Pierre Vidal, the Fishmonger, has been a Provencal market trader for over 30 years.
How did you become a trader?
As a young man, aged 18, I was a keen diver. I used to spear fish. One day I was approached by a fish trader and asked if I would like to help in his business. In those days we used to drive from village to village selling our fish. We would stop in the street and hoot our horn. People would come out of their houses and purchase. Gradually I started taking places in the markets instead.
How many markets do you work a week?
I now work five markets a week: Lauris, Aix en Provence, Palette, Ventabren and Lourmarin.
Can you describe a typical day?
I wake up at 4.30am to give myself plenty of time to get to the market. I’ll leave home around 5.30am arriving at the market place around 6.30am. It then takes about an hour to set up. I’ll review my stock and perhaps place some orders with the wholesale fish market in Avignon, where some of my fish comes from.
My first customers arrive early. They know that later in the morning it can take 45 minutes for them to be served. And so many come early to avoid the wait.
Then for two and a half hours it is really hard work. We have a short window of time to sell our produce, and so we have to be really concentrated and professional. It’s nice to take some time to chat with the clients, but you have to do that while working.
We’ll pack up around 1pm and then I’ll pause for some lunch. Two or three times a week I drive to L’Estaque in Marseille to buy fish. The fish is fresh off the boats, and I buy in large cases. The best time of year to buy fish is September/October. There is such diversity then. Every time I see a fish I think in my head, how I would cook it, with a little butter in a pan, or wrapped in foil in the oven. Even after all these years I still adore eating fish.
If I don’t go down to L’Estaque, I’ll check my stock. If I have any particularly large fish left over I’ll call around a few restaurants to see if they wish to purchase.
What changes have you seen in your career?
The price of fish has gone up enormously. This is due to the worldwide shortage. There is now a much greater reliance on farmed fish than before because the price is much more reasonable. At Christmas time, with the emphasis on seafood, the prices from the wholesalers can really spike. Monkfish went up this Christmas from 20 to 28 euros a kilo in just a few days.
I adore all fish. I particularly love the Saint Pierre (John Dory) and the story of how it got its name.
Whenever you pick up a St Pierre, along the back bone is a round circle like a thumb print. The story of that thumb print goes back to the bible. Peter had been out fishing for four days in a row and caught nothing. He wanted to give up. Then Jesus went with him and when Peter cast his net and pulled it in, the net was full of all different types of fish. Peter reached into the net and pulled out a St Pierre, leaving his thumbprint on the species for the rest of time, and giving his name to the fish.
Laure and Jean the flower sellers
How did you become market traders?
30 years ago Jean used to grow vegetables. We brought them to the market to sell. Gradually we changed what we sold. We started growing and selling plants and herbs – lavender, thyme, spring flowers, autumn flowers, geraniums, potted-plants. Our business changed.
How many markets do you work in a week?
We used to do 7 markets a week, now we only do three – Lourmarin, Le Puy Sainte Reparade and La Tour D’Aigue. We are retiring at the end of the year.
How have the markets changed?
When we started selling plants there was a huge demand. People used to be waiting for us in the markets when we arrived. It was the only way for them to buy plants for their gardens. Not everyone had cars then. There were also far fewer garden centres. If you had a car you would have to drive a long way to get what you needed.
It’s a very hard life in the markets, you get up early, you work hard all morning and then when we return home we have the work of any normal garden centre. Planting, watering etc..Our children aren’t following us into the business. It’s too much work for too little reward. You don’t have the right to be ill in a market, or take a day off, you have to be their smiling, always welcoming people.
Even so some things are easier. We used to have to keep iced bottles in the flower buckets to keep the flowers fresh, now we have a refrigerated van. We used to unload each plant by hand, now we have wheeled racks.
When is the busiest time of year?
March until July. This is when we do a lot of work back at home with the plants we grow, and also when the demand for plants for the garden is at its greatest.
Come the summer when the market is at its busiest, things are calmer for us. People buy flowers and plants to offer when they are going to lunch etc..but the planting season is over.
Tell us about the flowers?
When we started we bought our flowers direct from the producers on the Cote D’Azur. We’d drive down to the Riviera in the middle of the night in the van, and go from producer to producer. Then we’d come back and sell the flowers in the market the same day.
Things are simpler now, there is a wholesaler in Avignon, who goes down to Cannes to purchase, and who supplies us.