Archive for the ‘market’ Category

Daily Bread

May 18, 2010

When I was a child, I memorized the Lord’s Prayer, Christ’s response to his disciples when they asked him to teach them to pray. The only request for a tangible thing in the entire prayer is “give us this day our daily bread.” Not for tomorrow, just for today, because we must remember to let the future take care of itself. We must eat today. And it’s not a six-course dinner we need, or even a full meal or meat or vegetables. Just bread. Just for today. Simple, plain, everything one really needs.
The French understand the centrality of bread to life. Remember that one of the causes of the French revolution was rising bread prices. When Marie Antionette cavalierly said, “Let them eat cake,” she not only dismissed the plight of the common people, she forgot that here, bread is an essential. Bread is life. According to de l’Institut national de la boulangerie-pâtisserie, in 2004, there were more than 34,000 artisan boulangers in France, accounting for more than 70% of bread production in the country. A “boulanger” (baker) and “boulangerie” (bakery) must adhere to strict regulations, including the choosing of the raw materials, kneading the paste, controlling the fermentation, and cooking the bread in its place of sale. None of the products used or produced may ever be frozen. This is by law, the “décret pain,” or “bread decree” of 1993. Bread is serious business here.

Bread in France is also ubiquitous and simple and delicious. Even when everything is closed for one or another of the many holidays, you can almost always find a boulangerie open for an hour or two with loaves still warm from the ovens. At any time of almost any day, we pass Frenchmen on the street with a loaf or two—no bag or wrapping—tucked under their arms. Most buy it daily. Even the shops in the aires (rest-areas) on the expressways sell baguettes, and I’ve often seen travelers grab a loaf and a package of ham to dine at a picnic table outside. Rip the baguette open, stuff in the ham, eat. Absolute satisfaction. Indeed, the bread is often a meal in itself. The truth is that a good bread really is all you need.

In Saint Araille, Monseiur Marty Chantal, boulanger, arrives at about noon every Monday, Wednesday and Friday—not daily—but to my door, which is even better. We can hear the beeping of his little white delivery van across the hills, the dogs barking hysterically as he starts up the driveway to the château. He came during the snow-storms; he brings special cakes on holidays; he has chocolate croissants to lure the children clamoring down the stairs on cold mornings. If we’re not home or don’t happen to come when he beeps, he leaves the bread, au natural, tucked into the front door handle, in a bag only if it happens to be raining. If we’re in the mood for something special, he has a variety of extra treats in his packed van, baked fresh by his own hand during the night. When we arrived in October, we placed a standing order with M. Chantal for two baguettes (literally, “sticks”) every delivery day, and we often supplemented by baking in the bread machine in the tower apartment or stopping at the boulangerie on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. In mid-winter, we changed our order from baguettes to pain aux céréales (cereal bread), which is so good that we often lurk around at the window and delay lunchtime, waiting for the sound of M. Chantal’s horn. I’ve been known to eat a third of a loaf for my lunch.

M. Chantal himself has retired during our year here, turning deliveries at least over to his daughter, Mademoiselle Chantal, a lovely smiling young woman in her twenties. In one of our early chats with M. Chantal, we learned that he hoped to travel to the United States in retirement—to see the Rocky Mountains, he said—and we’ve been wondering if he’s on his way to Colorado now. This, as we gaze at the Pyrénées white-caps an hour to the south. Like these mountains, bread, too, has its cousins across the sea. And we discover that this desire—to go, to see, to adventure in the world where the unfamiliar becomes familiar—is a shared desire. A simple bread, different and sometimes better.

In the nearby villages, the bread baking is often an event, a community gathering with lines out the doors of the boulangeries. When we visit La Couvertoirade, a beautifully preserved bastide village in a remote corner of the Aveyron, we see the communal ovens such as once existed in every town. In the Middle Ages, citizens paid a tax for which everyone gained the right to bake their daily loaves. As we wait with the others for Sunday loaves to emerge from the heat, the community of the event—the sharing and visiting of the people—seems as important as the sustenance of the bread itself. Is not that too a kind of daily bread?

