French Country Markets

Village markets in France roll around once or twice a week, and if you happen to miss your local¬†march√©, there’s always another one the following day in a village nearby. I can sense pre- market excitement when I’m staying in a village but maybe it’s just my own eagerness to get there. I must confess, I’m a French market junkie, having been to around a dozen or so over the last four weeks, and I put this down to my greed and lust for good food. I’m in the right country. French markets are integral to life here. Supplies come to your village from the local district: some from the farmers, cheese makers, apiarists, some from local artisans, and of course, manufacturers of cheap clothing. Heading out the front door, with strong bags in hand, and strolling through narrow lanes and medieval arcades, with no car traffic to deal with enroute, is far more pleasurable than heading off to a supermarket by car. If only my local market back at home near Melbourne was as easy to visit, without fear of being run down by speeding tourists keen to park as close to the market as possible. In French country markets, cars are banned: they are parked on the outskirts of the village, allowing easy access for vendors’ vehicles. All shoppers must walk to the market.

Market day, Pezenas.

What treasures will turn up this week? What new seasonal vegetables will be on offer and will I show some restraint for a change? The church bells are chiming 8 am and I can hardly wait. Today’s market in Pezenas, Occitanie, will be interesting. It takes place in a nearby square, a stone’s throw from our 16th century apartment. As I write, I can hear the trolleys being wheeled in through the port below the window.

Local oysters, Pezenas. There are also two daily oyster stalls in the town. These sell at around 6 euro a kilo. ( around 15 to a kilo)
Walnut season necessitating the purchase of a walnut cracker.

The markets in the Dordogne region varied in size and style. The large and colourful Sunday market at Issigeac was a favourite. It snaked its way around the narrow and winding village streets in an unpredictable way, given that Issigeac doesn’t have a large market square. All sorts of vendors turned up: the mushroom man, selling girelles, trompe du mort and C√®pes¬†(porcini): a rugged looking duo selling oysters of every size, boxed up for buyers on beds of seaweed, a curly red headed lady with honey and bees wax for sale, who played the squeeze box and sang French folk songs when not engaged in selling, and the usual array of vegetable, cheese and saucisson stalls.

The most delicious mushrooms, Cèpes. Ne Pas Toucher, Mischa Belle.
Miel. Local honey in the Dordogne. Our honey pot, tasting of woods and flowers, was a gift from our landlord,  Jean Pierre, from his own bees.

The Thursday market at Monpazier ( it has always been held on Thursdays since the 13th century ) was much smaller, though on one occasion, a mattress seller took pride of place in the square and I did rather fancy the¬†knife sharpening man, a skill that is slowly dying. The big town market at Bergerac encircled the town’s cathedral, then radiated uphill along adjacent streets. A huge christening ceremony took place one Saturday while the market was in full swing, the shoppers and vendors forming a row of honour as the family and baby arrived.

There were little stalls selling sweet canelè in every flavour, lots of walnut stalls, chestnuts, and a substantial flower market. The Saturday market at Le Bugue, right on the Dordogne, sold the best Paella, cakess and quiches and the huge poissomiere truck did a roaring trade. I purchased a small tub of brandade to spread on croutons: this is one dish I never bother to make at home given the tedious soaking of salted cod required.

Not for sale, otherwise they would now be in my suitcase!

In each market you’ll usually find a separate area where cheap clothing, linen, shoes and handbags are sold. These stalls are appealing at first, then after a while, you recognise the same garments at every market- this season it’s oversized knitted sloppy joes, women’s tops with large stars on the back, and retro looking cotton tops with a lot of glitter and sequins.

Radish and parsnip. Bergerac market

One of the other features of the village market, and one I’m too shy and too foreign to join, is the footpath caf√© scene. Coffee and wine are¬†sipped slowly,¬† double or triple kiss greetings take place as locals gather to catch up, though you can always spot a French poseur or two, and a few expats trying very hard to appear local. I’ll head to the Caf√© des Arts¬†in the late afternoon for a Pastis. I’ve acquired a taste for this old¬†Proven√ßal drink. I’ll wave about an imaginary Gauloises and if chilly, I may even don my new fingerless gloves or perhaps a beret.¬†Bonne journ√©e.

Take away seafood paella. One metre wide paella dish.
Market day cafe scene, Pezenas

This is my list for Languedoc/ now Occitanie.

Eating Out Guide to Hue, Vietnam

After my trip down pizza lane the other day, you might think that I had given up on local food. This is definitely not the case. Staying in Hue, Vietnam for nine days has given me a chance to sample many of the local dishes as well as frequenting a variety of restaurants, except for those owned by large hotels or glitzy palaces. My only rule when travelling is to avoid these places.¬†We have eaten very well.¬†A short list of restaurants appears at the end of this post in case¬†you ever find yourself ¬†spending time in this¬†relaxed and¬†refined city. Although only around 145 km north of H√īi An, via the dramatic¬†HŠļ£i V√Ęn Pass, the city of Hue has its own regional dishes, although in some instances, one could say they are the same, same, and not very different. The locals swear that they are only to be found in Hue!

The ultimate sweet snack.
The ultimate sweet snack.

When I’m craving something sweet, I start munching on¬†KŠļĻo ńźŠļ≠u PhŠĽ•ng,¬†a peanut and sesame brittle treat. This double layered¬†version, with ample toffee between the layers is a firm winner and can be found in Hue’s Dong Ba Market for 15,000VRD/Au 88c a piece. There is just a hint of residual smoky flavour left from the open charcoal cooking. Versions of this snack are probably found all over Vietnam- some come in flat rounds, others in square blocks.

