jeudi, janvier 27, 2005

To Market To Market To Buy a Fat Pig

When we first arrived in Maisons Laffitte I was fully-prepared to adopt the lifestyle of a bourgeois provincial madame, and that obviously included the notion of going to the market to buy weekly provisions. Full of enthusiasm (and possessed of a very bad back, due to having spent a week unpacking dozens of heavy boxes which the removal people had inadvertantly dumped at one end of the house and which inevitably needed to be shunted somewhere entirely different, but which we only realised, of course, once the strong guys who are used to this kind of thing - and paid to do it - had already left) I got myself down to the Wednesday morning market one day between Christmas and New Year. It was indeed a sight to behold, a sight to gladden all the senses - as far as the eye could see stretched stalls laden with a veritable cornucopia of produce; from fresh foie gras to types of cheese that even de Gaulle might not have been able to identify, to spices, to fruit from all corners of the world; there was a wonderful stall selling hideously misshapen fruit and vegetables, all organically grown, covered in wonderful natural-looking mud, and appropriately over-priced. There were pyramids of glossy clementines, still attached to their leaves, bunches of those beautiful French radishes that are long and fuschia coloured with lovely little white tips and absolutely delicious eaten with unsalted butter and a mound of sea salt; even the humble potato was represented better than I have ever seen anywhere else, with at least 20 different types of potato, each more or less suitable for a certain type of preparation, and often coming accompanied by a recipe or two.

I have never seen pigs trotters before, nor been offered different cuts of horse. (This I particularly relish in Maisons Laffitte which boasts the largest race track in France, is twinned with Newmarket, has signposts all over declaring 'Priorite aux chevaux' and proudly announces on every signpost "Ville du Cheval". What other city in the world offers you the chance to ride, eat or bet on the same iconic beast?) Steak tartare is traditionally made with horse but in fact nowadays in most Paris brasseries, where it is a menu staple, it is invariably made of beef. Only in Maisons Laffitte's swankiest private homes will you be served the real thing, quite possibly by the proud owner of an Arabian stallion, stabled just around the corner.

But the prices to be paid for such a sensuous feast! As I said, my back hurt, and what with having two small boys in tow, and it being pretty cold, I wasn't savvy enough to do a proper tour. I happened on a stall selling the kind of things I was looking to buy, and thought that would be it. I had of course happened on a major smart arse who was determined to banter with me in English although it was rapidly obvious that he didn't speak more than a very few words ("What would you like?"). My list was fairly short and similarly basic: a kilo of clementines, brocolli, tomatoes, potatoes, and then at the behest of the kids a couple of mangos and a pineapple. How much could it come to, even taking into account the unseasonal extravagance of tropical fruit? It all fitted into one carrier bag, for God's sake, which is a pretty good rule of thumb for saying it couldn't be more than about 15 quid, no?

The guy, moronically still thinking I'm going to be charmed by his attempts to address me in my own language, hands me my bag and says "fourteen euros please". I pay up unquestioningly. He looks at the coins I've given him and says "J'ai dit quarante euros!" I am winded by shock, but momentarily derailed by my triumph that he has just proved he can't actually speak English. (I wouldn't ordinarily hold this against anyone, you understand. Not speaking the language is something I am guilty of in most of the countries I visit. It's just that I do speak French, and there is something so unbelievably irritating about being in France and speaking French more than adequately and being replied to in English by someone who is showing off a vocabulary limited to a dozen words - which doesn't, unfortunately, include numbers above ten.) So I spend a minute or two asking if he is sure of the difference between 14 and 40, quatorze et quarante, fourteen and forty, and by the time we have this sorted out , and some kind of honour is restored (to whom I'm not entirely sure) I realise the real enormity of what has just occured. He has charged me 40 euros for a single, basic bag of groceries, and I have actually paid him!