Our village market in winter occupies a different world from its summer version. There are many more stalls in summer, when jewellery sellers rub shoulders with purveyors of over-priced charcuterie. As I walked down into the market square this Tuesday, a flashing blue sky belied the sub-zero temperatures.
The familiar sights and sounds greeted me. Locals bellowed the traditional salutation across the square, “Bonjour, fraîchement!” (it’s cold today). Hands were shaken, three kisses distributed to friends and acquaintances and the early winter generally cursed.
Our market square is probably the coldest place on earth in the winter. Monsieur Bes was already selling Christmas trees and trying to stand in a patch of sunlight, which shrank as the sun moved inexorably behind the hill. The stallholders covered up the vegetables to avoid them getting frosted. They do the same in the summer to prevent the heat ruining them.
I bought eggs from Vincent, a beaming, ruddy-faced man who often breaks into song in mid-transaction. On Tuesday, he rendered snatches from ‘If I were a rich man’. His rough hands delicately placed the eggs, with a coating of mud and feathers still attached, in the cardboard carton I had brought specially.
Vincent’s predecessor played the clarinet between customers in the summer. He claimed his chickens laid better when he serenaded them.
Le paradoxe français
As usual, the queue was longest at the travelling cheese stall, which takes up the entire length of a large van. An elderly lady spent several minutes selecting her cheeses and discussing their respective merits with the stallholder. Nobody was in a hurry. The other customers stood patiently, chatting good-humouredly and displaying the reverence that the French reserve for their favourite singers, bureaucracy and food.
The French down here consume quantities of confit de canard, potatoes fried in duck fat and large amounts of cheese, and yet the death rate from heart disease is much lower than in northern Europe. The locals live to a ripe old age. This is the paradoxe français. It appears that red wine is an effective antidote to the fatty diet. Not any old wine, though; Madiran is reputed to be the best for warding off heart disease.
The natives might not die of heart disease, but they are not immune to other scourges. We discovered that the main causes of death in France are intestinal disorders and violence. We have not been able to find out what ‘violence’ consists of: crimes passionels or, more prosaically, road deaths?
The medieval market hall is still used for its original purpose, except that no one measures out grain through the stone funnels any more. Its roof of fish scale slates supported by stone columns offers some protection against the weather, in both winter and summer.
As I queued for vegetables under la halle, a man behind me was speaking Occitan, the common dialect of much of southwest France and first language of the old people round here. With its origins in Latin, it sounds like a cross between French and Spanish and has a musicality all its own. Combined with the rolling regional accent, it is completely unintelligible to outsiders.
Some of the stallholders, their hands and noses red from the raw cold, were refreshing themselves at the café with glasses of red wine or beer and baguettes filled with cheese and ham. A small dog came and sat beside them, his patience eventually rewarded with a piece of ham.
They set up their stalls early that morning; by midday, they would be packing up for the daily ritual of lunch. The next day, they would perform the same routine in another village.
Yet more snow
This morning we woke up to the third fall of snow in as many weeks. Combined with freezing fog and subzero temperatures all day, this was a less than welcome reappearance of winter.
We had to go to Villefranche for an appointment. This coincided with market day, when it’s normally impossible to find a parking space. Today, though, people had obviously decided to stay at home beside the fire. As we slithered homewards down the hill from P., we wished we had done the same.
Tonight we will huddle by the woodburning stove and open a bottle of wine – not much else to do when the weather is so miserable. Roll on spring.
See also my post on French markets in our area of southwest France.
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