Alan Spencer takes time out to shop for dinner at Loire's famous open markets.
François Rabelais, the 16th century gourmet-philosopher, born in Chinon in the heart of the Loire Valley, called it ‘the garden of France’. The soft, luminescent climate which produces succulent wines in specific terroirs also favours open markets gardening. Fields of vegetables and orchards intersperse the vineyards. Goats graze in the scrub areas providing a variety of delicate cheeses. The ancient caves hewn out of the soft tufa rock along the cliffs bordering the valley provide excellent mushroom beds.
Locals gather once a week in town to stock up on fresh produce straight from the grower but market day is a leisurely occasion, an opportunity to greet old friends and pass the time of day. There is a softness in the air and no one seems ill-humoured. Jovial characters like Papinou with his drooping, Asterix-style moustache, black broad-brimmed hat and red scarf, hawking his mouth-watering saucisson pur porc, seem to symbolise the easy-going lifestyle. Chubby-faced Mariella smiles behind her stand stacked with jars of homemade jam (60% fruit – sans conservateur) from her Ferme Fruitière in the Marais.
On the vegetable stalls, Jerusalem artichokes seem to be coming back into favour, swedes and large round turnips called boule d’or, unwashed carrots pulled the previous evening, crisp radishes and bunches of fresh cabbage-hearts. Even the poor potato seems to take on a noble aspect. Apart from the blanches (majestics) for soups, and Charlottes for baking, there are the pink binjes and those delicious kidney-shaped rattes which steamed and peeled go so well with the fish. The local petits gris (snails) are abundant in autumn but the real local speciality is mushrooms – not only those cultivated in the tufa caves, but all the wild mushrooms from the woods: morels, delicate chanterelles and pleurotes plus a local variety called shitaké. Cultivated asparagus is another speciality of the region grown in sand away from light to protect those delicate white tips. Scraped, cooked until tender and served cold, they make a delicious entrée with mayonnaise accompanied by, say, a dry Coteaux du Layon.
Among the charcuterie, boudin blanc (white pudding), rillettes and rillons (potted pork) are also a speciality. In Les Halles (the covered market) in Saumur on a Saturday morning, among the cooked meats you can buy fouées, a sort of flat, round savoury bun. An elderly gentleman buying his Saturday lunch was keen to explain. Pop them in the microwave for half a minute, slice through the middle, then butter the two halves before filling with pâté or rillettes. Eat them like a sandwich, delicious!
La Baule at the mouth of the Loire is only a few hours drive down river so that fresh sea-fish can be laid out from the previous night’s marée (tide), often called ‘La Marée Bretonne’. With fresh seabass, there is a full range of seafood, live crab and oysters, whelks, winkles, cockles and mussels. Closer still are the river-fish, particularly the famous Loire salmon with its pink flesh and thetender sandre (pike-perch) as well as bream, shad, eels and mullet.
Biological foods seem to be coming into their own, perhaps under the impulse of the mad-cow scare. A biological farmer, Bodet in Saint Georges/Layon, proudly announces système de contrôle CEE and a baker called Mathieu Le Goff has a queue at his stand to buy his biological bread au levain baked in a wood-fired oven. When it comes to poultry you can buy it whichever way you wish: live, ready trussed, ready cooked or hot from the spit ready to eat. Poulets de ferme (farm chickens) are available alongside duck, partridge, pheasant and guinea fowl. One smiling lady has a stall full of pigeonneaux (young pigeons) all laid out side by side – fed on maize and corn – and just 32 francs a piece! On display is a photo of her farm with its ranks of pigeon-houses, once the attribute of the aristocracy. In the middle ages, the importance of a nobleman was determined by the size of his dovecote.
Where there are vineyards, orchards and vegetable gardens, there are bound to be flowers. The flower market in Angers on a Saturday morning is a particularly beautiful sight with roses and tulips, jonquils and fragrant mimosa, their perfume mingling with the savoury smells of cooked meats, spit-roast chicken or hot paella from the market. Flowers necessarily attract honey-bees so beekeepers are not far off.
An apiarist in Chinon displays jars of honey from a variety of flowers: rosemary, acacia, lavender, millefleurs. But there are some startling combinations like honey vinegar, honey-mustard, honey-soap, royal jelly, honey-cakes, sweets for a sore throat, syrup, mead and nougat, as well as genuine beeswax polish.
This is a farmers’ market and hardware is part of the trade. Tools of all sorts – kitchen utensils, cutlery and farm implements – are laid out for inspection. Behind the stall, a knife-grinder painstakingly sharpens a rusty scythe on a whetstone worked with a foot pedal. The rag trade has its own separate sector with working clothes for farmers and their wives in the kitchen, but also hats and handbags, shirts and shoes for Sunday best. Strolling through the market on a balmy summer morning is just the thing to stimulate the appetite and give you a different insight into the Garden of France, the Loire.
Tuesday morning: Bourgueil
Wednesday morning: Angers or Tours
Thursday morning: Brissac or Chinon
Friday morning: Montrichard – a very lively market.
Saturday morning: Saumur – (flower market in Angers)