I love coming across a local market, as I drive through France. I stop the car, and go where the good things are.
Last week, I stopped in an little bourg – a market town, somewhere in Normandy. The boulangerie and the bar-tabac, pillars of village life in France, give onto the market square. And as it is market day, there is a fruit and vegetable stand, a fishmonger, a cheesemonger, a traiteur (selling ready-meals, this time it was a Chinese), and two charcuterie stands. It is Normandy after all, pork country.
As an ex-vegetarian, I have mixed feelings about approaching the charcuterie stand. First I have a long and careful look at the products on offer, peeking in between the (socially-distant) customers already queuing. Be prepared, sensitive souls, “Tout est bon dans le cochon” (“All is good in the pig/pork”), and you will see ribs, sausages, black pudding, pâtés, feet, tongues, ears, cheeks…
The good news is, even if you are vegetarian, the charcuterie has something good for you. Don’t walk on past. There are prepared meals, and among them, some vegetarian, such as céleri-rémoulade (a starter of grated celeriac with mayonnaise) or piperade ( a Basque dish of onions, tomatoes, peppers, and chilli), delicious with an egg or some rice. “Charcuterie” is not all about the pig, it is about the cooking.
Many prepared meals show the charcutier‘s savoir-faire (know-how): hachis-parmentier (cottage pie), museau vinaigrette, pâtés, blood sausages, stews, even curry. One tip: if there are two charcuteries in one market, and one has a queue significantly longer than the other, go for that one. The other one may bulk-buy its foodstuff from an industrial manufacturer, or simply be a rubbish cook. The locals vote with their feet. Queues are a good place to socialise, anyway, even behind facemasks.
I am tempted by the piperade, so I decide to join the queue. An elderly woman insists I join the queue before her, as I technically arrived at the stand first. The French do know how to queue. I argue I wasn’t in the queue, just looking: “Non, non, je vous en prie, après vous“). Through these pleasantries and by common agreement, my sense of respect for the elder overruled the strict queuing order. The tu and vous that we learn as children set us up for that mindset. Maybe she expected me to let her go first. Maybe she was only being polite. Maybe she would have resented me if I had taken my rightful (maybe) place in the queue. Maybe we simply decided to be kind rather than fair. It was windy and cold, and I was in no hurry.
When my turn comes, I ask for museau vinaigrette, with shallots and parsley. Museau is the snout or nose of animals; the meat – usually beef- is cooked then made into a pâté, sliced like ham. In my memory from childhood, it was delicious. We’ll see if I still like it. It is easy to be vegetarian when you live abroad, where childhood dishes don’t pull on your heartstrings… I also buy a portion of the piperade. The charcutier feels my indecision as I ponder buying a third product. He offers guidance as to how to serve the piperade – with ham, or a steak, of course… I decline, but it jolts me on to the choucroute – the Alsatian, less sour, version of sauerkraut.
By now he’s felt I was weak, and serves me a huge portion of cabbage, laced with lardons. Adds a huge rib, enough to feed two like me. And a slice of garlic sausage. Thankfully a thin one. Time to put a stop to this: “Ce sera tout, merci!” (That will be all, thank you!) before he tries to sell me any more. You have to be assertive, or you will not be able to carry/drag back your shopping from the market.
Also learn this phrase: “C’est un peu trop… encore… voilà merci“, a life-saver when the cheesemonger, fishmonger, butcher, maraîcher (he grows his own fruits and/or vegetables), or in my case, charcutier, are after your savings. I promise myself I will be braver and use it, next time.
I leave with a huge bill, and irresistible food.