Of all the things I love about living in France, buying groceries at the outdoor market is the one that feels most French. I’ve written about it many times, but again on Saturday I was struck by just how gorgeous it all is. The colors, the smells, the artful arrangements that create still lifes wherever you look.
Even better, because they’re edible!
Flat peaches have arrived, and asparagus is hanging on. The weather has been record-setting wet, which has helped them.
A mountain of cherries. I thought the flags were a nice touch. And other cherries below–“pigeon heart” and Napoleon, I think.
Green beans grown locally…they have three kinds: green, “butter” and cocos, which are a kind of flat bean.
It’s all so pretty…
There are even zucchini with their flowers.
The roasted chicken vendor draws a long line.
The sausage seller promised one kind was “spicy, spicy, no fat, diet!” In English, even!
Sheep’s cheese from the mountains…
Everybody was in such a good mood. The World Cup has started, which invigorates the football fans, the weather is gorgeous at last, and summer is here.
Artichokes are intimidating. Not the meek hearts, already cleaned and cooked and ready to use from the can. Those were the only kind I knew for most of my life, usually as a stand-in for spring in pizza quattro stagioni–four seasons pizza, which, thanks to the artichokes, I thought was the most elegant pizza of all. Artichokes, even those in cans, were exotic and expensive and not something we ate growing up. I eventually experienced a steamed artichoke, which involved pulling off the leaves, dipping them in a lemony, garlicky butter and pulling the leaves between my teeth to scrape off the essence of artichoke. But it seemed to me to be awfully similar to snails and, I hear, frogs’ legs–things that don’t taste that great on their own and are essentially a garlic-butter delivery system. (I can only go on the Carnivore’s word regarding frogs’ legs; when we were dating, the first time I looked into his freezer, I saw a bag of them and nearly fainted and that was the end of amphibians in the kitchen.)At French markets in spring, artichokes accompany asparagus as the first vegetables of spring. Peas appear later. Tomatoes and the rest of the cornucopia don’t make their entrance until June at best. After all, it’s risky to plant a garden before the ice saints.
The market stalls are piled high with pyramids of myriad kinds of artichokes. Purple, green, long, perfectly round….how to choose? As the Carnivore and I finished up our marketing on Saturday, we decided to be daring. (Artichokes are old hat for the Carnivore, but the steamed and bathed in butter version…or hearts, again bathed in butter, and served with lamb.) Seeing a little old lady grab a bouquet of artichokes, then a second bouquet, I decided to follow suit. Market tip: If you aren’t sure whether the produce is good, observe what little old ladies are buying, because they actually know how to cook. But the way to pick artichokes is similar to other produce: they should feel heavy, full and firm–which shows they are fresh and not old and dried out. It was the end of the market, and we were given even more artichokes by the vendor, who didn’t want to be bothered with leftovers. (Another market tip: haggling isn’t done, at least not at the food market, but you’re likely to get extras at the end of the market.)
The next challenge was what to do with our personal pyramid of artichokes. I checked all my go-to French food sources: David Lebovitz, who gives a good step-by-step guide to trimming artichokes down to the hearts. (By the way, I made his asparagus mimosa for Sunday lunch and it was AWESOME.)You can see a good drawing of the anatomy of an artichoke here. In French, the heart is called le fond, which also means the bottom, the crux or the base. And the choke–the fluff that grows out of the heart–is called foin, or straw. Just to make things confusing consider this: the artichoke heart melts in your mouth: le fond d’artichaut fond dans la bouche. Yup, fond also is the third person present tense for fondre, or to melt. I love French.
I decided to do a few whole artichokes à la Mimi Thorisson, with her recipe for stuffed artichokes. I had extra stuffing, which I put on top of some chicken breasts and baked along with the artichokes (on a separate sheet, on the rack above the artichokes for a little steaming action). Delicious! The rest of the artichokes would be mostly sacrificed for their hearts. Following the advice of David Lebovitz, as well as Le Monde’s Chef Simon and Cuisine Actuelle, which wisely suggested wearing gloves–artichokes can turn your hands a surprisingly tenacious color. I wanted to use the recipe by Carcassonne native Prosper Montagné in his book “Les Délices de la Table ou les Quatre Saisons Gourmandes.” He has several, and I went for Lyonnaise-style quarters of artichoke hearts.
