Friday, April 24, 2009


A couple of summers ago, I spent a week here, and was delighted by "the first Montpellier biennale of contemporary Chinese art," a sprawling thing that was set up all over town and had some astonishing pieces in it. I had been resigned to the fact that the city I was hoping to move to wouldn't be as interesting, art-wise, as the one I was leaving, even if by that time Berlin's more creative galleries had closed and the city's culture establishment was on the ropes and fading fast. I knew I was in a city where the only museum featured a definitive collection of a period of art that I hate, and figured that maybe I could re-fuel on occasional visits to Paris.

For some reason, I wasn't particularly surprised when the time for the next Chinese biennale came and went and nothing happened.

This, of course, doesn't keep me from stopping into free exhibits here. The Pavillion Populaire, just across the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle from the Fabre, has some interesting photo shows -- I saw one on Weegee there that was great (except for the silly captions) and another on panoramic photography which stretched the definition a bit but was otherwise fascinating.

And the other day I was wandering around the St. Anne district and saw that the church in the square, long deconsecrated and now a venue for art shows, was having another biennale, this one the Biennale of Young Creators in Europe and the Mediterranean. Well, actually, what they were showing were the local participants, out of a larger number who'll be showing in Skopje in September.

It's always good to tote a bit of skepticism into a show like this, as a way of protecting yourself from disappointment. With most of these artists in their 20s, you're going to find a lot of unfinished ideas, a lot of pretentious flailing, and, maybe, one or two who show promise. And so it is with this one.

The first piece you'll notice, I guarantee, is Reynald Garéaux' "Blackscape," which might have looked good on paper, but doesn't seem to be panning out. What you have is a large wooden box, its top painted white. Within the box is a speaker, from which, at regular intervals, a really low, loud, bass note issues. A bunch of black pigment has been laid on the box, and I guess the idea was that the sound waves would cause patterns in it. Two visits to the show, though, show that the only thing that's happened is that the pigment has spread out and, yesterday, some of it had spilled onto the floor. Another better-in-planning-than-execution piece stands near it, Cédric Jolivet's "General Space Mobility," a tower on which is mounted a few round mirrors. It's supposed to represent a cell-phone tower, only with mirrors, geddit, and it does seem to achieve a limited success with kids, who love to make faces while standing in front of it.

There are several pieces by artists who you realize are going to turn 50 teaching art in provincial universities, bitter that their genius as youngsters was never recognized, and a couple you want to come back to when they've figured stuff out. In the latter category are Alexandre Giroux, whose "X-Ville" photos of a fake town built for police training beg for a little more attitude or point of view or...well, something, and a group of several people who got together to create "Etc...," an outsized case shaped like a metronome which contains a metronome clicking away furiously, its signal picked up by a mike which feeds it to an electronic circuit which only allows some of the clicks to be broadcast to the outside world. This got my "so what else can you do" award.

And, inevitably, there's going to be the artist whose work just stands there with uncommon brililance. There's nothing that Aurore Valade is doing that hasn't been done before, nor are there questions in her work which haven't been asked before, but boy, does she do a good job. The spooky, dreamy feeling her cramped interiors give off is, you soon realize, due to intense manipulation of the images. These pieces take a long time, and no doubt many sittings, to create. The deeper you look into them, the more details you see, and, if you're lucky, the more you realize that the potential narratives they imply don't exist, but, rather, are red herrings, very clever red herrings. Which then makes you question the validity of the image, and on and on. Valade is the kind of artist who has seized on something which, if she doesn't get bogged down with academia or art-world politics too much, can fuel a lifelong career. I look forward to the one-woman retrospective in, oh, ten years.

Biennale des Jeunes créateurs, through May 31. Carrée Ste. Anne, open...well, in typical style it doesn't say on the website, but I'd guess Tues-Sat, 10am-6pm. Seems safe enough...

