The future of French markets
Cooks and tourists revel in a tradition that faces competition from
ST. REMY-DE-PROVENCE, FRANCE
Glistening olives and bright-yellow lemons in handwoven baskets. Logs of goat cheese decorated with flower petals. A fishmonger artfully arranging his table with colorful fish just pulled from the Mediterranean. Shoppers meandering, straw baskets in hand and leashed dogs at foot, conversing with farmers as they choose locally grown eggplants, artichokes, garlic, and other regional specialties.Skip to next paragraph
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Welcome to the outdoor market in Saint Rmy, which, every Wednesday and Saturday, is one of the most colorful, lively places in Provence. Just an hour north of Marseilles, the village of Saint Rmy - with its Roman ruins, skinny streets, and sprawling farmland, all nestled by the Alpilles or "baby Alps" - is quintessential Provence. Come market day, many of the village's 5,000 residents as well as visitors from the entire region spill into its streets and town square.
For the tourist, farmers' markets from Paris to Provence and Burgundy to Brittany provide not only access to some of the freshest, most desirable locally grown foods, but also a glimpse at a enormously important ritual that's been at the heart of French culture for centuries.
Food writer and restaurant critic Patricia Wells, an American expatriate who has a home in Provence, says the French market "should be of interest even to those not particularly passionate about food - since it allows one to examine the authentic fabric and texture of contemporary Gallic society."
But recent news reports and the startling new book "France on the Brink," by journalist Jonathan Fenby, speak of the decline of many of France's culinary treasures and traditions - its fresh-baked baguette, sidewalk cafes, four-course lunches, even foie gras. Can the country's legendary open-air markets be far behind?
The impact of globalization and modernization on French culture is evidenced today not only in those nearly ubiquitous golden arches (McDonald's now has 550 restaurants in France), but also in the increase of two-wage-earner families, supermarkets, time spent watching television, and working hours (longer than ever at 35 per week).
In the fourth edition of her popular "Food Lovers' Guide to Paris," published this year, Ms. Wells insists that despite all this, shopping habits remain the same. "Daily marketing is still the rule in Paris," she writes, "where everything from Camembert to cantaloupe is sold to be eaten that day, preferably within hours."
But others disagree. "There's a tremendous shift going on in France today," says Dorothy Cann Hamilton, founder of The French Culinary Institute in New York.
"My French friends used to go to the market at lunchtime and then head home to cook. Not anymore. The workplace has become so homogenized. They're fortunate to even take a lunch break."
Instead of daily market stops, Ms. Hamilton says, many French increasingly opt for weekly shopping at the large supermarkets such as Carrefour or Promodes. (These two highly successful chains just announced their $16.5 billion merger - an attempt both to compete with Wal-Mart and to meet the "need for globalization," a Carrefour spokesman says.)
Mark Bittman, author of the award-winning "How to Cook Everything," can't help but chuckle at the irony of the trend toward one-stop shopping in France.
"The French are always making fun of American ways of life, but then 10 to 15 years later they end up doing things the same way." During the past year, he has visited France several times, and enjoyed the rhythm of almost-daily market shopping. "It's so counter-American that it's a joy," he says.