Montagné suggests cooking the artichoke hearts “à blanc,” which sent me down another rabbit hole. Everybody emphasizes rubbing your artichoke (heart or whole) with lemon juice to keep it from oxidizing and turning unattractively black, the way avocados do. To “cook something white” involves blanching it in a mixture that contains acid (vinegar or lemon juice), fat (oil or butter) and flour. The acid does its anti-oxidizing duties while the flour forms a barrier to light and the fat makes a protective film that seals the artichoke (or other food) from air. Go figure.My buddy Chef Simon gives a good explanation of les blancs, with proportions, kind of. Prosper Montagné also has a mix for unecuisson à blanc: 1.5 cups of water, juice of half a lemon and a spoon (no indication of how big) of oil. I used Simon’s version, which had more water (2 liters) and also a pinch of salt and a spoon of flour. First, mix the flour with a little cold water, adding more little by little to avoid lumps, then the rest of the ingredients and bring to a boil.The Lyonnaise style involves cutting the hearts into quarters, cooking finely minced onion in butter until translucent and setting the hearts on top, then adding a cup of white wine. Cook until the liquid is reduced, then add 1.5 cups of veal broth and cook, covered, for 45 minutes. Talk about melt in your mouth.
Beauty can take so many forms. The voluptuous lusciousness of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting; her magnificently lined face photographed in her later years. The plump, kissable cheeks of a baby; the undulating starkness of the Sahara’s sands. The south of France has both extremes of beauty–the soft and the rugged. Right now, we’re in the soft season.Douceur in French means both softness and sweetness, which captures the spirit of spring in France. The air is perfect–as our kid remarked, it’s just right no matter what you’re wearing, whether a T-shirt or a sweater. It’s richly scented with newly cut grass and so, so many flowers blooming. We want to fill our lungs greedily with this nectar. Even though our winters are far from insufferable, we gorge on spring as if at a banquet after a famine.
The trees have mostly filled out with leaves, changing their shape from Giacometti sculptures to something more in the style of Botero. The platanes that were heavily pruned stay bare a while longer, with little tufts of green looking somewhat ridiculous on such big trunks. The vineyards are the same–pruned down to a single vine per stump, little leaves popping out in single file, catching the sun like emeralds.
The architecture and engineering of an anthill, bigger than my fist. How did they make such a perfectly round tower, with perfectly round entries?We take our time to savor the market, noting the appearance of each new player on the season’s stage. Bernard, the strawberry man, is back, attracting a line of customers, many of whom he greets by name, not having forgotten during the winter break. Promises of summer show up from Spain and Morocco in the form of melons and tomatoes. It’s so hard to wait, but we will hold out; flavor doesn’t travel well.The cafés are full…outside. The locals greet each other with kisses; the wide-eyed tourists take it all in, probably wondering (judging by the number of people toting both cameras and real estate brochures) whether maybe they, too, should move here for the sweet life.
Living in France has changed my cooking and eating habits. Sure, the French have amazing packaged, ready-to-eat foods lining the aisles of the hypermarchés. And somebody is buying all that stuff–according to the Ministry of Agriculture, the French in 2010 (latest figures) spent 53 minutes a day preparing meals, vs. 71 minutes a day in 1986, while le snacking (seriously, they used that term) increased almost 11% between 2014 and 2015.
Our kid has remarked on the predominance of ready-made dishes at friends’ homes. Admittedly, it’s challenging to whip up a meal from scratch in under half an hour. Challenging but not impossible. It requires planning, and if your bandwidth is taken up by things like work, then maybe home cooking is a thought too much.
