Monday, 8 August 2011

To market, to market redux

Around three years ago, we stayed in Collioure for the first time. Two years ago, we made our self-catering debut in the town - and here we are again, doing exactly that.

Indeed, with each passing year, we seem to eat out less and less in the evenings when we're here. Not that the restaurants are bad - I have a couple I absolutely want to make the space to visit again before our return - but simply that eating the way we do in the evenings is such an enormous pleasure.

Well, that and the business of shopping for food locally.

In the little village square where petanque is often played, and where visiting attractions such as a Punch & Judy show set up, a market takes place on Sunday and Wednesday mornings.

I have learnt, with the benefit of experience, that the best time to visit, is as early as possible. In other words, before most of our fellow visitors are out of their beds.

Since we arrived on a Saturday, the first job of our first Sunday was therefore the market. Sleeping later than we'd intended, it was crowded by the time we got there.

But even with queues and camera-toting tourists everywhere, that didn't stop me being recognised at a super cheese stall.

Caroline first recognised me last year - but as she only has her stall there on Sundays, it particularly stunned me. It wasn't such a bolt out of the blue this time around, but it still begs the question of why.

What is it that I do that apparently marks me out from all the other thousands of transient customers that she must have each year that, after just two visits to her stall, she remembered me?

I can only guess. What I do know is that she sells fabulous cheeses, some recognisable from British shops, but many that are made locally.

She had a sort of Brebis this time. Now I've been close to addicted to Brebis Pyrenees - which comes from the Basque end of the mountains - for a while now, as Stephane at La Bouche has been stocking it: this is similar, but local.

Caroline also introduced me to a cheese the texture and look of an Emmental, of which she only had a small amount - really lovely, with a deceptive length.

And then a little carton of a soft ewe's cheese, that I eventually left out of the fridge (remember that there's only me who eats cheese, so this was a week's supply) and allowed to ripen to the stage it could be mopped up with bread.

I suspect that part of why she recognises me is a mix of my being a Brit who attempts to speak the lingo (probably rather funnily - and I have been known to resort to adding clumsy mime to a conversation: more Jacques Tati than Marcel Marceau, I suspect); asking for advice about the cheeses; tasting (Stephane is constantly frustrated because the British simply refuse to understand that tasting something - degustion - is not a commitment to buy) and not blanching at the idea, for instance, of sheep's cheese (I can't imagine why anyone would, but they do).

The latter brings to mind one my favourite films, Shirley Valentine, where our eponymous heroine ends up cooking egg and chips for holidaymakers in Greece who can't cope with the local food. And, of course, there's the magical moment where the bossy woman from Manchester slips into a dead faint on hearing that what she's just eaten was squid.

But after that, it was all bustle - although we did meet an Harlequins RL fan we know who had been over for the match against the Catalans Dragons the previous evening - and who loves the region as we do.

The following Wednesday I was up, if not at the crack of dawn, then very early. And leaving The Other Half to his beauty sleep, I quit the house at around 7.30am and took the scenic route around the castle walls, as the sea gently lap-lapped against the rocks on a still, overcast and humid morning.

Delices Catalans is run by two sisters and a male relative. The women wear tops that are almost Breton-like: cream with blue, horizontal stripes. It could almost be a uniform. They are always friendly, and have gone out of their way to help in the past, but I don't think you'd want to mess with them.

The man was setting out tables and greeted me as though he knew me - although I don't know whether that was anything other than a robust, open friendliness.

I had a coffee and glass of water before pottering the few metres further to the market itself; at that time, almost the sole preserve of local people.

Two years ago, I met a Dutch man there of indeterminate age - indeterminate partly because he'd grown a beard that would have put Karl Marx to shame and who had, some 20 years earlier, worked in the financial district of Amsterdam.

He'd packed it in to live in Roussillon, where he farmed goats and made cheese with their milk.

On this Wednesday market, I spotted a stall that was selling strawberries. They looked wonderful. But over my shoulder, like Jiminy Cricket, hung the figure of Madame Rehmet, who had been the agent for the house we'd stayed in for our first two years self catering.

She always made it plain that, if you hadn't finished all the food that you'd bought by the end of the stay, you weren't to worry and don't throw anything away. Much would be left for the next visitors - just as you'd inherited all manner of things, from oil to jam, salt to ground coffee. But fresh food, she explained, she took to 'the poor'.

When she arrived to take back the keys after our first stay, she opened the fridge and was shocked to see strawberries, since at that time of year they could only be imported from Spain and would have been grown under glass.

If anyone tells you that the French don't really believe in all that seasonal malarky, don't listen to a word they say. They haven't been on the receiving end of Madame Rehmet's disapproval.

But back to this year. There were those strawberries and boy, did they look good. The stall had a certificate to show that the grower was certified as an organic producer. I gave into temptation and asked the man behind the stall if the fruits were French.

Of course they were, he told me - even producing a picture of himself on his nearby land, cultivating his precious plants.

It came out that he was from the Netherlands. Amazed, I commented that the man who ran the nearby goat's cheese stall was a compatriot. That was his brother - although he'd been here three years longer, growing his strawberries and a few other products, including tomatoes, which started a whole new line of discussion, as he asked where I came from and then bemoaned the state of tomatoes in the UK (and the Netherlands too, to be fair).

To start with, he was stunned that we only assumed that tomatoes were red (I was already carrying a bag of red, green, yellow and orange ones). And then we got onto the negative impact of supermarket demands for regulation fruits ... We'd have been there all day, fellow tomato travellers, were it not for other customers arriving.

There was no butcher's van around, so I headed down a nearby street to a fabulous boucherie I've used before. The weather forecast wasn't brilliant for a day or so hence, so I checked whether the boudin Catalan - the local version of French black pudding - would last in the fridge, and then bought one.

Something else caught my eye - a label that said: 'fromage de tete'. Literally, 'head cheese' and, in essence, what the British used to eat as brawn, before politicians got so scared of shrill elements within the media and the safety/hygiene lobbies that they banned it.

I can't remember whether I've ever eaten it. If I have, it's before I'd have given it any thought. I bought a 'tranche', which seemed to impress the woman who was serving me. Again, is such a purchase atypical of Brits abroad or did my pronunciation simply happen to be decent?

Back at the market, I found a lovely yellow courgette to go with the boudin, plus some gloriously black figs.

And then it was time to visit the supermarket, for bog roll, more plain yogurt to go with the rhubarb compote I'd got in for breakfast (delicious) and a bottle of rosé to reduce the danger that we'd find ourselves without any.

At the nearby boulangerie - one of at least four in the town that we know of - I picked up a campagne gris, a butter croissant for Sleepy Head and a little tarte tatin.

I ambled back via the tobacconist, where we have also been recognised, ready to stash my fabulous hoard and put the coffee on. And it was still hardly 9am.

Now don't tell me that such a shopping expedition could ever be beaten by the manufactured, industrialised, impersonal nonsense that is supermarkets!

And the strawberries really were a deam!

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