Having spent a good part of August driving around France, I am happy to report that provincial markets are as lively and eccentric as ever. From the stacked rows …
|No dead ducks, just dead geese at the marché au gras in Samatan.|
Having spent a good part of August driving around France, I am happy to report that provincial markets are as lively and eccentric as ever. From the stacked rows of fresh fruit and vegetables at the Cluny Saturday market in Burgundy to the extreme tackiness of the Sunday market in the shadow of the Saint Sernin Basilica in Toulouse to the extraordinary array of livestock in the Samatan Monday animal market in the Gers, no visitor to the deepest recesses of France should miss the opportunity to experience such visual, olfactory and gustatory pleasures.
The small town of Samatan has little to recommend it from a touristic point of view, but the huge market is a sight to behold. Music and announcements are piped out, Soviet-style, from loudspeakers throughout the town, and the animal halls echo with clucks and squeals as farmers go about their business. Asked by English friends who have a property nearby to haggle over the price of various animals, I emerged from some bruising encounters with a thickset woman farmer (whose stall, somewhat bizarrely, has a sign forbidding people from taking photos of her), with two piglets and an array of ducks who looked mightily relieved to have been spared the cooking pot in the heart of foie gras country.
On the culinary front, the undoubted highlight was a meal in a small village in the middle of nowhere in the department of Corrèze. As lunchtime approached, while driving between Burgundy and the Gers, my traveling companion and I decided to head away from the highway for a few miles and stop at the first restaurant we found, which turned out to be in a village called Sainte-Féréole. As we entered the restaurant, a stern woman informed us that we were late (it was only 1:10pm). Duly chastened, we sat down hastily and waited for the menus to arrive. The only other diners were a group of manual laborers (always a good sign: unlike in Britain or the States, in France it is always a good idea to follow manual workers to their eating places if you want a good-quality meal).
Instead of menus, a very large carafe of red wine was plonked down on our table by the eight-year-old son of the owner. I was about to protest that I only needed water, but the owner’s glare immediately dissuaded me from complaining. I’m glad I didn’t: the wine was costaud (hearty) but tasty. This was swiftly followed by bowls of soupe au seigle (rye soup), the most delicious soup I have tasted.
Realizing by this time that there would be no choice involved, we submitted willingly to the delight of not knowing what would be served next. Plate after plate arrived: green salad; a wonderful piece of rare beef, accompanied by fresh pasta; a gorgeous array of cheeses; a fruit tart and then fruit. In between courses, the cook (who turned out to be the owner’s mother) came out to question us about where we were from and what we were doing in the area. Despite showing momentary bafflement that two men were traveling together, she seemed very happy to talk about the food and the village she had clearly lived in all her life.
At the end of all this, we found ourselves faced with a check of only €12 each.
This glorious experience led me to wonder why Paris doesn’t have such reasonably priced restaurants where customers are simply given the menu of the day without any other choice. If you are willing to pay a great deal more, the newly reopened Spring restaurant provides such a service, but perhaps I should transport grandmother, mother and grandson from the Corrèze to provide the capital city with some long-lost Old World charm.
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