French markets; I’d forgotten how flirty they were.
Stalls piled high with sinful goodies blow kisses at your senses as you stroll by. It’s a folly to try to ignore their Sirens’ call. You know you want to sin and you also know they’re going to break through your defences at some point so that you’ll eventually fling yourself across a mountain of fromage in defeat, crying ‘I want to eat of all of this…’
Maybe that’s just me.
Our voyage across France involved a few gastronomic peaks and troughs. In some places the food, although fine, wasn’t quite of a level that we had expected of a land with a rich and buttery gastronomic reputation. Even a restaurant with a Michelin star lacked that essential je ne sais quoi.
It’s probably fair to say that our most memorable culinary experiences weren’t in restaurants. They took place in the homes of friends, during simple al fresco lunches at conveniently placed picnic tables in the middle of nowhere, and even in our chambre d´hôtel where we had a working dinner whilst picking at a selection of creamy local fromages and terrines laid out on an antique stool.
This was thanks in the main to the produce you can pick up in French markets like the bustling Sunday affair in Issigeac in the Dordogne.
Visualise what the perfect French market should look like and Issigeac won’t be far away; a warren of narrow streets where stalls are laid out under the creaky awnings of fairy tale 14th and 15th century abodes, some made from solid stone others with ancient timber frames.
They say Issigeac is normally a drowsy town but on market it day it positively bulges at the seams. The main streets are packed with locals and tourists. I’m surprised at just how many British and American voices there are around me. We live on Tenerife, an island with a reputation for being overrun by Brits but, ironically, you’ll be hard pushed to hear an English speaking voice at the farmer’s markets in the north of Tenerife.
Once we enter the market, the words around us become an anonymous drone as they are replaced by a language that appeals to the nose rather than the ears. Our friends, Linda and Robert, veer off to a stall where a man expertly cuts thick slices from a huge ham. We drift away to explore Issigeac, ducking up alleys and through Medieval tunnels, pausing to suck in the fruity aroma of mountainous punnets of plump strawberries and the salty air surrounding a row of wicker baskets filled with an aphrodisiac overdose of oysters.
The quirky beauty of Issigeac distracts every now and again; a chain of chillies below wooden shutters, a stone ear protruding from a wall, a floral bicycle – but the lure of the sweet and the savoury invariably wins out.
Our curious noses lead us past peaks of glistening olives and dunes of exotic spices until we arrive at what we view as the Holy Grail of French markets; the fromage stalls.
We metaphorically drop to our knees and offer ourselves to the fromage king. Or, in other words, in stumbling and stuttering French (Andy’s that is, mine missed the plane apparently) ask him to hit us with something strong and hard.
He does; we ‘MMMM’, maybe a bit too loudly, and buy the first thing he recommends… with a generous wedge of Brie thrown in for good measure.
At that point our friends appear with bags bulging with an excess of Gallic goodies including spicy sausages, nostalgically good ham from the ham man and the pièce de résistance – extravagant paté-filled fig and apricot.
After a swift biere and an even swifter tour of a glass art exhibition (turned out it was a private showing), we retire to our ridiculously idyllic base in the Dordogne countryside. For the rest of a sunny Sunday afternoon we pick at food so good it encourages embarrassing noises and wine so evilly quaffable that you can forget any finger wagging warnings of ‘remember to drink responsibly’.
This is what Sunday afternoons were made for.
And therein lies the problem that French restaurants have. How can they compete with stocking up on exactly what turns on your taste-buds at atmospheric markets like the one in Issigeac, and then scoffing and drinking the spoils at leisure with good friends in a soul-soothing setting where no one cares how long you linger?
Issigeac market takes place every Sunday from 8.30am until early afternoon (some info says 12.30, others 1.30pm). There are more stalls during the summer months. We were there in September and the streets were full of stalls. As well as food and wine, there are handicrafts on sale.
Jack is co-owner, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a contributor to lots of other places. Follow Jack on Google+