As a treat, I buy “American” bread for James and Isabelle at the Intermarché supermarket. The brand is “Sam’s,” but, despite the name, it’s actually French cereal bread baked in the regulation rectangle and pre-sliced. True “American bread” tastes like paste compared to this bread, rich and nutty and fresh. With a little Nutella and fresh kiwi jam from the abbey, this sandwich makes more than a complete meal. Even plain, Sam’s surpasses Uncle Sam’s. Why is this bread so much better?

I read the label. Seven kinds of farine (flour), plus fiber, water, grains, and some of the usual suspects, including ascorbic acid, diglycerides, and sirop de glutcose-fructose. In my research, however, I find these differences. Bread flour in France is rarely bleached. Flour used in the U.S. has a higher gluten level. Potassium bromate, which U.S. bakers use to strengthen bread, is banned in the European Union. French bread is legally controlled and may not contain anything but flour, water, yeast and salt. Traditionally, it should be baked on a hearth. It doesn’t keep for more than a day. Sam’s, I suspect, is not cooked on a hearth, certainly not in an official boulangerie, so maybe it is the flour or the water that make it so good. I used to know a very old New York bagel shop owner who swore that New York bagels get their wonderful flavor from New York City water. “You can’t get New York bagels anywhere but New York!” he’d shout. Maybe you can’t get French bread anywhere but France because of the wheat grown here on the hillsides all around us in the Haute Garonne. Maybe it’s the soil or the air. Maybe it’s just that Frenchmen have appreciated bread for a very long time.

At the Grottes de Gargas, we see hundreds of images of hands printed on the walls from the Stone Age, and it comes as no surprise to learn that these same hands might have worked the first breads. Neolithic peoples baked bread in this same part of the world before 10,000 BC. Bread—the stuff of life, the symbol of our only real necessity this day—was born here, raised on the very yeasts in the air, and has been perfected and become essential to everyday life over the 12,000 years since. Every culture has a bread that is born of its own history and land, and the bread in a contemporary culture reflects not only that history, but some of the modern values of that culture.

When I think about the relationship of Americans to bread, what seems different is that we have forgotten to appreciate bread. We have neglected the simplicity of this one essential need. We want more and more and more. We live in excess, like the bread shelf at the Safeway supermarket. We do not have time to stop for daily bread, much less bake it ourselves. Can you imagine Americans lined up and waiting for a loaf of bread fresh from the oven? We do not want to wait for our bread to be baked, but we expect our bread to wait—preserved with whatever additives are available—for us. We have valued the new, the next thing, that which might make life more efficient, faster, or better, and in our rush and cry and looking always so far ahead, we have lost something very simple and essential to a healthy life. This day, this bread.

It is not that the French are a simple people—far from it. This a land that values complexity, theory, thought and philosophy. Consider Sartre, Montagne, Irigaray and de Beauvoir. Nor is the difference that the French are not busy, hurrying from home to work and school just as contemporary Americans do. The difference, it seems to me, is one of priorities. And bread is a good example of this.

Daily bread is a priority in my life here in Saint Araille. Fresh, simple, a reminder of the only thing a human really needs. It provides a place of community and of intercultural exchange. Bread is a creation of earth and air and fire and water, worked by human hands, as straightforward and innovative as the stone wheel on a log axle. We make bread from the materials at hand, the materials of this Earth. We might pray for this one essential sustenance, but for what do we truly ask? To be able to create sustenance from the materials at hand, the things of the earth. To share with a community of people. To value this day, fresh and warm and simple. All we really need. The breadboard on our table in the tower here in France is carved with these words by which to live: Donnez-nous ce jour notre pain quotidian. This day. This bread. Enough.


