The Pheasant Philosophises in Gascony: Market Musings

PoudenasAlmost twenty-five years ago, my parents bought a large, honey coloured stone village house on the borders of three French departments; the Lot-et-Garonne, The Gers and The Landes. Three departments with extremely different culinary influences yet all exceptional in their own way.My first ever piece of food writing was for my GCSE English coursework portfolio. I wrote about French Markets, they enthralled me with their colours, smells, tastes and vibrancy. I had always enjoyed writing but when I wrote about food and drink it was like coming home. Every holiday I made it my business to learn everything I could about the local French food – I tried it all and discovered so much.

So, twenty-years later, what’s changed in rural France? 

The village hasn’t, the markets haven’t – although there has been a wonderful resurgence in artisanal beer which has proved very popular with my other half. The pace of life is still the same…a few more shops open on Monday than used to, and one or two of the supermarkets are opening on Sunday mornings. There have been small injections of more contemporary culture – only this morning I spotted a designer coffee stall offering lattes and syrup-garnished cappuccinos; but in general, my little part of South-West France has remained the same and that is quite wonderful. 

I think the British could learn a lot from the French attitude towards food – they are proud of their regional dishes, simple as some are, and in Britain we too have a great deal to celebrate, culinarily. Whilst France is synonymous with fine dining, rural France indulges differently – not in the most elegant and visually perfect – but in the freshest and most nutritious, children are fed well from an early age, their palates are educated, they’ll often choose salad and fruit over some fake sugary concoction. Unlike the UK, France is not at the height of an obesity crisis, although twenty years ago it was rare to see any obesity in the county, today it is about – something which has fallen in line with the expansion of ready meals and highly processed products arriving in the great, overly lit hypermarkets which are sadly now ever present. 

Inherently though, there is a good nutritional underpinning and food is celebrated. Families gather together to share a meal, the summer evenings offer nocturnal markets showcasing the very best the region has to offer, there are feasts dedicated to individual dishes – the Gascon Garbure for example – which is a wonderful hotchpotch of meats boiled with vegetables and sometimes white beans, then served with great reverence – I suppose it’s a little like our Welsh Cawl, that ever boiling stock pot which had been part of Welsh culture for centuries. 

This morning I visited one of my favourite local markets, about 30 minutes drive away. The town of Eauze, in the Gers, is famed for its Roman remains and the market which snakes through the streets on a Thursday morning is one of those places that tourists hope to happen to happen upon to tell friends about at home. Divided into two halves, one for clothing, household goods, gifts, jewellery and the like and the other – my favourite – is in the lower square under the shadow of the trees and is, of course, the food market.

Packed into a relatively small space are dozens of traders – some selling a few vegetables or eggs from their gardens, some on a much grander scale. It’s like Pandora’s box, around each corner is something delicious waiting to be discovered. 

Today, it being mid June, I picked up some delicious local strawberries, absolutely on the point of perfection (so perfect in fact that they had to be eaten rather quickly after lunch), deep, green courgettes with their smooth, tactile skin, and deep, vibrant red cherries from the Gers. There were the first of the season’s melons – still an expensive treat until July when they fill the markets in abundance with that sweet smell which begs you to buy them. There were haricots blancs, haricot vert – the vendor snapping the fine beans to display their crisp freshness. A little further on were organic cheeses; goats, cows and sheep, wrapped in waxed paper and proudly displaying their ‘Bio’ credentials. Another stall was packed with glistening barrels of olives, all varieties and flavours – beside which were drums of preserved fruit from the sweet local prunes of Agen to the candid pineapples of the exotic West Indies, and littles packets of spices from across the globe. 

What is wonderful about France, is the opportunity to regularly buy exactly the amount you need. Markets are held daily somewhere in the area, most towns are no more than a 30 minute drive apart and there is no shame in buying three tomatoes, 100g of olives or a handful of cherries. There is certainly less waste, which, in this age of over excess and a throwaway economy, is surely welcome. 

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My Organic 60/40 #feedyourhappy

Yesterday saw the launch of The Organic Trade Board’s #feedyourhappycampaign. This EU backed initiative aims to encourage people to ‘go organic’, even if it’s only a little bit!

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I have been a strong supporter of organic produce for many years and try, cost permitting, to use organic produce as much as possible. I think there are certain foods which should always be organic; without compromise Organic milk is always in my fridge, and the majority of my fruit and vegetables are also organic. Most recently I have been researching organic meat and have discovered several local suppliers (more on them soon) whose meat is not organic but very high welfare and pasture fed. This is a really good compromise as organic meat can take a rather hefty chunk out of the weekly budget; and also, with any farm seeking organic certification, the goalposts are set extremely high before the certificate is awarded, so there is a transition period.

So, can we eat entirely organic?

I’m sure there are those out there who can, but it isn’t terribly easy. Generally, it’s probably easier to eat organic in cities, where there are lots of organic restaurants, cafes, and market-fresh produce available on a daily basis. You do have to (forgive the pun) dig rather deeper in the countryside. Then of course there is the issue of origin. I can walk into Waitrose and fill my basket to the brim with organic produce yet how much of it British? As someone passionate about our native produce I have to ask myself – do I go for the bag of local apples which are not certified organic but which I know to have been grown without pesticides, or the certified organic New Zealand grown apples flown thousands of miles and probably chilled near to death? British always wins.fullsizeoutput_18e

The solution is to stand up for British organic farmers; supporting this campaign is showing the farming community that we want organic and we want British and there is a market out there to justify the initial outlay. We want improved health, better tasting products and more easily accessible products.

I think that a 60/40 rule should generally apply (occasionally stretching to 80/20). Even I am guilty of the ‘Mum, can we go to McDonald’s?’ moments; and no one (generally) is perfect. I do try and ensure that under my roof food is nutritious, not packed with poisonous pesticides and generally locally sourced (although I admit to trying Gousto over the really busy summer,  as who can resist their opening offers?). But now that school has started and life isn’t quite as busy it’s time to sift through my recipe book collection and plan some fabulous, and obviously, budget conscious meals.

Here are my tips for cutting down the costs whilst enjoying organic:IMG_2231

1: Buy mince; it’s so versatile and organic mince is so much cheaper that the larger cuts, steaks or fillets. For everything from homemade Burgers to Shepherd’s Pie, soups and stews, mince is an essential – so load that freezer! It can also be bulked out with organic lentils (which are also quite reasonable) to make Chilli or Bolognese.

2: Buy a whole chicken; it’ll do Sunday Lunch, Monday supper and soup for at least two days lunches. Bone broth is totally delicious and amazingly good for you so make sure not to waste a drop – and also using the whole bird takes away any ‘expense’ guilt

3: Buy offal – again really nutritious. Chicken livers can be whipped into a light and delicious parfait; lambs liver served with bacon, mash and onion gravy is a forgotten delight. Organic Pig’s liver makes excellent terrine, even better served with a side of windfall apple and cider chutney. liverandbacon

4: Buy seasonally; go with the sturdy brassicas in winter and the radishes and tomatoes in summer – eating with the seasons is a sure way to reduce costs; and who wants to eat strawberries in the middle of December anyway?

5: Finally, try and buy in bulk; flour, oats, rice and pasta are all more affordable when bought in larger quantities; I buy 20kg sacks of organic, stoneground flour directly from the mills via amazon, or from Sharpham Park shop and it’s always far better value for money.

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