Archive for July, 2011

Brocante in Brantôme

Brocante market in Brantôme
We’ve just returned from the summer brocante market in Brantôme. It’s held in the park on the edge of the river and it’s full of really interesting stuff. Old iron tools, embroidered linen, cracked paintings in ornate frames, cast iron marmites and piles of red striped torchons (tea towels) that are typical in the South West of France.

Some of the second-hand stuff is over-priced junk but there are some great bargains and some really beautiful old things that you can recognise from paintings and engravings of French country life. The iron fire guards, rush-seated chairs, ornate corkscrews and coloured glass soda bottles are snapped up by locals and newcomers who would rather fill their battered oak sideboards with ornate pre-loved crockery than buy brand-new from Ikea.

Dan and I have a real weakness for brocante. It stirs up the old dream of one day buying a house or a barn in Périgord. This is how we have justified buying an old iron bed, a second-hand moped, a pan for roasting chestnuts and various other things that are too big to bring back to New Zealand. We spent a year and a bit living here with our children in 2005-06 and we’ve returned several times since. At the end of each visit we leave more stuff behind; it’s as if each purchase gives us another reason to return. In the meantime our friends use it or store it and promise to give it back when we do find a place of our own.

Today Dan bought a lovely old Monopoly set so we can play at putting hotels on the Champs-Elysées, and I found a wooden container with an iron rim that was used for measuring grain. I also bought a bunch of ancient looking iron keys. They’re heavy enough to cost me excess luggage but this is one purchase I plan to bring home. I’m going to hang them up as a visual reminder of the sort of front door I’d like to unlock one day in France.

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Oysters in France

A cabane serving oysters in Andernos-les-Bains

I’ve been in France for about 10 days now. In fact I’ve lost track of the days – my time has been measured in meals. Being on holiday is really the only excuse I have for spending so much time at the table – that and the fact that after two years we have a lot of friends to catch up with. From the day we arrived we’ve been plied with so many glorious wines, cheese and sauscisson that I have to remind myself the phrase ‘French women don’t get fat’, only applies if you’re French.

My meal count got off to a good start only hours after we flew into Bordeaux. After 36 hours door-to-door and some truly awful airline food (never fly Qantas) we were treated to a fabulous déjeuner at a friend’s holiday home on the coast.

Hélène Pont shopping for oysters

The Pont family moved to Wellington last year  for a four year posting with the French Embassy but they’re currently on holiday in France. My friend Hélène had promised me oysters if we dropped in to visit before heading inland for the rest of our stay. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

The Pont’s holiday home is at Andernos-les-Bains, a seaside town on the edge of the Arcachon basin, one of the main oyster areas in France. Total production is around 10,000 tonnes of oysters a year but the ostréiculteurs are mostly small scale. In towns like Andernos they have their own little precinct – a village of huts or ‘cabanes’ that line rows of canals on the edge of the sea.

The oysters are grown on farms, way out in the bay. When they’re ready to harvest they’re brought in to shore and kept in oxygenated tanks at the back of each cabane. Some of the huts have basic shops in the front where you can buy oysters directly from the producer;  one or two have a small area with tables and chairs where you can eat freshly shucked oysters with a glass of white wine.

Our lunch started with a trip to the oyster huts. I love shopping for food with the French, they’re so fussy. And I love the way the shopkeepers respond – with the sort of mutual respect you’d never enjoy as a tourist in France.

Hélène had phoned ahead so our oysters were freshly shucked (shells still intact) and arranged on a platter, ready for the table. We also bought some little grey shrimps (crevettes grises) that are too small to peel, some pre-cooked whelks (bulot) and some small black bigorneaux. Then we made the requisite stop at the boulanger for some pain de campagne and returned to find the children setting the table for lunch on the terrace.

It was a fabulously simple hands-on meal that took up a large part of the afternoon. I love eating like this, winkling the meat out the whelks with special little implements, slurping the oyster liquor out of the shells and biting the heads off the shrimps. It all takes time and it’s gloriously convivial with lots of  passing of plates and pulling of corks.  So merci beaucoup to les Ponts, it’s great to be back in your country. Bon appétit et passe-moi le sel, s’il vous plaît.

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