Joyeux Noël

December 25, 2009

Our holidays began with about three inches of snow last Friday morning, resulting in cancelation of the last day of school before vacation… a child’s dream come true! We attempted sledding since we’re on top of a big hill, but, alas, not enough of the white stuff, which melted before midday anyway. We were disappointed that the children’s school holiday performance was also canceled, but we baked sugar cookies for the Loto benefit (Bingo) on Saturday night. Susan dropped them off to the teachers, who were in the back room cooking crepes to sell at intermission. She couldn’t stay, but they wished us all well for the holidays. “Joyeux Noël!”

On Sunday afternoon, we drove to Rieux-Volvestre, about 20 minutes east, singing Christmas carols in French in the car, to attend a free concert on a restored 17th century organ in the Cathedral Saint Marie. Some Bach, the Ave Maria, traditional Christmas songs, and selections from Occitan were on the program. We kept the kids still by plying them with sweets. Everyone in the small crowd—families with teenagers, grandparents with a toddler, a group of elderly women who sang along quietly, farmers with mud on their boots—sat happily in their coats and scarves the whole two hours. A clarinetist accompanied the organist for a few numbers, a wonderful mezzo soprano sang, and for the traditional Occitan songs, a man with a traditional instrument called a cornemuse, much like a bagpipe, played along. At the end of the standing ovation, the whole group joined in on an encore, which happened to be the same Christmas carols we had just learned in French in the car. At 4:30 on that clear, cool Sunday afternoon, we spilled out into the narrow streets—cobblestones, waddle and daub medieval houses close in—and wandered toward the center for the Marché Noël: donkey rides, a bounce house, handmade hats and soaps and Armagnac for sale in the covered market. Père Noël in his red velvet suit distributed sweets from a horse-drawn wagon, shouting it out: “Joyeux Noël!”

During the week we finished up shopping, got the kids’ second H1N1 vaccines, played soccer with the dogs, and made more ornaments for our little tree in the tower. On Christmas Eve the weather turned warm and gorgeous—around 60 F and clear. I went for my walk at about 3, and on my way home nearly everyone who passed was dressed up for the holiday evening out. A neighbor slowed and waved, rolling down his window to wish me, “Joyeux Noël!”

We too showered and dressed in our finery, got in the car and drove to Toulouse, stopping briefly at the supermarket to buy Susan black stockings. A supermarket on Christmas Eve is the same in France as in the states, save for the heaps of oysters in baskets in the aisles. And I’ve never seen such a mob of people buying black stockings at once! The check-out clerk smiled as I left: “Au revoir! Joyeux Noël!”

We had decided to splurge and attend the ballet in Toulouse–a first for James and Izzy–and cheap by American standards, €50 for our family of four. We arrived early enough to eat ham sandwiches in a café across the street, glasses of wine for us and lait chaud (big cups of warm steamed milk with sugar) for the kids. We chatted with the owners and other patrons, who admired Izzy, la Princesse in her crown and fancy dress, and James in his red bow tie who stole the crown for his moment. “Au revoir, Joyeux Noël!” we all said as we left.

The ballet was perfect—five short 19th century pieces, lots of tutus and satin, a fine troupe and good orchestra in the beautifully renovated Halle des Grains. At five minutes before the show was to start, the ushers appeared up in the cheap seats, got us all up and re-seated everyone in the empty seats down below. We ended up in the fifth row. The lights went down. The music came up. The dancers thumped onstage. James and Izzy sat forward in their seats, eyes wide, mouths open. I watched them watching the magic of their first ballet. On the far side, Susan too was watching the kids, her eyes shining. James turned to her and said, “I love this!” Izzy turned to me and whispered, “Mom, thank you!” Later, when she and Susan went to the restroom they met the prima ballerina–changed into jeans but still wearing her tiara, just like Izzy, in the hall. “Joyeux Noël!”

