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Basket Culture

When I lived in Paris, one of my favorite pastimes was wandering through open-air markets in whatever part of the city I happened to be in. Fruits and vegetables in season, fresh and aged cheeses, breads, whole fowl of every kind, rabbits and other game, seafood, spices, and more were a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach. The colorful Rue Mouffetard market in the 5th arrondissement was one I returned to again and again as it was further from the touristy center of the city and seemed to say on every visit, "I am a true Paris marché (market)." It was also where I acquired my first French market basket.

Tall and sturdy with a tight weave, the light-colored fiber panier (basket) was my new best friend. With it at my side, I belonged to the market landscape. No longer did I hike back to my apartment loaded with bulging plastic bags, a sure giveaway of a non-Paris resident. And it was delicious fun to fill my panier artistically with newly-acquired vegetables, fruits, flowers, and bread so it looked like a photo straight out of a gourmet magazine.

 Still enamored of market baskets today, I strolled around the Saturday morning market in Aix-en-Provence last month and made an impromptu study of market basket culture.* Even in the high-tech 21st century, baskets of every size and shape filled the bustling aisles accompanied by their French owners. Women and men carried or pulled them with the practiced air that comes from shopping for food at the peak of freshness, season after season. What a happy sight to see baskets full to the brim leaving the marché on their way to a welcoming cuisine (kitchen).

 But truth be told, I was slightly envious of the willow baskets on wheels and their large capacity-a harbinger of many tasty meals. Unfortunately for me, that type of basket won't fit in the overhead bin of a transatlantic flight so I don't plan on making that purchase in France.* On the other hand, there are plenty of other baskets that travel well. When in Provence, I make a point to check out the basket vendors at the local markets. Staples are rows of traditional baskets with leather handles. Fancier styles come in bright colors of various sizes and shapes. Some have cloth drawstrings inside-perfect for use as a summer purse. I have added several of both types to my collection over the years and love how each one reminds me of a wonderful trip or of the marvelous market goods that were carried in it.

Fur BasketOne "basket" I won't buy, however, was a canvas one with wheels I saw in February in the streets of Aix. Perfect for the cold weather, this basket had a tan canvas body topped by faux-fur lid and was tugged along by an owner in a leather coat trimmed with fur! I must confess my basket tastes run on the simpler side.

Towards the end of this latest trip in Provence, I began to realize that my purchases of Provençal treasures were outgrowing available suitcase and satchel travel space. At the Arles market, I looked around for some bag vendors hoping to pick up an inexpensive nylon sac. Hélas (alas), nothing like that could be found. And then I had an epiphany. I could buy a Provence market basket and transport my goods back to Texas that way.

I finally located a traditional basket I liked with brown leather accents and long handles that could go over my shoulder. While I was unsuccessful in bargaining the price down, the vendor assured me the basket would hold some serious weight. Sure enough, my pottery rosé wine pitcher, artisan made ceramic bowls, calissons (almond candy made only in Aix), fruits confits (glacéd fruits) and French books made it home beautifully. And I have another wonderful French market basket to use and enjoy.

Basket Vendor

* The main market in Aix-en-Provence takes place Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays in the Place des Prêcheurs. Baskets, Provençal products and flea market dealers occupy the adjoining place in front of the Palais de la justice.

* I have seen this type of roller basket for sale in the Williams-Sonoma catalogue or online at www.williamssonoma.com.

July 9, 2008

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