The discreet charm of a French market


Nick writes a exclusive to remind us of a lovely summer now that we are back at our desks in London. Not strictly about restaurants but I love it. He returns to the FT next Saturday.

Over the past 24 summers I have made the trip to the fruit and vegetable market in the Place Carnot in the centre of Carcassonne, a 25-minute drive from our Languedoc house, three times a week. These sorties have yielded lots of wonderful ingredients, a string of unforgettable faces and numerous bargains.

And this being the heart of a long-established French city, there are today layers of history under the feet of both the vendors and the customers. This obviously once most elegant square is on the site of an ancient bastide, the conjunction of two medieval roads that is now a quadrilateral in the middle of Carcassonne's grid system.

During the Revolution there was a guillotine in the centre that dispatched the unforgettably named Joan The Black and her two accomplices in 1792. Since then it has been through a vivid series of different names. By turn it has been Place Impériale, Place de la Liberté, Place Révolution and Place aux Herbes, before taking the name of Nicolas Carnot, the father of thermodynamics, in 1894.

In fact, one of my strongest memories from all these trips to the market relates to two men almost old enough to have known the Place when it was last renamed. In the early 1990s, when I used to go shopping with our two elder, but then far younger, children, our first stop was always at a beautiful old butcher's shop that came complete with the most magnificent, always highly polished, range of hooks, shelves, walk-in fridges and, of course, a sparklingly clean front window.

It was owned by a man in his early eighties, the epitome of a well-fed French butcher, who sold, chatted with the customers, took their money and, without prompting, gave his opinion on everything. All the hard work was done by his long-suffering junior, then in his mid-seventies I would have guessed, who did the rest: the carrying of the meat in and out; the butchery; the weighing; and the wrapping. While the individuals and the interior were the attractions for me, what excited the children was that this butcher had a gleaming mincer next to his meat fridge through which he would happily process hamburgers to order. They loved watching the process; the hamburgers were excellent; and the butchers made a little bit of profit for their eventual retirement.

I once asked the owner how long there had been a butcher's shop on this particular site and he proceeded to give me its history, one that goes to the very heart of the difference between how we once thought about how to live and how we no longer seem to give the consequences of our actions any importance. Because meat was then the most expensive ingredient, the most readily perishable in the era before modern, inexpensive refrigeration as well as the key to cassoulet, the region's most renowned dish, the butcher's shop was always given top priority when a new market was laid out, it was patiently explained to me. And here, as in so many other towns, the location that was chosen was the one place in the square where the sun never shone. There had, he told me with great pride, been a butcher's shop in this the coolest, south-east corner of the market since it opened.

This tale, almost by definition, has an unhappy ending. When these two jeunes hommes finally called it a day, everything was sold or ripped out. A chocolatier took its place serving ice cream from counters that faced on to the pavement to attract the passers-by, supported, naturally, by huge banks of air conditioners. Today, the once-so-elegant butcher's is home to a store with the rather bizarre name of Beauty Success.

Most of the shops around the square are now equally forgettable – even the barber's where I once had a wet shave from a Frenchman who never seemed to take a small cigar out of his mouth. There are convenience stores, the Carnot and Longchamp cafes serving poor coffee, several banks, and a very French, very posh pharmacy where the grey-haired woman behind the counter sports a hair cut that would not look out of place on someone shopping in Paris's Faubourg St-Honoré .

But on Tuesday, Thursday and particularly Saturday morning, the centre of the Place Carnot takes on a much more colourful and vibrant life of its own as the fruit and vegetable producers from all around Carcassonne come to town.

This is a gradual invasion. On Tuesday the stalls number no more than a dozen and occupy only the south side. The number on Thursday is greater and on Saturday the whole square is covered, principally with those selling produce from their own farms and vegetable patches. There are, of course, several stalls of wholesalers, conspicuous by their boxes of oranges, bananas, apples, limes and lemons.

By and large, each stallholder sticks to his pitch. The mother and son who run Chez Gaston, the large set of counters that sells the best Luques olives, anchovies, pistachios and fresh garlic, are some of the few to move towards the north. Otherwise, the son and father-in-law who sell their nectarines and peaches from Marseillette are always in the south-west corner; Monique, from nearby Aigues Vives, who sells soft fruit and whose family make excellent honey and apple juice, is always in the first corridor up on the north side; while up on the south side on a prominent corner, is a stall run by Violette and her father, who always sports the same yellow flat hat, from whom I always buy freshly cut flowers from her garden for Jancis.

Over the years there have been two other significant changes. The first is the growing number of stalls run by the obviously burgeoning number of immigrants from North Africa. Everything they sell is more piquant than their neighbours' counterparts, whether it be their peppers, coriander or onions. But the best deal they offer are unquestionably the vast bunches of fresh mint they sell for one euro each. This I always buy from the same man in a conversation that follows the same pattern. I speak to him in French; he responds in English; I wish him Shalom; he smiles and replies 'Salaam'. We part company, smiling.

