We’ve just come back from a Saturday morning strolling round Richmond market. It’s a pity for Richmond that our most recent Saturday-strolling-round-market experiences date from our days in the Ariège. The Saturday morning market in Saint Girons is an incomparable experience which Richmond couldn’t match.
Saint Girons has fewer than 7000 residents, but it’s the administrative centre of the Couserans, and the centre of gravity not only for its own inhabitants, but for townspeople, villagers and farmers for miles around. Saturday is the day they come to stock up on fresh fruits and vegetables, charcuterie, cheeses, dried fruits, hardware and haberdashery, plants for the potager, and to link up with friends and neighbours over a coffee or a beer in a local bar. Saturday is a day when they might themselves be stallholders. Among the joys of the market is the pleasure of finding small stalls selling just a small selection of say, goats’ cheeses, produced that very week by a ‘petit producteur’, or asparagus picked no more than 24 hours before, and only available for a few short weeks in April or early May, or home-produced charcuterie, or mushrooms and fungi foraged from the woodlands and meadows round and about. There’ll usually be a crowd surrounding these specialised stalls, which may not be there every week, or in every season, because they can only put in an appearance when they have enough good things to sell. And the market sprawls between two squares, along the banks of the river, and up a couple of other streets. You won’t get away in a hurry.
Compare Richmond in Yorkshire. It too is the main town in its region, Richmondshire, and only a little larger than Saint Girons: it has somewhat more than 8000 inhabitants. But its market barely extends beyond the handsome market square. There are several good greengrocery stalls, an excellent fish stall, which is well-known throughout the region, others selling home-produced sausages and other prepared meat products, and plant stalls with herbs, bedding plants, bulbs and seeds. Best of all is the wonderful cheese van, ‘The Cheesey Grin’, whose knowledgeable, enthusiastic and cheerful owner has the best variety of cheeses from Britain and Europe, from small producers, brought out for sale when at its very best, that we’ve seen in quite a long time. But that’s all. You can be done and dusted in 15 minutes. I fear that markets, or at least the ones local to us, are in decline. Ripon too has noticeably fewer stalls of any kind than was the case only a very few years ago, and a smaller number of stalls selling well-produced or sourced local food. Still, small shops selling these things seem slowly to be on the way up, so perhaps we’re exchanging one kind of market for another. Perhaps it’s not a death knell. As a French friend of ours said recently, ‘I don’t hope so.’