “Merci beaucoup, Monsieur” and “Au revoir” or perhaps even “Bonne journee.” (Have a good day.)
Be positive, even if you sometimes feel frustrated. And if you have anything negative to say (about the market, the village, the products, the prices, France in general, etc.), hold your thoughts and express them to others in the privacy of your car. room or house. Don’t assume that no one can understand you if you speak English—the likelihood is that someone within earshot will hear you and very possibly take offense.
Be careful about touching food If there are little baskets set among the produce, it’s okay to pick the produce you want. Put it all in the basket and then have it weighed. If there aren’t any baskets, the seller probably doesn’t want you to handle the produce. When it’s your turn, say what you want (or point with a big “s’il vous plait”). The seller will pick the right produce for you, sometimes even asking when you plan to use it so he or she can make the best selection for your needs.
Ask before you rummage through carefully arranged merchandise, like tablecloths. (Ask in sign language if you don’t know the words.) Often the seller will prefer to show you the merchandise.
Be sensitive about negotiating. Negotiating is not really part of the process here like it is in some other countries. Prices are normally clearly marked, sometimes with a quantity discount. If you are buying several of the same item (like six aprons) or if an item is damaged, you can always inquire if a lower price is possible, but don’t push or take offense.
Provence is truly a sensory delight of colors and tastes and scents, and it all seems heightened at the marketplace. What else can fit in that new straw bag? There are so many choices of items uniquely Provence… a bottle of locally-produced olive oil or wine, a few pots of tapenade or honey, a sackcloth bag of herbes de Provence, an assortment of olive oil soaps, a fabric-covered lavender sachet…enjoy shopping for the tastes. aromas and textures of Provence to take back home and savor your memories.
Kathy and Charley Wood lead European Experiences, week-long “slow tours” in some of the most beautiful areas of Europe, including The Luberon Experience in Provence, France. National Geographic Traveler magazine named The Luberon Experience one of their top 50 tours in the world in 2012.
Kathy and Charley host Experience weeks in the Luberon, the Chianti region of Tuscany, Puglia, Alsace, the Dordogne, and the Cotswolds. They also offer two longer tours: The European Christmas Experience (12 days) and The Cornwall Experience in southwest England (10 days).
Kathy and Charley have been traveling in Europe for almost 30 years and love sharing their special places in Europe with other travelers. They've hosted 120 Experience groups since they launched in 2006. They have a second home in their beloved village of Bonnieux in the Luberon. Read more about Kathy and Charley here.
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.