The second, and more gradual, change has been the spread of the stalls outside the Place Carnot. One street that leads to the covered market (open Tuesday to Saturday with an excellent cheesemonger, two wet fish stalls and one butcher who specialises in veal) is now home to all the Arab traders, including one selling Middle Eastern sweets. Opposite is a small stall run by an obvious soixante-huitard (someone who settled down here after the events of 1968) who sells tresses of shallots and garlic and excellent Bintje potatoes. Just round the corner is a string of small vans selling goats cheese, lamb and that increasingly rare commodity, unpasteurised milk.

Until the morning of Saturday 24 August my market routine was as follows. I would leave home by 7.40 am. I would park on the boulevard round the centre and then walk down the Rue Barbès, inhaling the aromas from a bakery, now sadly closed. I would call in at the pâtisserie on the right-hand side which makes what I think are the best meringues in France; order and pay for several to be collected on my way back so that they would not be crushed; and then plunge into the Place.

My first stops were always the smallest stalls manned by the most elderly women. These were invariably home to some lovingly cared-for herbs and flowers, the very best haricots verts, the crisp lettuces known locally as sucrines as well as particularly flavourful local cucumbers. The women seemed to welcome the fact that I could add up their small column of figures more quickly than they could. This year, missing for the first time, was an elderly, grey-haired woman who priced everything first in old francs, translated these into new francs and then, eventually, into euros.

On this last occasion, as it was to be the final trip of the summer, I wanted to be there as the market closed rather than as it came to life – although I knew I was running a big risk. Fruit and vegetable markets are the most obvious example, in my opinion, of one of the basic principles of any open market: that the best is always in short supply and consequently the best gets snapped up first.

I had increased this potential risk of disappointment by setting off with a small shopping list. Rather than just seeing what was at its freshest at 8 am I wanted a chicken from a farmer who takes a stall in the covered market only on a Saturday because I had promised roast chicken to my daughter and her two cousins who were staying with us. And I wanted a leg of lamb from a farmer selling from a mobile shop in a side street that had always attracted the longest queue because an Australian friend was coming for dinner two nights later.

As I arrived at the chicken stall I saw a tell-tale sign of quite how late I was. Inside the fridge was a small row of neatly tied white plastic bags (still far too prevalently used in most French markets) holding the chickens and guinea fowls bought by those up earlier than me which the stallholder was kindly storing for their return.

Then, I set off for the lamb. By peering over the four customers in front of me I could see that there was one leg of lamb left and that it was the right size. All I had to do was wait patiently and hope that none of those in front of me would want it. What I had not reckoned on was that the mother and daughter behind the counter were quite so talkative. And, in particular, that the mother would believe that all those waiting so patiently would want to hear all about her recent holiday in Corsica, where she had eaten and which places she had most liked. The queue finally dissipated and by holding my ground against someone who tried to come on the blind side and push herself to the front of the queue, I bought my leg of lamb. My firmness was vindicated as I heard someone immediately enquire in vain whether there was another one to be had.

I made my first sweep of the market for the honey and fresh garlic that I always take back to London along with the rice produced by Laurent Malis at Domaine St-Gabriel at L'Etang de Marseillette,, that unfailingly becomes very good risotto even in my hands.

My purchases safely tucked away in the car, I returned for a second sweep as the small stallholders started to close up. Where only four hours ago eggs, fruit, vegetables, flowers and pots of home-made jam once stood, now there were old, well-worn small trestles that were soon dismantled and their stands collapsed. Years and years of experience has taken this to a fine art on the part of all those involved.

There was one visible distinction I noticed between those who sold their own produce and the wholesalers. The latter started piling up wide cardboard boxes in which their produce had obviously been delivered to them while the growers piled up their own plastic trays that were going to see active service for many weeks to come.

By 12.45 I found myself next to yet another elderly lady, on this occasion as we sat by the fountains in the centre of the Place where once the guillotine must have stood. I took in the now rather desolate nature of what had been today's market. The empty flower stalls. The piles of empty crates. The speed with which the stallholders kicked the stands to collapse them and then gathered them to pile them into the back of the small lorries which now occupied the southern corners of the square. This had in turn led to a contretemps between a couple of drivers that one young gendarme was trying patiently to resolve.

But above all, I was struck by the patience, fortitude and strength, both physically and of character, of these stallholders. They had been up since early that morning and it would be at least 1.30 before they sat down to a well-earned lunch. Some, I know, were fortified by coffee from the nearby cafes, while one I frequent for their salads uses his trestle table for an early breakfast with friends at which they share a litre bottle of very pale rosé.

I am sure that there is great pleasure and satisfaction in growing your own and selling it for cash that, with luck, will escape the notice of the French tax inspector. But I, for one, would much rather a customer be.