CATCH OF THE DAY
From wholesale complexes to quayside stalls where locals buy fish straight off the boat, France’s seafood markets are a delight. Robin Gauldie picks some of the best
Soak up a taste of the sea in fish markets from western Brittany to Marseille.
Boulogne-sur-mer’s 100-strong fleet brings back its haul from the Atlantic and the North Sea, making it France’s largest fishing port. On the slabs, as well as locally caught sole and plaice, you will find the underestimated rouget tombé (red gurnard), a fish whose prehistoric looks are against it.
“A rather ugly fish,” wrote Elizabeth David in French Provincial Cooking, noting that it tasted a bit like turbot and is “likely to be a bargain”. That still holds true. Browsing the Quai de Gambetta, I find tombés, priced at just €3 a kilogram. Turbot costs more than three times as much.
Gurnard is an inshore fish, caught by dayboats, so is still flapping fresh when landed. On some stalls, you may see live gurnard vainly spreading their huge, wing-like fins as if they could fly to safety.
But if there is one fish that is identified with Boulogne, it must be the herring, venerated here as ‘ le
poisson roi’. The oily fish is celebrated in all its forms at the Fête du
Hareng every November, when it is served fresh and smoked, salted or kippered, along with a glug of Beaujolais nouveau. Red wine with fish? James Bond would have a fit.
Don’t expect a harbour bobbing with cute boats when you visit Kéroman in western Brittany. France’s second-largest fishing port operates on an industrial scale, unloading 26,500 tonnes of seafood a year. More than 100 coastal vessels and 30 deep-sea boats sail to
areas including Rockall, Dogger and Faeroes that we landlubbers know only as names from the shipping forecast.
The port is attached to Lorient, the Morbihan département’s biggest city, which has a dignified 17th-century waterfront. Fish comes straight to its open-air Marché de Merville on Cours de Chazelles every Wednesday and Saturday morning. Other days, or in wet weather, you will also find seafood stalls in the indoor Halles de Merville. Hake rules on the Lorient-kéroman quays, where around 3,500 tonnes are landed each year. Ling, coley and monkfish are big business too, but the lovely pink langoustines are what catch my eye in the market. This is France’s first port for langoustines, I am told. Not everything here is landed by Lorient-kéroman’s own fleet. Some is trucked in from as far away as Lochinver, in the Highlands.
“Ah! Vous venez d’écosse,” said one stallholder. “Almost everything here is from Scotland!” He was exaggerating, but why, he wondered, had we no use for all this lovely stuff at home? I hadn’t the heart to tell him about scampi in a basket.
Fish is not Lorient’s only Scots connection this year. This August’s Festival Inter-celtique, a musical gallimaufry of pan-celtic culture led by Breton bagadou bands and fest-noz dancing, has a Scottish theme, so expect even more tartan and pipe music than usual.
A complex aroma of rust, oil and diesel smoke hovers over any fishing port. But you want postcard-pretty? We can do that too. Concarneau, about 50 kilometres to the west of Kéroman, is France’s third-largest fishing port, but its Ville Close, on an island in the harbour, is an enclave of cobbled streets and crêperies. Concarneau is close to my heart. It was the first place I visited in France. I was nine years old, and fascinated by the huge tuna, frozen solid, that clanged as they were unloaded late at night outside our hotel window. They were bigger than I was. When one of them fell by accident on to the stone cobbles, it shattered into bricks of icy crimson flesh. For visitors on a guided tour of the Criée, the commercial fish auction, massive blue lobsters and crusty spider crabs that resemble aliens of the deep are the stars of the show. If the herring is Boulogne’s signature fish, Concarneau’s history is dominated by the mighty tuna. For centuries, Breton fishermen set out in rowing boats to net teeming shoals of sardines.
When canning was invented in the 19th century, tuna became a more profitable haul and locals ventured into deeper waters in red-sailed yawls called ‘ dundées’. I am disappointed when Cécile Le Phuez of the Musée de Pont-aven et de la Pêche explains that the name has little to do with my home town, but is a frenchified version of ‘dandy’, a rig developed by shipwrights in Great Yarmouth in Norfolk during the 1860s.
Handier to sail than the luggers it replaced, such boats were soon being built in Brittany too. At the beginning of the 20th century, more than 100 of them were fishing out of Concarneau. There are now fewer than 20 sturdy, modern steel-hulled trawlers in the local fleet, ranging as far as the coasts of Africa.
The week-long Festival des Filets Bleus in August, celebrates the Concarneau fleet’s heyday with the crowning of a Queen of the Blue Nets, a parade, Breton music and a village de la mer where chefs show how to prepare and cook the fruits of the sea.
Criée auction tours, 5 Impasse de Verdun, 29900 Concarneau, tours 6am-8am Tues-thurs, tel: (Fr) 2 98 60 76 06.
The Sète menu
Unopened, the oyster is not a lovely creature. Opened, and glistening on its nacreous bed, it is still essentially a blob of gloop. And yet the coquillage stalls of Sète on the Occitanie coast manage to turn their wares into works of art that beg you to order a dozen at the first opportunity.
Sète is doubly blessed. To landward is the shallow Étang de Thau, where the conchyliculteurs of Bouzigues and Loupian raise plump oysters and mussels destined for the renovated Halles de Sète in Rue Gambetta.
Seaward is the open Mediterranean, whence fishermen bring in bass, bream, sardines and more to be sold in the Halles and along the Corniche, and to wholesalers, fishmongers and restaurateurs at Sète’s vast, state-of-the-art auction theatre. This was the first seafood auction in Europe to introduce computerised, push-button bidding. It can handle 700 sales in an hour, and looks more like Nasa Mission Control than my idea of a fish market.
But Sète clings to its traditions. The port’s fish festival, Le Grand Pardon de
Saint-pierre, held in July, celebrates the patron saint of fishermen, when his flower-bedecked effigy is carried through the streets in candlelit procession, accompanied by crews of fishermen in blue-and-white-striped jerseys.
Mirror of Marseille
The futuristic mirrored canopy of L’ombrière, designed by Norman Foster & Partners for Marseille’s year as European Capital of Culture in 2013, dominates the Vieux-port. The fish market is, a 21st-century visitor must suspect, a shadow of its ancient self, reduced to a huddle of stalls over which the new landmark looms like a grounded flying saucer. But the fish is fresh, the atmosphere is amiable, and on the stalls (and in the backstreet markets), you will find everything that the Mediterranean has to offer. The wicked-looking rascasse (scorpion fish) rules the Marseille market. With its goggle eyes, massive head and spiny fins, it is a brute of a fish, but no local cook would dream of preparing the city’s legendary bouillabaisse or the less famous (but more authentic) bourride without it. Other key ingredients abound: buckets of little harbour crabs – essential for seafood stock – red and grey mullet, sardines and bream. There are live langoustines, twitching their long antennae as if they can already detect their fate – to become my dinner.
BON APPÉTIT The best of French gastronomy at home and away
CLOCKWISE FROM FAR LEFT:: Breton fishermen bring their haul back to port; The Ville Close in Concarneau; Stocks at the Criée auction in Lorient; The Fête du
Hareng in Boulogne-sur-mer