Everybody loves a good market. It’s the place to go for the freshest fruit and veg, meat, cheese, fish and a whole host of other local products. Price-wise it’s swings and roundabouts – some things are cheaper and some things more expensive but on the whole the quality is excellent.
For the past 6 weeks I’ve been running a market stall in Angers on behalf of my neighbour who has had to take time off for health reasons. Not a teeny weeny stall at our local market in Gennes – a big market stall at the main market in the city of Angers on a Saturday morning. ‘What fun!’ I hear you say, ‘how French!’, ‘lucky you!’, ‘what an opportunity!’. Well, let me tell you – I have new respect for market traders! Let me tell you about it.
I spent 3 weeks working alongside my neighbour before taking on the job alone. Each week I took on a little more responsibility and the customers came to recognise me. Holding on to your regulars is essential so it was important for me to be introduced slowly. The first day on my own I have to admit to feeling terrified – am I up to this? Can I do it?
I set the alarm for 5am and grab a cup of tea before putting on my layers for the day. It’s generally cold early in the morning and warms up a bit later on so you need lots of different layers that can be peeled off or put back on. I’ve been SO lucky with the weather I can’t tell you as my stint started in November and will finish more or less in March when our season starts up again. Normally during this time temperatures can drop to -8/-10 so I’ve been counting my lucky stars when I wake up to another mildish morning. I pack a sandwich and some fruit in my bag, close the door and pick up the van next door which has been packed for me the previous evening.
The drive to Angers takes me about 35 minutes but it’s an easy journey along the riverside and there is little traffic on the road at that time of the morning. Arriving at my pitch, I reverse the van into position (this requires precision, not always my strongest point!), lock the driver’s side, pop the wing mirror in and set to work.
Have you ever commented on how lovely the markets are as you pass by the stalls? All the fresh fruits and vegetables all beautifully arranged in perfect lines. All colours of the rainbow together making a lovely display. Well I can tell you the secret – it takes nearly 2 hours to set up the stall in the morning before the first customer arrives. Setting up the stand alone is like erecting a tent in the dark. A series of metal frames connects with a series of numbered poles. My evenings before the market have become alcohol free as I could not even contemplate doing this with a fuzzy head. Once the frame is up and the boards in place I unload all the cartons of fruit and veg from the van and arrange them according to a plan that takes into account, colour, use and sensitivity to the weather.
6 weeks on and I’m feeling more relaxed. I’m not struggling to put the stand up any more and don’t need a written plan to organise my display. I’ve given up trying to count change in French (as this was slowing me down) and count quietly in my head in English (much quicker). I’ve come to know my regulars and exchange news and views with them and have taken pleasure in exchanging recipe tips. I’ve learnt things from my customers (conical beetroot are sweeter than the round ones, what to do with radis noir) and persuaded them to try some new things too (roast parsnips the English way, bake beetroot with garlic and marjoram, make spicy butternut soup). I’ve had to know my apples (which variety is best for tartes, compote, eating) and my potatoes (which is best for chipping, purée, soup).
I’ve even started sleeping a little better the night before. I was so worried about not waking up in time that most of my Friday nights have been spent checking the alarm on an hourly basis.
I’m used to customers saying ‘j’entends un petit accent, non?’ and admitting that I’m English which had led to all sorts of conversations about life in England from the economy to rugby.
At 1pm things start to slow down and so I slowly begin to pack up. Reloading the van is a precise business, everything has its place. Potatoes go in first, then carrots (keep the dirty things at the bottom). Cartons are stacked by size and empty cartons go on the top. The stall is taken down, the boards stacked away, the scales wiped and put in the box, the sign removed, the doors closed and then off I go back home, arriving at about 2.30 in time for a late bowl of soup and a cuppa.
My stint will come to an end when our season starts up again in early March but I can tell you it’s been an experience and much harder than I had ever imagined. Everyone keeps telling me that I’ll miss it when it’s over and you know, I probably will. One thing’s for sure, it’s not something I’m going to forget in a hurry.