If you visit the south-west of France you’ll soon discover that the French are devoted fans of the weekly market. The smaller ones are usually set up in the centre of town, whilst the bigger versions may also take over streets and alleys. Stands, stalls and mini tents are erected in double-quick time, as the market traders prepare to offer endless selections of interesting (and sometimes dire) good to the discerning consumer. The sights, sounds and smells are enchanting.
The majority of shoppers at my local market are fairly elderly. The number of traders is small, but they make it each week whatever the weather. This is where one finds produce so fresh that it’s likely to have been plucked out of the ground at dawn. It’s a place where prices are fair, and bargaining is rife. It’s also a place where the weekly gossip is exchanged, where new babies’ cheeks are pinched, and where much debate can occur over a particular recipe or jar of recently purchased pickles. It is an intrinsic part of life in France, as is our indispensable team member, the woven hazel or willow market basket (panier). This is an essential receptacle for those hard fought-over bargains.
Typically, we browse with our baskets, gradually filling them with mud-caked veg and other produce. It can be dumped on the floor when an aching back needs to be eased. It can be placed onto a market stall to enable the trader to fill it with goods. The mud from extra-fresh produce drops through the holes in the sides, and an accidental glancing blow from a fellow passing shopper amounts to nothing more than a gentle nudge. It’s true that they can become weighty, but we cope perfectly happily with it. Or at least we did, until the advent of the market shopping trolley.
Practical though it may be, it is viewed with deep suspicion by the locals. Many are concerned that this new-fangled, and often garishly-decorated, shopping aide on wheels will become an unwelcome feature of our otherwise traditional market scene. Flouting common sense with admirable French disdain, most of us still stubbornly slog around with our paniers, steadfastly ignoring the occasional trolley users as they skip up and down the street. It was during one such demonstration that our orderly market was transformed into a place of chaos and general devastation.
We’re all a bit frightened of old Madame Canorgue. At full height she’s probably just about touching 5ft, but she’s often weighed down by her abnormally heavy basket, so it’s difficult to say. Her total focus is on the vegetable stall. Madame Canorgue likes to head the queue, and woe betides anyone getting in her way. This is not a lady to be messed with.
As usual, Madame Canorgue was first at the vegetable stall. She plonked her basket on top of a mound of carrots and started her order. After much prodding, poking, and close scrutiny, her selection was finally packed. There wasn’t an inch to spare in her basket. I wondered how she was going to lift it off the table. I needn’t have worried. Madame Canorgue is a farmer’s wife and I could quite clearly see her little biceps bulging gamely through her housecoat as she hoisted the basket and turned to march towards the bread stall.
During the vegetable examination, her scarf had slipped forward and transformed into a pair of flexible blinkers. Unfortunately, this newly-developed tunnel vision meant she had no awareness of activity either side of her. A trolley was approaching, and at speed. Oblivious of the danger, she took a step sideways and walked directly into its path. Her foot somehow struck the inside of one of the wheels causing her to lose balance. Shoppers looked on in horror as, in her efforts to avoid a backward flip, she threw her hands forward, and with them, her basket of legumes. Vegetables shot everywhere – it was mayhem.
Desperately hanging on to her asparagus tips she shrieked at her goods, many of which were flying through the air. The more able-bodied rushed to her aid. I could see that her cabbage had become lodged in a leg of the vin man’s stall. Simultaneously, I saw an airborne bunch of parsley ricochet off Monsieur Dupond’s shoulder. It reminded me of a bride’s bouquet being thrown towards competing singletons.
And then I saw the apples. About ten of them were bowling down the street, gaining momentum as they glanced off the cobbles and cracks in the road. Happily, most of these were retrieved by Monsieur Choi, the roast chicken man,
With much of the now battered produce finally gathered, we returned it to madame. Speechless with rage, she turned towards the offending trolley. But the owner had departed unaware of the chaos caused by one of her wheels.
Following the trolley incident it seems that a veil of uncertainty is descending over our rickety market-going community. Discussions about pickles and conserves have been replaced by a new question that’s being debated (but never in front of Madame Canorgue). Just what are the relative merits of this ultra-modern labour-saving device?
Should we persevere with our traditional basket-lugging, which finds us physically spent after a morning at the market? Or make the switch? There are those who will always consider the trolley to be a vulgar, dangerous piece of equipment, only acceptable if the user has a Class One Heavy Goods (vehicle) Licence. But there are others whose joints might altogether seize up if they don’t consider investing in wheels. They could well be forced to make the change. It’s a tough one to call, but one thing’s for sure – if I end up buying a trolley on wheels, I’ll keep well away from Madame Canorgue.
Beth Haslam and her husband moved to France nine years ago. Now occupied as never before, her life involves raising and saving animals, writing, and embracing everything that rural France has to offer. Follow her at: BethHaslam.com; bethhaslam.blogspot.fr