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


A couple of months back, I was asked by some of the students in Prof. CC's class if they could interview me for a project they were doing. As part of their Masters degree studies in Negotiation of International Projects, they were producing a presentation on wine tourism in the Languedoc, and wanted an American's perspective.

So, one uncommonly nice afternoon, I sat at a table outside the Bar Vert Anglais and answered some questions. Someone pointed a video camera at me the whole time and I was told that there would be a presentation at the end of April.

Yesterday was the presentation, held at the Château de Flaugergues, a place which has been producing wine since 1696 and is actually within the Montpellier city limits. The interview I'd done was part of a film, a fake news report from "O-TV" (Oenotourism TV), which featured numerous other interviews, with vintners and others in the industry. Afterwards, Pierre de Colbert, the winemaker in charge at Flaugergues, would lead a discussion of wine tourism, and after that would be a tasting of some of his wines.

The film was hilarious -- unintentionally so. The anchorwoman read so fast, and with such odd inflection, that it was impossible to tell what she was saying, although it was obvious she was having a good time. There were the usual flubs and goofs, but hey, it's a student film! It turned decidedly surreal, though, when it came to my interview. My voice had changed, gotten raspier, and had a distinct French accent. Apparently the background noise during the interview had overwhelmed what I was saying, so someone dutifully transcribed it and read it! Many apologies were offered afterwards, but I just thought it was funny. And, seriously, they'd had three months to put this project together from conception to execution, and nobody involved was a videographer or a sound engineer.

The discussion involved some professionals, though. Pierre de Colbert is the son of the count who runs the tourist end of the Chateau de Flaugergues, and he's the hands-on wine guy. His concern was how he balanced that with the fact that the chateau and grounds were a tourist attraction. "My job," he said several times, "is to sell wine." That, of course, is the job of every wine-maker, and given the competition, even within France -- let alone the problem of selling an area which, if it's known at all, is known for low-quality wines -- is a full-time job. And even if you have a good product, between the fickle wine market and the uncertainty that comes with all farming, it doesn't mean you're going to make a living. Also on the panel was a M. Frechet from a winery I wrote down as Domaine de Mascart*, although I see no such place exists. His winery, in business since 1804, almost collapsed, and his brother gave him an ultimatum; change or die. He looked at the land, found 40 hectares of vines he figured he could do without, pulled them up, and put in a campground. The campground makes the remaining 50 hectares of vines profitable, and finances upgrades in the winemaking. Also on the panel was a university student, Francis Linn Scott, who apparently has some winemaking experience and knows lots about the scene in his native Washington. Much was made by him and de Colbert about the difficulty of cracking the US market, not just for French wines, but for wines that originate in one state and want to be sold in another.

What I found most odd about the whole thing was that there was nobody from the tourist bureau of Montpellier, the Hérault region, or Languedoc-Roussillon. Nobody. It was like they weren't interested in what these students had discovered in their research, or in M. de Colbert's and M. Frechet's insights, let alone the issue of attracting English-speaking tourists to the area using wine and food as a hook. Very odd, but then, I'd been warned many times that this was a provincial city, so I was more disappointed than surprised.

One good idea that came up during the Q&A was floated by a feisty geezer from Liverpool, who suggested that a wine club be set up. "All the wine clubs in Britain are all over the place: this month Italian, next month Bulgarian, you never know what you'll get. What if a number of wineries in the Languedoc cooperated to ship off a box of assorted wines with information about the terroir and so on each month?" Great idea; someone should run with it, but see the preceding paragraph. This mindset might be too deeply ingrained. Maybe not.

Sad to say, the sinus infection I've had for the past couple of weeks flared up again, so I can't report about the taste of M. de Colbert's wines. I did buy a couple for layaway, though, including le vin d'Uncle Charles and a plain old Château de Flaugergues. The place is actually so close that I could walk there in a leisurely 30 minutes if I knew where I was going (and I think I do), so it'd be no problem to go back. Not that I have to: they've got a stand in the Halles Castellanes just up the hill, opposite the Vert Anglais.

