TASTES OF THE TARN

Or­lando Mur­rin shares his weekly finds at the Car­maux mar­ket in south­west France

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

FOR most vis­i­tors to France, the first lure on the list is food. And when you think of French food, you think of the mar­kets. At Ray­naudes, in the de­parte­ment of the Tarn in south­west­ern France, we are within reach of half a dozen, in­clud­ing the most pop­u­lar in the re­gion, at St-An­tonin-Noble-Val.

This is a mar­ket with bells on: or­ganic sour­dough, hand-picked grapes from Mois­sac, fig and car­damom jam made by nuns, rarebreed meats. Our lo­cal mar­ket is more down to earth, and it is where you will find me most Fri­day morn­ings.

In a coun­try­side bristling with bastide vil­lages and his­toric mon­u­ments, Car­maux is no­table for its ex­treme plain­ness. If Miche­lin maps had a sym­bol for the op­po­site of ‘‘ worth a de­tour’’, Car­maux would get it. But I love it. An old min­ing town (for 400 years, un­til the 1980s) it is like a won­der­ful Bri­tish high street of the ’ 50s, even down to early clos­ing (on Mon­days).

When we ar­rived in the area, I could not work out why the name Car­maux some­how rang a bell. This nagged at me. One evening we had din­ner with friends Peter and Brid­get Dixon, who run a charm­ing salon de the in nearby Na­jac. We started to talk about the French Re­sis­tance, a sub­ject best kept clear of among the lo­cals, who re­gard it as a pretty sorry piece of his­tory. Al­though there were some ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­am­ples of brav­ery among the mem­bers of the Maquis, of which the south­west was a strong­hold, un­der­ground plot­ting and dou­ble-deal­ing pro­vided ir­re­sistible op­por­tu­nity to settle old vendet­tas and in­trigues. ‘‘ Lots of bod­ies down wells,’’ re­marked Peter. He found a book about the Re­sis­tance and copied some pages for me.

My grand­fa­ther, Jim Skar­don, was a spy­catcher. He started his ca­reer in the po­lice and was trans­ferred to Bri­tain’s MI5. At the end of the war he was sec­onded to the Intelligence Corps and sent to Europe to round up traitors.

I set­tled down to trans­late what Peter Dixon had copied for me, and there I read about ‘‘ l’af­faire Lord’’. This was a com­pli­cated case of dou­ble-cross­ing and in­fi­delity, im­pli­cat­ing alike French, Bri­tish and Ger­man agents (in fact, it is im­pos­si­ble to know who was work­ing for whom). Out­come? Mur­der: body down well. Scene: Car­maux and the sur­round­ing ham­lets. Who was sent by Bri­tish Intelligence to in­ves­ti­gate in 1944? My grand­fa­ther.

He must have been the per­son who first told me about Car­maux, and he would cer­tainly recog­nise the mar­ket.

My shop­ping starts at Place Jean-Juares, where the small grow­ers and pro­duc­ers (rather than reven­deurs , or traders) set up their stands. I start with Yan­nick’s fruit stall; al­though only in his 20s, he runs a fruit farm near Mon­tauban pro­duc­ing straw­ber­ries, cher­ries, then apri­cots, then ap­ples and pears and grapes, then ki­wifruit.

I do a quick tour of the other grow­ers, maybe pick­ing up some leaves or mush­rooms freshly gath­ered from the grower’s gar­den or hedgerow. In March this is the place to head for two lo­cal spe­cial­i­ties. Rep­an­c­hous is an ex­tra­or­di­nary wild crop that looks like very fine as­para­gus and is pulled from lo­cal hedges and verges.

Gil­bert has shown me ex­actly where to find it in our own hedges and, from March to late April, you will see in­nu­mer­able cars and vans parked in coun­try lanes as lo­cal peo­ple hunt for it.

If you buy a bunch and do not wish to be marked out as a tourist, it is car­ried up­side down (not like a bunch of flow­ers).

Af­ter much re­search, I have es­tab­lished that the plant is black bry­ony. Be warned that ev­ery­thing about it, ex­cept the im­ma­ture shoots, is poi­sonous, es­pe­cially the lus­cious­look­ing scar­let ber­ries that you see hang­ing on trees like strings of beads in Septem­ber. Its flavour is sim­i­lar to as­para­gus but with a pleas­antly bit­ter, beery af­ter­taste.

Fol­low­ing hot on the heels of rep­an­c­hous are bunches of broc­coli or cab­bage tops, ideally picked just be­fore the yel­low flow­ers open. Th­ese are a del­i­cacy served boiled ala rep­an­chou , or sim­ply as a warm salad tossed in vi­nai­grette.

In late sum­mer-early au­tumn this cor­ner of the mar­ket is also the place to come for cepes, the wild mush­rooms bet­ter known by the Ital­ian name porcini.