On the other hand, cooking from scratch doesn’t always take that much more time than using prepared packages. Cakes and moelleux au chocolat (aka brownies) are a prime example. And cooking from scratch is cheaper and healthier.Years ago, I took a guided hiking tour in Morocco with Nouvelles Frontières. I was the only non-French person. Our equipment and food traveled separately from us, on donkey-back, with tents set up and meals ready when we’d arrive at the next campsite. We sat cross-legged in a circle on the ground, and the cook would serve up the first course, always soup. We’d pass the bowls around until everyone had one, then would taste. One day I was at the far end, and got my bowl of soup first. I did what I’d seen the others do each day: I drew in a long breath over my bowl, then reflected aloud, “Quelles épices?”(which spices), which drew much laughter. The composition of every dish was the launching point of every dinnertime conversation, branching out from minute analysis of the spices to the ingredients and methods of preparation, and sometimes spinning into arguments about which region of France had the best butter or whether one region’s salt was superior to another’s. I had never heard so much intense discussion and debate about food. Every. Single. Day.
I loved it.
Our kid has absorbed this French obsession about food and is a talented and opinionated cook, declaring the other day, “When I have my own place, I’ll know I’ve succeeded if nothing I buy has labels.” Think about it–vegetables from farmers; cheese from cheesemongers or cheesemakers; bread from the baker; meat from the butcher, trimmed before your eyes; fish with the head still on from the fishmonger (OK, I will skip that one. I can’t eat anything that looks at me). We already mostly eat that way, except the fancy cheese is a special treat, not a regular habit. Even milk can come without packaging.
Much of our produce comes from local farmers, but we do buy some imports–oranges, pineapples, off-season vegetables….I just read that the U.S. imports 53% of fresh fruit and 31% of fresh vegetables. The figures for France are similar: 40% of fruits and vegetables are imported, notably produce that doesn’t grow here, such as bananas and avocados. However, the French article notes that domestic production has dropped. I do wonder about that, with all the housing developments and shopping centers taking over prime farmland. Once paved over, it will produce food no more.
Everybody likes fresh food but sometimes the French take it to another level.
When I first moved here, I noticed the utter chaos at the supermarkets on the day before a long holiday weekend. Shops at that time closed on Sunday and holidays (the custom is starting to chip away, but still, most stores stay closed). A friend explained that people waited until the last minute to shop so the food would be fresh.
Baguettes are bought daily, and most bakeries make them throughout the morning if not all day, so they’re fresh. Bread that’s straight from the oven is a different thing than something that’s been made off-site, packaged in plastic, and trucked to the store. If the baguettes are still hot, you have to buy two, because one is sure to be consumed before it gets home.But the thing I find most charming are the vegetables. Most of the local vendors at the Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday market pick the day before. They’ll even tell you that the asparagus, for example, was cut the night before (that’s in spring, when it’s in season, not now). And then there are things that come to market still alive. Like the endives, growing in pallets, and customers pick themselves.
Or the snails and chickens.
Or the herbs sold in pots because cut wouldn’t be as fresh.
There are orchards and berry farms where you can pick your own, too.
Unlike some parts of the globe, we are not under a thick blanket of snow. In fact, we are having unseasonably warm temperatures in the 60s (usually winter temperatures are in the 30s to the 50s), along with buckets of rain from storms Carmen and Eleanor (in a week!). So we get fresh local vegetables throughout the winter–a million kinds of squash; root vegetables like carrots, turnips, parsnips, beets, celery root; brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, spinach, Swiss chard. Eating what’s seasonal is best for nutritional value as well as for the environment. And it ensures we eat a constantly changing variety of foods. Depending on where one lives, it isn’t always possible–when the ground is frozen and covered with snow, nothing is growing. But where the climate allows, such as in France and much of southern Europe, the garden produces all year.
Between batches of savory curry madeleines (better not frozen), I am pounding out this post. The process of cooking is taking longer than I expected because of mechanical difficulties. I have one madeleine mold, which I bought 20 years ago when I was living in Brussels and spending weekends in Paris and figuring that I’d be back in the U.S. in a year and wouldn’t it be cute to have something so quintessentially French? And then I more or less stayed and had easy access to excellent madeleines and I focused instead on making things I couldn’t get here–Mexican food–and never made madeleines until a couple of weeks ago.
