Lovely market pictures and a meditation on the pivotal role that grandmothers play in French food culture.
One of the joys of spending time in Normandy is visiting the area’s bountiful food markets. Our local market, held on a Friday, never disappoints: but in those weeks when we’re traveling or otherwise occupied on a Friday, a close second best is exploring the other markets of Upper Normandy and Calvados. This month we made our way to Pont-l’Évêque, where the weekly market is held on a Monday. It’s home to the eponymous cheese, and to a lovely church which survived wartime bombing.
The point of local markets is they change every time. You go for the seasonal produce and for the individual sellers. It’s the opposite of supermarkets, where it’s downright inconvenient when the aisles are changed around adding a precious few minutes to your already too-long shopping time.
In the first week of November, there were chestnuts, quinces, and the alien-fabulous chou romanesco. I’ve never cooked any of these, although the guests at our cottage the week before had collected chestnuts in the forest and roasted them over the open hearth. I’ll have to try that, and here’s how.
And the chrysanthemums were flying: you could see them lining the village streets, and all around around the cemeteries where families were marking November 1st, a day of remembrance. We left some by the cottage gateposts: I wonder how far into the winter they’ll last.
It’s strawberry-and-champagne season in England, with Ascot this week and Wimbledon next. It seems the right moment to share these sumptuous strawberries.
These pictures were taken in early June in our local Norman food market. I love the range and shapes of the herbs on offer. Absinthe! And the beautiful curly handwriting.
So much white asparagus everywhere in June, and then it will disappear. For me the flavour runs too mild. I wonder if I’m not cooking it correctly. Please send advice!
Our local food market is in Pont-Audemer, which was once a great producer of leather goods, and the centre is cross-cut with these marvelous little canals which provided water to the tanning trade.
Le Havre probably isn’t top of your list of things to do in Normandy. It certainly wasn’t top of mine–even though it’s on the Unesco World Heritage list. For me, Le Havre has always been a ferry port on the way to somewhere nicer, famous for having been bombed to bits by both sides during World War II.
But my ever adventurous husband kept encouraging me to go. He wanted to know where all the boats that pass by the end of our garden were coming from; and he was interested in seeing the largest container port, and second busiest overall port, in France. So we left behind the bucolic blossomy Easter week countryside and drove off in search of urban grit.
We arrived in a shower of rain, found parking, and ran into the nearest shelter, a large concrete doorway. I stumbled in, looked up, and then had one of those blinking-into-the-gloom moments that you get in the great medieval cathedrals like Notre Dame, Salisbury or Reims. Except here I was in a dramatic modernist space, the Eglise Saint-Joseph du Havre, made entirely from reinforced concrete. Built in the 1950s, the cathedral was designed by Auguste Perret, the architect who led the reconstruction of Le Havre after the war. It’s quite hard to describe the effect of stepping into this cathedral, and pictures don’t do it justice. The concrete is hard and cold and ugly, and yet the overall effect is uplifting and awe-inspiring. If you do one thing in Le Havre, go there.
The rain stopped, the sun came out (every day in Normandy contains about 7 days of weather in other places) and we headed towards the port, stopping along the way at the covered market for sandwiches and where we admired the traditional Easter bells and other chocolate on display.
Dotted around the port are some interesting sculptures, and this unusual Oscar Neimeyer designed volcano, which houses a cultural centre.
Then on to the Musée Malraux, known as MuMa, and its excellent collection of impressionist art in another modernist space that’s more attractive inside than out.
There are works by Boudin, Monet, Dufy, and many of the impressionists; I particularly liked the several portraits by Renoir, as well as the way the museum windows let the changing Normandy light right inside.
Along the seafront from the museum, boats were being taken out of dry dock by men with a small crane. We walked out along the long pier. Retired couples out for a stroll greeted us warmly, and a class of small student sailboats bobbed about at the end of the pier. Looking back was a rather lovely view of the port, smart new apartments, and the Perret cathedral tower.
Do look out for the seafront shop, La Belle-Iloise, which has walls and walls of these brightly coloured tins of sardines. What wonderful gifts.
Le Havre seems to me something like a beautiful easter egg hidden in an old bag, full of delightful surprises that it’s worth taking the time to savour.
What comes to a local market in the dead of winter? Very little, you would think – the fields are empty, the trees are bare, there’s nothing but rain and a dull grey sky. You’d be surprised. Here are some of the delights we found at our Norman market at the end of December.
Boxes and boxes of the freshest oysters, only a squirt of lemon needed.
Holly and mistletoe grow everywhere in Normandy. Look up any old tree in the winter and what looks like a messy kind of birds nest is probably mistletoe. And there is a whole forest of holly, la Forêt d’Eu, in the Seine-Maritime. But if you don’t have time to collect your own, you can buy some at market.
I think these are guinea fowl but please tell me if I’m wrong. There were plenty of geese and roosters too. No one looked squeamish about buying fowl with the head and feet still on. Even in the supermarket, the packaged free range chickens have more feathers and blood left on than their sterile UK counterparts.
The pretty coquilles Saint-Jacques are a Normandy specialty which have been awarded the prestigious “label rouge” in recognition of their quality. (Does everything in France have a label?) Here is a video about the fishermen who catch them, and a recipe which, like all the best Norman recipes, is packed with wild (if you can get them) mushrooms and crème fraîche.
The candied fruit sparkled like cheap jewelry under the fluorescent lights of the market stalls. It seemed that every imaginable fruit – and even vegetable – had been candied. Pears, mango, carrots, tomatoes, kiwi, pineapple, peaches, cherries, lemons, clementines, figs and more. No gallon tins of chocolates needed here to keep spirits up in the dead of winter.
And then a hint of the season to follow. All these bright bulbs poking out of the soil, promising even better come springtime.
Is there any better shopping experience than a Norman market in October? The apples and pears are ripe; the wild mushrooms have been collected; the ducks are plump; la chasse is in full swing, and the seafood from the Atlantic coast is bountiful.
Our local market is in Pont-Audemer, a country commercial centre that, while charming, doesn’t have the tourist appeal of its neighbours Honfleur and Deauville. Some have called Pont-Audemer the Venice of Normandy, for its canal system that once served its famous tanning trade (the Hermès family hailed from here). I think the comparison’s a stretch. No palazzos in sight: but plenty of half-timbered Norman houses, narrow cobbled streets, a gothic church noted for its stained glass, and a bustling, bountiful market on Mondays and Fridays.
We love these unusually shaped squashes that you can find in Norman markets. They decorate our table from October until the Christmas decorations come out in December.
I wish I had taken a picture of the neatly stuffed ducks lined up and glistening in their rows. There were all shapes and sizes of box balls, smartly manicured in their pots. A hundred varieties of goats cheese – some brand new and dewily mild, others aged and pungent.
And, should you have a rush chair that needs to be fixed, there is man here who will do that for you. Wonderful.