There was one other disappointment, besides the tourism offices' boycott, and it was a big one. There is a huge series of gardens attached to the château, and we were urged to wander around while waiting for the computerized video thing to get fixed. These signs were all around:

"Does that mean there are hedgehogs here?" I asked. Yes, I was told, but they don't come out until it starts getting dark. Curses. I've always wanted to see a hedgehog. Oh, well, at least now I know I live in a town that has them.


* This has all been cleared up in the first comment. Thanks, Peter.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Breakfast With Agamemnon

Obviously, one of the first things I had to do once I moved in was to set up a place to eat. For this, I used my battred old Ikea table, set in front of the kitchen window. And when I sat down to eat breakfast, I was staring at this dude:

As my foggy brain woke up, I found myself trying to decode this. Who was this guy? Well, the little bas-reliefs surrounding him read Greek to me: the garlanded cow skull...didn't I remember that from the Iliad? Ditto the armor that looked like skin. The helmet, too, looked a bit Greek. He's flanked, a couple of arches in either direction, by heads of women, and their headdressing, hair and what appears to be a bonnet, also seems vaguely Greek.

Looked at in context, though, the whole thing is even more mysterious:

To start with, old Agamemnon (if that's who he is -- that's what I've dubbed him, anyway) is flanked by a couple of dragons. That's hardly consistent with the Greek thing. The stained-glass window below is even nutsier: harts, gryphons, unicorns, lions...and, in the center, images of two couples.

The answer to the riddle is actually quite banal. I'm looking at the back of a building from the 19th century. True, it has a plaque from the local historical preservation folks on it, but that just announces that it has a magnificent staircase, which I've never seen. The tenants I can see are two, with an empty floor up on the top which features an open window which slams shut repeatedly during windstorms. I keep waiting for the glass in it to break, but so far it hasn't.

On the ground floor is a lutherie, one of several here in the center city, run by Fréderic Becker, who employs a number of folks who occasionally gather in the courtyard to smoke or to run the bandsaw -- or, on occasion, to play ping-pong.

Upstairs from M. Becker is the local chapter of the Alliance Francaise, which the local equivalent of the Goethe Institut or the Institute Cervantes, a government-sponsored organization for spreading the language and culture of the country. (America doesn't have such a thing; instead it has Hollywood). In order to get to them, you have to ascend the mighty, listed staircase, which sure looks grand, even in that tiny photo. (Not so good are the prices for language courses; I've got a connection to a woman who charges ten euros an hour, and hope to brush up my ability to listen and understand with her as soon as some more work starts coming in). The biggest problem I have with the Alliance is that they can look into my bedroom, since their floor level is slightly higher than mine. I don't see many people walking around, but there are some curtains which I think must keep the place cool in summer. On one of their windowsills, someone's got a couple of window-boxes.

So, basically, this was a grand house, what the french call a hôtel, built by some provincial egomaniac in the late 19th century, who used an architect who knew his grandeur and didn't mind mixing it up in confusing ways as long as it said "you are a nobleman, even if those days are past" to his client.

And because of all of that, I have to wake up each morning and eat breakfast under the stony glaze of Agamemnon (if, indeed, it is he) and then, later, sit at my desk and write looking at the downcast eyes of a very bored-looking "Greek" maiden. And, of course, all that bas-reliefed armor.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

La Comida Mexicana...en Montpellier?

Big shout-out to Barry for this one. I read the Languedoc Pages' expat forum each day, and some months ago, before I moved down here, he mentioned that there was a scrupulously authentic Mexican restaurant in town. Now, I happened to know that Barry is British, so I filed that under "yeah, sure."

