I'd begun reading the late Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence and the sequel Toujours Provence aloud to Carol, generally as preparation for our trip to France but specifically for our stopover in Avignon. While his depictions of the region would differ from our own during the week we spent there, one in particular was spot on.
On the Sunday after we arrived in Avignon, we walked to the main fresh market known as Les Halles. Probably nothing screams vegan to me more than seeing meat, poultry and fish displayed in the carcasses in which they once mooed, bahed, cackled and swam. But though the sights and smells of a fresh market might be an appetite suppressant, it makes for fascinating visuals. It also makes for fascinated comments like, “Do people actually eat that?” until you realize that in some cases, you're one of those people.
Here is the way Mayle described his visit of the seafood area of the market:
“And then there were fish, laid out gill to gill... Banks of crushed ice... separated the squid from the blood-darkened tuna, the rascasses from the loups de mer, the cod from the skate. Pyramids of clams,.. of winkles, tiny grey shrimp, and monster gambas, fish for friture, fish for soupe, lobsters the color of dark steel...deft hands with long thin knives cutting and gutting, the squelch of rubber boots on the wet stone floor.”
Carol and I experienced those same images, and the wider our eyes got in amazement at what creatures live in the sea, the smaller my appetite became. Nothing remotely resembled what it looked like when served on a plate, garnished with a lemon slice or parsley sprig.
I love to eat but I'm no gourmand. Strand me on a deserted island stocked with calamari frites, meatballs and chicken tenders, and I'll never want for rescue. Put me face to face with a pulsating squid, scampering rabbit or cooing grouse, however, and I'd embrace starvation with a smile on my face.
The day Carol and I were at Les Halles, the fishmonger was hacking a steak from the remains of a Tesla-sized tuna with the enthusiasm of Lizzy Borden contemplating a family dinner. When he was done he flung the steak onto a purple pile of others and then collapsed against the cutting board. Ahi will never look the same again. Instead, it will look like a fishmonger who'd just gone the distance with Clubber Lang.
The peddlers who work theses farmers markets are indisputably hard workers. For that matter, so are the shoppers who can push through a log jam at a boulangerie counter like Paul Hornung running the old Packer power sweep.
Food is serious business in France. From growing it to harvesting it to selling it and buying it, it is Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand as a right hook upside the head. No wonder the French are so pompous about their cooking. They've waged the equivalent of The Battle of the Bulge to get it to the table.
(NEXT: The Battle of the Bulge: the siren call of the french baguette.