Good Enough to Eat

Jun 30, 2014

Millions of visitors flock to the south of France during the summer season. Some head for the sea, some head for the mountains, and everybody heads for the local market.

We have a splendid market in the village every Friday. There are about fifty stalls, most of them selling food, and the narrow space is packed with shoppers from early in the morning. This is not because of any lack of food buying alternatives. There’s a small supermarket right here and two huge ones within a ten minute drive. But the weekly market is a whole different experience and, once you know about it, you never want to miss it.

It’s a lively spectacle because everyone is in a hurry. You have to hit a market fast, soon after it opens because, unlike a supermarket, a local outdoor market runs out of things. If M. Bertrand brings six dozen fresh farm eggs to the market and sells six dozen, that’s it. They came from the farm in his little white van. He even has pictures of the hens. There is no giant refrigerated truck with ten thousand industrial eggs waiting in the background to replenish his stock, and in any case the hens deserve a break.

Here you can buy directly from farmers, artisan bakers, small wineries, cheese makers, and olive oil producers. I hesitate to use the tired word "authentic," but the fact is that Shakespeare or even Socrates would have felt perfectly at home in one of these markets, while a supermarket would have seemed like a nightmare to them. "Where does all this stuff come from?" they would have asked, and received no very satisfactory answer. In a producer’s market you do know more or less where the stuff on sale comes from. You can locate the farm that grows the vegetables, and indeed they may come with an artistic coating of dirt from the field at no extra charge. You can see the vineyard that provides the wine, and even visit the chickens and the goats. Nothing is highly sanitized or packaged, quite the contrary. Food handling and refrigeration are hit or miss. Some of the riper cheeses seem almost ready to jump into your basket by themselves, and the meat displays would turn a sensitive person into a vegetarian overnight.

Such markets may be an anachronism in an age of modern distribution, but you find them all over the world including in America where they seem to be having a kind of renaissance. But agribusiness and the international food industry are winning the market battle, of course, and most of us have to eat mass produced food most of the time, even though the health gurus constantly warn against it. The local market products certainly seem healthier because they are more natural and closer to the source, but the evidence is not all that strong. Processed food is not entirely junk, I’ve been eating it all my life, and I don’t know if I would survive without my daily dose of chemicals and pesticide traces. My body has adjusted to them, much as it has adjusted to air pollution and commercial television. We are more adaptable than we imagine. Is processed food killing me? Obviously it is, but slowly, that’s the main thing. Meanwhile I have time to enjoy natural food from the market, whether it’s good for me or not. All I know is that it all tastes so good.

Copyright: David Bouchier