“Who comes to France to make soup?” asks Gaston.

“What more French thing to do than to boil up a carcass with some mirepoix to make potage?” Mimi responds.

Making soup is part of our Monday ritual at Montplaisir. First, visit the Monday morning Mirepoix market and purchase produce for the week. Next, go to the bakery and stock up on baguettes and other breads to last the next 36 hours. Last stop on the excursion: go by the rotisserie wagon to pick up lunch: one whole chicken and a carton of potatoes roasted in a pan under the turning chickens to catch all their jus (and fat).

Back to Montplaisir, where Gaston debones the bird and sets the skeletal bits to boil in a potful of water on the stove. Mimi makes a green salad and slices bread. They eat; the carcass simmers; they sip blanquette; the carcass simmers; they clean up; the carcass simmers; they find their current reading material and lounge on the terrace; the carcass simmers. At last, Mimi strains the stock and sets it to cool, and Gaston brings the resulting chicken trash up to the dustbins at the top of the road.

Then, the creative part: consolidating and taking care of many of the bits in the frigo—that last carrot from the previous week’s trip to the market, the lonely, withering stalk of celery, the handful of leek leaves and half an onion, the leftover potatoes and bits of meat from lunch, the rice from the previous night’s supper, and the herbs harvested from fields and trailsides during the week’s hikes.

Different each time. Satisfying every time.

roast-chicken wagon at the market

Roast-chicken wagon at the market

Other kitchen adventures include:

  • Duck, cooked lightly with coat of fresh-ground pepper, then served with steamed spinach and apricot-and-onion confit. That was yummy;
  • A green salad dressed with peaches stewed in balsamic vinegar and strips of dry ham.
  • Pasta in a ham, wine, eggplant and tomato sauce, with field herbs;
  • Onion tart with Dijon-mustard seasoning;
  • Onion and tomato tart;
  • Mimi’s signature fennel-apple-hazelnut salad with Dijon vinaigrette—the real French dressing;
  • Stacks of roasted eggplant, roasted red pepper, roasted tomato and fresh cheese, with balsamic syrup and figs;
  • and Cédric Diant’s pastries from Mirepoix.

Last time, Mimi tried cooking rabbit stew, but ended up with stewed leather instead.

Two years on, and we’re finding not even rural France remains frozen in time. C’est dommage, mais, ça, c’est la vie. The commune of Mirepoix is extracting value from its forests this past summer: stands throughout the area have been harvested, and the logs are piled alongside the highways awaiting trucks with Big Claws to cart them away. The village of Camon has ripped out its poplar plantations and replaced them with vines.

The bakery in Chalabre has closed and is for sale. This is of particular sadness to us, as it was a regular morning croissant stop for us last time we were in the area and were en route to points south and east. Now the tabac—the French version of the convenience store—next door has taken on the role of dépôt boulangerie to serve the needs of the community, but, really, it just ain’t the same as bread fresh from the oven.

Further, our favourite baker in Mirepoix, Cédric Diant, across the laneway from le Relai hôtel, has timed his annual vacation to coincide with our vacation. We have to wait almost half of our holiday to experience once again his fabulous pain d’autan (traditional bread), pastries and chocolates. Fortunately, the “Sweet Sin” (la Péché Mignonne) bakery on the other side of the ring road around the city’s historic centre is open. Not quite as amazing, but amply adequate. We particularly enjoy their photo album of the reconstruction of Saint-Basil’s cathédral au chocolat: fait du 70 kg du chocolat, 120 heures du travail, et one tonne de la passion (made with 70 kg of chocolate, 120 hours of work, and one tonne of passion).

fish stand, marchéveg stand, marché

Sadly, the musical-instrument man no longer sells at the Sunday Esparaza market, to Gaston’s dismay. No further access to croaking frog-drums or wooden-clatter birdsong makers. And the herb-and-spice seller at the Monday Mirepoix market has also moved on. In fact, finding herbes de Provence has become something of a challenge.

