Sunday, February 15, 2009

Food in Provence

Like the rest of France - but particularly sensual - Provence is overflowing with beautiful produce straight from the fields, fresh in the markets and selling at tiny prices. My local market reminds me of those old Russian novels where people eke out their existence spending a kopeck here and a kopeck there. (Technically, I believe, one hundredth of a rouble.) Individual producers turn up to the market every evening bar Sunday to sell their fruit and veg, herbs and wine, cheese and oil, bread and meat - a bloke here sits behind a trestle table bowing under the weight of hundreds of aubergines and courgettes neatly stacked in little rectangular barquettes, an ancient woman further up the line cuts pieces of cheese fresh from the goat so that you can compare flavours with the cheese made by the young couple two stalls along. Someone else is offering little tumblers of wine to persuade you to buy a bottle or two of his own vintage, and a young woman is doing a rapid trade in large free range eggs – slightly mucky, feathers attached - selling them two or four or six at a time. Coins change hands as frequently as greetings and news are swapped between clientele and stallholders. Everyone (outside the summer months) is local. Everyone knows everyone else.

There’s infinite variety in texture, colour and taste of the produce. Bushy green herbs, grey and yellow mushrooms, chalky-coloured goats’ cheese, fat jars of honey, punnets of figs, long plaits of garlic. It’s relaxed and sensual.


When I’m out doing my food shopping there are also a few spots which are troubling. Cheese stalls, fine. Fruit & veg, fine. It’s meat that bothers me. While at the butcher’s counter most local shoppers (men as often as women because food/recipes/cooking interests men as much as women here) peer into the shelves and display units with visible interest I’m standing there feeling a bit like crying. I’m not a vegetarian and enjoy what I suppose, hailing from unsophisticated Britain, I’d call ordinary meat. A steak. Beef bourguignon. Chicken breast. Lamb. But here in the butchers’ shops you’re confronted with scenes that call to mind casualty wards, car accidents or, well, slaughter houses. Yes I know it’s squeamish. If you eat meat, you might say, you can’t avoid its relationship with living creatures. I’m not sure about that. I want to run my bathwater down the plughole but that doesn’t mean I want to stick my head down the drain. Anyway, I’m constantly recoiling from the sights on display at meat counters. Lamb’s stomach, for example. And calf’s tongue. There seems something intrinsically weird, perverse, about the idea of cutting up cooked tongue or stomach and putting it in your own mouth and stomach. Added to which, lambs’ stomachs look distressingly cosy – like cardigans made from soft, creamy-coloured wool, thrown casually down in a steel tray spiked with a price tag. You can’t help wishing they’d stayed inside the lambs. And how can anyone bite a calf’s tongue? Put its tongue in your mouth next to, or frankly on, your own tongue, and bite it? Bite through it. Couldn’t do it myself. I feel the same way about pigs’ trotters. There’s a shop nearby where they tie tiny little trotters together in neat pairs and lie them out in rows like little socks. I can’t look at them without seeing those little shoes you see in shoe-shops for toddlers. Just about every fibre in my body cries out Don’t disconnect those little feet from those little piglets.

And don’t let’s start on rabbits.

Or the alouettes sans tetes. Errkk. Skylarks seem always to be sold and served trussed up in little bundles with what always seems like a bit of a proud note that their heads are missing. How appetising, really, is that?

It’s clearly cultural and what I was brought up on but it’s only since I’ve lived here that I’ve realised I can eat chunks of meat or slices of meat but I can’t enjoy cuts of animals which include other features. Eyes, hooves, ears, internal organs and body parts with hair or feathers on can all stay in their original setting as far as I’m concerned.

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