You Can’t Always Get What You Want
Est ce que vous avez un bon brie? (Do you have good brie?)
Dad and I were doing our weekly open-air market shop. We were standing in line at the cheese lady’s stall, and the young gentleman next to me had asked an innocent enough question.
“Absolument” responded the cheese lady smoothly “Ce Brie de Meaux est excellent, il est cremeux et à point”. (Of course, this Brie de Meaux is excellent. It is creamy and perfectly ready).
She pointed out a large, slightly gooey and very-drool-worthy-looking Brie in the middle of the stall
Est ce qu’il a du goût? (Does it have taste?) asked the lad
The question was unexpected, and I sensed an immediate shift in the air. I glanced at the cheese lady who looked mildly irritated (as much as one can judge such things when everyone is masked) and then at the young man who appeared rather clueless. This was about to get interesting….
“Bien sûr que oui”, she shot back, doing her best to express her disgust “il est riche et complexe. Voulez-vous l’essayer?” (Of course. It’s rich and complex. Would you like to try it?)
The poor sap seemed to think about it for a moment.
“Ah non” he responded finally, clearly oblivious “je préfère quelque chose avec du goût” (No, I prefer something with taste)
There was an audible gasp from the collected line of customers, and everyone whipped around to stare in shock at the offending chap. The cheese lady looked stunned, and an old man at the back of the line lowered his head and shook it sadly, clearly exasperated for the future of the younger generation in France. I, on the other hand was rather bemused, having just witnessed the first market faux pas not committed by yours truly.
This man may have been French, but he was obviously a complete novice in market etiquette and had zero clue what he’d just done….not from round here, Parisian perhaps?
Some Things Are Simply Not Done
There are things you do and you don’t do when dealing with food in Southern France
This is especially true if you choose to buy from small open-air market stalls in rural areas. The folks that sell here are local vendors, many of whom have been in business for decades. The most respected ones are also the most popular with customers who will patiently wait in long lines to shop with them. These vendors pride themselves on the highly curated quality and selection of their products, as what they sell is a direct reflection upon themselves.
I caught onto this critical little gem years ago, and have learned to reverently defer to them when dad and I shop at the market. This often means we end up with rather more than we bargained for, but such is the price of countryside respect.
For example, if the cheese lady tells me a soft chevre is a necessary addition to the 7 other cheeses I’ve already brought “to complete the palette”, then I would be an utter fool to dismiss that. Similarly if the pork lady decides that my ham needs to be thickly sliced rather than the thin slices I ordered, it would be unconscionable of me to correct her. After all she is the expert, and responsible for getting me what I need, whether I know that I need it or not.
The flip side to all this, is that good market mojo works both ways.
If I’m having 4 people over for lunch on Saturday say, all I have to do is inform the cheese lady of such, and she will create the ultimate after-meal platter, carefully selecting cheeses that will be at their best for that particular day, squeezing the chevre to make sure it will not be over-done, mixing textures and taste to perfection, and suggesting appropriate seasonal alternatives as they come up. I accept everything she recommends, naturellement.
At the end of all this, she’ll pack-up my order, nod approvingly and then typically throw in a few free offerings “pour goûter” (to taste). It’s never a bad exchange.
You get what you need (and sometimes a smidgen more). This is simply how it’s done.
Some Things Are For the Dog (or Cat)
Market respect is not just for the big spenders either.
French fraternité is a big part of the countryside way, looking after each other and those who don’t have the means for themselves. Often it’s subtle and involves phantom pets.
For example, a few weeks ago I was waiting my turn at the pork lady, next to an old man who was clearly down on his luck. His clothes were frayed and thin, he had no socks (despite the biting cold) and he was wearing a cloth mask that looked like it hadn’t been changed in weeks. We exchanged a few pleasantries, and when he got up to order he asked for a single slice of ham and a small sausage, a meagre and modest request all of which came to less than a fiver. The pork lady carefully wrapped it up, and then added a big pork roast and several pork chops to the bag, giving it all back with the comment, “pour le chien” (for the dog).
I have to admit my heart cried a little….
It was a beautiful act of kindness, and it’s not the first time I’ve seen this. The “old time” vendors in the market do it with regularity, and to protect the pride of their customers the free food is never for them. It’s always just a little bit extra for their dog, or their cat…
Here you get what you need, even if you can’t afford it.
But You Don’t Always Get What You Want
Sadly, not all of life works like the weekly rural market.
Amidst all this feel-good stuff, it’s been an “interesting” week on the virus front in France and I use that word in it’s broadest sense, to keep the blog PG-rated.
We are officially in a third wave, and the first phase of a third French lockdown.
Admittedly I’ve been predicting this for a while, although it’s been longer coming than I originally thought. But it was also inevitable. In the face of the highly infectious English variant (that has taken N. France by storm) and a still much-much-too-slow vaccination plan, curfews and various other mini-restrictions just haven’t been enough. This past week ICU capacity hit 100% in Paris, the critical tipping point, and so this week-end the 16 hardest-hit departments were sent into lockdown for 4 weeks.
Here we go again, eh?
The SW wasn’t included this round, but I fear we won’t be left footless and fancy free for long. On Friday afternoon news of the Paris lock-down spurned a mass exodus, with TGV trains & motorways clogged up by Parisians eager to flee the capitol before the midnight hammer. Those that escaped have flooded to the countryside, bringing lack of market knowledge and the new variant with them.
In other words, chaos and the perfect super-spreader event.
And still no COVID vax!
Sadly France is still lagging miserably on the vaccine front with only 5.6 million doses, or 8.4% of the population jabbed so far, and they continue to be bogged down down by supply and distribution issues. This week’s hoopla with AstraZeneca, where a dozen countries temporarily suspended the vaccine (only for the EMA to declare it safe again a few days later), hasn’t helped. Vaccine confidence is at an all-time low.
Paul and I are on the waiting list in multiple places, and have told our local pharmacy that we’re happy to take anything they have, including AZ (take what you can get is our motto), but as healthy 50-somethings we’re not even close to being eligible. At this rate we’re more likely to see another nationwide lockdown before we get a jab in the arm.
Sometimes you can’t get what you want OR what you need.
At Least Spring Is Here
It’s official, or so the calendar tells us. Winter is gone, spring is here, and with each day that passes the sunlight hours grow longer and warmer.
We’re still at the Château, at least for the time being, living in our own little micro-sized fairytale. Trees are springing, birds are singing and all is well. We have enough gourmet cheese to last several weeks, every variation of pork you could imagine, a solid inventory of duck breast (the duck guy insisted I buy five), and a substantial wine collection to go with it.
For the moment we not only have we need, but we have exactly what we want and that my friends, can’t be beat.
So how are the first days of Spring going in your neck of the woods, my dear blog readers? Hopefully not too many Spring Breakers where you are? Perhaps you’re seeing some Spring hope? DO feel free to comment and share below.