Monday, 31 January 2011

No Cameras Please, We’re French

‘Non-non-non!’ says the Frenchman in an irritating sing-songy voice, as if wagging his finger at a greedy child. I was taking a photograph of the enormous wheels of cheese he was slicing for his customers on a small market stall on a sunny Saturday morning. He wants to exercise his right not to be photographed. A lady customer agrees with an undeniable Gallic shrug, ‘Il a le droit’.

Casting aside self-important cheese-makers (there, that’ll teach him), there’s a wonderful atmosphere in Provence on market day. It’s more than a place to do your shopping. It’s about thinking about dinner, learning what’s in season and how to prepare it, admiring photographs of the animals it came from, before being wished a bon weekend. It seems rude to buy without asking questions.

And there are many lovely market towns in this region, the Luberon, half an hour from Avignon, such as Gordes, spectacularly clinging to a mound of rock, and l’Isle sur la Sorgue, the largest antique centre outside Paris, whose Sunday market winds around its lanes and squares and canals. At the Café de la France there, you often hear more American and German and British accents than French, so it’s hardly surprising locals are protective, wanting to keep their culture real and not just a photo opportunity for people like me who can’t buy anything as they only have carry-on.

Today, we drove slowly around wooded hillsides behind lycra-clad cyclists, and stopped here in Pernes les Fontaines, named for its abundant if modest fountains. The stone clock tower, medieval walls and fortified gates hint at past grandeur. Just beyond the Cormorant Fountain is the old covered market where, according to a sign on the wall, in the seventeenth century the official weights and measures were kept, and everyone could come and verify the weight of their goods, whether wine, oil or grains. A small collection of stalls offers plants and cuttings and hand-labelled bags of seeds. My mother, the gardener, is delighted and asks the price, which is when we discover everything’s free. It’s run by Soleil Vert, an association for the study and protection of the environment.

Just around the corner is Galerie l’Aire du Cormoran, a contemporary art space. The owner shows how the architect created a building filled with light in the old town, and talks us through the series of black and white photographs. Next door there’s a Gallery Café whose tables look over the river, where he’s meeting friends for lunch.

The main market has, among cheap clothes and a Bible seller, and the usual mix of exquisite jams and honeys, organic bread, colourful cuts of meat and fresh fish. I put camera away and am talked through the fresh goats’ cheeses, all decorated prettily with pepper or fresh herbs and arranged in rows. We buy some for lunch, and vow to buy more from local producers at home. Why only do this when on holiday in France?