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

France - - Contents -

Soak up a taste of the sea in fish mar­kets from western Brit­tany to Mar­seille.

North­ern sole

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.

Lori­ent ex­press

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.

Can­nery row

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

A mar­ket trader hard at work in Mar­seille; BE­LOW: A se­lec­tion at the auc­tion in Lori­ent

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