by Angela Billows•10th March 2011
I live in a small town in Provence called Tarascon with my husband ‘The Artist’ and my two Scotty dogs, Molly and Ralph. The town is halfway between Avignon and Arles and is situated along the river Rhône approximately 100 kms north from Marseilles.
As I am writing, it is Tuesday, the day of our market and I’m off to do my weekly shopping. I buy as much as I can in the market; I enjoy the repartee with the vendors and getting their advice on how to cook things a la Provençal. Besides food you can get most of what you need in the market from beds to phone chargers and everything else in between.
Tarascon is not on the tourist map, and we don’t have much of an Anglo expatriate community, so the market caters to the people who live here, as opposed to tourists, like some of the neighbouring markets. It has a large Moroccan community and you can get Moroccan spices, tea, bread, pastries, fresh mint, coriander and parsley all the year round.
Sadly most of the vegetable vendors are no longer the producers, as they traditionally were; they buy their fruit and vegetables from a large depot at St Etienne du Grès (about 4 kms away) and are often more concerned about the price than the quality.
Having said that, there are a few Artisanal, traditional food producers, left in the market and these are who I buy my food from. There is an old lady who sells eggs, goat and sheep’s cheeses and whatever fruit that is in season from her land. I’ve been buying her eggs and fromage de chevre, ever since we’ve lived here. At the moment her grand daughter is helping her at her market stall, but she tells me that when she stops working, there will be no one to take over. Neither her daughter, nor her granddaughter are interested in taking on the huge amount of work that goes into producing a few eggs and cheeses and it is no longer cost effective to do so. She tells me she lives on a farm outside Arles in the Camargue where she and her husband have horses, goats, sheep and chickens. They do all the work themselves, milking the animals, making the cheese, collecting the eggs etc. and, as she says, they are not so young anymore. I tell her I would like to visit her farm, but she says her husband has said no more visitors; it takes up too much time from their work and the vet has advised against it. I’m determined to get her to make an exception in my case!
There’s a man from outside Saint Remy who displays his vegetables randomly on the trestle table in front of him; they are muddy and look like he just pulled them from the earth. A woman passing by asks f they’re untreated or not and he replies ‘presque ‘ (almost), whatever that means. I buy a cabbage, and it is definitely not treated with pesticides, the outside leaves have been nibbled by something very hungry, and I also buy some baby leeks.
As it’s still quite cold, there’s not a great deal of choice in the market. One of the vendors tells me that we’re still a good three weeks away from the first of the spring vegetables. There are already asparagus and artichokes for sale, but they are expensive and imported from Spain and Italy. There’s little to choose from beyond cabbages, cauliflowers, carrots, leeks and onions and pumpkin, if you want to stay local produce.
We have a great Poissonier (fishmonger) in the market, who sells mainly fish caught by a co-op in the nearby Le Grau du Roi. They have different fish every week, depending on the catch. They always have a mixture of fish pour la soupe, (fish soup) as well as mackerel, eel, grondin, monkfish, cod, coley, sole and various other fish that I have to look up in the dictionary when I get home.
There is a man who sells oysters, mussels and sea urchin from Sète, which is 125 kms away. I buy a dozen oysters from him for €4.50. Next to him is a woman selling Tellines, which are tiny clams which come from the Camargue; they are sweet and delicious cooked for a minute in their shells and then doused with olive oil, parsley and garlic and served with an apero (aperitif).
There is also a couple that sell free-range chicken, duck and rabbits, which they raise themselves. If you buy a chicken from them, it will come with its head and feet still attached unless you ask them to chop them off (I keep them for the dogs). You can get lovely chicken livers from them to pan fry and throw in a salad or turn into a paté.
On my way home I pass a man who sells tomatoes; he’s there all the year round and I presume he grows them in one of those huge poly-tunnels. Sometimes, I think I’m looking at a lake, but then realise it is a field of shimmering poly-tunnels, which you see all over the countryside around us. He also sells mesclun, mache and baby spinach, which are fairly generic round here, but he has something I haven’t seen before, it looks like pissenlit, (dandelion) but its called Moure de Porc. He tells me it’s a plant that grows wild in the craggy hilltops of the Alpilles. His wife tells me it has a very delicate flavour, much milder than dandelion and is good with eggs or in a salad mixed with other leaves. You can also blanch it, I am told, and eat it with an omelette and is meant to be very good for you. I decide to buy some to try it for myself.
Later when I get home, The Artist and I share 6 oysters, which we eat on the half shell with lemon and Tabasco and vinaigre d échalotes. I then make an omelette de Moure de Porc. The leaves don’t have a huge amount of taste, maybe they are better served raw. The next day I will cook the rest of the oysters in the oven topped with breadcrumbs mixed with butter, garlic, parsley and a dash of pastis!
Bon apetit a tout le monde!