All manner of eccentric life passes by as one sits snacking on a sandwich jambon and a glass of wine at the French equivalent of a car boot sale.This is the ubiquitous vide grenier, something found all over the country, otherwise known as a brocante, marché aux puces, or some more local variant. Though each type may differ in content – anything from valuable antiques, to bizarre and outlandish objects, to much execrable secondhand junk and finally to what (in my opinion) is rubbish fit only for the skip – if you are someone who happily picks over other people’s leavings then many a contented hour can be passed at one of these things, however it is titled.
So devoted are the French to their favourite weekend pursuit that one can even buy a little yellow book in one’s local tabac detailing all the events to be held in that particular region throughout the year. By mid-summer there will be so many taking place simultaneously every Saturday and Sunday that a bit of judicious route planning is required if one is to visit several in a day. Many of the vide greniers advertised are huge and can attract thousands of visitors while others, usually held in the centre of some small village or in a nearby field, may have as few as thirty or forty ‘exposants’ and are often little more than jumble sales of children’s secondhand clothes and toys.
I always like to have a purpose when we go hunting for goodies; to have something in mind that I am hoping to come across; the more obscure the better, a. because the chances of finding it are very slim and b. should you be lucky enough to chance upon the item in question you will be all the more determined to barter well and, if successful, treat it as a treasured possession thereafter. Without some particular objet d’art to look for it is all too easy to wander aimlessly from stall to stall and there is too a tendency to just not look carefully enough; searching for one or two specific things means that I tend to scan the stuff displayed on the most likely-looking stalls much more carefully because I know what I’m looking for. Right now I am searching for one of those stands that one occasionally sees in an old fashioned brasserie. It’s just a folding frame that allows one to set a large wooden tray on top of it. The brasserie ones are a little over waist-high thus making it easier to serve food from the tray. You probably have no idea what I’m on about but come the day I’ll know it when I see it.
Actually whatever one is on the lookout for doesn’t necessarily have to be that special. When we had our barge we often used to seek out small wide rubber tyres of the type you might find on a go-cart. Secondhand, they made perfect fenders for a big boat but were not easy to come across in the normal way – vide greniers proved to be the ideal hunting ground.
When summer fruit bottling and jam-making gets under way I look for used Kilner jars and those nice fluted wide-mouthed confiture pots that the French still use. Job lots can be bought for a euro or two and my homemade products look so much more tempting in their old-fashioned containers.
I’m not so single-minded that I don’t buy other items when I come across them by chance. Given two of my other interests: cooking and food history, I love it when some obscure kitchen implement or an old cookery book turns up. One of my best finds is a ceramic ‘Dutch oven‘ which must have spent its first fifty years providing a daily serving of meat and vegetables matured in a puddle of red wine, left to cook long and slow in the embers of an open fire. It is old, blackened with soot, and was so precious to its previous owner that a hairline crack which appeared in the lid has been carefully repaired with an iron rivet to hold it together. I cherish it and it continues to serve. I use it to bake perfect bread as well as keeping alive that traditional way of slow cooking those wine rich braises of beef, game and chicken, albeit nowadays placing the pot in an oven rather than on an open fire.
Tam collects old postcards of the little river Seille and its environs, particularly of the place where we live. You may think it a somewhat ‘nerdy’ occupation but we are always delighted when he comes across a card depicting village life of a hundred or more years ago.
Some stuff on sale can quite literally pause you in mid-step, mouth hung open in amazement or dissolving into laughter at the strange and idiosyncratic object on display before you. There is an awful lot of weird stuff in France, some of which you might really want to own. It is here at the vide grenier that it will have finally come to rest.
When feet and brain decide it is time to call a halt to our carrion-like activity there is, invariably, a ‘buvette‘ installed somewhere. The French never do anything without first ensuring that there will be some basic sustenance to hand. Long rows of tables with benches set out for communal eating allows one to rest ones elbows while raising a glass. There will be servings of local sausage and frites for sale. Here too one can indulge in that other great (in)activity – for me at least – of watching the world go by. And what characters one sees …. and the dogs …. the dogs are as various as their owners. I step carefully here as I do often have misgivings about how some French treat their animals but if they get taken to a vide grenier then they are surely much loved members of the family.
We choose, when we can, to go to the ones with obscure addresses deep in the countryside rather than to those in the suburbs of big towns and cities. It’s fun to drive across country free from the clutches of the GPS, and it is out in the sticks where no tourist ever goes that one stumbles upon villages ancient and beguiling where time, it seems, is standing still – trapped somewhere in a more Arcadian past. In such places one detects a rhythm to the life and a pattern to the days punctuated by small occasions scattered through the year of which the annual vide grenier is but one. The inhabitants tending their stalls look like a contented lot; they smile and chat, treating the day as a social occasion rather than an opportunity for a hard sell and in such places the village ladies produce far better refreshments than the usual offerings. I enjoy peering into gardens. Here are rows of vegetables sharply aligned only softened at their margins with plantings of sweet William and marigolds which leave me contentedly nodding praise at their stylish simplicity.
Without the enticement of this annual event, be it called ‘vide grenier’, ‘brocante’ or ‘flea market’, its occasion happily chanced upon in a book bought in a paper shop, we would never have found our way there, never lighted upon those special treasures, never experienced La France Profonde or just the pleasure of lunching on a simple sandwich jambon or merguez-frites, drinking a panaché and watching the world go by.