And the cheese-and-saucisson seller with the blond highlights at the weekly Esperaza/Mirepoix markets has passed the torch—at least temporarily—to a young Basque woman.

chateaux lastours

Of further tristesse, is the old, old bouvier de Flandres dog owned by Madame Vènes at our favourite Minervoix winery was hit by a car last December, and no longer welcomes us or anyone with a wag of the tail and a flop-down nearby, followed shortly thereafter by the appearance of madame. “He was my doorbell, my claxon,” she told me. “Even before anybody drove up or rang the bell to take a tasting or anybody knew a customer had arrived, he would search me out and bark to alert me that someone was coming.”

Now madame has to make do with a young South Korean woman interning at the winery for the next six months to guard the office and let her know when customers have arrived to sample the fabulous nectar produced by the estate. In 2005, Massamier-la mignarde produced the “best wine in the world” in the Syrah–grenache–mourvedre category, according to the vignerons of France. Having sampled that vintage the last time we were in the area, I must say, it was very fine.

From October 2009

Gaston and I have had further, positive revelations on the question of la nourriture: French public markets. Les marchés are nothing like Granville Island’s sanitized vegetable warehouse outlet. Here, local or at least regional producers selling their specialties of the season predominate.

Our first market was on a rainy day in Gourdagues. It didn’t really prepare us, as there were only maybe eight vendors, and we were still leery of unidentifiable animal bits stuffed inside retained bowels and of course the overwhelming question of cheese (i.e., where to start?). Then, a few days later we visited Uzès during their mega Saturday market: the usual food suspects × 20, produce, wines of the region and spirits made by little old monks and nuns, honey, jam, candy, crafts, toys, clothing (made in N. Africa or SE Asia), carpets, tableware and bedroom linen, fabric, notions, lotions and potions. There was so much market we couldn’t see the town’s bastide at all. I’m told Uzès is a jewel of a town, but who could tell? There were so many people, we country colts just whinnied and shied away, thinking, “What’s so great about these French marchés anyway?”

Uzes marché

Then we encountered the Monday market at Mirepoix: enough vendors and purveyors to keep it interesting and varied; not so crazy you have to keep your hand on your wallet.

That’s when Gaston and I discovered that would never survive as trout in a fishing stream: give us a nibble and you’ve hooked us. Some stinky goat cheese made high in the Pyrenees: hmm, yum—nous voudrions 250 milligrams, svp. Oh, you must try the same thing made with cow’s milk—much milder. D’accord, some of that, too.

saucissons, Mirepoix marché Some saucisson made with herbes de provence? Oh, also try this, avec cèpes (a mushroom), and oh, this, avec tomates secs: and before you know it, we’re proud parents of a lumpy ring that looks uncomfortably like a third of a metre of stuffed intestine. Mm-mmm. And that’s the one we bring home.

Today, with me translating between him and the vender at the market in Bessans, Gaston bought some green olives in fresh minced and whole garlic, some new kalamatas, and a couple of big fistfuls of green olives pickled with pimentos. This was after he sampled all of the eight varieties on offer, so obviously he was exercising restraint.

The nice thing about mid-size markets (50–100 vendors) is that it’s big enough to have all the good stuff from miles around, but neither are you so busy keeping track of each other that you miss the local characters.

Now we’re on our way to becoming market junkies. When we come into a strange village/town on market day, with no idea where to find the goods, now we know to look for and follow the people with empty baskets and to go against the flow through the streets of people with full baskets. It’s a sure way to find market-central anywhere.

It’s just possible that if you planned your week around visiting the larger food markets in a region, you could just maybe get away without buying any groceries for the week. But what’s the fun in that?

Besides, how could you possibly pass up bringing home enough seductively-scented paella, scooped fresh from the cooking pot, for lunch? Or maybe you should have the couscous with sauce instead? Or the bouillabaisse, loaded with fresh seafood from Perpignan. And then, for supper, the roast farm chicken, with roasted potatoes and green peppers, with a nice green salad on the side for your own sausage-making mechanism.

Bon appetit,