Then I was walking down the Avenue de Toulouse and saw, in the parking lot of the Casino supermarket, what appeared to be a Mexican restaurant. By now, I was well aware of what passes for "Mexican" in Europe: paella, chicken wings, and made-up dishes. There are almost never any tortillas involved, and when there are, they tend to be flour, since they're easily enough made from locally-available ingredients. So I didn't investigate.

So last week, Barry came over here to help me with a computer problem, he being a Mac user. The problem wasn't solved, but we spent lots of time waiting for stuff to not happen, and I asked him about this tossed-off comment. "It's in the parking lot of Casino," he said. "On the Avenue de Toulouse." He also swore an Americn friend of his loved it.

Today being nice, and me being at loose ends, I decided to go check it out. The menu was incredible. Chile relleno, chicken mole, enchiladas, tamales, tortilla soup, sopa Azteca, pico de gallo, salad with nopalitos, all manner of things. No chicken wings in sight. I stood there so long that the lady who runs the place came out and asked if she could help me. Well, yeah, but I wasn't even a little hungry. We started talking and I told her I was very impressed by the menu, that it was all authentic and I was eager to try the stuff. Her French stumbled quite a bit, and finally she asked if I spoke English. She told me she'd been in business 11 years, but would probably retire once the building she was in was sold, although there was no hint of when that might be. She said she opens at 7 in the evening (she's also open for lunch) and stays open as long as there are customers. This Friday, there will be a big party and then she'll close for two weeks and go on vacation.

"People come in here and ask for tapas," she said. "I tell them we don't do that. Botanitas, yes, but that's a different thing." I told her there wasn't much on the menu with corn tortillas, and she smiled. "Those are for people who know what they are. I have them."

I said I hoped she found another location, but she said "Oh, if I retire I'll still do catering. Just call the number on my portable, and I'll cook!"

So, for a limited time only, this exotic cuisine is available here in Montpellier. I figure by the time she gets back from vacation, I'm going to be very ready for a visit. We did most of our talking inside the restaurant, and the smell was out of this world. Thus, I have high expectations. Anyone else want to join me?

Luna y Sol Restaurante Mexicano, 4, rue François Mireur, 34070 Montpellier. Phone 04 67 27 60 25. Free parking in the Casino lot.

Monday, April 13, 2009

And Often, There Must Be A Beverage...

It's kind of ironic that I've wound up in the largest wine-producing region of France. For decades, most notably those decades during which I learned about food, taught myself to cook, explored the varied cuisines available to me in California, and began seriously thinking about them, I was utterly allergic to the stuff. I had friends, one couple in particular, who would often pinch pennies to acquire a certain bottle of French wine of great repute, and they'd invite me over for dinner when they served it. Smart move: one small glass and I'd have to stop, leaving the rest of the bottle for them to enjoy. I would get dry, my eyes in particular, which would lead to photophobia, increased sensitivity to light. My mouth would be dry, no matter how much water I drank, and in the morning I would have one hell of a hangover -- on a few ounces of alcohol.

Thanks to this, I became something of an expert on beer, and the kind of cooking it pairs well with, which, given the microbrew revolution in the States, actually put me way ahead of the curve. I flew to Belgium twice to do stories on Belgian beers, of which there are over 400 in that country the size of Connecticut, and of course Germany seemed like heaven until I realized that nearly all the beers have a very narrow compass of taste.

Then, sometime in the early '90s, I went on a driving vacation in Italy with a friend from Berlin: I flew into Berlin, we rented a car there, and drove the rest of the way, The first night, we had a meal that went well with Moretti, that lovely, crisp Italian beer. The next morning, we awoke and drove south. It seemed that every square foot not planted with olives was planted with vines. We checked into a hotel in Alba, and I decided to look it up in a book called The Pocket Guide to Italian Food and Wine, which I was using as a bible. It said that this was the center for "Italy's best-kept wine secret," arneis, a local white which just happened to be on the menu where we ate dinner -- and affordable. I figured, hey, if I get sick, I won't do it again, but I just had to try it.