They grow in shady wood­land and pop up a week or so af­ter rain. Our house­keeper, Monique, taught me how to pre­pare them. Brush off the dirt and trim away the in­evitable bits dam­aged by slugs. Peel the base with a potato peeler and wash each mush­room quickly but care­fully be­fore dry­ing on a rack (they stick to pa­per). Slice length­wise about 1cm thick, stems and all. Heat but­ter and olive oil (or duck fat if you have it) and fry the slices briskly with sea­son­ing, not too many in the pan at once, un­til they start to turn a rich tan colour. The heady aroma of siz­zling cepes is a cook’s perk, al­most as de­li­cious as the eat­ing.

When all your cepes are fried, sprin­kle with finely chopped gar­lic and plenty of chopped pars­ley, check sea­son­ing and serve at once. When her boyfriend Yves has had a suc­cess­ful for­age, Monique cooks cepes in large batches and ei­ther puts them in jars of oil (then ster­ilises them) or freezes them.

Across the high street in the Place Gam­betta is the main mar­ket. Cheese is my first pri­or­ity here. For hard-cheese lovers there’s Os­sau-Irarty (Basque) or aged Comte.

If you like strong soft-rinded cheeses, Maroilles from the north. If you like clean and creamy, Bril­lat-Savarin or Petit Robert. If you like blue, clas­sic Ro­que­fort or Fourme d’Am­bert. An ir­re­sistible goat’s cheese is Selles-sur-Cher. Some of the cheeses tell a story. The pyra­mi­dal cheeses of the Loire lost their tops when Napoleon cut them off with a sword. They re­minded him of the Pyra­mids af­ter his failed cam­paign in Egypt. Lan­gres from Bur­gundy has a slight dip in the top which is by tra­di­tion filled with marc de Bour­gogne or eau de vie and lit at ta­ble. Epoisses is the only cheese banned on French pub­lic trans­port.

The big­gest crowds are in the rue Ho­tel de Ville cut-through be­tween Place Gam­betta and the Place de la Lib­er­a­tion. First stop here is M. Cam­pos, who spe­cialises in corn-fed poul­try and sells the finest pi­geons in all France, from Mont Royal, the other side of Albi. Mi­tou on the stand op­po­site of­fers a se­lec­tion of more than 50 dif­fer­ent sorts of olive, as well as ev­ery imag­in­able dried fruit and nut, and the lo­cal favourite, salt cod. In the Tarn salt cod is made into a sort of hot fish pie, stofi­cado.

Af­ter Mi­tou you will find in quick suc­ces­sion the onion man, who sells ev­ery­thing from shal­lots to the ap­pel­la­tiond’orig­inecon­trolee pink gar­lic from nearby Lautrec. The aligot man, recog­nis­able by his Au­vergne-style peaked hat, stir­ring a vast caul­dron of de­li­ciously gloopy cheese and creme fraicheen­riched mash.

The spice lady, with ev­ery seed, grain and ti­sane you could imag­ine, in­clud­ing the most softly scented and flaky of cin­na­mon sticks from Sri Lanka. And Serge the mush­room man, with trays of fresh chest­nuts, shi­itake and oys­ters, plus huge white mush­rooms pour far­cir (to stuff).

And fi­nally we are in the place it­self. I can rarely re­sist buy­ing some­thing from Se­bas­tian the herb grower, who of­fers dozens of or­gan­i­cally grown herbs and aro­mat­ics, from hys­sop to mizuna, horse­rad­ish to marsh mal­low. But for me an even big­ger draw is Alby Foie Gras.

Al­though I have al­ways been vo­cif­er­ous in my ob­jec­tion to in­dus­tri­ally pro­duced foie gras, I have never be­lieved that ar­ti­san­pro­duced foie gras is a par­tic­u­larly dif­fer­ent ‘‘ trans­ac­tion’’ from any other sort of meat or poul­try farm­ing. The south­west of France is the foie gras cap­i­tal of the world, and al­though it is so rich that not ev­ery­one ac­quires the taste, for many it is the ul­ti­mate del­i­cacy.

Foie gras comes in many forms. It can be ei­ther hot, sliced and quickly fried as an esca­lope, or in ter­rine form, the purest be­ing mi-cuit­de­foiegras (lit­er­ally, half cooked). In late sum­mer, I or­der a spe­cial form of mi-cuit with a layer of fresh figs in the cen­tre. For a very short sea­son from late Novem­ber to Jan­uary, goose foie gras is avail­able, at about dou­ble the price of the reg­u­lar duck ver­sion. Just as the birds are dif­fer­ent, goose foie gras seems to me meatier, coarser, gamier than duck. Early Vic­to­rian cler­gy­man and satirist Syd­ney Smith said his idea of heaven was ‘‘ eat­ing foie gras to the sound of trum­pets’’. This is an edited ex­tract from ATable intheTarn by Or­lando Mur­rin (HarperCollins, $49.99).

Il­lus­tra­tion: Tom Jel­lett

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