I don’t see a point in buying another madeleine mold; as good as these curry-cheese madeleines are, I don’t expect to make them all the time, much less a double batch.
And since the madeleines stick ever so slightly, I have to wash the mold between batches. (I tried oil, butter, butter and flour, but the madeleines still cling to the supposedly nonstick mold.)It takes forever!
Do you ever have crises like that?
I don’t consider it a huge crisis. I wanted everything to be done today, and I still think it’s possible.
Meanwhile, some local color. The Carcassonne Christmas market officially opens tomorrow, though it has been set up for a while.
Here are some photos from last year.
Complete rundown of the party, recipes, photos and how-to coming Tuesday!!! Promise!
Why go to an air-conditioned supermarket when you can buy most of what you need from local producers under the shade of plane trees, and stop for a coffee or apéritif with friends at a café terrace afterward?
The Saturday morning market is the high point of my week. It’s a sensory cornucopia. It’s practical. It’s social. It’s the heart of la belle vie française. It’s part of the French savoir-vivre–knowing how to live. Because making your errands enjoyable, social moments of beauty and pleasure is the way to live the good life simply.
Many–not all–of the stands are local producers. That means the person who grew the food is standing there selling it to you. They increasingly are going bio, or organic, but it involves lots of paperwork that some don’t want to deal with. As a friend told me when I first arrived in Carcassonne, most of the people in the region are way too cheap to use a drop more fertilizer or pesticide than they absolutely have to and will go without whenever possible. So I don’t sweat the bio label and just stick to the locals.
Although I might have a list of things I need, it’s short–along the lines of don’t forget garlic. Instead, the best way to shop the market is to listen to the market. It will tell you what’s in season.
Earlier this summer, cherries. No more.
The other tip is to go early, which I often am guilty of not doing. You get the best choice, it’s less crowded, and it’s important not to hurry. Take the time to assess the produce, and also to assess the protocol of each stand. Some serve you and get riled if you touch anything. These usually have lines, and cutting will bring the wrath of the regulars down upon you. Others are a jostling jungle requiring you to reach between arms and torsos to get at the pile of produce and then to get the attention of the vendor to weigh it and to pay.
Figs. So delicate. To avoid smashing them, just buy and shove directly into mouth.
First, walk around the entire market. It’s the best way to gauge what is bountiful at the moment. The vendors usually align prices, but you might see that one has particularly good-looking beans, or another has a bumper crop of zucchini for a bargain.If you say hello and smile, and if the stand isn’t too busy, the vendor will likely start up a conversation, or join in one if you initiate. That’s where magic happens, where you get a family recipe or a really good idea for dinner or a restaurant recommendation–sometimes from the vendor but sometimes from other market-goers picking out their produce next to you. And if the vendor likes you, you’ll be rewarded with a bunch of parsley as a gift, or an extra onion, or some such.
Goat versions of popular cheeses. Note the two-month-old tomme on the right; there are different ages, all marked.
Many stands offer samples–taste the melon, the ham, the hard sausage, the cheese. A good way to discover. It’s how I learned that ugly flat peaches are amazing.
Charlottes. Because there are MANY kinds of strawberries, all different.
I have a rollerbag for my purchases; they’re just too heavy to carry in baskets, and the car is parked blocks away. I start at the strawberry stand, because sometimes they sell out before the market ends at noon. Being a regular has its advantages–Bernard, the vendor, will hold my strawberries for me while I do my other shopping.
From Marseillette, a cute village near Carcassonne that had a big etang, or shallow lake. The water was drained in 1851 to reduce mosquitoes, and the land is particularly rich for farming rice and fruit.
