Wednesday, 15 September 2010

To marché, to marché, to buy a fat fig

Sunday might have been our first day proper in Collioure, but in our list of priorities, the beach didn’t come first. That honour fell to the market.

Place du Maréchel Leclerc seems to be the heart of the town: often the scene of games of petanque, we’ve also seen it host a children’s puppet theatre and, on Saturdays, the sort of flea market so beloved of the French. Sundays and Wednesdays are market days and it’s crammed full of colour and wonderful aromas.

The first surprise was that Caroline, who runs a cheese stall at the weekend market, recognised me from last summer. I have no idea why she should recognise me from what can only have been two visits a year ago, but I was very flattered – and she certainly sells a selection of gorgeous cheeses, from internationally-known varieties such as Morbier to locally produced ones. I always aim to buy the latter. After all, I can buy the really famous French cheeses at home.

During our fortnight there, I had a real mix, from a mild and creamy blue, to a tangy semi hard to some lovely little goat’s cheeses, which just oozed creamy deliciousness when fully ripe.

The fruit at the market is always a joy: you will find some imported produce (bananas, for instance), but very, very little. It was very late in the berry season, but lovely raspberries were still available freely, while plums and figs were present in joyful abundance.

We picked up serious charcuterie, fresh bread and, of course, tomatoes; gorgeous tomatoes in a variety of colours and shapes, and not all some bureaucratically-ordained size.

We went to the little local supermarket too, for toilet roll, milk, butter and a few other odds and sods to get us going.

My point never is that supermarkets don’t have a place – but that their ‘place’ is not in place and at the cost of absolutely everything else. In the UK, as ‘the big four’ launch everything from financial services to optical services to phone services, that is what they appear to want to become: to use their financial muscle to simply bully their way to total market domination.

In France (and elsewhere on the Continent), there is a balance, which also ends up giving the customer far more choice, far more variety.

If the French shopper wants to shop at the supermarket alone, they can do. If they want to shop at the little corner shop or the market, they can do. If they want a combination of everything that’s available, then they have that choice too. But it isn’t a choice when local shops and markets have been wiped out and only one realistic option remains – even if that offers you a different type of ‘potato snack’ for every day of the year.

But hey – let’s get back to Collioure and not start thinking about perfidious Albion!

We’d arrived with no concrete intentions regarding food: there were no specific plans, for instance, to eat this or that for lunch, followed by that or this in the evening. I suppose I had assumed that everything would be pretty much as it was last year, with a lot of lunches out and then cooking in the evening.

However, as the days drifted by in blissful sunshine, that wasn’t quite what developed.

Until Wednesday, we did lunch at St Elne, a restaurant with a large al fresco seating area right behind the beach, and an unchanging menu – including a vast array of crepes and ice creams – that is clearly aimed at visitors.

But from day one it became clear that after lunch there, we weren’t in any mood for much in the evening. Instead, we started sitting around the kitchen table, helping ourselves to charcuterie, bread, cheese, tomatoes, fruit and wine.

It’s almost Biblical – or simply ancient – to sit around eating like that; it’s certainly difficult to imagine anything much simpler. Or much better. Don’t get me wrong – I love those gastronomic experiences in chef-led restaurants, where each dish is an artistic masterpiece, but this … Well, this was Earthy and real and deeply, deeply sensual.

By Wednesday, we’d bored of the tourist menu for lunch and started using our Thermos bag to take food to the beach.

Fresh bread was available every morning from the boulanger, two minutes from the front door of the house – imagine getting bored of that! So into the bag would go bread, fruit and sometimes olives stuffed with anchovies for both of us, charcuterie and tomatoes (which I need to eat with a knife and fork at present) for The Other Half, yogurt and one of those lovely little cheeses for me.

Not only considerably cheaper than those earlier lunches, but better too.

And more than once we found ourselves wanting little more than the same again – with wine – for supper. Given good produce, you really do need nothing more complicated.

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