Monthly Archives: August 2010

Market mania in St. Quentin

One of my favourite pastimes during the long, cold winter months of our three-year stay in the interior of British Columbia consisted of dreaming about the amazing farmers markets I’d left behind in France. Our thrice weekly forays to the local supermarket were always an adventure — at least until we traded our bikes in for a car. The thrill of navigating through slush and snow on two wheels wore off quickly once the shopping began. Greeted by row upon row of uniformly tired, sad-looking fruits and vegetables, my mind wandered often to the warm, colourful, scented markets I’d known in France and I felt instantly soothed.

And now that we are finally home in our very special village, I can confirm that the reality is even better than my reminiscing. The local market has almost doubled in size and attracts huge summer crowds every Friday morning.

Amazing tapenade

Delicious unfiltered grape juice

But it’s not full of the gawking tourists who frequent the more trendy Saturday Uzes market. There are some to be sure but the core users are villagers who want to support local farmers and at the same time catch up with friends. On Tuesdays there’s a more intimate producers only market with several excellent organic growers.

This morning I was up by 7 am to get to the market early. The sky was a deep, clean blue and the air crisp. Many merchants were still setting up their stalls, all the while joking or sharing a coffee with their colleagues. An air of lively anticipation of big crowds and good sales seemed to float about effortlessly. Another good day to be sure. The only customers this early were older, retired locals who get their shopping done before the crowds and the heat arrive.

Always time to chat

The whole scene took me instantly back to all those early mornings several years ago when I sold wine five times a week at markets throughout the region: the routine of packing the truck the night before; the piecing pain of those 5 a.m. alarms followed by a lonely drive in pre-dawn half darkness.  But the hard part was quickly forgotten once I got set up and that same anticipation kicked in. A kind of perpetual optimism that kept us coming back for more regardless of the days outcome.

So what makes my market and any good market so much better from a sterile North American supermarket? Well you buy your veggies from a farmer who picked them just hours earlier and your meat from a butcher who greets you by your first name. Christian, the honey guy always has a good story or two. 

Solange, lets me taste her wines and at the same time she brings me up to date on the latest news in the wine business. The recession has brought about a lot of closures, lower prices and slack sales but she is optimistic about the future. With this years harvest her Mas Mouries will be an official organic wine. Crises come and go but these tough, resilient people always find a way to make things work.  I can’t wait till next Friday.

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Slap me again, it’s not a dream

I’ve had several bouts the last few weeks of a strange disorder I’ll call lost in transititis. You know, it’s that displaced person sensation. Everything looks so familiar but it sometimes doesn’t register that I really am back in my charming village in the south of France. I haven’t done so much moving around since I was a restless twenty-something. I think I remember that it was pretty easy to adapt to new locals way back then– more brain cells without a doubt.

The good news is I try to put what I’ve got left to much better use. Seriously, though, my condition is improving and I am no longer tongue-tied each time I stroll about the village. It feels so good to run into all my old friends and get into the way of life here again.

Michel, king of the Accra

Today I cycled into Uzes, the large Medieval town just up the hill. Saturday is market day and to avoid the huge summer crowds I arrived a bit after 9 am. I could feel the energy and excitement building. The calm before the storm of Dutch, German, British, American and French tourists arrived in late morning. It felt so familiar, normal I guess since I sold wine at this same market for several years. Not much had changed; my good friend Michel was still at his habitual stand, slaving away like a madman dropping tiny teaspoons of salt-cod accras into hot oil all the while chatting with me. Elsa, his smiling young assistant was selling the golden morsels as fast as he could  make em. Michel’s stand, Les Accras de Marius, is known throughout Provence as the king of accras and falafel. His brandade, a salt cod and olive oil paste, is legendary. As luck would have it,  today was his 50th birthday. I couldn’t leave the market without doing something special so a bit later I passed by a second time with a nice bottle of red. Come September when the hordes of tourists have mostly gone home, we’ll get together and catch up, minus the smoking hot oil and the crowds of other displaced persons.

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The Warrior returns

I’m back. The last two months have been filled with travel, reunions, fast food, poutine (it gets its own category-lets call it ethnic super fat food) great and not so great wine, changing time zones and a mildly upset tummy.

Bowen Island sunset

Not the easiest of tasks moving a family of four over 10,000 km to the east but we made it in one piece. And it feels so good to be home. Not that I didn’t enjoy the three years we spent in the interior of BC. It is an incredibly beautiful region of pristine lakes, wild mountainous terrain and natural beauty with an arid, sunny climate and loads of fabulous wines. But this place, I realize now, is home.

Many images come to mind over the last two months; the incredible send offs we got from all our friends in Kelowna, the pristine, natural wonder of Bowen Island and the great cooking of Françoise, the stellar pinot noirs from Prince Edward county, Black River cheese, the ethnic diversity of Montreal and the fine home cooking of Huron county. It was all a bit quick and I was never quite sure where I was on awakening each day, but it was great fun.

Great cheddar since 1901

Vickies organic veggies

One of the more interesting discoveries I made was Prince Edward county. This pres’qu’ile close to Belleville, Ontario boasts over 30 recently opened wineries, an artisan cheese producer and a score of organic farms that sell their produce as far away as Toronto. The poor, stoney limestone soil on the western end of the county is perfect for the fickle pinot noir grape. The wines have a good local reputation and within a few years could prove to be world-class.

When one puts food and Montreal together two specialties jump to the fore. The renowned beef brisket called Montreal smoked meat and the recently trendy poutine. The standard version takes crisp, golden fries then smothers them with thick beef flavoured gravy and cheddar cheese curds. This strange mélange was invented in 1957 by a creative guy named Ferdinand Lachance. He might not approve of the modern variants; Italian poutine, Mexican poutine, the T-rex and even a foie-gras poutine for the gourmet on the go. I wasn’t a fan in the past but I can see the attraction, especially after a cold day on the slopes.

Arriving back in France, however, poutine faded quickly from my mind. Even the first humble pain au chocolat that I devoured at the airport waiting for my daughter was excellent. Stunning pastry shops (I’d walk miles for a great florentine), fabulous green grocers and top artisan butchers are encountered throughout the city of lights.

macarrons - yum!

By the end of a long Saturday afternoon walkabout that stretched past dusk to darkness we were famished, tired and a touch désagréable. But Sylvain, our host, insisted our sore muscles and aching feet would vanish after dinner at Chez Chartier. And he was bang on.

This storied 114 years old Bistro serves up simple, well prepared bistro classics at very affordable prices: veau normande, tête de veau, escargots, raie au beurre noir, ile flottante and even compôte de pomme. Serious French comfort food, quoi! And the menu tops out at 13€50 for roasted sea bass with fennel.

Chez Chartier, a classic parisian bistro

Not the best bistro in Paris but perhaps the one that transports the guest to a time of horse-drawn carriages, mustachioed gentlemen and ladies of the evening. A must do in Paris. Highly recommended. 7 rue du Faubourg Montmartre, tel: 01 47 70 86 29, to reserve write to bouillon.chartier@wanadoo.fr

After a lazy Sunday picnicking in the Parc de Vincennes and an exciting World Cup final, we boarded the TGV to Avignon to begin the last leg of a long journey. The grey, rather damp day was perfect for daydreaming. Images of smiling faces, heartfelt reunions, tall trees and a certain small dog swept by as quickly as the blurry French countryside. In what seemed like an instant, the sun was shining and the train was slowing into Avignon. After a teary reunion with friends we  and our bags were loaded into two small vans, direction St. Quentin. A red and white Canadian chapter of my life was closing and a more sensual, chaotic and vibrant French one beginning. 



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