It was Markus’s birthday, and I was delighted to note that it fell on the day the fish van was due to make a stop in Arlebosc.  To call it a fish van is not really to do this service justice.  Here’s the story.  A young man called Simon, who grew up in a village not far from here, moved away to the Etang de Thau, the Mediterranean lagoon behind Sète, where he has established himself as a grower of oysters and mussels.  In French such a person is called an ostréiculteur/mytiliculteur or indeed a conchyliculteur if they also raise clams, cockles and suchlike.  Do these specialist terms exist in English?  If so I haven’t been able to track them down. 

Anyway, back to Simon.  Although he loves his life in the sun and is passionately devoted to his oyster beds, he has not forgotten the hilly villages of his native Ardèche and it occurred to him that it is a sin to deprive people of the sea’s bounty just because they live 300km from it.  So, roughly once a month, at rather unpredictable intervals, a notice goes up in the organic food shop, detailing his wares, prices and the villages and times at which he will be calling. 

Here’s the van, outside the post office in Arlebosc, on the dot of 10.45 on a freezing February morning.  The other two customers were collecting oysters, tightly packed into the traditional wooden box known as a bourriche, which keep them fresh.

Markus didn’t actually fancy oysters for his birthday so instead we chose greeny brown whelks, fat crab claws and deliciously fresh meaty scallops, which arrived beautifully cleaned but still on their lovely shells.  In French they are known as coquilles St Jacques and the shell is the emblem of the pilgrimage route to St James of Compostela. 

St Jacques Majeur by Georges de la Tour

It was so simple to put the meal together.  A salad of organic treviso from Empurany with an orange from the Spanish lady we know who parks up in a layby on the National 7 in January and February, and sells 10 kilo crates of them direct from her own orange groves.  One of Mélodie’s little goat cheeses, bread from La Gitée du Pain, where we sometimes hold concerts, and glass of Brice and Lisa’s white wine, nicely chilled.  We saved the birthday cake for later.  We are spoiled for choice in Lamastre, which has three excellent pâtisseries: we decided on a delicious chestnut mousse and chocolate concoction.

I don’t wish to sound pretentious – we realise that we are extremely lucky to be able to shop and eat like this.  Lucky too that even the supermarkets stock very locally produced food, together with the more industrial commercial stuff.  I was in the large Intermarché in Tournon recently when, rounding the end of an aisle, I found myself face to face with a larger than life picture of Mélodie. I’ve lost the photo I took but here she is in her little farm shop. 

Hers is a relatively small concern in Arlebosc, but Intermarché stocks her delicious goats’ milk yoghurt.  You can also find locally produced fresh meat and such items as honey, jams and biscuits sitting alongside well-known brands like Bonne Maman and Petit Lu.  It helps to keep the small producers in business and just slightly balances out the over centralization of food production and distribution which seems to have led to the infamous tomato shortage in the UK this winter.

Recent comments from a government minister regarding the advisability of “learning to love a turnip” (to misquote Jane Austen and Catherine Morland), seem to have been very ill received.  Indeed she might be wise to reflect that her remarks could be taken as a sort of reversal of another public personage, who exhorted the plebs to eat cake.  That did not end well. 

But, at the risk of irritating readers in England who are confronted with empty shelves in the supermarket “salad section” I would point out that it is March and not exactly salad season.

It is true that our markets are full of lovely winter produce.  Just look at Cyrille’s stall in Lamastre last week: leeks, shallots, garlic, three types of onion, parsnips, three types of turnip, celeriac, four types of potato, plus sweet potatoes.  The selection extended to take in white, red and Savoy cabbages, spinach, kale, cauliflower, celery and a few greenhouse lettuces.  Not a tomato in sight until considerably later in the season and people are fine with that.  It is fun to cook and eat with the seasons.  We are all enjoying the final appearances of choucroute, making salads with chicory, dandelion and other bitter leaves and cooking up the last lentil stew with smoked sausage, whilst looking forward to the first asparagus and tiny spring artichokes which are just around the corner so to speak.

But it is only human nature to long for the exotic.  Think of all those stone pineapples carved in the 1700s on grand country houses, and the craze for hothouse fruits on their dining tables.  Obtaining the unobtainable was a mark of both of prestige and hospitality.

The Dunmore pineapple. Dunmore Park, Scotland

I recently came across a letter which was up for auction (guide price 6,000 to 8,000 euros), addressed to Mme Louise Dupin at the Château de Chenonceau.  M Dupin had bought Chenonceau from the impoverished Duc de Bourbon-Conté in 1733 and his wife became famous for her glittering salons littéraires, where she entertained such luminaries as Rousseau, Voltaire and Montesquieu.

The letter is from Jean Jacques Rousseau and  is dated “This Monday, mid day”, that is the 3rd or 7th February 1772.

“You were kind enough, Madame, to present me with a pomegranate from Italy.  Permit me to send you a Spanish melon, picked in a garden in the Kingdom of Valencia.  These are winter melons, of a variety originally found in Barbary.  They are neither as delicate nor as scented as the others but they make up for it with their delightfully sweet and refreshing juice, and they can be kept the whole winter.  This example has suffered a little on the journey”.

Barbarie (Maroc, Algerie, Tunisie, Lybia) – Mercator – 1630

He’s already thinking of food miles, because he writes: “Try it Madame, without being put off by its appearance, and if you approve of it I will forgive the Duke of Alba, who has just presented it to me, for having brought it from such a distance,”  before redeeming himself by adding:  “I beg you to be kind enough to keep some of the seeds for me”.

Today we have got into the habit of living like 18th century aristocrats, but in so doing we have committed to the wastefulness of food miles whilst simultaneously losing some of the variety and seasonality of our fruit and vegetables. 

In this context by the way, I can highly recommend Adam Alexander’s book “The Seed Detective”, which I received for Christmas.  Thank you Jane, and bravo Adam!

6 thoughts on “Food for a king

  1. A truly mouthwatering post – we are lucky too in Monmouth to have lots of local producers and local independent shops to sell them in, particularly cheese, yoghurt, jams chutneys, wine (Welsh wine is definitely having a moment) and gone although we’ve lost our weekly fish van. Great to see the French are beginning to appreciate parsnips!

    Sent from my iPad


  2. Well we missed wishing you a happy birthday Markus, but it looks as though, somehow, you managed to have one anyway! I all sounds lovely.
    Love to both of you.
    Peter & Haremi.

  3. Your writing and illustrating is unique and very beautiful.
    We do have a lovely fruit and veg stall in the Tuesday morning market here. The mother of the outfit has missed a few cold mornings recently but has been coming here for fifty years. They start at 3 am. Her daughter, Sam, who has the powerful stallholder’s calls, always calls me James, and asks about Lesley. I complimented her mum on a bright red hat the other day and asked to take a photo with my phone. Then I got it printed and took it for her the next week – delighting her in a most rewarding manner. Not a person who gets photographed very often. Or ever.
    But few people realise how precious this is and we have nothing to touch the richness of the community you describe.

    1. That’s a lovely comment James, sorry I missed it. What a very charming story about the red hat and the photo. That sort of interaction is another of the things that makes local shopping and distribution so precious. And yes, market traders start in the cold light of dawn and need stout hearts to cope with the ‘cold mornings’. We owe a lot to them.

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