Nothing happened. Nor did it for the rest of the trip, where I tried all manner of Tuscan and Piemontese wines along with the food they were designed to accompany. As with many allergies, mine had, somewhere along the way, simply gone away. It happens, often in 7-year cycles. And so, after my return to the States, I began a belated investigation into this lovely stuff.

I was at something of a disadvantage. First, and most importantly, I was over 40 by this point, and my taste buds just weren't what they had been in my 20s, which would have been the natural time to begin to learn all of this. Second, my tasting was restricted to what I could afford and what I could buy in Texas, where I was living. Although the boom has changed this, Austin, at the time, wasn't much of a wine town, but I did have some help from a guy at Whole Foods (at that time, there was only one in the world, just down the hill from me). A particularly nice Burgundy they had was a favorite. Some years later, I'd be in Burgundy and watch some winos in a park passing a bottle of it around. Hey, it was six bucks in the States; probably a lot less there, price isn't everything, and frankly, is it surprising that winos in Burgundy would have good taste?

So my haphazard tasting experience and random access resulted in an incomplete but interesting set of values. Once I moved to Montpellier, though, I was in an enviable position. One thing you can always count on in France is regional chauvinism. And although the region I live in, Languedoc-Roussillon, has been saddled with a reputation as an area that overproduces and makes some of the worst wine in France, that very reputation has been seized on as a challenge by local winemakers in recent years, and there have been some remarkable exceptions to that perception. A younger generation has taken over in a lot of wineries, and there's also been a heavy emphasis on organic farming. The upshot is that not only are there some amazing wines being made around here (and I do mean around here: I can take a bus to one local winery in about 10 minutes) but the prices remain pretty low. A friend sent me a list of wines that had gotten high grades from a French rating organization, and I wrote back "Oh, sure, like I'm going to find any of these at Monoprix." That very afternoon, I found one of them at Monoprix.

Now, in order to use the term "Coteaux de Languedoc" on the label, the wine has to be made of a mixture of three to four kinds of grapes -- and those only: Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache, and sometimes Carignan or Cinsaut. (These are for the reds, incidentally). Thus, if I stick to these wines, I'm able to explore some of the deeper implications of what terroir, the specificities of weather systems, temperature, and most particularly soil conditions, can do to the taste of a wine.

So I'm learning. And, having learned some, I'm anxious to get out and see what's out there where the stuff is made. There are two very nearby areas, St. Georges d'Orques and St. Drézéry, I'm particularly interested in, since I really like the combinations their wines seem to revolve around. (No, sorry, don't expect me, yet, to do the standard wine-tasting routine of naming flavors. I may never get there, actually.) The former area has a winery called Domaine de la Prose, which claims that not only has the area been producing wine since Godefrois, Bishop of Maguelone, had vines planted there in 1095, but that Thomas Jefferson was a customer. (The oldest continuously producing winery in the area --and maybe in France -- is the Abbaye de Valmagne). The latter region features a very confusing area called Puech Haut, which I can't even pronounce correctly, but which has a chateau producing some of the region's best wines.

And it should be noted that so far I've just started learning the reds. Fair enough, but there's another discovery waiting: the big secret of this area of France is the rosés. I can sympathize if you don't seem all that enthusiastic; I, too, have had enough Mateus to last a lifetime. But when the weather warms up, and chilled wine is refreshing with salads and seafood, I'm going to see what's up with them. I've already had a head-start: that wine I found at Monoprix, Domaine Ollier-Taillefer, makes a rosé I decided to have one day when I made some mussels. It practically assaulted me with a kaleidoscope of tastes -- fruits, flowers, I don't know what all -- and made me realize that there's a whole other world out there that you never hear about, wines as robust and complex as the reds that just don't get the publicity.

