Dreaming of French Markets

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It’s a dreary, cold day in southern France. I look out the window, my back to the warmth of the wood stove, to see heavy, grey moisture hanging in the air, so thick that I can’t see across the hill. It’s a perfect day for remembering the summer sun and dreaming of the markets past and the ones that will arrive again in the spring just as we’re settling back into life in Annapolis.

Both Mike and I love the markets in France, and we never tired of going to them. We went to the markets in all the neighboring villages – Lorgues, Salernes, Carcés, Aups, Draguignan, in addition, of course, to Cotignac. What is it that makes the markets such a special event? Maybe it’s the hustle and bustle of all the people, or the organized haphazardness of the stalls, or the colors of the produce mounded in their bins. Or maybe it’s that good feeling we got as we walked out of the house with our straw baskets in hand knowing that we’d return, huffing and puffing up our hill, with the baskets brimming over with good things to eat. No matter the season, it always feels like a fun event even though it’s simply grocery shopping. But what a way to shop!

We’ve been here long enough now to see the market grow from quiet beginnings in the spring through the summer when it was packed with people, into the fall and now the winter. Today, however, is a day for dreaming…back, back, I go, ….until it’s last spring.

I remember walking into the market and seeing heaping piles of golden, yellow apricots. On closer inspection, they had a pale pink blush and a light fuzz, and were juicy enough to fall off the seed. We could get arugula then, too. We’d grab a handful to throw in with the stunning lettuces that were spilling over the bins – frizzy, red leaf, green leaf, butter along with endive and radicchio. Those lettuces and arugula were perfect with a light drizzle of olive oil – bought from the market, too. The simple beauty of leeks with their long, straight stems of white held us in their thrall. Of course, spring wouldn’t be spring without strawberries. Here, strawberries were sold by their variety. The small, wild ones were particularly sweet and wonderful sliced into our favorite yogurt or made into a salad with cucumbers and a dressing of honey and vinegar. That recipe is coming home with us.

We very quickly found the farmer who was to become our favorite. He grows organic vegetables at his farm neat Cotignac. His produce was displayed in wicker baskets across the table – carrots and potatoes still covered in dirt, bundles of garlic, dazzling lettuces, and fruit. We’ve continued to buy produce from him every week. He recognizes us on sight now and smiles as we pile up our goods.

Spring moved into summer and the crowds arrived. People jostled through the market and crowded the aisle along with shiny red, green and yellow peppers, glossy purple-black eggplant, and, of course, tomatoes – perfect for Mike’s famous ratatouille. Skinny green beans topped our salad nicoise, and wide, flat green beans were our change of pace. Then there were the fava beans, the white beans and the coco beans (red and white spotted). I happily shelled them outside on the patio.

Later in the summer Cavaillon melons (like small cantaloupe) hit the stands – sweet, succulent and perfect for a hot summer day, particularly with a tiny bit of thinly sliced ham. This simple pairing was a favorite. The strawberries shared space with raspberries, blackberries and tart, tiny, red currents. The berries rode like royalty on the top of our straw basket so they wouldn’t be crushed by the melons.

Late summer saw mounds of blushing purple and red plums, not my favorite to eat, but one of my favorites to admire. Their shiny, smooth skins lay piled next to the ribbed, brown-purple figs. Those were a favorite with their deep red, soft interiors packed with flavor. Drizzled with local honey and a dab of fresh goat cheese they made a perfect light snack or dessert. And then there were the nectarines and peaches - fresh and perfect on my salad with a bit of balsamic drizzled on top.

Of course, food was not the only thing in the markets. There were jars of black or green olive tapenades, and tapenades made with anchovy and artichokes. Bowls of olives lined tables. There were black or green olives, tiny and large, flavored with red pepper, herbs de Provence, basil and garlic, or lemon. Mike quickly learned how to cook with the olives using them in Provencal chicken with carrots or pork roast. Bottles of locally produced olive oil were lined up to capture the sunlight and glisten like stained glass. Golden jars of honeys – lavender, tilleul (linden tree), wildflower, chestnut - reflected the warmth of the Provencal sun.

It wouldn't be France without loaves of freshly baked breads. There were rustic loaves with seeds sprinkled on top. Country loaves where flour still clung to their cracked crusts. All of them were waiting for a dash of olive oil, a slice of cured ham or a bit of goat cheese to bring out their flavors. In addition to a daily baguette, we had other staples that we bought at the market stalls, like eggs. There were dozens and dozens of fresh laid brown eggs sitting happily in their orderly rows...outside. Once home, ours lived in the window sill of the kitchen, never in the refrigerator.

