TASTES OF THE TARN
Orlando Murrin shares his weekly finds at the Carmaux market in southwest France
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).