There's a movement at the moment to market the Languedoc-Roussillon to English-speaking wine tourists, and I'm quite interested in whether they'll approach Americans, or just the Brits who've known about this place for some time. Heaven knows, this part of France is virtually unknown in America, which makes it a considerable bargain. And the wine is just one part of that, but, this being France, an imporant one. I still have lots to learn, but I hope to report some of that knowledge in real time here. Stay tuned.

Thursday, April 9, 2009


One of the things I like about living in the centre ville here is that it's pretty much a hundred percent pedestrianized. It has to be: at best, most of these streets were made for horses, not even carriages, and the further you go from a main street, the more likely it is that not even a horse could get down there.

You can, of course, get into the pedestrianized zone: motorized bollards controlled by radio block the main streets, and a little negotiation with a special police station will get you a permit for your vehicle to get into the center for a limited time, either once or indefinitely: Nick, who owns the Bar Vert Anglais, picks up supplies and food every couple of days, but he has to rush the stuff into the place because he's got to get his car out before his time is up. The fines, I hear, are stupendous. (Unfortunately, this ban doesn't apply to motorcycles and scooters, although so far that's not much of a problem. We'll see when summer comes.)

At any rate, what this means is that I have to walk everywhere, which has always been my preferred mode of transportation, not only because it allows me to get some exercise, but it also allows me to exercise my writer's eye, always looking for details, always looking for stories unfolding around me.

There are two main streets which I use almost every day. The rue de la Loge is the one which runs uphill from the Comédie up to the Place Castellanne, and the rue Saint Guilhem goes at a right angle from there downhill. The former is lined at the bottom with expensive shops, then, at the Place Jean Jaurès, bars and restaurants (and a good butcher) take over. The latter is a very dangerous street for me, because it's got a great cooking supply shop, a shop specializing in local wines, a CD store, and M. Puig's astonishing cheese shop. It's also got some more down-to-earth places, like a tabac/magazine shop, a late-night grocery, and a few of the ubiquitous cell-phone shops. Both of these streets have brass studs in them emblazoned with scallop shells, since they were on the route pilgrims took to Santiago de Compostella, the most important site of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages

Rue St. Guilhem empties into the rue du Faubourg du Courreau, which is quite funky, with a lot of Arab businesses on it, several translation services, some cyber-cafes, and an African wig-and-grocery shop. There are some odd hotels on some of the streets feeding off of this street, including an actual no-star hotel called the Hotel Abyss. No way I'm even approaching that one.

The combination of good climate and wealthy people naturally attracts lots of beggars, from the traditional Romany ones, women with children who perch by bank cash machines or else wheel their toddlers right in front of you and demand cash, to what I guess are now also traditional sorts, dreadlocked kids with dogs on strings. There are also a couple of odd ones. A very middle-class-looking woman sits in doorways with a cardboard sign reading AIDEZ-MOI (help me), making me wonder what her story is. I did catch her one time reading an astrology magazine on a day when not too many people were in the streets, and another time buying vermouth (vermouth?) in the Monoprix. There's another guy up by Jean Jaurès who has a substantial fan-club. People are always stopping to chat with him and pat his dog and give him money. Maybe a local celebrity fallen on hard times. There's a deeply tanned old man who just sits with his hand out, grinning into his beard, and running off to buy a tot of brandy as soon as he's acquired enough money. Over by the Polygone shopping mall, there's a guy in fatigues who kneels, back ramrod straight, holding one hand out, the other clenched into a fist behind his back. Another Polygone regular is a woman with a business plan. If you've been in a Catholic church here, you've seen lots of brochures and magazines, very glossy, good production values, all for the taking. She takes them, and then sells them, sitting on the sidewalk. Old ladies, probably rationalizing that they're not giving money to beggars, but aiding a pious soul in need, buy them from her.

In a category all their own are the armies of solicitors for charities, mostly college-aged kids, very polite, very friendly, all wearing identical coats for the Red Cross, something called AIDeS, and Médécines du Monde. Having had 15 euros per month vacuumed out of my bank account for two years by the German Red Cross, I avoid them.

