WEDNESDAY MORNING, market in St Pons de Thomières, a dozen miles or so upstream at the head of the valley. It's an up-and-down town with few flat open spaces. Usually they're devoted to car parking, but on Wednesdays the market traders take over, so parking is even more murderous. One of the main arteries between Low and High Languedoc passes through the middle of St Pons, so there's a steady flow of juggernauts to add an extra refined twist to the torture of finding somewhere to park.
We find a space on a precipitious slope in front of the ASEI. Locals pronounce this a-say-ee, and I daresay, drenched though the French are in acronyms, few know what it stands for, and I have to admit that I've just looked it up. Agir, Soigner, Eduquer, Insérer. There you are. Don't say this column doesn't offer you instant close familiarity with French social institutions. Action, Care, Training, Insertion. The place we've parked in front of is a recent building for action on behalf of, care of, training of the handicapped. But insertion? It just means insertion into the labour market.
I leave the car in reverse and pull the handbrake on tight, wondering if with these various distractions we'll ever get to the market. In fact it's spread all over the upper part of the town, wherever a trader can set up his or her pitch. The finer the weather, the more there are, and today it's fine and sunny, but with a sharp tramontane blowing down from the 4000' plateau above us. The tramontane (literally 'across the mountains') is the Languedoc's equivalent of the mistral in Provence, and neither is very pleasant, especially for market traders who have to keep a weather eye on their awnings and displays of cheap clothing and fancy goods to prevent them from blowing away.
Immense piles of multi-hand clothing, classified by price, not function. Second-hand books. Plants, mostly tomatoes and Mediterranean garden vegetable seedlings. New-for-old window frames. Ditto mattresses. Ditto upright chairs. A forlorn bloke selling his unlabelled wine. Old, not to say geriatric, shoes. You begin to get a feel for a social layer of France generally hidden from tourists. We move on.
Josephine is looking for a circular waxed tablecloth, one that will stay clipped to a garden table all summer, in blue and yellow with motifs of olives and sprigs of Provençal herbs. A man with a van has rolls and piles of waxed tablecloth material in every shape and colour except this. This is the third time of asking. Last week he said he had it in stock. He would definitely bring it for us. He he brought it? I just forgot, he says. Tell you what, I'll write it down. All right, we say, but we aren't here next week. In a fortnight's time. It's agreed. Will he turn up with it? Watch this space, but the odds aren't favourable. I expect it will arrive in October, just as we're closing the garden furniture down.
Technically I suppose St Pons is a city, because it has a cathedral. Once it had its own bishop, and within living memory was a sous-préfecture, a sort of government sub-HQ, and its own law courts as well. All that's gone now, but the imposing buildings remain, and must be a dreadful drain on the public purse of a place that's trying desperately hard not to slide into total decay. The heart of the market is in the cathedral square, but it seems to us that gradually the traders who deal in food and drink are being ousted by the supermarkets and government regulations, and the vacuum is being filled by yet more cheap clothing, footwear, tawdry jewellery and plastic toy stalls.
All the same, there are old favourites, like André and Claire.
André is a local beekeeper, who week after week brings honey and honey-based products from his own bees and from his kitchen, where Claire presides. There isn't the same dire shortage of honey in France as in the UK or the USA, and in this part of the world there's such a diverse flora that according to season he can label his jars Miel de Chatâigne (Chestnut flower honey) for honey made when the ever-present chestnut trees were in flower, or Miel de Bruyère (heather) or - richest of flavours - Miel de Garrigue, honey from the flowers of the Mediterranean upland scrub, wild thyme, cistus, eglantine, rosemary. You can see one of their specialities, honey-flavoured meringues, in the photo.
And here's Madame Gayraud (and her husband, further down the counter) with an amazing array of fresh fish. We wonder how they do it, week after week, year after year, serving a different market every day, selecting and buying in the fish from both Mediterranean and Atlantic quayside fish auctions, cleaning and gutting, stocking, accounting, dealing with leftovers and all the rest of it. They're spared the overheads of having a shop, of course, but in their place they have their van to run and maintain. The counter in the photo is in fact a refrigerated travelling shop: everything folds down and inwards very cleverly, a triumph of a commercial coachbuilder's art that isn't prominent in the UK. When the market finishes at about 12.30 they will pack everything away and drive home.
You might expect a private family business like this to charge accordingly, but no: their prices compare very reasonably with local supermarkets. We wonder how long they can go on, how long it will be before the Gayrauds and their like, the market cheesemongers, the fruit and vegetable traders, the sellers of olives, breads, smoked and cured meats, the little people who bring in their eggs and strawberries, honey and home baking, plums and apricots, aubergines and courgettes, herbs and spices are crushed beneath the steam-roller of mass just-in-time supermarket distribution and prices. Not only that: you won't find live poultry, rabbits or fish. Government public health regulations have seen to that. I can't decide whether I feel this is of benefit to mankind or not: part of the old France has undoubtedly gone, but on the other hand I'm alive and kicking enough to make the observation.
I don't know what I feel about the future of street markets, such a marked and attractive feature of traditional French provincial life for so long. Not too promising, maybe. Here's someone else who clearly feels quite dubious about it too.