However early I get up, however quickly I shower and dress, by the time I stroll down the narrow lane to the Place du Jeu de Ballon, the market is already busy. The best tables at the Café Plazza are crammed with whiskery men, gossiping over their breakfast glasses of rouge, and brisk women in neat skirts and neater haircuts, full baskets at their feet and small dogs, some kind of Yorkshire terrier or Westie usually, on their laps. Other dogs – rangy, muscly scruffy spaniels, hounds and herding dogs – wander the market with the glint of the hills in their eyes, a reminder (along with the stall selling knives so sharp you could cut yourself just looking at them) that this is hunting country.
The upper part of the market nearest our house is where you go to buy everything from Marseilles soap to cheap toys, straw bags in a hundred colours, underwear for all tastes and sizes- vamp to vieillarde, huge bottles of bleach, corkscrews, salad spinners, plastic buckets and olive wood bowls. It’s May, so the stalls next to the library are carpeted with trays of geraniums, heliotrope and verbena which, in a few weeks, will tumble down from window boxes like flags hung above the narrow, winding streets. One stall sells pots of tomatoes, peppers, onions, beans and courgettes destined for potagers and, ultimately, cooking pots across the town and its surrounding villages.
But the most exciting part of the market lies a short walk along the rue de l’Amour to the Place Gambetta. Here, you could gather cheeses, charcuterie, sourdough loaves, sparkly-eyed fish, oysters, asparagus and gariguette strawberries until your basket scraped the ground under the weight of all that deliciousness. And I have done just that – in summers, when we’ve had a houseful – but it’s spring and I have to keep reminding myself that we are but four.
Ok, so this last picture I’m throwing in as my little weekend plaisanterie. The woman who runs the leather purses and wallets stall now has a little sideline in canine and feline fashion, modelled coquettishly by her silky Yorkie, who trots along the stall demonstrating what all the best pooches will be wearing this summer (except mine).
Market mussels with merguez
I had in my head a dish for dinner which involves frying chorizo and clams together but – in the best tradition of market shopping – my plans were thwarted by a lack of clams. And chorizo. I had to make it up as I went along – mussels instead of clams and merguez instead of chorizo. It was pretty good. So good, in fact, we all dived in before I had a chance to take a picture, so you’ll have to trust me that it looked good too.
1 tbsp olive oil
4 merguez sausages, about the size of a long, fat index finger, cut into chunks
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
2 ripe tomatoes, deseeded and diced
About half a bottle of white wine
1.5 – 2kg fresh mussels, cleaned
About 80g crème fraîche
1 spring onion, white and pale green part only, finely chopped
1 handful of parsley leaves, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Lots of crusty bread to mop up the juices
In a large, lidded saucepan, gently heat the olive oil over a medium heat. Add the chunks of merguez and fry until they release their spicy, red fat and take on some colour. Scoop them out of the pan and set aside. Add the onions and lower the temperature a bit. Sauté until soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté for a further minute, then add the tomatoes and fry until pulpy and soft. Pour in the white wine, raise the temperature a bit and bring to the boil. Simmer for about 5 minutes, then add the mussels. Put the lid on the pan and cook, rattling the pan a couple of times, until the mussels have opened (discard any which do not), about 3-4 minutes. Strain the sauce into a clean pan (keep the mussels warm, in their existing pan with the lid on), bring to the boil, remove from the heat and whisk in the creme fraiche until smooth, then stir in the parsley and spring onion. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Serve the mussels in warmed bowls with the sauce ladled over the top – with lots of good bread to mop up the juices.
The market pictures here are a mere hors d’oeuvre. Séan took lots more so, if you’d like a second helping, he put together a little film which you can view here.