On our way out of the city, streets wet and shining, reflecting the blue strings of lights over the streets and the green and red-lit bridges over the River Garonne, we passed a phalanx of about fifty gendarmes around the Cathedral Saint Etienne, preparing for the mobs sure to appear in the next hour for the midnight mass. We drove home to the château through the countryside, farm houses and villages winking with holiday lights, little churches everywhere lit up for the traditional services. We would have gone, but the children were already asleep in the back seat. We arrived home just after 11. Izzy woke up enough to put out the cookies and milk for Santa, who brought scooters to coast down the driveway, and remote-control cars to torment the dogs, and kites to fly on the hill of Latour des Feuillants.

And another gorgeous day in the village.

James and Izzy Dressed Up for Christmas Eve at the Ballet

Joyeux Noël!

To Market, To Market

November 10, 2009

To write about markets in rural European towns is an exercise in cliché. We Americans—and most urban Europeans, for that matter—are so used to the supermarket, the mall, and the internet that when we travel to a place where the most important shopping is done one day a week from open-air stalls spilling out around an ancient village square, we are charmed. How quaint. How sweet. How colorful. We take out our cameras and shoot bright photos: old fellows in colorful bandanas; women in aprons carrying big baskets, folks with baguettes under their arms; tables and carts and vans laden with food, flowers, clothing, goods and live animals. Here in the farmlands south of Toulouse and most of rural France, shopping on market day is still a community event, an opportunity to socialize and exchange news as well as merchandise. The produce has been picked the day before, the walnuts and sweet chestnuts gathered from local forests. There are bargains (three basketball-sized heads of leafy lettuce for €1), and tourists to be conned (a block of cheese for €20). Handmade soaps and felted wool slippers from local sheep occupy booths next to mounds of t-shirts, jeans and socks. Live chickens with their feet bound lie in rows on the sidewalk; a merchant gently lifts the haunches of a huge brown rabbit to confirm his gender. Our first market day is during the school holidays for Toussaint (all-saints day), a brilliant October morning, in the town of Samatan. The mood is festive, the harvest is in, and we are not only charmed, we are hooked. I must therefore risk cliché.


To say that food is important in France is an understatement. Important meals like Sunday déjeuner (lunch) lasts from around noon until after dark. Rather than pizza under hot-lamps in cafeteria lines, school lunches are served to the children—who must each have a personalized cloth serviette (napkin)—in three courses—dishes like poulet cordon bleu (chicken cordon blue) and pâté du région—with multiple baskets of fresh bread. The typical French refrigerator is what Americans call “dorm-sized”; these diminutive storage coolers are all that’s needed when you buy food almost every day. How else would it be fresh? Nearly everyone stops at the grocers every other day, and often at the bolangerie (bakery) and charcuterie (butcher shop) as well. Within two weeks of arrival, we place a standing order for two baguettes every Monday, Wednesday and Friday with the bread-man, Monsieur M., who rattles up the long driveway in his delivery truck to the fanfare of barking dogs. We often stop for even more bread while out. The French love of food is not a difficult custom for us to adopt.


Market day in Samatan is Monday morning. We have a list of market days in all the surrounding market towns—fifty within about fifty kilometers—and I have set a personal goal to attend every market on the list at least once during our ten months here. There is a slight preference for Saturdays and Mondays, but there are at least half-dozen from which to choose on any day of the week. Samatan is a large town and the market spreads out around the town square, including a huge metal building devoted to the sale of live animals, and spilling into the parking lot of the Shopi supermarket and along all the streets radiating out from the center. On this gorgeous October day, it is jammed with shoppers and tourists, but even on a rainy day in November the streets will be packed. There are at least a hundred stalls: clothing ranging from leather jackets to Hanes underwear, running shoes, nightgowns, stockings and socks; sewing notions and fabrics, including rainbow-arrayed boxes of buttons and threads; fresh meats, ranging from rabbit to beef to duck to Alaskan salmon; the full range of vache, chèvre and brebis (cow, goat, sheep) varieties of French cheeses; bedding plants, which in the fall include strawberries dangling red fruits and pansies and broccoli and cabbage and lettuces and leeks; fresh vegetables and fruits of the season; an array of dried salamis made from every creature imaginable; local patés; platters of spices sweetening the air with cinnamon, vanilla, peppers…; a variety of at least fifty dried fruits, including pineapple, raisins, dates, figs, strawberries, and bananas; sweets, pastry and breads; handmade soaps scented with everything from lavender to bubblegum; kitchen supplies and hardware; prepared foods for take-away, curry and paella and pizza. We risk cliché, take out our camera and snap away.

