Allyson Gofton in France: Au revoir
Vic-en-Bigorre’s Saturday market is a never-miss weekly event for me, so it seemed appropriate, as our time is up here, that it should be the last place I go before leaving.
Our market, in a village of 4000 people, is one of about 10,000 markets held across France each week. Their everlasting popularity here — and with international tourists — has in recent decades spurred the rise of farmers’ markets in other countries, including New Zealand, though our Kiwi farmers’ markets are tres plus chic in comparison to my local village affair.
For the purveyors of the Vic market, the day begins early, very early. Not one of the main vendors will drive less than an hour to sell their goods. Ali, my fruit and vegetable stallholder, leaves Toulouse, camion packed to overflowing, not long after midnight, arriving here around 4am. There’s enough time to take a quick snooze before establishing his stall with every in-or-out-of-season fruit and vegetable available. His cheerful team, some of whom come with him, others local, pay great attention to how the merchandise is presented; his is a candy shop of colours with only healthy treats.
Next door to him is Jean-Claude, epicerie seller and market bon-vivant, who serves up olives and jokes at several weekly markets in the area. He drives around 125 kilometres from the beautiful town of Agen, where when not at markets, he grows and dries the famed prune d’Agen. He arrives at 6am and it will take him and his assistant two-odd hours to strain the olives from their brine-filled buckets into the stainless-steel presentation bowls for selling. It’s a laborious job that will need to be done again in reverse before leaving.
Beside the olives sit deep bins of jewel-coloured crystallised fruits, every kind of nut — shelled, unshelled, roasted and wasabi coated — pulses and the odd new foods such as dried tomatoes. In summer, he takes two stands to sell his stonefruit, which at this time of the year sell for 2.60 euros per kilogram of perfectly ripe peaches or nectarines.
The market’s cooler north side is home to charcuterie, boucher, poissonnier and fromagier. Quintessential Basque charcutier Jose (photographed below), who comes complete with beret and handlebar moustache, always offers Olive-Rose a shaving of jambon when he spies her scootering around his corner dairy pork store.
Fromagier MOF Dominique Bouchait’s team manoeuvre an enormous fourgon — van — with ease, winding out the shelves to display cheese from almost every district of France and Europe. Behind the display cabinet, three girls will tango around each other all morning selling on average only 250 grams cheese per person, complete with free tasting and conversation.
The poissonnier spends an hour shovelling buckets of ice on to his display counter from 6am, whether it’s a hot summer or snowy winter day, arranging his fish and home-made heat-and-eat goods like an artist’s painting; he’s the first to sell and first to finish.
In between there are dozens of smaller merchants who add so much colour, from the flower sellers, vegetable seedling merchants, craftswomen selling bespoke sacs and scarves to individual sellers of homemade cheeses, breads, cakes and patisserie.
The market slowly eases into life around 8am, though not a lot will be sold until each proprietor takes coffee across the chemin at Vic-en-Bigorre’s Cafe du Famille, your definitive village cafe. To any outsider, the front, with its faded awnings and plastic tables, seems unwelcoming. Step through the door though, and you’re immediately on set at Rene Artois’s Alo’ Alo’ cafe, complete with 1950s turquoise green tongue-and-groove panelling, checked cloth-covered tables and beret-clad, espresso quaffing locals. It is a real-life movie set. As the morning wears on and the market tables empty of produce, the espressos will become biere pression — craft beer — or cafe avec Armagnac and often a emporter — takeaway — back to your stand!
France is attached to its heritage, of which les halles (the market hall) and les marches (the markets) are an integral part. Markets, though, like all aspects of life here, are changing and though they will probably always remain, EU legislation, the arrival of large supermarkets, changing retail hours and a mobile population, will no doubt impact on the traditional ways and rich heritage that can still be experienced in rural areas.
For me, back to buying over-labelled, pre-packed foods in a faceless serve-yourself supermarket falls very short of all the elements that bring pleasure when shopping at a traditional French market, from tasting and choosing, provenance and quality, investing in the community to lastly, but most importantly, chin-wagging and laughter. I’ll miss this place . . .
This potato straw cake was a permanent fixture at Royalty, my favourite Cafe du The in Tarbes. It is normally served plain to accompany main course dishes, though I liked to jazz it up with toppings — whatever you prefer — and serve alongside a salad in summer.
At Jean-Claude’s I would buy, lush, honeyed moelleux prunes, which are plums only dried to 33 per cent moisture as opposed to the standard 10 per cent, resulting in a truer plum taste and a fleshier texture that soaks up alcohol well. Find the softest prunes you can for this recipe.