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Striking out in search of lavender fields

- Telegraph Telegraph Markets of Provence Telegraph

Anthony Peregrine

Ihad intended to bang on about this week’s French transport strikes – rail, petrol, you name it – but succumbed to apoplexy and moved to sunnier matters.

Thus, Provence. Showing people around this region is a pleasure for the show-off. The spot is so stuffed with greatest hits that it cannot but reflect well on the guide.

Naturally, you get things wrong. A year or two ago, I took a Lavender Tour to the lavender fields – to find they’d already been harvested. In place of a blazing ocean of purple-blue were military formations of bristles. “This is the greatest disappoint­ment of my life,” said a lady traveller. “Seventy-five years and your worst moment is absent lavender?” I cried, for the customer is rarely right. Then, last week, I accompanie­d a crack team of readers to Sénanque abbey. That’s the Cistercian item you see on the most famous Provençal photos, fronted by miles of lavender.

Which, this time, wasn’t yet out. The abbey itself was shut and, when we transferre­d to nearby Gordes, it started raining. Being people, these visitors were more tolerant. “I’m not that keen on abbeys, anyway,” said a terrific fellow. And so we motored on.

Fortunatel­y, Provence comes through with compensati­ons. And – here’s the point – among the greatest of these are the region’s markets. As US writer Marjorie Williams says, they are “the best way to see, taste and smell Provence”. Williams has just published a cracking, pocket-sized guide,

(St Martin’s Griffin-Melia, £14.99), which is full of flavours, advice and sideglance­s. She captures the relish brought to eating in a Provençal culture which segues seamlessly from spirituali­ty to sensuality.

Certainly, loosed on Arles’s vast market, the lavender tourists fast forgot lavender for fougasse, food-lust and saucisson-d’Arles. Meanwhile, the team were, of course, fascinated by Paul Cézanne but seemed an awful lot more zestful when roaming the market which colonises the Renaissanc­e centre of Aix-en-Provence.

Unlike farmers’ markets in Britain – creatures of recent fashion – Provençal markets have been around for unbroken centuries, nourishing villages and towns which demand satisfacti­on, whether from the burgeoning fertility and perky roundness of the fruit and veg, the banks of fish, or meat and charcuteri­e to damn vegan and other vows besides. Of course, you’ve got to be able to get there in the first place, but the strikes can’t last forever. (“Oh yes, they can,” cries my union pal, as I throw him out the door.)

This week Anthony Peregrine won travel article of the Year at the 2016 VisitEngla­nd Awards for Excellence for his story on Lancashire’s forgotten coast. Read it here: uk/lancashire­coast

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