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Farmers' Markets in the Loire Valley

Karen Kenady

I can't think of a more pleasant way to spend the morning, than to visit one of France's farmers' markets.

You wake up, stretch and think: let's have that grande creme at the cafe and see what looks good to eat over the next few days. No recipes in hand, no real ideas, we'll just let the produce speak to us. Ready to go, baskets in hand (as well as re-used plastic bags, so the merchants don't load us down with more), we set off for whatever village is hosting a market.

Markets in the Summer

As I write this, it is full summer. So, our baskets will most likely be laden with ruby red radishes, the very last of the cherries and whatever variety of strawberries they're selling this week. There will be white and yellow peaches, raspberries and plums of all shades. Green and white asparagus are over, after an exceptionally long season. We ate the green, simply roasted with olive oil, sea salt and fresh sprigs of thyme. The white were terrific in the traditional way, steamed and napped with thick creme fraiche, then strewn with chopped chives from the garden. The peels and tips went into a soothing creamed soup, which I asked Craig to make for me every week, it was so good. Actually, it got to the point that he finally said: "Enough"!

But, there are still mountains of haricot verts overflowing raffia baskets, next to heaps to lettuces, the drops of dew still clinging to their leaves. In another basket, a passel of deep purple eggplants vie with yellow, green, orange and red peppers. And that's just the vegetable and fruit sellers.

France Farmers Markets

At the cheese stalls, you will find pungent ovals of lait cru delights from all over France. Our closest market, in Montrichard, has three local makers of chevre cheese alone. A goat cheese renown in the Touraine for its creaminess and clear grassy tones. There are at least eight bleus to choose from, hard peppery cheeses like, Comte or Abondance, soft delicate ones, some finished using Marc or Eau de Vie and others rolled in raisins, paprika or ash. It's a tough choice and most everyone I know (including me!) buy too many. But, then how can one beat a variety, with a baguette and a bottle of wine, while sitting on the banks of the Cher river, watching the Kingfishers and Turns dive for their own lunches?

And if there is too much cheese left by the end of the week, it can be transformed into what in Provence they call cachat and here what the equivalent in English would be "old bits". Chevre and bleu are essential, but just about anything else can be grated and added with a touch of garlic, milled black pepper and some Cognac. You end up with a spreadable mixture that only improves over the following week.

France farmers markets

Now, if you feel lazy and also long for some meat, you can pick up a golden roasted chicken at the market, along with a barquette de pommes de terre (little peeled potatoes, that have been slowly cooking under the chickens, soaking up all those lovely juices and fat - scrumptious, truly!!). There are spit-roasted pork ribs, half a rabbit, duck, turkey thighs or quail farci with herbed sausage meat.

After a run-through, it's time for that grande creme, or if the hour dictates, a cold demi-pression, while making our list of how best to combine the treasures we've both spotted.

We try and make lunch our big meal to linger over. The baby lamb chops looked great to BBQ, marinated with olive oil, garlic and mint from the pot on the pool deck. Haricot verts, tossed with browned bread crumbs and 200 grams of new potatoes we bought still with the earth clinging to them, cleaned, steamed and topped with salty butter. For dessert: strawberries, held by their stems and dunked into a glass of red wine.

After our siesta, a few laps in the pool, some gardening and then a book along side a glass of Chenin-sec. More laps in the pool and time to ruminate on what's for dinner. You find you can get a lot into a day, as in full summer the sun doesn't set until 10:30 or so, which means suppertime around then too.

Onto dinner. Craig found a rabbit pate with hazelnuts to go with a six-grain bread that we love. A trio of cheeses and a squeaky Batavia lettuce that we dress simply with our own rose wine vinaigrette. Candles now lit, music on lowly to hear the owls swooping above us.

Pretty much a perfect end to a delightful day.

France farmers markets

This was Friday and we have friends for Saturday and Sunday. The appetizer, when they arrive is some leftover chevre from yesterday, that we scatter in a terra cotta dish, sprinkle with a mix of chopped herbs (rosemary, oregano, thyme and hyssop), cover with a thin layer of tomato sauce, more herb mixture and some black olives. You then grill it until everything bubbles and spread it on hunks of baguette. This never misses! (This comes from Patricia Wells' "Home in Provence".)

The late lunch (about 2pm) is simple and easy. Craig takes a farm chicken, puts basil under the skin and steams for five minutes (cuts down on flare-ups on the BBQ - old Korean trick), tosses a preserved lemon in the cavity and onto the BBQ until crisp and brown. An assortment of roasted vegetables, also on the BBQ and set on a bed of couscous. Homemade raspberry sorbet (with the berries from the garden) gets pulled out of the freezer for dessert.

