This time last week, we were heading home from a wondrous week in southern France. I have not really spent much time in the south of France; an afternoon in Avignon, a spectacular day on the beach in Nice, but otherwise we have headed for Paris or Bergerac, or the northern Normandy beaches.
Other food writers have written of how French food culture contributed to their formation as writers and foodies. Julie Child, obviously, had her first revelation through sole meunière, in a restaurant in Rouen. Molly Wizenberg headed to Paris after the loss of her father. And Diana Henry, whose new book I’ve been reading furiously, writes “France was the first place that showed me the joy that cooking could bring me, both in the process and in the dishes I could put on the table” (p.14). Until this trip, I have never really understood this. I have eaten well, and eaten badly in France. I have even eaten well enough to be slightly awed by a dish, but I never really had that feeling of revelation and food that so many writers associate with France. I never really saw the community, vibrancy, and opportunity that food can provide until this visit. Now, finally!, I get why others are so obsessed about the food in France. For me, it is all about the markets.
We visited two markets – Saturday morning in Carcassonne, and Friday morning in Carpentras. The Saturday morning market in Carcassonne takes place in a central square in the new town. It was bright and sunny, already hot as we walked over the bridge from the old town where we had slept, and into the winding streets of the new town. I stopped every few minutes to take photographs of the painted shutters, windows, balconies, peeling paint – all very stereotypically French but no less divine. We followed other people, pulling shopping trolleys behind them, to the central square. It was alive with energy. Stallholders calling prices to us, people holding out bags of fruits and vegetables to be weighed. People stood talking, dogs wound their way around their owner’s legs, looking for snippets of fallen produce. Everywhere people prodded and sniffed at produce, critically assessing it’s suitability for their plans. Herbs in pot stood fragrantly, waiting to be bought and taken to someone’s garden. Small vegetable seedlings were neatly arranged in rows.
There were cherries, apricots, strawberries, watermelons, courgettes, tomatoes, onions, potatoes… Stallholders sold goats cheese, kept cool in refrigerated cabinets. Croissants and breads were piled up. Flower-sellers. And all about us people talked and conversed about what they were buying. Around the edges of the market were a string of cafes. We sat outside one, beneath the trees, surrounded by families, friends, other tourists, having an espresso or cafe creme, bags of produce placed carefully at their feet. We had a strong espresso each, and then returned to purchase tomatoes, a bag of apricots, bread, and avocados to contribute to dinner later.
The following Friday we ventured into Carpentras, the town 10 minutes from the house we had been staying in all week. The market in Carpentras is one of the best in Provence (I am told by a friend) and it was easy to see why. Once we had snagged a parking space (quite an achievement) we ventured into the market. Simply put the market takes over the entire town. All the streets are full of vendors and it is not simply food – there are linens, clothing, baskets, ceramics, bags, vinyls, dvds, plants, honey… The town was crowded with people. Families with children tagging at their heels, pushchairs, grannies with white hair and shopping trolleys striking bargains. A mobile rotisserie was slowing roasting whole chickens, and deep frying potato chips.
Garlic was woven together in large bunches, to string up in one’s kitchen. Olives, nuts, dried fruits glistened in the sunlight. Coriander, mint, parsley, basil were sold in fresh bunches, the wind blowing their fresh scent into our noses with every gust. Every kind of tomato was for sale. The sheer colours and shapes and sizes made me giddy. Courgettes of every kind too. Goats cheese was out for sampling. And everywhere, people.
It was the sense of food and community that I felt most in these markets. They drew everyone of all ages and backgrounds to them. I can’t help but be jealous of the locals who can shop there every week, and think of how wonderful it must be to be able to visit such an environment regularly and build relationships with vendors. I guess these markets form my French food moment, although of a different kind than a revelatory meal – one about food and community, sharing and experiencing. I am already planning another trip to the south, just so I can shop at food markets like these again.