Sunday, December 7, 2008

La Marché

We have mentioned the Saturday market here in Poitiers before, but in the past, we mostly offered photos of our shopping hauls and brief descriptions of some of the vendors. Technically, the market (the building you see in the background) is open 6 days a week. On any given weekday, up to 1/4 of the vendors are open--these are the businesses that lease permanent stalls inside the building; they clearly pay more, but they also have the convenience of not having to worry about how the weather will affect their sales. On Saturday, all of these indoor vendors are open, in addition to the numerous outdoor vendors who set up tents outside around the market.

One caveat...the "normal" supermarkets here are no joke. They may lack the aisle dedicated to Asian and South American foods, but the selection of meats, cheeses, pastas, olives, wines, and bottled water would put any supermarket in the United States to shame. In the United States, for instance, European-style meats (pancetta, coppa, salami, saucisson sec) are usually industrially-farmed reproductions of inferior quality. US cheeses are similar; they are either imported (in which case they risk sitting too long in their packaging due to cost and over-niche-yness) or they are inferior domestic reproductions. Perhaps this is because the American meat and cheese industry remains stalled where American wine was 30 years ago. Unfortunately, the financial crisis may have dealt a serious blow to the people able and willing to afford well conceived meats and cheeses. Also, France doesn't always pasteurize their cheese, something else that won't happen (legally) in the U.S.

The route we take to the market means one of the first vendors we see is the saucisson man. He usually has a dozen or more varieties of cured sausage and is happy to let you sample them. So far, we have tried: natur (plain), goat cheese, fig, blueberry, blue cheese, chestnut, cepes (mushrooms), donkey, duck, and fennel. We buy them three at a time because they make a perfect snack with cheese, olive oil, cornichons, and artichoke hearts.

Since Poitiers is only about 1.5 hours from the west coast of France (the Bay of Biscay), there is always plenty of seafood at the Saturday market: prawns, salmon, swordfish, monkfish, cod, and other fish we haven't translated yet, as well as shellfish like oysters and scallops. For the most part, the seafood is whole and/or unshelled, and can be cleaned upon request.

The picture just above here is of the seafood man shelling and cleaning the scallops we were planning to prepare for dinner. First we picked them out, then we paid, and then we watched as he deftly pried open the shells, and one after another, cut the scallops free and cleaned and rinsed them. It was truly an amazing thing to watch, and we even considered ordering more scallops just so that we could watch him work a little longer.

We are always used to thinking of seafood (and really everything: cheese, beef, sausage, fruit) by weight, but in reality that is a little misleading. Here they often ask you how many you want, or in the case of cheese and sausage they hold the knife up to the item where they are going to cut and ask for your approval. Occasionally, this leads you to spend a little more than you planned, especially in the case of a certain 45 €/kg aged goat cheese...the aged goat cheese vendor has become the bane of our existence, because we are, in perfect honesty, unable to resist him. We have taken to turning away abruptly whenever we get the slightest glimpse his cheese cart--but this is made incredibly difficult by the fact that he sets up in a different place each week. He is a tricky, tricky fellow and his cheese is really, really good.

The butchers usually specialize in either poultry, pork, or beef and lamb. Besides offering their specialty meat, they frequently also offer cooked dishes (someone who does this would be called a traiteur)--meatloafs, salads, and other cold dishes featuring their meats--and may even have wine to accompany them. The most popular pork butcher is Yves Henaud, where a half dozen guys man the 30 ft counter.

For the first time this week, we arrived at the market with a grocery list based on two recipes we had already decided to make: (1) spiced scallops served on braised red cabbage with pancetta and (2) roquefort-stuffed pork chops. In one sense, this made our trip more difficult, since we had to work harder to stay focused, and make sure that we got everything we were going to need (remember, none of the grocery stores are going to be open on Sunday, so forethought is required). On the other hand, going in with a plan means that the trip takes about half as long, and also that we don't end up with things that we aren't going to be able to use before they get overripe. Today, the only novelty food items we ended up with were free ones, from some of the vendors who have developed an affection for The Two Americans--today, the freebies included: sausages, cherry tomatoes, bay leaves, ginger root, and fresh spinach. It was a good day.

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