Thursday, September 24, 2009

Eating and Selling and Cooking

If there is one good reason to learn French, it’s so that you can go to the farmer’s markets here and learn how to cook from the vendors. Never knew what to do with watercress? Unsure of how to cook a roast? Perplexed by Swiss chard? Ask the person selling it and chances or he or she will divulge their secrets with relish. Any recipes offered have to be easy, otherwise the vendor wouldn’t have the patience to tell you, and you would never be able to remember them. Vendors put the main ingredient at the forefront, where it should be, instead of being upstaged by reduced balsamic vinegar or star anise. They introduce you foods you would usually never consider (black radishes? Dandelion greens?), and others you might be too shy to get to know (fresh oysters, sea scallops, guinea hen, rabbit).

It’s easy to bond with a good vendor. I spent three years in Avignon, and the only person I really miss is Guy, the Gay Grocer. I mention his sexual orientation not only because I have a weakness for an easy alliteration, but also because he upended any stereotypes about Provençals that I might have still been carrying around. Provençals are supposed to be rough and rugged country people who are wary and suspicious of outsiders, unless it they are looking to relieve them of any extraneous euros they happen to be carrying around. A stocky sort, sporting a long mane of black hair, many gold chains, and an earring, Guy was a Good Will ambassador for the vegetable kingdom, a maven of All Things Produce, and a talk show host, all rolled into one. When I looked mystified before a display of 12 different kinds of asparagus, Guy was there to guide me. When I admitted my ignorance regarding purple artichokes, he gently suggested an aioli. When I gaped, horrified, before Trumpets of Death (a kind of wild mushroom), he pointed me towards girolles, a kinder, gentler fungus. He may have had a pronounced lisp, but he was Provençal through and through. He loved his pays, he told me he would never leave, he even enjoyed the Mistral wind, which drove me insane. I still can’t forgive myself for not writing down his recipe for pistou, a garlicky, basil-rich sort of Provençal minestrone so good it almost makes up for the Mistral.

So be good to your vendor. Maybe he’s just the butcher in the meat section of the supermarket, but he may be harboring some secret knowledge that you might otherwise have to watch endless shows on the Food Channel to learn about.