It was shopping in Provence for home accessories for my flat in Sanary sur Mer that actually inspired me to set up my own Provencal Boutique website. I had such a great time wandering around the fabulous independent boutiques you can find all over Provence, all of them brimming with original home accessories often made by local craftsmen – that I wanted to make some of the products available to a wider public. I’m often contacted by people who are about to visit Provence, asking for recommendations on shopping: what to buy and bring back as souvenirs from the region. So here are a few of my suggestions – an FAQ on Provence shopping, if you like.
My first suggestion – whether you’re shopping for yourself or for presents to bring back – is to buy items made from typical Provençal fabric or “Indiennes” as they’re called. These fabrics, which were originally used as women’s shawls, are now mostly used for interior decoration, and are brilliantly multi-coloured prints in kaleidoscopic floral and geometric patterns. I think these colourful fabrics are just fantastic – a Provençal tablecloth on a kitchen table will absolutely transform the room. But you can find much more than just tablecloths in these pretty fabrics – as well as placemats and cute little bread baskets, you’ll find an array of cosmetics bags, shopping bags and even little girls’ skirts and dresses in a wide array of colours and patterns. Or buy a length of fabric and then have it made up when you get home. Every market in Provence will have at least one stall selling Provençal table linen – but do make sure it’s good quality cotton. Some of the fabrics can be nasty polyester imitations, made in China, far from Provence.
My favourite shop for items in Provençal fabric is in Aix en Provence, La Victoire, which is on the square where the daily fruit and vegetable market takes place. There’s a great selection of fabric designs from a number of suppliers – you can spend hours in there deciding on that to buy and you can buy by the metre.
Next up – Provençal pottery. The Provence region has produced earthenware since the days of the Romans. Pottery workshops, complete with kilns dating from the first century AD have been excavated in La Butte de Carnes near Marseille. Over the centuries, pottery continued to be made in individual workshops, both for domestic use and for export through the Mediterranean seaports. Then in the 19th century, factories began to appear in answer to the ever-growing demand for thrown or moulded cookware. But with the advent of new materials such as aluminium and plastic, these factories eventually closed.
Nowadays most Provençal pottery is primarily decorative and three basic types of pottery are produced. Terre rouge, the most robust, is made primarily from the red clay of the region and then glazed. Faience is made from the finest local clays and can be distinguished from plain pottery by its enamel porcelain-like finish. This is the style of pottery you can see in our Festin Coquin range on the website. The third style of pottery is Grès, made out of clay from central France.
There are hundreds of artisan workshops all over Provence, where you can pick up beautiful hand painted pottery in a variety of colours and patterns. Given you’re likely to be flying home, you won’t be able to bring back much. But a pretty curved jug, an oil pourer or a hand painted pottery bowl would be a lovely souvenir of your stay in Provence. It’s difficult to recommend just one shop for pottery – there are a few good ones in Aix en Provence and Avignon. And the Wednesday market in St Remy has a few good stalls with good quality artisan pottery.
You can’t visit shops in Provence without being assailed by a variety of products using lavender. Lavender bags, lavender-stuffed dolls, sprigs of lavender – it’s everywhere. Sometimes it feels like lavender overkill. My suggestion would be to opt instead for a few bars of soap in some interesting fragrances. Marseille is famous for its soap-making, particularly the large cubes of Savon de Marseille. But there are many artisan soap producers all over the regions, creating soaps in everything from lavender or rosemary to chocolate and orange. Again, any Provençal market will have at least one soap stall – avoid the stalls selling the soaps in lurid colours, and opt for the more natural bars of soap, and you won’t go far wrong. One company that I’ve recently come across is called Le Mas du Roseau de Provence – lovely packaging, and they produce a range of soaps in interesting and unusual fragrances.
My final suggestion would be to bring back a selection of Provençal specialities. Small jars of tapenade and anchoiade make great gifts and you’ll always find a stall on one of the many markets selling a variety of local food specialities. I’d also strongly recommend local lavender or rosemary honey, which is absolutely delicious – and not generally available back home. Of course, you won’t want too many heavy glass jars to bring back in your suitcase, so there are other good food options that make great souvenirs or gifts. Calissons from Aix are great if you’re a fan of marzipan, and boxes of these little diamond-shaped delicacies can be found throughout the region, not just in Aix. Or you could opt for any of the various sachets and hessian bags of salt rubs and seasonings using combinations of herbes de Provence and interesting spices. If you find yourself in Sanary sur Mer, there’s a lovely little shop called L’Epicerie des Saveurs on rue Siat Marcellin which has the most amazing blends of herbs and spices. I could spend hours in there!
There are many other lovely items that you’ll come across in the independent boutiques that are typical around Provence that I’ve not had a chance to cover. My final piece of advice – if you see something you like, snap it up. With so many small artisan producers around the region, you can never be absolutely sure that you’ll see it elsewhere.
By Sue Aitken lover and seller of Provence goodies.
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