If I was in any doubt as to the state or start of Spring a week or so ago, a short sojourn in SW France over Easter has left me pretty sure of its status; Spring has well and truly sprung in this little corner of the world. Wisteria, iris and peony luxuriantly aflower, plum blossom already superseded by the tender green of the trees’ first leaves and the new born lambs resting from their exertions in the fields adjacent to us;
and, in similar vein, the offerings of the local markets are very much those of Spring in its surety. There may be a wide variety of stalls and stallholders to choose from, but the underpinnings of what is on display differ only in the detail - they specialise in what is locally most current and most plentiful.
In this part of France, at this time of year, while the splendid stalks of green chard that have livened up the winter are still in evidence alongside other unsung stars that we have been relying on for the past few months,
we also see, newly arrived: asparagus - the fat, soil-banked, light-deprived, white variety traditionally eaten in this quarter,
the thin sprue so rarely seen in English markets sitting alongside the more usual, to our eyes, fatter green stalks that are beginning to make their presence felt on the UK scene;
tiny artichokes; spinach; pods of peas and broad beans; spring onions; new potatoes; soft young bunches of herbs; fresh garlic - this really is the season for verdancy; the fresh and the green dominate and are bursting with youthful flavour - such a treat now that the winter staples have become a little mono in their tone.
les aillets; garlicky stalks masquerading as the bastard children of leek and spring onion
The market system of France has not undergone the more drastic changes that we have seen in England over the last decades. While the traditions of our larger market towns may have held firm, our local markets have, by and large, been rendered redundant by our habit of using the supermarket and seeking, above all else, convenience in our habits; we are, late in the day, waking up to the fact that we have lost something important when we have lost this local provision. Farmers Markets are attempting to re-build this heritage and habit and I hope that we are learning to use and support our local shops too so that we do not risk losing them in the same way.
It takes a little more time out of our day, perhaps, but it builds relationships and local communities and is so much more gratifying a way to shop - to have experts provide us with great produce, advise us how to use it and help us with the preparation of it - the supermarkets can’t begin to compete on that personal level.
But back to my French choice on a Wednesday morning in early April. There are numerous local towns operating markets on just about every day of the week between them in the particular locale in which we find ourselves. Bergerac seemed a good place to start - because it is beautiful, because its market spreads all around this splendid church,
because it extends, via its lanes and alleyways, into a permanent covered market and to the stalls that appear alongside that and because it happens that one of its market days is Wednesday.
We arrived a little late in the day but managed to come away with enough to keep us going for a day or two. At our last stop not only did we manage to buy everything left that we could possibly need or want but we left with advice on how best our tiny potatoes could be cooked and enjoyed and a few extra garlic cloves and additional herbs and vegetables thrown in to our basket to ensure that we might follow the instruction.
The stalls vary from the all encompassing to the highly specialised; one amongst this latter category comprised an old man, a table, a canopy of sorts, some fresh eggs, a mound of garlic and another of dandelion leaves.
One might ask many questions about this stall one of these being how do you transport a dozen eggs home safely when there are no egg boxes in evidence? The answer lies in this poke of newspaper, expertly folded and twisted and closed with a lid by someone who has done this more than once before.
Another might be (and certainly was for my family) why would you pay hard currency for a bag full of these?
when your back garden looks like this?
The answer to that could be, of course, that once the dandelions have flowered it is too late to harvest the leaves for the purposes of eating, but it is enough for me that someone has already done the job of harvesting and would be grateful for the sale.
You might also ask what to do with a dandelion leaf, in culinary terms? Well, there are a myriad answers to that. We had some, lightly wilted, in a salad dressed with a little balsamic vinegar and we had them baked with potatoes - here is the before,
the after, unfortunately, was hard to photograph as daylight had faded and edf, our electricity supplier, provides ideal conditions for our lumière to be kept low key when we have need to resort to the artificial; but if you can, imagine this dish baked, dusted with a little Parmesan, crisped and made golden under a high heat in its final moments in the oven and then you can perhaps also imagine a little of just how delicious it tasted as an accompaniment to our evening meal.
On Saturday, in need of new supplies, we headed southward to Marmande, which, unlike some of the other big market towns, is pretty much dedicated to produce - no baskets and nicknacks here - this is for those serious about their food.
Famous for its tomatoes in the summer months (they even hold a festival to celebrate their expertise in this area) Marmande hosts a splendid Saturday morning market. The morning was a little damp and cheerless but the market, as always, was buzzing. There was plenty of action going on around the fountain; the youngsters were having fun as we arrived
but by the time we left, an older crowd of hell raisers had arrived and were dominating the space.
What did we find? Well a few early examples of those famous toms for starters
and what will probably be a rare sighting this year of The Vanilla Man
who has little to smile about with news of the disastrous vanilla harvests
and a wealth of other goodies, including these lovely fresh examples.
Finally, with only a couple of days left for our holiday, to Duras,
our most local market town, on Easter Monday morning. The market here is compact compared to the big guns mentioned above although bursting at its seams in high season with all manner of stallholders, but it maintains a steady presence year round.
Our staples on non-market days include: M Evrard, the butcher; Martine at the boulangerie, and Isabelle at the Maison de la Presse who stands in charge of Le SudOuest, a daily digest of the acts and misdemeanours of the locals to which is added a small sprinkling of news from further afield, but it is, perhaps, most important to us for the poetry of its daily weather forecasts (the predictions of which, by dint of proving inaccurate as often as they are the contrary, are always cause for optimism) and for l’éphéméride: the stars, the saints, the sayings of the day which keep us entertained while we breakfast.
My favourites at the market here include those who are regulars no matter what the season: the farmers who take the middle of the covered space and sell fruit and vegetables that have been harvested so recently they have not always had time to give due thought to their appearance, the old lady next to them who sells eggs so fresh that I need to relearn how to manage them for baking purposes, and the Italian chef who had come to this part of France to run a restaurant but who now sells Italian delicacies from his stall that he has mostly made himself.
For lunch after this market we enjoyed a little snack of asparagus roasted with garlic, fresh herbs (bought from the market to plant for the summer season) a few tiny niçoise olives scattered amongst them and all served on yesterday’s toasted bread with a drizzle of olive oil.
And so it is time to bid farewell to La France, farewell to the new born lambs, training to become the great escapologists that their parents have already proved themselves to be,
(they are only supposed to be sitting on the left hand side of this particular fence!)
farewell to the markets and the plum trees, and the vines that are only just showing their very first highly trained shoots; adieu to all this - à la prochaîne fois!
Baiser du Printemps (Spring’s Kiss), by Auguste Moreau
“Au jour de la Sainte-Prudence, s’il fait du vent, le mouton danse” (If it’s windy on St Prudence Day, the silly sheep will dance away): Dicton du jour, SudOuest, 6 avril 2012, le 97ème jour de l’année.