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Isle sur la Sorge is a name synonymous with the very best of French markets, particularly antique or flea markets. It is certainly a town worth visiting in its own right as it has many pleasing antique shops and other independent shops as well as an extensive choice of restaurants around the River Sorgue and leading off into the narrow winding streets of the town. On one of our first visits to the Sunday market we came across the travel writer and broadcaster Anne Gregg who was undoubtedly there because she loved France but specifically was researching for her forthcoming book on French markets. Isle sur la Sorgue is certainly at the forefront of those. She produced a wonderfully informative book called ‘Tarragon and Truffles’ shortly afterwards. Sadly, she died in that same year of its publication. It is one of my favourite travel books and the most used and thumbed through of books and if you have any interest in the markets of France then I do urge you to obtain a copy. It might now be over a decade old but it is always the first book in my suitcase when we are travelling to France. Although there is a market in Isle sur la Sorgue on Saturday and Monday it is the market on Sunday that is the one you will find is the most interesting market to visit. The Sunday market also has alongside the antiques and bric a brac stalls the full range of food specialities produced in the region and plenty of other artisans and interesting stalls.
These spread out right into the town through the narrow streets that lead you into the square. Be aware that the Sunday market is extremely popular and busy and definitely a most sensible idea is to arrive in the town early. I have always found that you can get a parking space, albeit you may have to be prepared to walk about 500 yards or so to the market itself. The streets and the riverside are thronged with people when you are browsing around and you do need to be patient with your fellow man and go with the flow, literally and metaphorically. I do recall on one occasion we had the attentions of the local 10 year old Mafia. We eventually parked our car down a side road that led to a dusty track with some open space next to a small sports ground. A small space was available to squeeze the car into. As we walked away towards the market we had to pass three young local boys with their equally young female assistant who were pleased to let us know that for a small fee our car would still be there in its original condition on our return. As I could tell it was their only source of income and feeling sure that the condition of the car might be somewhat different if I ignored their business proposition I handed over my cash. True to their word the car was fine but the market enterprise starts early so be warned. The antique and bric a brac stalls are the finest and most interesting I have seen outside of Paris. They are not short on quality as well as offering the enthusiast the opportunity to buy endless amounts of what we seem to refer to these days as pre-loved furniture and interior design items for the home. It is an interior designers dream. If you had a large van with you it does not need much imagination to realise that you could easily transform your home into true authentic French shabby chic on a single visit. On our very first Sunday market we found and continued to return many times to a man who sells fish, well specifically salmon. He comes over for the market from a village close to Avignon. It is a small but perfectly formed food stall where you have to be very patient and just enjoy watching this craftsman, an artist at work. He is a man that is so proud of his produce. His enthusiasm oozes from his every pore and his gentle words reflect his pride as he describes the produce that he is so delicately preparing for your pleasure. He attracts a crowd of devoted regulars and I am happy to be one of them if you can count a visit to him every one or two years as being a regular customer. He also sells cured ham produced in the style of Serrano ham which he gently shaves into impossibly thin slices with his very sharp long knife. It is the salmon though that is his real ‘baby’ and you have to wait while he gently prepares it and lovingly wraps the fish as if for a cadeaux to take to your loved one as a perfect present. You wait as he explains its provenance, its delicate taste and texture and offers advice as to how you might enjoy it to the full. It is an extraordinary level of customer service. Yes, you can be there for quite a long time but the truth of every word he says about his exquisite product will become totally fullfilled when you eat it that evening with a crisp chilled local rosé wine. There are many artisan cheese producers having stalls on this market with tempting displays. Other small scale producers may only be offering a single cheese prepared in their own kitchen back at the farm or smallholding. These cheeses are superb but be careful when you are buying. I always find that no matter how much is asked for you always seem to end up with twice that quantity and your expected five Euro purchase can become much more. I learnt that the hard way the first time I bought and ended up with so much cheese that we took some home. It was a superb hard cheese and I have to say a pleasure to enjoy again once back in England. Lunch is easy to find here but not easy to choose – there is so much choice. From the many well priced restaurants lining the duck filled gentle river with its old waterwheel or ones to be found winding through the town. Or just from all the delicious street food on offer. Our favourite stall is the Chinese food vendor by the river who has been there all the years we have been going to Isle sur la Sorgue. His food is delicious and authentic and to be enjoyed in the shade on the island that bisects the river or to take home for a lazy lunch well away from the crowds. Isle sur la Sorgue is special and once you have been here for the market then do make sure that you visit again on a non-market day .
Then in the quiet of the town discover many more interesting shops that were totally obscured from view on your market day visit. The Sunday morning market at nearby Coustellet is a good alternative if you do not fancy coping with the crowds at Isle sur la Sorgue. Once again here on this market you are spoilt for choice with all the local produce, particularly melons, peaches and other fruits. On our last visit here we bought some small sweet tomatoes of various different colours and they were superb that evening with our home made garlic bread that we constructed from bread bought from a baker on his aromatic stall. A display that had so many varieties we wondered at what time of the night he and his team must have begun to bake it all. The garlic we sourced later in Sault higher up the valley on our essential quest for the lavender fields. Alongside the tomatoes and bread we bought some fabulous juicy local melon – the knowledgeable producer who as always was so proud and enthusiastic about his produce even asked me at what time of day we would be eating it. I have to say that question was a little puzzling to me as I am just used to buying melon shrink wrapped with a sell by date on it. He explained that he just wanted to ensure that he sold me a melon that would be just at the point of perfection when we sliced into it to enjoy. Talk about attention to detail. All of this produce from the markets gave us a delightful supper under the cool veranda back at the cottage that was our home on this trip.