So on a scale going from the guy-with-hand-out up to the entrepreneuse, the next step up is the buskers. Again, the Polygone, with people going to shop, or going to the Antigone neighborhood behind it, is a good place to do this. There's a very odd African guy with a duct-taped acoustic guitar who is often there, playing and singing softly in a number of languages, then breaking off to preach incomprehensibly, also in a number of languages. The grave subject of his preaching, that the world is going to end and all unsaved people will go directly to Hell, is undercut by his tendency to dissolve in whoops of laughter. He's a very interesting guitarist, but creeps me out a bit too much for me to stand and listen to him for very long. Another low-end musician who can be found here and on the rue de la Loge also totes an acoustic guitar and sings Bob Marley songs loudly and badly. He's got a sign reading JUST FOR DRUGS AND ALCOHOL, which is commendable in its frankness, but he's also prone to loudly abuse passersby in English and French for not giving him money.

Moving up the scale from them, we find the Black Gypsy (le Gitane Noir), who is just that: a black guy who has a real knack for French-Spanish gypsy music -- and has two CDs for sale, both in his guitar case and at the CD store on St. Guilhem. He performs with a lot of personality, and I suspect he does quite well. There are also normal gypsies, who, being gypsies, aren't regulars, but can often be found, especially around Jean Jaurès, performing gypsy jazz or flamenco.

My favorite of the solo performers, though, is a tall, thin guy who sets up in a number of places around town, but can almost always be found on Sundays on the rue de la Loge standing in a doorway that must be particularly well-suited for his acoustics. With his small white dog hanging out, he plays Delta blues and other black popular music of the '20s and '30s on...a ukelele. It's totally wrong, but somehow he makes it work. Just as his instrument is wrong, so is his singing: he is clearly not imitating anyone, but, rather, he's got a very "square" style which straightens out the bluesiness of the originals into more conventional shapes. He looks like an R. Crumb character with his odd little hat, the white dog, and the tiny instrument and his beanpole body. I wonder how many of the lyrics he sings he actually understands.

I may have even figured out approximately where he lives: several times I've been walking down the steps on the rue du Bras de Fer and heard Memphis Minnie or the Mississippi Sheiks playing out of an apartment. I've never located the source, but who else in this city would be living on a steady diet of such stuff?

And that brings up another thing about the streets here that I'm hoping to learn: where do these names come from? The street of the arms of iron? What's that about? Presumably the rue de Huile once had an oil press on it, but what went on on the rue de Four des Flammes, the street of the flaming oven? Who were the black sisters who gave the rue des Soeurs Noires its name? Evil nuns? There's the mysterious green horse of the rue du Cheval Vert. And then there's the street where I'm afraid I'm doomed to live out the rest of my life, the rue Gagne-Petit, the street of earning little.

Oh, it's not all that romantic, not by a long shot. We have a Gambetta, like most French cities, a Louis Pasteur, a Voltaire, and so on. But unlike Berlin, which often has a helpful bio on a street sign ("Poet: 1843-1875"), Montpellier keeps you guessing.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

To Market, To Market

When I looked at the clock immediately upon waking up, my heart sank. It was 10:30. Dang. Yesterday I'd awoken at 8:30 feeling refreshed, but this was Saturday morning, and I'd hoped for the same timing. I was going to have to hurry if I was going to catch the market at the Arceaux.

My first experience with this was when I'd checked in to the Hotel des Arceaux on an early visit here. I'd arrived on a Friday evening, and when I opened the curtains the next morning, there, underneath the arches of the fake-Roman aqueduct bringing water to Montpellier's fountains, was a churning mass of humanity. Humanity and vegetables.