Then a long nap.

By about 7pm, everyone is on the pool deck or swimming, chatting and sipping cold rose. Dinner was prepared while our guests were doing the lunch dishes. Vine ripe tomatoes, hollowed out and filled with herbed sausage meat, dotted with butter and set on a bed of uncooked rice, each in individual terra cottas. The rice is cooked by the juices of the tom. and meat, making a one dish meal and delish. For dessert: a bowl full of yellow and white peaches that have been splashing about in some red wine a tad of sugar.

It's now Sunday and the famous Market in Amboise, along the banks of the Loire river. Hundreds of stalls selling everything from polyester house dresses, to just fried Nems, breads, cheeses, fish and meats of all descriptions, plants, flowers and kittens looking for a home. Gigantic pans of paella or coq a vin or boeuf bourgonon. The smells make you want to buy everything, but being the wise hosts we are, we send our guests off to find and buy on their own, as it's their turn to please our taste buds. And succeed they did.

They returned with a variety of olives and tapenades to start. Cavaillon melons, at 1 Euro a piece went nicely with Bayonne ham sliced wafer thin. Too many cheeses (again!), a couple of dried sausages and followed by a selection of tiny little pastries that looked like gems.

France farmers market

For fun, we tallied up their receipts and found they'd only spent 80 Euro, including four bottles of wine (or about $110) for the 6 of us, with leftovers for their journey home. (All of the pastries were gone however.) Who says France is expensive?

Markets in the Fall

Inevitably, summer turns to fall and the scene changes. Tourists are back home or at school. Hunting season has begun, so you find pigeons, pheasants, grouse, wild boar and venison. The vegetables are now radicchios, Swiss chard and cauliflower. We make this into a luscious gratin from an old recipe of MFK Fisher's, when she was living in France in the 50s. You separate the flowerets, blanch in boiling water, cover with heavy cream, a thick coating of grated gruyere, some pepper and bake until golden. That, some bread to sop up the sauce, a glass or two of red and you're done.

One day in early fall, when the temperatures require a sweater and a blaze in the fireplace is not unwelcome, we came across a bent-over old man in the market, wearing a beret and buying pig's ears - just the ears - from the man we always try and buy our pork from. You've just got to ask, right? What will he be doing with them? He told us that he would put them on the grill in his fireplace, with some salt and cook them until they were crisp. So, we bought the last 2 ears to try. I must admit, they were pretty chewy and must be an acquired taste, as we haven't bought any since. But, when in France ...

Markets in the Winter

The winter months are usually our quiet ones. We read books we didn't get a chance to read during the "season". We work on the cottages for the upcoming year of guests, making improvements and changes every year to surprise our roster of returning guests and friends.

And, we continue to visit the markets.

France farmers markets

Now is the time of robust soups of roasted pumpkin, from our neighbor farmer, or Craig's legendary spicy lentil soup that someone gave him a recipe for, so many years ago that we don't remember who or when, with lentils grown by a local farmer, who still uses a horse to plow the fields.

There are daubes and stews that we serve with noodles or mashed potatoes with garlic and olive oil. Leek gratins or blue cheese gratins with bits of smoked ham hidden inside. Cassoulets.

A jar of conserved tomatoes comes out of the pantry for a pasta sauce, mixed with basil we'd put under oil at the end of the summer. Suddenly, July arrives in the kitchen.

Apple crumbles. Reine-Claude from our trees, that we'd picked/pitted and frozen to make a summer-fresh tart. This reminds us that spring will come again and the bounty than comes with it.

Twelve months out of the year, there are these markets and the farmers who make it all possible. (We continually ask ourselves why anyone would chose to go to a supermarket, when they can visit one of these many markets, knowing just where what they're eating came from.) These men and women work hard, their hands show it.

We've just returned from the market. It was 7:30 when we got there and the fishmongers were almost set up. The vegetable vendors were arranging their goods and the boulangerie was just opening up, the fragrance of croissants and fresh bread luring us in.

We had the grande creme at our local bar, but Craig realized he'd forgotten his wallet and we had no money. The owner of the bar said no problem and would we like him to loan us some money for the market?

Who says the French are snotty? So, we'll go back in a while and pay him, meet our friends over a demi-pression and pick up a couple of live crabs for lunch today.

We love this part of France and the dedication from these folks, who love it just as much as we do. Only it's in their blood. So, we follow the seasons along with them and enjoy.

Karen runs La Barauderie, vacation rentals in the Loire Valley, France.

© Karen Kenady, 2007

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