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.


  1. "Raviolo" or "raviole", at a guess.

    You know what they say. A woman for duty, a man for pleasure, a melon for ecstasy.

  2. We tried the wild asparagus in Barcelona. It's lovely, tender, and recognizably green asparagus. I enjoyed it more than the white Spargel here in Berlin.

    Ask Aimee what the winemakers do with it when it gets old. :)


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