After breakfast, I went over to check it out and was immediately overwhelmed. Two things struck me immediately: the quality was, for the most part, very high. So, too, were the prices. The variety was also astonishing: there were vegetables and a couple of fruits I'd never seen before. Nor, upon closer inspection, was it just fruits and vegetables. There was a trailer which opened out into a veritable museum of local cheeses. A couple of stands were selling more varieties of olives than I had ever seen. Local beekeepers sold honey and beeswax candles, one guy had about thirty artisinal varietal olive oils with the place of origin (and a stratospheric price) on each, and there were also stands selling small pastries, stuffed cuttlefish, and breads. I already wanted to move here, but this was just fuelling the desire.

A couple of summers ago, I drove down here with a friend, with the intention of exploring the surrounding countryside in places not served by buses and cars. It was a great week, and I'm dying to return to some of those places, but eventually the last day came and it was time to leave. We were at the Hotel des Arceaux, and it was Saturday morning. We packed the car, and I decided I had to take some of this bounty back to Berlin. At the time, melons were in season, spherical ones with ribbing that delimited areas with webbing like canteloupes have. I figured they must taste good, so I'd bring a couple back. The place to get them was at the truck of a farmer, loaded with nothing else, who was selling them for €1.49 apiece. "I'd like two," I said. He didn't budge. "When were you planning to eat them?" he asked. It would take us two days to drive back to Berlin, so I told him one in two days and the other two days after that. He nodded and walked to the pile. For the next few minutes, he picked, thumped, smelled, and rejected melons. Finally, he had one in his hands. Then, a second. He walked back to me. "This one first," he said, proffering a melon, "and this next." He was exactly right, unsurprisingly: the first melon was absolutely at its peak when I opened it, while the second was still a bit hard. And the second was right on time. Best of all, the car on the drive back to Berlin smelled of ripening melons and summer in the Languedoc.

Once I moved here, I couldn't wait to return to the Arceaux market, which happens on Tuesday and Saturday, from way early to 1pm, with some different vendors on the different days. Alas, it was late November when I arrived, and there wasn't much of interest except carrots and some lettuce, so I stopped trying to raise myself out of bed on time for it. Anyway, because of my lack of internet connection, it was much more important to get to the Bar Vert Anglais and use the wi-fi, since there was business to do.

But across from the Vert Anglais is another market, the kind of indoor market-hall the French call les Halles. This one is in a fairly ugly building which also houses a Virgin Megastore, and has a nice selection of merchants. I'd already met the couple who run the Italian deli, because they were in the habit of stopping by the Vert Anglais for an apéro before getting on their motorcycle and heading back home. I still haven't bought anything from them because of the limited selection (no Parmesan?) and expense: I've never before seen ravioli priced per, um, raviolum. But it was one of the cheese merchants who got me in there first: they had veritable Cheddar d'angleterre, and I hadn't had any of that in ages. And, when I made the comparison, their stuff was only pennies more than the more industrial stuff at Inno. Then, after a trip to the Arceaux one weekend, I noticed that eggs were substantially cheaper, both there and at the Halles, if you chose to look for the cheaper ones -- and fresher.

There are two other covered markets here in the central city, but I haven't spent much time checking them out. (The Halles Jacques Coeur, over in the Antigone district not far from me, does have a better Italian joint, though, and I keep meaning to go back to them). Indeed, putting a visit into the covered market just up the hill has yet to become part of my routine, although I have bought olives, saucisses secs, and pine nuts from an olive-and-sausage vendor who sets up just outside. It's all too easy to roll off to the Inno, but the more I cruise the Halles and the market at the Arceaux, the more attention I pay to what's available from local farmers and artisans and what it costs. I can't wait for the season to really get going: one vegetable I've never had is wild asparagus, which is sold in bundles and looks like green wheat. There were two others at the Arceaux today, some green stalks, and some leaves on stalks which I didn't recognize.

It's only the first weekend of April. Among my other memories of the day I bought the melons is seeing a tomato that was so big it would take two hands to pick it up. That's what the days to come will bring. I'm looking forward to this.
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