It was Saturday, the sun was shining and the central square of Carcassonne, France was packed with people. It was market day.
When in new places, I am always drawn to markets. In some cities they’re easy to find – the main event of the weekend – and in others they take a little more research. But at a market, you get the sounds, smells and sights of a place. You step into an everyday routine of wherever you are.
At a market, you wander. This is not expedient grocery list shopping; this is living in the moment. Taking up a bunch of tomatoes to see what they feel like. Smelling a container of strawberries. Holding a basket of chard. Asking the cheese monger what he recommends today. This issimple enjoyment. It’s no surprise that in our modern lives – most often defined by stress and deadlines – that we appreciate a moment to slow down.
I made my first round of the market. Because you always make a first round. Rule number one of market shopping: get a feel for the market and know what’s available.
Tightly packed into the main square, it was hard to determine where outdoor terraces ended and food stands started. The line to the organic baker wove around a few tables with coffee drinkers. The baker was doling out samples. “Un brownie sans gluten!” he exclaimed, cutting off a bit of the gluten free baked good. In bake-centric France gluten-free is rare to find, but sometimes you stumble across a nice surprise. We grabbed one for the following day’s river picnic. His fingers did a kind of dance routine, flitting back and forth between stuffing dense loaves in paper bags and doling out change. The kind of man that loves his job.
Next to him an old man sat behind a sea of wooden crates filled with salad. That’s another reason that we love markets: the personalities. These are not robotic cashiers, these are characters. These are farmers whose hands are cracked from working in the soil. These are bakers that have mastered a loaf of seed bread. Craving interaction, at a market we get just that. At a grocery store, you may just hand over money and leave with a “good bye” but at a market, there’s always something extra. Maybe it’s a discussion about the weather. Maybe it’s a joke about the food. Maybe it’s simply a comment that this is the best thing you have ever tasted. Whatever it is, it’s a human to human exchange, something for which we desperately yearn.
I made the rounds again. Handmade olive salami. From a local and organic producer. Only 4€.
It’s silly to even think about what you pay when you’re at the market; ultimately the market isn’t necessarily about the food, it’s about the experience.
Basil and tomatoes at the next stall. The cloth bag I was carrying was now full of picnic goods. Nothing processed, nothing imported, just good ingredients that would go well together.
Why do we love markets? Because they’re simple. Because they remind us of our relationship with food; that from what we eat, we draw happiness. And if we don’t take time to celebrate that happiness – that simple moment of picking up an apple to see how it feels and smells – then we are lacking something primal. We love markets because they bring us back to that connection, the connection that sustains us, physically and emotionally.
Food is joy, and a market is simply a wonderful manifestation of that.