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Banh Beo, served in Hanh Restaurant, Hue Vietnam

Each restaurant in Hue seems to have a different take on the local dish, b√°nh b√®o. B√°nh b√®o ¬†(literally “water fern cake”) is a small steamed glutinous rice cake in the shape of a disc. It features a dimple¬†in the center which is filled with savoury¬†ingredients including chopped¬†fresh shrimp, spring onions, mung bean paste, crispy fried shallots or dried pork crackling, with a side dressing of fish sauce and rice vinegar. The best version in Hue can be found at ¬†Hanh, a little restaurant down a small lane, where they served these snacks in little pottery dishes. To eat them, you add a teaspoon of the dressing, then scoop out the paste with a spoon, fold the parcel in half and slide it down in one mouthful.

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Banh beo Рthe vegetarian version from Lien Hoa Restaurant Hue

The vegetarian version at Lien Hoa Restaurant came steamed on a plate and was not so exotic in presentation but still made a fine starter. Lien Hoa is packed with locals on the weekend so time your visit with this in mind. The menu is exciting, cheap and radically different. The main challenge is to not over order. I want it all!! Below, the little nem rán or vegetarian spring rolls, differ from the usual: these seem light and airy, as if made from flaky pastry and resemble little sausage rolls. The small grilled banana leaf parcels contain glutinous rice stuffed with a tasty bean paste. The hot sauces and chilli add another dimension to each mouthful.

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Nem Ran, and steamed tofu served with salt and pepper dip mixed with lime, and Vietnamese mint leaves.

After a few days wandering around Hue, you begin to notice the prominence of vegetarian restaurants in this city. The key word to look for above restaurant doorways is Chay. They are scattered throughout the city,  on both sides of the Perfume River, to serve the locals who have a strong tradition of eating vegetarian food twice a month as part of their Buddhist belief. Another feature of the local cuisine that sets it apart from others in Vietnam is the smaller serving size and refined presentation. They can often be more spicy than other regional foods, though chilli concoctions are generally served on the side. It is still mild compared with Thai food.

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Banh Khoai, crispy rice pancake, served at Hanh Restaurant, Hue.
Banh ... in the making
Banh Khoai in the making

Banh Khoai is a crunchy rice flour pancake, not unlike a taco, made bright yellow with turmeric and extra-crispy due to sugar and carbonated water in the batter. It is a smaller and thicker version of the Banh Xeo, the version found in H√īi An discussed in my post here. The rice flour mixture ( there are no eggs used) is cooked in a frypan with ample oil, then¬†stuffed with shrimp and pork belly or sausage, then when the pancake is crispy and golden on the bottom, spring onions and bean sprouts are added to the top. It is then folded and left to drain. The Banh Khoai is served with an abundant serving of lettuce, cucumber, mint, rau ram, coriander, perilla and a small pickle, along as a peanut sauce that is dark and a little challenging, given the touch¬†of pork liver. To eat, break the crispy pancake into edible chunks, add to your serving bowl, cover with lots of herbs and lettuce, and then add a little peanut sauce. Eat with chopsticks, making sure you get lots of mint, which is the main counterbalance to the fried morsel. It is possible to ask for the meaty elements to be removed when you order Banh Khoai. We had them¬†with prawn at Hanh Restaurant.

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A fresh salad adds balance to fried food and soups.

The Vietnamese have embraced a few French staples: not only the ubiquitous baguette, which can be found all over the country and on every street stall, but my favourite little dessert, creme caramel. Kem Flan can be found in most restaurants throughout Hue and is very much a local food. The bakeries across the river near the citadel churn out mini tubs of them daily. I ate a double whammy plate full at Hanh restaurant. They are baked on the premises daily and come with a huge slurp of passionfruit on top.

Half of my double serve of Kem Fflan - Miss greedy couldn't wait for the photo.
Half of my double serve of Kem Flan – Miss greedy couldn’t wait for the photo

A few restaurant recommendations. Each one offers something delightful and not necessarily the food.

  • Hanh¬†Restaurant. A great local restaurant with interesting local dishes and a very small but authentic menu. One¬†English-speaking waiter will help show you how to assemble your dishes. 1 Ph√≥ ńźŠĽ©c Ch√≠nh, tp. HuŠļŅ, Ph√ļ HŠĽôi
  • Lien Hoa Vegetarian Restaurant, very busy with locals on the weekend, serving unusual and exciting vegetarian food.¬†ńź√īn, Thi√™h, 3 L√™ Qu√Ĺ ńź√īn, HuŠļŅ, Thua Thien Hue
  • Zucca, the best restaurant in Hue. Great Pizza, pasta and fusion food. Cheap local beer and wine. See my review here.
  • Risotto. Has a similar menu to Zucca but the food is disappointing. Free bruschetta seems to appeal to the crowds. Handy to the hotel precinct.
  • Serene Shining Restaurant. 57/5 Nguyen Cong Tru street, Hue. This restaurant is attached to our hotel and makes lovely soups. The crab and lotus seed soup is very comforting after a long day. The staff are a happy crew and keen to assist with anything. This hotel is small, comfortable and the staff make you feel very much at home.
  • Bo De Vegetarian restaurant. 11 Le Loi, Hue, Vietnam.¬†Great eggplant dishes. Many things were unavailable during our last visit and I suspect the food comes from a bain marie. Close to the river at the Museum end of Le Loi.
  • Lac Thien,¬†6 Dinh Hoang, Hue, Vietnam. On the Citadel side of the river and handy if you are strolling about in that older neighbourhood. Simple food, nothing special, except for the large extended family running the place and the 92 year old grandmother who still helps out.¬†

A few good Links on Vietnamese Food