One of the very best ways to prepare for a trip (or a trans-Atlantic life change) is to read what some of your favorite bloggers have to say about the places you will go.
In preparation for my upcoming weekend trip to Aix-en-Provence, I scoured some of my favorite blogs for tips and tricks for seeing the city. I found this rather unique economic ethnography of the markets of Provence via Tyler Cowen (circa 2006) at Marginal Revolution.
The vast majority of market products are the same as elsewhere and sold at the same prices. Whatever “market look” they have is due to form or presentation; the difference is an effect of staging or wording. Producing this appearance is part of the stallholder’s art, practiced not so much to deceive the customer as to satisfy her wishes and expectations, and this game works all the better in that, as suggested, everyone wants to be taken in. The market is an enchanted world where stallholder talent combines with customer desire to make products appear different from what they are. As I heard someone say around Venturi’s stall, “Pumpkins are rounder at the market.”
The archetypal “market product” is a heavy melon bursting with sweetness because the Provençal sun has been so generous, or a head of lettuce so visibly harvested at dawn that day that you can almost see dewdrops on it, or firm, fragrant strawberries that still bear the trace of the pebbly soil they were grown in just south of Carpentras. In the minds of most customers, shopping at the market means first and foremost laying in a supply of fruits and vegetables, natural rather than industrial products. As Nicole Grossage explained to me, “The market sensitizes people to food level. The market’s brand image is the food; it’s where you find fresh, higher-quality produce.” In fact, as I was able to confirm in interviews, most of the fruits and vegetables available on the market, either at stallholders’ or in sedentary shops, were purchased from the MIN in Avignon, a major wholesale market featuring an extremely broad range of produce from a great variety of sources.
Despite the illusion they produce, the vast majority of market fruits and vegetables have therefore been grown almost industrially, using the most modern methods. Melons are grown “above ground” under plastic sheets in heated air, watered continuously drop by drop, with the sugar level automatically monitored. They have only the most distended kinship tie with the melons grown long ago by Provençal peasants.
As professor of mine used to say: seduction is the essence of exchange. That statement immediately comes to mind with this description of the form and function of these markets. “I’ll give you what you desire; You give me what I desire.” Entrepreneurs must discover what their customers’ desires and tailor the sales pitch to their whims. When buyer and seller meet on a price and exchange — Volia! Both are made better-off by trade.
I truly hope to get the right time to be able to visit these markets as they are so eloquently described and with such insight. Until then, here are a few sneak peaks from Flickr.
[Photos by gavin clabaugh]