The spice vendor had a long table packed with burlap bags brimming with colorful spices like “herbs de Provence”, peppers from around the world, paprika, cumin, coriander, and more. Barrel-sized bags contained leaves for tea. For example, tilleul is a popular tea which came to be one of my favorites. We didn’t realize that the tree on our patio is a tilleul tree. We stood staring at a bag filled with blooms and leaves from the tilleul tree that looked exactly like the blooms and leaves we’d been sweeping off the patio!

There were vendors selling souvenirs like olive wood bowls, table and kitchen linens, straw bags, and soaps that perfumed the air with lavender, olive, and almond as well as less common scents like carrot…mhm…carrot soap. We took all our visitors to see a specific vendor who I felt had the best quality products. In time, we were elevated in his eyes so that our friends received the “friends and family” discount (about 10% off). If he didn’t realize that someone was with us and, so, missed their discount, he would give me a bar of soap. I guess it was my commission!

The market wouldn’t be complete without the butchers, the cheese lady, the sausage vendors and the rotisserie folks. Cheese from all over France was cut and carefully wrapped. We had our choice with the goat cheese - fresh, semi-aged or aged. Our cheese lady would demonstrate by squeezing the cheese so we could see the “give.” The softer the cheese the younger it was. With our cheese selected, she carefully placed a sprig of thyme on top and wrapped it in precisely folded paper. We left with specific instructions that it was “très fragile!”

The sausage was not so fragile and was made from pigs, boar, bull, cow, goat, sheep, and even donkey. We mostly skipped the dried sausage in favor of the fresh which was made by hand (from the same lady who sold fresh made pasta). Her husband ran the rotisserie for which people lined up each week. It was easy to find his stand. All we had to do was follow our nose. The smells of roasting chickens, ham and rosemary filled the market. We became a big fan of his ham. It turned slowly on the horizontal spit along with row after row of farm raised chickens. Baskets of potatoes cooked underneath so that the drippings fell into the potatoes. The smells made me want to sit there sniffing the air. One week we bought some ham but he had to carve the large bone out of the middle in order to cut our slice. Mike was drooling over the bone as it would be perfect for one of his famous soups or cassoulet. But when our rotisserie guy freed the bone, he glanced down and threw it to the small, mongrel dog who is a regular in Cotignac. I can still hear Mike groan as the little dog proudly loped off with his bone.

Another regular vendor was Noel who sold paella, adding whiffs of fragrant saffron into the air. Every market day and in markets across all the little villages, he would make paella that he sold in tubs. Mike says the pan was 42” across and brimming full of saffron-colored rice, pink shrimp, black mussels and veggies. As we came to understand, Noel is a caterer – or traiteur, in French. He catered the aioli dinner in Cotignac, and he sold paella made with quince at the Quince Festival. We saw him so often that he still smiles and waves to us even though we only bought paella once.

As summer moved into fall, apples and pears arrived along with pumpkin, turnips, parsnips and the most beautiful cabbage I’ve ever seen. Nuts, particularly walnuts and chestnuts, filled bins. Chestnuts get the award for the most beautiful nut with their smooth, shiny, deep-brown shells. They are very popular and are a traditional food for the period around Christmas. There were whole chestnuts, sugar glazed chestnuts, roasted chestnuts, and chestnut paste used for soups and sweet fillings. Next to the nuts were bins and bins of citrus fruits. Clementines still sported their shiny, green leaves, as did the lemons. The citrus was coming from nearby Italy or Spain and tasted as fresh and sweet as it looked.

The market continues to dwindle each week as more and more vendors close for the season, taking vacation and resting before the start of next year’s market. We have two more market days left in Cotignac. We’ll stop by our favorite vendors for a last purchase and a fond good-bye. We won’t be there to join in the fun next spring, summer and fall, but I’ll hold the image of the French markets in my mind and in my heart. I’ll be full of the colors, the smells, the chatter of people, the flavors and the heavy feel of the basket handles in my hands. My mouth is watering already.


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Mike and Shelley's French Adventures
Check in as we start our year abroad living in southern France. Join us as we experience the French lifestyle and travel through Europe.

Website: mikeandshelleysfrenchadventures.blogspot.com/
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