Allow me to set the scene. It is a Saturday morning, early November, a mild breeze carrying the scent of autumn in the air and I am at the farmer’s market. It is busy, of course, the market is always busy. In our town and in towns all over France they are the place to be.
The market is not only about buying the best seasonal food, it is about being enticed, seduced, stimulated, it is a sensory experience that never, ever , even after all these years, but never leaves me indifferent.
When I first settled in France with the man of my life, a great cook and market buyer himself, he taught me that you don’t go to the market with a list. “How can you decide what you are going to buy, until you have seen what there is?!” … of course …. it is obvious.
You go to the market to seek inspiration, with no firm idea about what you are wanting to eat or to cook. You trust the vendors to have brought along the best of their production, you get to know your preferred stands at the market and become faithful to a fishmonger, a seafood supplier, the vegetable producer, the local orchard selling their apples and pears or even the fresh cream producer ……
which brings me back to the beginning of my story ….
So one autumn morning, I was standing in line at Monsieur Berthillot’s stand to buy some creme fraîche. He sells, fresh cream, fresh eggs, home grown chicken, guinea fowl and rabbit. I waited patiently because frankly there is nothing to be impatient about…. you want the goods so you simply wait to be served and observe what the other clients are buying, and maybe chat to the person beside you about the weather, but more likely about the compared merits of creme fraîche from the market compared to the supermarket.
At the front of the short line was a tall distinguished looking lady. She appeared to be about the same age as my mother, silver hair pulled up into a chignon, a cute little hat perched at an angle, and a feather on the top! She had caught my attention straight away. I loved her heather-toned coat, her chic basket on wheels, and her soft lipstick … a beautiful woman.
So I was musing to myself about the chicness of French women , and then she spoke! A confident, bold voice struck out a “Bonjoooor” that made heads turn. She was not French … I quickly made a second appraisal of her outfit, if she wasn’t french then she had been living here for a long time. Even her shoes did not give her away. By now she was talking again ….
She smiled to the market vendor: “Bonjoooor Monsieeu ……….. je voodray un po de votre krem fresh … mon mareee adaure votre krem, say delisieu” (which would have been, hello, I would like a pot of your fresh cream, my husband adores your cream, it’s so delicious).
All around her smiles broke out. Knowing looks were exchanged, but not in a mocking or unpleasant manner, there was affection for this lady.
She continued asking the vendor for the other bits she needed to buy, paid and popped them all into her basket. By now I was sure I had ‘decoded’ her, I was sure she was British, had probably lived in France for years, but originally came from a very well to do, possible aristocratic family.
My curiosity got the better of me. As she left the stall with her basket of goodies she had to walk past me ….. I leaned over towards her with a smile “How funny that Monsieur Berthillot should have two English clients at the same time”
She stopped, looking at me with warm bright blue eyes “Well I never! How did you know I was English?!”
I mumbled something about a friend had told me, because it would have sounded rude to say “well, your accent sort of gives it away”, and the dear lady stopped and chatted with me until it was my turn to be served. As I bid her good bye, she opened her handbag and pulled out a discreet little visiting card. “Please call me, and maybe you could come for tea …. next week if you wish …. I have nothing special happening next week”
And so it was that Rosemary (for that is what I shall call her here) and I became friends. Today we still meet up in the market, and we still visit each other for the occasional tea … and yes, my instinctive decoding was correct: British, in France for ever and definitely aristocratic although she’d laugh out loud if she heard me say so.