In the live animal barn, rows of geese with their feet tucked under them twist their necks to watch us walk by; chickens and roosters with their feet bound lie on their sides, little black eyes darting here and there; hundreds of yellow chicks peep in crates; baby bunnies and huge hares may be petted, though their destinies are likely the dinner plate; hundreds of parakeets in cages screech and jabber into the chaos; juvenile guinea pigs and mice and hamsters in cages at child-level sniff fingers with twitchy noses; puppies—mostly Border collies and bird dogs—and kittens wriggle for attention or snooze, exhausted with being adored, in boxes or pens; young pigs snuffle in their hay; a few calves sway at the ends of tethers. It’s chaos. James, who is afraid of chickens, refuses to go in, but Izzy and I make the entire circuit, petting the bunnies and puppies and kittens, watching the geese watching us as we walk by. The old nursery rhyme repeats in my head: “To market, to market to buy a fat pig….”


We do not buy any live animals—pigs or otherwise—but we do purchase some tights for Izzy, three bunches of leaf lettuce, a bunch of carrots, a bag of walnuts, chestnuts to roast, dried mango, some pinons, a chunk of petit basque cheese, a felted wool purse for Susan, and softball-sized apples. We fill our shopping bag.

We have guaranteed the children’s interest and excitement for the market by giving them each €1 to spend on anything they want, so long as it’s not live animals. We don’t need any more chicks or mice in the château! They look long and hard for just the right items, rejecting candies and pastries and fresh strawberries. There aren’t really any toys at this market. Izzy is determined to have a flowering plant in her room, having left her African violet in the care of her kindergarten class in Vermont, so she chooses a pink pansy for 50 cents. James spies the choumaillous (marshmallows)—perhaps six, mostly blue and pink, in plastic baggies—and spends 50 cents. Izzy can’t resist and buys a bag for herself with her change from the flower.

The best moment of the day, however, is when Susan spies a wagon arrayed with dry salamis, perhaps twenty different kinds. A sign reads “Tous 3/€10” (any three for ten Euros). A bargain. I want the one encrusted with rosemary. Susan selects one made from porc (pork), a straightforward choice. And then she makes her mistake. Qu’est-ce que vous  recommandez?” she asks the woman who is the vendor. I’m rummaging in my bag for €10.

The woman immediately reaches for a salami and adds it to our bag, stating firmly, “Âne. C’est trés bon.”

Susan hesitates. The bag is thrust in her direction as I hand over the note.

“Merci,” the woman says. “Au revoir.” She turns to the next customer.

“Merci, Madame,” Susan says, and we walk away. She has a strange look on her face.

“What?” I ask. “What did she say? What kind did she recommend?”

Susan leans close, away from the children. “Donkey,” she whispers. “We just bought a donkey salami.” What can we do? We laugh. “I just couldn’t be that up-tight American who refused after asking her for a recommendation,” Susan says.


On the drive home, we engage the kids—high on marshmallows—in making up new versions of the old cliché: “To market, to market to buy a fat pig. Home again, home again, jiggity jig.” James offers, “To market, to market to buy a choumaillou; home again, home again, do-malloo, do-malloo.” For Izzy it’s “To market, to market to buy a pink pansy; home again, home again, aren’t we fancy.” And for Susan, I invent this: “To market, to market to buy a salami; home again, home again, next time, no donkey.”