“You know, when an American looks at a duck, he says, ‘Oh, how cute.’ When a Frenchman looks at a duck, he wonders, ‘How shall I cook him?'” – Peter Mayle.
After breakfast one April morning, we drove the 20 minute trip from Sablet up to Vaison-la-Romaine for the weekly marché, or farmer’s market. Marchés have been an institution in Provence since the first one appeared in 1523 in Apt. The market in Vaison-la-Romaine is famous among local residents and visitors for being one of the best.
The town is surrounded by the river Ouveze that is spanned by a 1st century Roman bridge. On the right bank of the river are two different quarters: remains of an ancient Roman colony and the modern town. On the left bank, after climbing exactly 99 steps is a rocky precipice known as the Haute-Ville, dating from the 13th century.
A weekly market not only provides a place to obtain the day’s best food products, and for that reason alone, is worthy of a visit, but it also evokes emotions from my childhood summers in the ‘50s. When I was growing up in Alabama, my family spent almost every Saturday at my grandparent’s farm. Late Saturday night, we returned home loaded down with whatever fruits and vegetables happened to be ripe for that week. I shared the back seat of our 1957 Ford with boxes of corn and watermelons, paper bags of beans and peas, baskets of tomatoes, okra, yellow crookneck squash, and peaches, oh… and my sister. We often fell asleep before we got home breathing the bouquet of ripe fruits and vegetables.
In most cases, the person from whom you buy tomatoes or eggplants or zucchini is also the same person who brought them to the market in the back of his Citroen or Renault lorry and also happens to be the person who got up before dawn to harvest the fruits of his labor.
A market is the direct link between a supplier and a consumer. Highest quality products in the market are a given or the seller would be well advised to peddle his products to the super market. A haricot vert had better have a proper snap. A fish had better be shiny with clear eyes. The wine had better not smell corked. To paraphrase an old Southern expression, when a mère Provençal ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!
The main square of Vaison-la-Romaine (Place Montfort) is a large, open plaza lined with terrace cafés, bars, restaurants, and shops. It is the home of the weekly marché. We walked through row after row of fresh produce (including Carpentras strawberries and Cavaillon melons), olives, cheeses, beautiful fish, meat, ham, sausages, and wine.
Next to them were aromatic herbs and spices, bottles of olive oils, richly colored jars of tapenade and jams and many types of cheeses we didn’t recognize.
There were also stalls for lavender or olive-scented soaps, crisp linens and colorful pottery dishes. Pretty much everything you need for daily life was there along with a lot of things that heretofore you didn’t even know that you needed.
We discovered a couple of excellent shops on the plaza (actually, we discovered many great shops but these two, in particular, stick in my memory). The first belongs to Gilles Peyrorol, a chocolatier. His chocolates are works of art.
There is smoothness to French chocolate that is baffling to me. I have tried for years to figure it out and duplicate it at home but to no avail. So, I have resolved to simply enjoy it whenever I can find it.
The second shop was the Fromagerie Cremerie, Lou Canesteou. It is owned by Josiane Deal who won the coveted Meilleur Ouvrier de France (Best Artisan in France) award for the cheese profession in 2004. This is a serious cheese shop.
Aging and maturing cheese is not a precise science but only comes with time and experience. With the rise of artisanal and farmstead cheeses, it is often a perplexing task for a consumer to know what a particular cheese is all about. Josiane’s passion is on display throughout the shop where picture-perfect cheeses illustrate her ability to turn artisanship into art. The exquisitely created products put small everyday luxuries within the reach of most consumers. We picked up several samples to take back to our Sablet home for a fabulous dinner – with a little luck and self-control, they may last that long.
*Asterisked images are courtesy of Barbara Schuerenberg