When I go on a vacation, especially to another country, the first places I visit are what I consider to be the most important cultural sites—the food markets. Whether a corner mom-and-pop grocery or a fullscale open-air market, the place where food is sold is where the action is for me. And when I’m lucky enough to be visiting an area that’s a real “gastronomic destination,” like France or Italy, seeing fabulous, justpicked or just-cooked food is as soul-satisfying as going to a museum. But if I’m staying in a hotel, the markets can be torture—all those great ingredients and no place to cook them.
Last summer I found a wonderful solution to the dilemma, a solution that not only gave me more of what I wanted from my vacation—the ability to cook all day and eat and drink all night—but a solution that was delivered at a really reasonable price. I rented a house in southern France for a week.
The amazing thing was that I did it totally on the cheap, which is the only way I can afford a vacation of any kind. First of all, I travelled in mid-September, which is heading toward off-season, but in the south of France, mid-September still felt like peak season—deliciously warm weather, active produce markets, and not too many tourists (except for me, of course). My ticket on Air France from New York to Paris was only about $550 with a 30-day purchase; a friend at work who was booking a ticket to Toledo, Ohio, at the same time was getting quotes of over $800. I was able to rent a big, fast Renault diesel sedan through my U.S. travel agent for about $400 for the week (for the best deals, rent your car before you go).
The best value of all, the part that made the trip so great, was the house I found—a huge, charming, well-equipped beauty set on a quiet dirt lane in the middle of a working vegetable farm. I paid $300 for the week, about a third of the cost of a local hotel room.
I found the great housing deal through the gîte rural system, a government-organized network of private rental properties all over France. Each place is different, but all must meet a certain standard of quality.
Staying at the house my friends and I were really able to live the life: early to market every few days to fill our baskets with everything that looked and smelled marvelous: fat farm-raised chickens, raw milk cheeses, rustic loaves of bread in every shape, olives from pea green and pea-sized to big succulents, sausages and hams from the nearby Cévennes mountains, and mounds of glossy, taut skinned fruit and vegetables.
After the marketing spree, we’d go back to the house, first to take a nap, and then to turn the morning’s purchases into great food, all washed down by local wine.
A Cooking Vacation
For more information about renting a gîte in France, contact: Federation Nationale des Gîtes de France. The neatest way is to go to its web site at www.gites-de-france.fr(it’s in English and French). You can also write to 59, rue St.- Lazare, 75009 Paris, France, or fax to 011-33-1-42-81- 28-53. You start by ordering a catalog on a specific département, or small region, (so get yourself a good map; the web site has one). The catalogs give descriptions, pictures, and prices for each property. Once you make a selection, contact the Gîtes de France office in the region. The catalogs cost about $8 each.
Before you go, find out which towns have markets and the days they’re open. A few books offer that information: Food Lovers’ Guide to France, by Patricia Wells (Workman, 1987); Take 5,000 Eggs—Food from the Markets & Fairs of Southern France, by Paul & Jeanne Strang (Kyle Cathie Limited, 1997, distributed in the US by Trafalgar Square); Markets of Provence, by Dixon & Ruthanne Long (Collins, 1996).
Affordable digs are the key
The place we selected was remarkable: a renovated 12th century priory, made of massive honey-colored limestone block. The living space consisted of three large bedrooms, a living room (which could have been another bedroom), a generous dining room outfitted with a long refectory table, a big kitchen that had modern appliances as well as a great stone fireplace, two bathrooms, and of course a chapel. Outside, there was a walled courtyard draped with wisteria and flanked by massive fig trees. We were only three people, but we could have easily fit eight. Our hosts, a helpful, friendly but discreet couple, lived nearby yet gave us all the privacy we wanted.
For all this, we paid $300 for the week, which included linens and basic kitchen equipment.
Not all the gîte housing will be as picturesque as ours was, but they’ll all be at least personal, quirky, and very good value.
Strategic thinking makes the market manageable
You need to arrive as the market opens to get the best stuff and to beat the heat, not to mention to get a parking place. You’ll need to make a plan before you go, so fix yourself a café au lait and grab a pen and paper. Though you’ll want to, you can’t buy everything.
A good shopping strategy is to develop a generic menu- maybe a cold soup, a salad, a vegetable gratin, roast chicken, fruit tart. You can select the specific type of fruit or vegetable for each dish depending on which market vendor has the most seductive display.
Now check out your kitchen to see what tools you’re missing. Most markets have stalls selling kitchen gadgets- not usually the best quality, but cheap and good enough to use for the week.
Aim to be finished with your shopping in time to sit in a café in the market square, enjoy a mid-morning express and croissant, and watch the world go by- remember, you’re on vacation.
The first table you see might have some goodlooking melons, but around the corner may be the actual melon farmer herself, offering a taste of the sweetest Cavaillons for half the price of the first lot.
Some of the sellers at the markets are just that— sellers of other people’s produce, not all of it local or even French. Try to find the people who look like they’re the growers or the cheesemakers or the beekeepers. You’ll usually see a sign that says “producteur” (producer).
And plan your route so that you buy the more perishable items last: dairy, meat, and certainly fish. Some fishmongers will give you a little bag of ice, but on a hot day, it won’t last long.
The hubbub and crowds of a bustling market can be a bit intimidating, but if you learn a few basic skills, you can assert yourself in a way that will get you good service— and maybe even a sample tasting. Perhaps the most important point is that at most market stalls, you don’t serve yourself. You just tell the vendor how much of what you want. Try to learn the names of the foods you’re likely to buy (they’ll all be labeled, of course). And if you’re worried about your rusty French, try body language. The French are great gesticulators, so communication is possible with only a few words and a friendly smile.
If you don’t know the metric system, at least learn that 500g is about 1 pound, and then work up or down from there. And don’t take your 200g of shallots and then reach into your bag for your traveller’s checks. Get yourself a walletful of small bills and coins before you start shopping.
Big markets can be great sources for flowers, antique linens, olive oil and lavender soaps, funky oilcloths for the kitchen table, and of course baskets.
For just a little shopping, a string bag is brilliant, since it weighs nothing and expands to fit your purchases. For more stuff, a backpack is nice; it leaves your hands free and can support heavier items (though it doesn’t look very “local”). If you’re going to be around for a week or so, get a shopping trolley, one of those vertical grocery baskets on wheels. It may make you feel like the little old lady in apartment 3B, but you can really pile in the stuff without breaking your back, and using a trolley leaves your hands free to point, taste, and pay.
Relaxed menus ensure enjoyable evenings
The owners of the gîte, M. and Mme. Audema, sip some local wine with the author and Fine Cooking art director Steve Hunter.