Travel: After Dijon and Beaune, it’s off to Chagny

By comparison with Dijon and Beaune, Chagny is a provincial market town, serving around 6,000 inhabitants, writes Sandra Shevey who recently embarked on a four town French tour.

Tuesday, 26th November 2013, 6:00 am
Chagny market
Chagny market

In Chagny, market days are Thursday and Sunday (morning until noon) and on Sunday these sprawl into the town centre. There are about 200 stalls, mostly small producers, selling some of the freshest produce I have yet seen on this incredible trip around Burgundy.

I came to Chagny to view a Burgundy organic food market, but I saw very little labelled organic produce. Most of it was merely farm fresh.

Most of the market is outdoors with brightly-covered stalls lining the streets. But there is a bit of covered market underneath arches of the 19thc Town Hall that assaults the senses.

The first glimpse is extraordinary... an old town square and a classical government building embracing a robust local market... great stuff!

The profusion of multi-coloured produce... the locals in their native attire...the baskets of vegetables and cheeses being carried around... the smell of coffee, chocolates, candles and bread...t he bickering about prices... the nattering and gossip... this is Sunday morning in Chagny.

`Yes, alright. Six eggs please... laid this morning?` One housewife confirms purchase of farm fresh chicken eggs for Sunday breakfast.

And then there are courgettes, romaine, fresh onions (with stalks), cucumbers (some curved and others in odd shapes), red currants, cassis and cauliflowers...white, purple and orange.

The orange had a strange smell and I am told are an acquired taste. And what a smell! Nothing like the odourless orange you get from Lincs. at the Brixton Sunday Farmers in London. It is all about soil, fertilizer and small holdings!

Further along is the famous Bresse chicken: an AOC product. The breed is exclusive to Burgundy and the EU recognizes both that rearing of the birds and feed adhere to specific guidelines and standards.

These birds still have their heads and feathers, which, for a bit extra, the breeder will pluck for you. Otherwise mate, it`s `do it yourself`. On sale also are pigeons and pintade (bigger and older and plumper chickens and therefore dearer).

A pintade is a very special bird indeed and a real luxury for Sunday lunch. Great for meals with the mother-in-law!

Chagny reminds me of Deptford or Walthamstow markets, where produce is sold cheap at the end of the market day and locals come as much to buy housewares and clothing as produce.

It`s a telling tale of the rough times which all small producers face (with competition from the supermarkets) when you learn that most of them (unlike in times past) make for all local markets in the area weekly just to make ends meet.

At Chagny I met up with the spice trader I`d seen at Beaune- the one with the aromatic spices: curry, rosemary, coriander, cumin and basil.

Prices are much cheaper than at Dijon or Beaune. I saw some Epoisses for about one-third of the price and some goat cheese (made at an abbey in Citeaux) for much less too.

There was garden produce from Mr Prost who has several gardens in and around Buxy: huge leeks, romaine, endive, batavia, and carrots with dirt and stems. But several gardens? You see, it`s become a business. To survive you have to expand.

This Burgundy trip was planned months ago, when noone realised just how hot it would be in July. But let me say, the five days I spent in the area were amongst the hottest all year.

And Burgundy really gets the heat. Thus I was sweating like a pig for most of it and yet there was a kind of perverse pleasure in defeating the heat. I persevered and had a grand time.

The Chaghotins are amongst the friendliest French that I met. They are friendly on a simple level. They are helpful and they put themselves out.

The tourism office was hosting an exhibition of early photographs of the town which actually hasn’t changed much and is still largely period in architecture. It was hosting an exhibition and running a wine tasting at the same time.

Now you have to imagine a tiny, tiny tourism office located in the back of a dead end or an alley with a large table and colourful cloth laid with cured meats, bread, cheeses and samples of Chablis and Bouzeron wines.

The table was wobbly as it had been erected on a pebbly surface. The host doing the tasting was rabbiting on in French and had collected (along with me) eight or nine people who were visiting as part of a group from another region in France.

But as the day became increasingly warmer and after the Chablis tasting, the group departed and the tutor was left with only one participant: me. Consequently as I got ready to depart, he hurried after me and pressed a bottle of Bouzeron into my hands.

My departure from Chagny is rather interesting, as I almost didn’t make it to the fourth and last stop: Louhans and their market the following Monday morning.

As I say the trip had been arranged several months before and the rail tickets despatched at the time. Of course, you would expect if there were changes in the train schedule that someone would have advised. But often A doesnt tell B and C is caught out.

Thus when I asked Chagny Mayor Michel Picard if there was an earlier train to Louhans, he replied there were no trains on this particular Sunday.

I protested that I had a booked ticket but he insisted there were no trains. We tried ringing around to the various tourism officers who were hosting me (including the lady who was escorting me around the Louhans market on Monday) Noone was available.

It transpired that on the day the Louhans railway bridge was being replaced and the old Victorian bridge removed. Thus no trains could come or go. Hence the confusion.

What to do? The Mayor suggested a car and actually arranged for me to accompany some Louhans cheesemakers who were selling on Sunday in Chagny.

What a drive that was... three of us in the front seat of a cheese lorry hurtling along local roads for about 1.5 hours. We missed a goat. We swerved around birds. It was great!

I got to know a bit about the life of these local cheesemongers and discussed the difference between French and British markets. Their small cheese factory outside Louhans employs 25 people.

They themselves assist in producing but also sell and at most of the local markets six or seven days a week. Up at 5am daily they drive two or three hours to wherever, set up and sell. Then they pack up and make for home. It`s tough but it`s a living.

Yes, the French still do it. They still make the markets a living thing. I remember hearing about Essex, Kent and Herts growers who used to sell their produce at London`s Covent Garden market.

I marvelled at the stories of these traders arising at 2 or 3am and rolling their barrows in from the home counties. It was a tough, grim life but they loved it. It gave them a real reason for being. They`d grab a coffee or some breakfast at one of the market cafes which opened early and closed at noon. And then it started all over again.

So in parting with the cheesemongers I encouraged the sustainability and longevity of what they’ve got. Don’t let your markets go. Don’t let your kids trade real life for TV star dreams.

And you know what? When I proferred 10 Euros for the petrol, they wouldn’t take it. Good people!

Fact File

Sandra Shevey gives guided walks in English around the Burgundy markets.

http://sandrashevey.tripod.com/market.walks

Hospitality courtesy of Rail Europe- www.raileurope.co.uk

Burgundy tourism- www.crt-bourgogne.fr

Sandra also runs walks around London markets and has a dvd. She also runs multi-city walks around Britain, France and the EU.