I love markets. Boy. I love markets. I loved our market in Brixton (though it’s changed something awful now), and I loved our market in Cagayan, particularly once I’d learned to navigate it properly. Enter here, it’s stinky hanging meat everywhere – blech (snobby vegan priviledge…I can turn my nose up at stinky meat), enter there it’s the too-quiet dry goods corner, ergo lots of people chit-chatting away right up to the point that those two really tall Americans (because Chris was always American to them…poor guy) walk up and then it’s stare-central and a couple of, ‘You’re so height, man!’ Nope, it had to be entry number 3 – eggs and fruits, and a ninja-like entry, speedy as I could walk, smile here, nod there, and off to the vendors with whom we most liked doing business.
But no market has ever compared to the one here, in Le Puy, that has become quite literally the highlight of my week. Seriously. It’s my favorite thing. If we go to bed too late on a Friday I’m already moody because I know it will be hard to wake up early enough to get the best out of the market, before too many people have turned up, when the bread is freshest, fruit boxes fullest, vendors still bright-eyed and not so busy they can’t share a joke or a bit of news about the weather or somesuch. We’ve got it down to a science. Enter at Place du Plot, olives or tapenade from The Olive Lady on the left, bread for Chris from Bread Dude on the right. Cheese from Goat Cheese Dude further up on the right, then we veer down a vendor-lined alley to pick up eggs from the New Egg People (because Old Egg Dude was really quite rude with lots of jokes about my accent and Chris’ height that he never tired of while we did…immediately). That leads us out into the Marché Couvert, which is not exclusively a covered market, though the name implies it is, and in fact we never go into the covered part, but we do go to a fruit and veg vendor selling mostly untreated fare because they are super, super nice, and right now, because it’s summer, we get our cantaloupe just across from Cantaloupe Dude, because his are the sweetest. Then we come all the way back, through Place du Plot again, but this time straight across to the other fruit and veg people who are also super nice, because they have the best avocados, then to Onion & Garlic Dude, whose garlic is expensive but by far the best, and who also often gives us free onions, and then to a bloke selling local fruits, round the entire library to the other side where we get root veg from Dude (that’s right – he’s the original), whose name is Jean-something or other, but we just call him Dude. Off to the left finishing the circle are the Apple Ladies / Cherry Ladies / Apricot Ladies (depending on the season), and then the honey table, where Chris only buys honey in winter because he’s a honey elitist and he doesn’t like it runny.
But the most, most, most important table is the last one, at the exit of the market: The Bread People. No, I know – I already mentioned Bread Dude, where Chris gets his bread, but they’re only sort of important, because Chris can get his bread anywhere, any time, no problems, no questions asked. But I, as you, my gentle readers, will remember, cannot buy my bread willy-nilly here, there, and everywhere. No! I can’t eat wheat. In France. Where I already can’t eat cheese, omelets, paté, or saucisson. Admittedly those last things are by choice, but it still sucks sometimes. To not be able to eat baguette in its country of origin is like a cruel joke. But here’s what happens when I do: my skin breaks out into horrible red, stinging pustules and my stomach fills up with vile, horrible gas that makes me double over in pain (not to mention what it does to those bystanders unlucky enough to be in my vicinity). Still, reading articles on the interweb, there’s no shortage of people at the ready with their comments about how this is a ‘first world’ intolerance (which it largely is, since most of the developing world doesn’t place uber-industrialized wheat at the center of its diet, but of course that’s not the gist of their comments), in our imaginations, etc., etc.
I honestly felt all sorts of sorry for myself when I realized that I couldn’t eat wheat. The first place I found refuge was with The Bread People. Both getting on in years, they were always kind and smiling, and – most importantly – they always treated my wheat issues with respect. They were the people who told me I could probably eat petit epeautre (einkorn) and kamut, but that I should avoid epeautre (spelt) and rye because of the way the gluten behaves – not unlike gliadin, the gluten in wheat that may or may not be what makes me react to it the way I do. All of this is really probably not very important, except that it has been hugely important to me. I’ve been able to eat bread. I’ve felt understood and taken seriously by a boulanger (bread maker). They always, always have the bread, and it is cheaper from them than from other producers. And they are really, exceptionally lovely people.
Which is why yesterday, when he told me that it was their last week at the market before retiring, I really struggled to hold back the tears. It was partly incredulity – No! This can’t be true! It’s my bad French! I’ve misunderstood – and partly the very annoying bloke to my right who clearly could not cope with the Bread Man’s sincere disappointment, trying unsuccessfully to make light of our Bread Man’s insistence that it was a sad day for him. I think I said merci. I know I said good luck. I know he saw I was upset. It’s all so very selfish – where will I get my bread? But it’s also so sad to say goodbye to their kind eyes, to folks that have always been at the market, and now won’t be anymore.
A couple of times, out of a desire to maybe mix things up a bit, I bought my bread from other bread makers. It was always more expensive, and it was never really better. But each time we both felt guilty. We honestly took a different route out of the market once to avoid being seen by them. There is that sort of relationship and understanding between the vendor and punter. I’ve just never been anywhere long enough to see the vendor have to move on. And I’ve honestly never had to say goodbye to someone whose products I’ve become so dependent upon.
Still and all, I’m not sure it’s their bread I’m going to miss the most.