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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A romance of Exmoor

  

Yesterday I returned from a foodie weekend break to beautiful Exmoor. From its bleak moors to its rugged coastline via its winding roads it is a stunning place to visit, even with the howling winds and driving rain of a British November day. It is also a foodie paradise, close to the border with Devon, this part of Somerset is very proud of its local produce, there is excellent beef, lamb, honey, cider and a plethora of chocolatiers. 
On our way across to the coast we couldn’t resist stopping at a cider farm. Torre cider provided a well needed break from the arduous journey – delicious mulled apple juice held back the chill and we stocked up on some Somerset scrumpy, cider vinegar and apple juice. There was a delightful farm shop selling cheeses, jams and churneys as well as a little cafe offering a delicious cider cake alongside more traditional fayre.

  

Saturday lunchtime found us in the picturesque village of Dunster, just inland, and with a commanding castle and famous round maketplace. We dined at an old coaching inn, The Luttrell Arms, a vast ancient building with great log fires, antlers adorning the walls and splendid mullion windows. I chose a minute steak ciabatta with rocket and Parmesan, a side of chunky chips dunked in Stoke’s tomato ketchup and a glass of excellent local ale.

   
 

 A quick stop in Porlock Weir as darkness fell forced us  into another sampling of the local brew and a brief walk along the seashore ensured we were thoroughly damp as we made for our destination, The Notley Arms, in Monksilver.

  
Nestled on the edge of Exmoor in a chocolate box village full of thatched cottages and ancient looking houses, Monksilver is an excellent place to pass the night. The Notley Arms is a 2 AA rosetted gastropub with prerequisite wood burner, leather sofas, quirky decor and a modern British menu. 

Once settled into our 4* room (with a thoughtfully provided thermos of cold milk and a cafetière of coffee) we unpacked and were very impressed with the facilities but having booked a table for seven thirty, and already feeling tired from the days exertions, we headed into the Pub. 

We were made to feel very welcome and were offered a cosy table for two tucked into the corner. The menu, which changes daily, was well composed and based around local produce. 

  

It was, of course, difficult to choose but eventually I decided upon the Sea Trout, Duck Faggot and Rhubarb.

We ordered bread and olives to begin.

  

The bread was almost brioche-like and complimented the balsamic olive oil beautifully, the olives were meaty and delicious.

My first course, hot smoked sea trout with picked cucumber, yoghurt and horseradish cream was absolutely perfect, presented in an outsize bowl it was fresh and zingy, the hit of dill from the pickling liquor was complimented admirably by the horseradish cream. 

  

The main course, rich duck faggot was extremely rich indeed. Served with a smooth and creamy truffle infused mash and a flavoursome jus, the faggot itself was as light as a feather but extremely filling. It took faggots (of which I am extremely fond) to a totally different level and is something I will be trying to replicate at home. 

  

For pudding I chose ‘Tastes of Rhubarb, Vanilla and White Chocolate’. Presented on a large charger it comprised various preparations of rhubarb, a concentrated Apple syrup, a rich mousse speckled with vanilla seeds, flavoured with white chocolate and topped with a black sesame seed brittle.

  
A couple of glasses of Pinot Noir Grenache, which worked surprisingly well with all courses, was followed with coffee and an excellent evening came to a close.

Breakfast the following morning was equally delicious with flavoursome butchers sausages and toast made from the excellent bread we had enjoyed the previous evening – the bacon was a bit of a let down but the yummy chive-speckled scrambled eggs partially made up for it. A good selection of Bonne Maman jams and Coopers marmalade was offered. All in all The Notley Arms is a place I will defiantly revisit, even as the wind howled about throughout the night it was warm and cosy and welcoming. 

www.luttrellarms.co.uk
www.torrecider.com
www.notleyarmsinn.co.uk