Next I try to buy the heavy stuff, like carrots and melons, that can withstand having the other produce piled on top. Then the fruit like nectarines and peaches, which are heavy but risk bruising. Then light but sturdy things like peppers or lettuce. Finally, the delicate items, with the tomatoes and then the strawberries on top. It means I ricochet around the market like a pinball, rather than circling it. Drives the Carnivore nuts.
They taste like they’ve already been buttered.
The other thing to appreciate at the market is the variety. Half a dozen kinds of artichokes. And zucchini. And tomatoes. And eggplant. Sometimes it’s aesthetic, but often there are real taste differences, and the vendor will explain if you ask. White eggplant, I recently learned, is milder and less bitter than the dark purple kind. And don’t get me started on the differences among varieties of tomatoes. Or strawberries.
Prices at the French market tend to be lower than at the supermarket; the farmers’ markets I’ve been to in the U.S. have often been a lot more expensive than the local supermarkets. The market produce isn’t as uniform, and it might still sport dirt or bugs from the field, but to me those are qualities, not faults. They are proof that it was grown without a lot of chemical intervention.
Potted and cut flowers
When I first shopped at an outdoor market, in Africa, I learned to use my senses to pick produce. How does it feel? Firm? Soft? Unripely hard? How does it smell? The strawberry stand is smelled before it’s seen. As it should be. The best way to pick a pineapple (admittedly not grown locally) is to sniff it. I have no idea how to choose produce that’s wrapped–hidden–in plastic.
Every town and many villages have markets, and the days will be posted someplace in town (for example, signs saying no parking on X days for market). They’re always in the morning; you snooze, you lose (OK, some tourist spots have night markets. But forget about afternoon). Carcassonne’s central square, Place Carnot, has a small market on Tuesdays, a bigger one on Thursdays and the big blowout on Saturdays. It’s not just for fruits, vegetables, ham and cheese; there’s an indoor meat/cheese/fish market two blocks away, and a housewares/clothes market two blocks further. See you there.
Ham…just as well it’s wrapped up. But tastings are available.
Last week, the news was full of about how bad weather in Spain and Italy had hurt vegetable crops, sending prices skyrocketing.
I have to admit that I had picked up a few courgettes (zucchini) at the market and then dropped them as if stung by a bee when the vendor informed me the price was €7.50 a kilo. In summer, courgettes sell for €1 a kilo. My fault for wanting something out of season.
Because we live in an area where frost is rare and the ground doesn’t freeze in winter, fresh local produce is available year-round. But it means forgetting about zucchini and tomatoes.
At the Saturday market I gathered photos from my favorite maraîchers, or vendors, who also grow all their own produce. There’s plenty of variety, even in the dead of winter.
Take radishes. There are the red variety, like the first photo. But also black or blue.
What do you do with these giants? You can dice them up in a soup or slice or grate them to eat raw in a salad. Speaking of salad, there are many kinds of lettuce and such, including piles of single leaves of roquette (rocket or arugula), cresson (watercress), chicorée (chicory) frisée (curly endive) or escarole but not iceberg. No loss there.
I don’t count lettuce as a vegetable. It’s like a condiment, a nice thing to eat on the side, a crisp break between the main course and the cheese course, but you still need a vegetable, or you need to eat a truckload of lettuce. The Carnivore argues that a few tired* leaves of laitue are all you need, and that fish, poultry, eggs and dairy could possibly count as vegetables because they aren’t meat. Logical.
We even have kale in Carcassonne. Moving up in the world.
Kale may be new and trendy in France, but cabbage comes in many varieties and is cheap.
Did you know that calling somebody a cabbage is a term of endearment? Mon chou and p’tit chou are like saying “honey.” (Don’t call anybody miel in French!) The teacher’s pet is the chouchou. And a petit bout de chou is a small child.
Topinambour, or sunchoke, can substitute for potatoes, and are prepared the same way.
Alain and Juliette Fumanel‘s stand is another favorite. M. Fumanel is known to all as “Fufu,” and usually is in highly amusing conversation with his many friends and clients. And Mme. Fumanel is always very elegant. I go directly to their farm near Pont Rouge in summer for tomatoes and the other vegetables I put in my tomato sauce.
