Camargue markets, colors of a new season

March 7th, 2008

tomates-de-camargue.jpg A Wednesday morning market in Arles, a Monday market in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, two Provençal markets bathed in winter light are previews of coming attractions for this vagabondgourmand. Locals were out in numbers, arriving early to be first in line for the freshest fish and vegetables. And it was the locals I was watching with interest, wondering: could you call France a Nation of Locavores? This question is my theme to pursue in markets across France this year, in these pages. Impressed by the Locavores project in the US, a year-long program in which over one hundred people commit themselves to shopping, cooking and eating locally produced food, I’d like to address the question on this side of the pond.

The Camargue, the mouth of the Rhône river’s delta, is our first stop, observing local shoppers and chatting with a few food artisans. Monday’s market in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, a seaside town well known for its annual religious festival in late May, is small but busy in winter. Our bus pulled in from Arles about nine o’clock, less than an hour’s ride through flat delta rice fields and pastures dotted with black bulls, white horses, and the occasional single heron. After a bracing cup of coffee and stroll through the old town, we took some time to survey products offered by vendors – both local and otherwise. Vegetables displayed in flat baskets caught my eye, especially the green beans and tomatoes, grown locally under tunnels to protect against the occasional surprise frost. In the Midi? Even the season’s Mistral winds can’t blow away a mischievous jack frost.

Glass jars of candied fruit, pots of local honey, bags of red Camargue rice were lined up on a table covered in Provencal print cloth. How do I cook this red rice? I asked the dark-eyed vendor. “Oh, it takes about forty minutes – this hasn’t been processed” was his reply as he showed me some Camargue white rice that cooks more quickly. Being more in tune with slow-cooking, I opted for the red rice, plus fine salt – Le Saunier de Camargue Fleur de Sel with the name of the salt-raker written neatly on the seal. I was tickled pink to find these regional products in the market. And there were non-local products: Peruvian ponchos, a gadget-demo, an underwear stall, and baskets from northern France. The produce and fruit seller was busiest – I waited as she packed up carrots, chard, and lots of garlic – while the Mistral winds whistled around us. It seemed that my timing was off, not an opportune moment to talk with ‘locavores’ and vendors.

A mid-week morning in Arles was a different story: a wide range of food vendors lined the market along the old city walls. Once I got past the running shoes and bath mats, I spotted crinkly cabbages and young, violet artichokes. Then my nose quivered at the aromas of ….fougasse: the flattish sticks or “ladders” of bread rolled in salt or studded with olives got my full attention. With a small sack of these selected savories, it was almost time for a coffee pause – or early lunch. Last, but best, at the gateway to old Arles was a vendor of cheese, made with the help of his own sheep. When local sheep’s milk cheese is fresh, rolled in herbs, it can be eaten at any time of day. And when aged a bit – all the better for nibbling. The cheese-maker’s greying ponytail hung below his black brimmed Provençal hat, a common mode in these hills of the south. I asked if he was in the same spot for the Saturday market. “Oh, no: I’m by the tourism office – watch for the merry-go-round” he replied. I will return to Arles some Saturday, and go straight to Boulevard Clémenceau, and buy more fresh cheese, redolent of Provençal herbs, with the busy local crowd….sometime. And I will watch for the merry-go-round with prancing white horses, a black bull and children tucked into a twirling teacup.

So, after observing just two Camargue markets, it seems that in spite of the ‘convenience’ of soul-less hypermarchés with all their centîme-cutting deals, the vendors still sell to a loyal, local crowd, filling their baskets and caddies every Wednesday and Saturday. Our next market rounds take up the subject of marché de proximité, or shopping locally in French terms. Later in March, follow our search for spring greens in the Périgord.haricots-de-camargue.JPG