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.
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.
But, he concedes, if he lived there, had a 9-to-5 job, and a family to raise, he'd probably head to the supermarkets, too. "The lure of convenience is sometimes irresistible." On the other hand, adds Mr. Bittman, "those markets are ingrained in the French culture. I can't see them dying out anytime soon."
But French supermarkets are far from a necessary evil, says French-born Eric Treuille, program director at the Cordon Bleu Cooking School in London. "Their quality of food is getting better and better," he says, adding that it's only in large French cities that markets are threatened by bigger stores. "In the country, where supermarkets are less common, people rely on farmers' markets.
Most French don't even use cookbooks, he says. "If they aren't making a dish from Mom or Grandma, which they've had memorized for years, then they are getting ideas from market vendors." Outdoor markets are not only essential to country folk, but also to tourists, who often consider them as important a stop on their trip as the country's grand chateaus and cathedrals.
"There are two times as many markets in summertime than in winter, not only because of the season's bounty, but also for the tourists," Mr. Treuille says, adding that they are a major attraction.
But Bittman shudders at the thought that open-air markets might stay alive just for the tourist.
"The Disneyfication of French markets could be really dangerous," he says.
The real danger, says Johanne Killeen, American restaurant owner and part-time resident of Provence, is EC sanitation regulations expected to be imposed on food producers within the next couple of years. "Of course, we all care about hygiene," she says, "but to insist that an institution that's been around for hundreds of years be required to meet such stringent standards is crazy."
When at their home in southern France, she and her husband, George Germon, visit a different market every day. "We get so much enjoyment out of this. It scares me that the EC could destroy these markets," she adds.
Clark Wolf, New York-based food and restaurant consultant, isn't the least bit concerned. "Street markets in France are too strong a tradition to be phased out that easily," he says.
"France, contrary to popular opinion, is not really made up of great cooks as much as great shoppers. They know how to buy from both outdoor markets and supermarkets, and they will continue to strike this balance," he explains.
When he visits Paris, Mr. Wolf might keep a little coffee, cheese, bread, yogurt in his kitchen apartment. And he'll cook one or two meals in a week. "That's actually typical of Parisians," he says. In fact, he adds with a laugh, the French came up with the original fast-food: a fresh baguette and a piece of cheese.
Frenchman Alain Sailhac, executive vice president of New York's French Culinary Institute, is both realistic about the shifts in French society and confident that street markets are here to stay. "They are all about ambience," he says. "The smell of bread, the abundance of flowers, spices, herbs ... the sounds of live music, vendors shouting 'buy this melon ... only five francs today!' "
Most of all, the French demand quality, and they know they can get it from local growers, he says.
With a flash of inspiration, Mr. Sailhac exclaims: "As long as there are fruits and vegetables, there will be markets in France!"
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society