Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The law of the market

The markets we do come in all shapes and sizes, belligerent beasts where there’s a snarl of traffic at 6am in the morning as everyone tries to cram into narrow streets and genteel villages where speaking in a whisper sometimes seems to loud.

Out of them all the last place we expected any trouble was Ansouis. Every Sunday morning one of the most relaxed markets in Provence takes place. There’s a small square shaded by two plane trees. It’s covered in the type of loose earth which is perfect for a game of boule and the traders trickle along as and when it suits them. Nobody has ever been ready to sell anything until at least 9.

Barbara, who runs the mobile boucherie, makes everyone coffee. When we’re around there’s always a series of jokes about the English, and the morning passes peacefully accompanied by the soothing sound of water flowing through the adjacent ancient baths. It’s hard to think of a more pleasant way to spend a weekend morning.

But this Sunday was the 1st of July and the smell of tourists and money was in the air. Just as I was uncorking our bottles of wine I noticed problems on the other side of the square. An old man, with an elegantly pruned handlebar moustache had set up a small table and chair. Under a cloth was an enormous paella, cooked and ready to serve in plastic takeway dishes. The price was 5 euro a portion conveniently undercutting his rival, who, like us, had been in Ansouis all winter.

A lynch mob of gesturing French market traders quickly surrounded the interloper, almost driving him from his seat with the draught created by their whirling arms. Most markets have a municipal policeman to deal with just this type of dispute and ensure fair play, but in Ansoius the majority ruled. Ruefully fingering his moustache the paella vendor headed home for what must have been a large lunch.

Turning back to my stall I was accosted by a young Frenchman. His eyes were dark, his hair short, and his accent heavy with the local twang. The pantomime of a conversation we had went something like this.

“You’re in my place.”

“But we’ve been here all winter.”

“No, you haven’t”

“Oh yes we have.”

“Oh no you haven’t”

Anyway you get the idea. Our challenger turned out to be a local vigneron trying to bully us from our pitch. He must have scented blood. We were English and therefore vulnerable. Did we have permission from the local Mairie? Did we have an alcohol licence?

The aggressive questioning continued, until quite soon we were surrounded by the same whirling mob who’d driven the paella vendor away. We were fighting against a man who grew his wine no more than a 100 metres from where we stood. How could we win? Parochial interest in France always triumphs….. against central government....against European law.... and most definitely against a couple of English market traders.

But unbeknown to us there was a more powerful force at work - the law of the market. We’ve been working in Provencal markets for nearly 8 months. We’d turned up in the winter when customers were sparse, traders stuffed newspaper in their shoes to keep warm and the village dogs toasted themselves by lying on the pavement in front of the poulet roti stand. Winter service had to triumph over summer opportunism otherwise there would be chaos.

The vigneron was sent on his way. Our pitch was safe.