Check back on Friday for a special recipe using a purchase from the market: Swiss chard.
*Re “tired” lettuce: some people like to “fatigue” the salad by dressing it a few hours before the meal, so it isn’t as crisp. They actually do it on purpose.
The decorations are up. The shoppers are out. And, for the kids, the Magic of Noël is in full swing.
The rides for the littlest ones are concentrated at Parc André Chenier, next to the Canal du Midi. The city put up an appropriately impressive entrance, and the whole thing is ringed in, I suppose for security. But it’s also a good idea as far as limiting escape routes for little ones who wander off.
My favorite has kids in the kindergarten-and-below range atop reindeer that bounce at a stately pace along a rail that winds through a forest of flocked Christmas trees. I could stand there all day watching their faces full of excitement. But between the trees and the bouncing not one of my photos came out.
The skating rink at Place Carnot in the center of Carcassonne has grown over the years, now wrapping around the statue of poor shirtless Neptune atop his fountain, which is covered with fake icicles. Temperatures have been in the mid-60s this week.
Even the skating rink has a tough time of it, with one corner that gets a bit more sun tending to melt into slush. Check out the skater in a tank top!
Around the skating rink, chalets sell potential Christmas presents, from light-up skateboards to handmade leather belts to jewelry to scarves, as well as food and drink.
The chalets and rink have displaced the market, but they make a festive backdrop. It feels like a big party. Maybe because the chalets, and the cafés around the square, are about taking a break from shopping, about meeting up with friends. A little respite from consumerism.
Living in France has overturned some of my long-held principles, including but not limited to a strong opposition to mushrooms.
Growing up, mushrooms were those rubbery bits that came out of a can, often in a thick, white “cream” sauce. They squeaked when you bit them. Irredeemably revolting.
I eventually made peace with raw mushrooms, and then opened up to others. (Chanterelles? YES. Truffles? Double YES.) The variety of mushrooms here is just amazing. According to the Société Mycologique de France, the country has 1,384 edible mushroom varieties out of about 16,000 species; 514 are toxic or deadly. The society has a semi-useful chart that matches the scientific name with the common French name.
We play it safe and buy our mushrooms at the market. Our No. 1 favorite, shown in the top photo, are thelactaires, also known as roussillous or russulacées, or, more specifically, the lactaire délicieux. Yup. The Latin name is Lactarius deliciosus, so it’s official.
If you think the name sounds related to milk, you are right–they emit a milky substance when the cap or spores are broken. Since the name of the Milky Way in French is la voie lactée, somehow my mind puts these mushrooms amid the stars, which I find fitting, because they are heaven on a plate.
There are a couple of ways to cook lactaires: straight up in butter or in a persillade of chopped parsley, garlic and butter. Here’s how:
Step 1: Clean them. You might notice that the wild mushrooms pictured above have pine needles and grass and dirt on them. Wipe off the tops with a damp paper towel and gently brush the underneath. Be gentle! Set them out to dry.
Step 2: cut off the bottoms of the stems. You can chop up the rest of the steps to cook.
Step 3.: Make your persillade, if you’re going that route: Finely chop a small bunch of parsley and a couple of garlic cloves.
Step 4: Melt some butter (don’t be stingy) in a frying pan over medium heat. Prepare yourself for amazing fragrance. They smell a little like a white cake baking. They don’t taste sweet, but the flavor is delicate. Cook stem-side up. Don’t turn.
They’re done when they’re hot and have browned ever so slightly. We had them with pan-fried steak, roasted tomatoes (we still get garden tomatoes!) and little grenaille potatoes.
What you see in the pan above set us back about €4 (they were €13 per kilo, down from €14 the week before).
And now for a few beautiful, but not-for-humans, mushroom marvels:
The next one looked for all the world like a Thumbelina version of a chopped-down tree:
This one was also very flat, but the top glowed translucent, like polished stone:
While these might not be comestible, it looked like somebody had been nibbling: