Thursday, May 16, 2013

Market Day in Arles



The outdoor market at Arles has been going on every week for years. For centuries. For millennia. The town sits at the mouth of the Rhône, bringing people down from Switzerland and the Alps along the northern French and Italian borders, and at the top of the Mediterranean, drawing traders from Spain to the west, Italy and Greece to the east, Egypt and Morocco across the water. It's been a major site of commerce since the early days of the Romans, lasting through that empire and the ones that followed, with religious and political and territorial wars swirling around it like the tides. Of all the markets I've been to in France, it has the widest variety of seafood available, which makes sense. The salt water is not too far from here, though we can't see it from these low hills.



Not having my dictionary with me, I wasn't able to identify about half of the species on offer, but the fresh sardines and mackerel looked delicious, as did the various sizes of rouget (mullet) and the meaty tails of the monkfish. Fish soup, called bouillabaisse around here, traditionally uses a mix of fish, and there were bins of random types simply labeled "for soup" ready to be scooped out and bagged and taken home and boiled. Since we had a full day of wandering ahead of us, we didn't buy any fish, but I would have liked to.


Judging from the languages I heard around me, there were more locals than tourists at the market, and many of them were women in headscarves and long colorful robes. A lot of the vendors looked Moroccan or Algerian or from somewhere in the Middle East. The first row of stalls we walked down had fruit and vegetables from Spain and Morocco, mostly, but another long row on the way back featured local greens, and peas, and fava beans, and tomatoes that were hydroponically grown, we decided, after eating one last night for dinner. But it is only mid-May, after all, and the weather is still quite cool.



We stopped at a cheese stand for the Fromagerie Notre Dame, which I can't find on line anywhere. They were very friendly, offering tastes of everything: the large round roue of aged sheep's-milk cheese, a wheel of mixed goat and sheep cheese, and a three-year-old tomme dotted with piment d'espelette, a spicy pepper. I tasted a bit of everything, and didn't seem to get a reaction, so perhaps it's just cow's milk after all? I'm going to put some of the local fresh goat cheese into the radish-leaf omelette for breakfast, so we'll see.


We did buy fava beans, and a sweet ripe melon that we'll eat for breakfast this morning, and radishes that we had for dinner last night (the greens will be chopped for the omelette this morning). We bought two varieties of olives and the large green caper berries, looking a bit like slender olives on long stems, that are the fruit of the bush that produces the capers in vinegar we're all used to seeing; those are the immature flower buds. The berries are seedy and tart and very good.



We bought bull salami, made from the black bulls raised for meat and for fighting in the marshes of the Camargue. We speculated that it's the unsuccessful bulls that end up as charcuterie and as belts and handbags. We tasted several different salami varieties at another stand, including donkey and pork with basil, and thin slices of smoked pork loin coated with the green tips of local pine trees. We were going to buy a slab of this last, until we saw the price, and decided that while it was good, it wasn't $90 a pound good. We did get the basil salami, though.


Tout ce que l’Orient, tout ce que l’Arabie aux parfums pénétrants, tout ce que l’Assyrie féconde peuvent produire, tout cela se rencontre à Arles en une aussi grande abondance que dans les pays d’origine.

"All that they can produce - the Orient, Arabia with its intense perfumes, Assyria that is so fertile - all of this can be found in Arles in the same abundance as in their native lands."

- from an anonymous 5th-century author, according to the Arles tourist office

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