A taste of Provence
Winter’s frozen mornings keep locals here hibernating unless, of course, it is market day. In the Haute-Pyrenees, an area of about 4500 sq km (New Zealand is 268,000sq km), there are 23 weekly markets servicing some 420 villages and around 250,000 inhabitants.
The market is home to artisan-produced foods, many of whose creators just eke out a living; happy souls doing what they love. A good hour from our home in Caixon is Luz-Saint-Sauveur, a charming alpine village where market day is Monday, in winter a quiet affair. (The village is the starting point for the taxing Col du Tourmalet leg of the Tour de France.)
Given it was about one degree at 10am, when I arrived, the low numbers in attendance were not surprising. The odd open-sided peddler’s van was parked in the side streets, while a few stalls in the centre square hugged the frosted ramparts of the 11th century Templar church.
I could imagine a summer market would be an explosion of colour and noise. It’s in these off-the-beaten-track villages — the ones about which tourist guides offer only a cursory mention — that you find the real locals.
Beret-topped old men queue at the fromagier for Brebis or at the boucherie for blood sausage or gesiers (gizzards). One or two sit in the morning sun, with newspaper and cigarette, while the women clutch together to pass on village gossip.
It’s a France of exceptional character. With vin-chaud in hand, I wander the stalls. The dried mushrooms are so expensive the man will accept credit card payment, while his neighbour, the vege seller, insists I give him the correct change right down to the three cents — s’il vous plait!
At the markets (and most supermarkets) chickens are most commonly bought whole, head on and offal inside. My kids love the idea of buying food like this, though while they can cope with the head, the offal is not on their culinary bucket list just yet.
We buy poultry that features the label rouge. These are birds raised under a free-range programme developed by the government and must adhere to strict criteria including traditional breeds and growth hormone-free cereal feed. They are killed at around twice the age of factory birds.
As a result, chicken breast portions — always sold here without skin — have a fine flesh the colour of pink grapefruit (pictured above). For a cook, they are of exceptional quality, well flavoured with a firm texture. Buying the portions from the local store holder, complete with a jig-sawed conversation in Franglaise is a delight.
Fresh herbs are at a minimum at this time of year, with nothing on offer much beyond parsley. A large bunch is usually handed over to most customers when they buy vegetables — gratuit. Having not had the required three cents, I was not so lucky!
The spice seller, who also keeps a varied selection of tea and tisanes, has many spice blends for winter cooking which catch my eye. All are blended to her own recipe and sold in small cellophane bags tied with colourful ribbon — no packaging obligations or use-by date required.
It’s interesting how in our busy city lives, driven by speed and trend, we seem to have a penchant for only fresh herbs, dried herbs being considered passe. There’s no way in these villages, frozen in for many months of the year, that fresh herbs much beyond sage, bay and wild thyme would be available.
Dried herbs are part and parcel of the Pyrenean kitchen, as they are in many other areas of France. Picking up a Provencal blend of marjoram, thyme, lavender and bay, I created this delightful chicken dish.
Use a shallow-style dish — called a tian in Provence — so the chicken will brown beautifully while cooking quickly. With a summer salad or winter greens, this is an ideal midweek dish for entertaining.
If you are making and using straight away, add the grated rind of a lemon. Change the proportions as wished. A generous pinch of paprika or piment d’Espelette will add a spicy note. Get the recipe