Every Friday the main avenue in town becomes unrecognizable. Colourful stalls flank the streets and marketgoers fill the space with their hustle and bustle and vivacity. A profusion of seasonal vegetables and fruit, cheese and breads, saucissons and olives are on display. The scents of saffron rice and roast chicken mingle with the freshly fried Acras Croquettes. There is a general hubbub of market noise; the jocular jambon man calls to you to a sample of slice of sausage studded with hazelnuts, while sharing a joke with the lady selling artisan breads - I stop to take his photo instead. People stand in the middle of the street to catch up with neighbours they haven’t seen all week. There are dogs and pushchairs to navigate. Flowers to buy, and at this time of year, trays of luscious vegetable seedlings calling you to plant them.
Head and toe of the central food avenue, there are lines of stalls selling Marseillan soaps, handmade baskets, colourful beads and little brass Ganesh statues from India. If you need a new mattress or maybe your knives sharpened then this is your place. Bags and belts, tablecloths and saucepans. All negotiations are serenaded by an eclectic selection of jazz and blues played by the music man selling old vinyl and CDs.
Market days are an unwritten part of the French constitution. Most towns have a market day once a week allocated by the Mairie. Even during lockdown the market remains open, deemed an essential part of everyday life. Our market is one of the best in the region and it’s only an Episode Cévenol, i.e. serious rain, that will keep the market goers at bay. Every Friday folk from up and down the mountains and around and about make a weekly pilgrimage to buy their olives and cheese, their fruit and veg. Perhaps treat themselves to a barquette of Paella or buy their favourite local honey, mine is miel de bruyère, dark amber, the taste of the Cévennes with its deep woodiness tempered by soft floral notes. And of course, it’s THE place to hear the local news.
Summer time the market swells and spills into adjacent streets as the tourists bring welcome business. More stands appear – local artisans come to sell their carefully handcrafted ceramics and brightly handwoven mats and baskets. Different languages merge to create a mellifluous music of its own. It’s hot and crowded but with a wonderful convivial atmosphere. Serious market goers know to visit early before the sun and the crowds become too much and force to you take a more leisurely approach, taking pause under the shade of the plane trees with a cold beer in hand and listen to the jazz trio playing for your pleasure.
When I visit the market, it makes me want to cook. As I queue for my turn at my preferred vegetable stall, a whole myriad of possibilities and ideas for recipes come to mind. The new potatoes still shrouded in soil, in my minds eye are steamed, garnished with salty butter with a sprinkling of chopped rosemary and a smush of fresh purple garlic, the ones piled high in the basket at the front. The glossy aubergines become a sweet and sultry, chilli spiked pickle for spreading on well, just about anything. And I certainly can’t resist those shameless red peppers that are crying out to be roasted with lashings of olive oil, capers and thyme and then tossed into a bouquet of green and purple salads. Choose any three lettuces for just 2 euros - I simply cannot resist.
As I daydream about future dinners I miss my chance and Madame to the side of me has sensed my lack of purpose and has moved in for a chat with the vendor. They exchange pleasantries, talk about the weather and she hands over her basket. In the meantime, I am seduced by the young spinach leaves to my right, and the idea of a spanakopita stuffed full of the afore mentioned spinach and maybe some of that chard, laced with a bunch of fresh mint becomes a real possibility. It’s the vegetable stand that gets me every time.
April is of course asparagus season and I cannot talk about the market in April without a special mention. There are no shortage of stalls selling bottes of this delicious vegetable, white, purple or green, fat or thin. I love it every which way. It’s a relatively short season, so reason enough not to feel guilty about indulging ourselves. They are Spring in vegetable form. Single minded, pushing up through the Earth, ready to be harvested whilst still sweet and tender. I steam them, griddle, roast and bake them. Eat them raw in spring salads, and dip them into poached eggs. We dine on addictive creamy asparagus risotto, seasoned with copious amounts of parmesan and black pepper. As the season gets well underway and we become less precious about them, a small serving of soup either hot, rich and buttery or cold minty and green becomes a starter to every meal.
The market is a place where seasonality rules. From Asparagus and precious Gariguette strawberries in Spring, to the sweetest Coeur de boeuf tomatoes ripened by the Summer sun, and delicious cantaloupe melons. Not forgetting prized Cèpes foraged from the surrounding chestnut and pine forests in early Autumn and small honeyed Muscat grapes grown on the plains below. Each season offers its own gifts and the market is the place to find them. That anticipatory feel as you approach market with an empty basket knowing it will soon be full of delicious locally grown seasonally produce is a buzz that I will always enjoy.
A recipe for Asparagus and Goats Cheese Tart
A delicious, simple Spring tart. Especially good when eaten warm and from the oven and accompanied with salad leaves dressed with a thick Dijon dressing
1 small bunch of dill
1 egg, beaten
1 perlardon fresh goats cheese
1 tablespoon of crème fraiche
Zest from 1 lemon
Salt and Pepper
1 block or sheet of puff pastry
Pre-heat the oven 180°C
Roll out or lay the sheet pastry on some greaseproof paper and score a border 1cm in, around the edge. Pop onto a baking sheet.
Brush the border all over with a little of the beaten egg. Mix the crème fraiche, egg, dill, salt and pepper in a bowl.Spread over the base of the pastry.
Place the asparagus spears, in lines on top of the crème fraiche mixture.Slice the goats cheese and pop onto asparagus and finish with a good grinding of black pepper.
Bake in the oven for 25-30 minutes
Remove from the oven, slice and enjoy!