Vignette: Noirmoutier-en-l’Île market


Author Joanne Harris recalls childhood summers spent on an island in the Vendée

My favourite French market has been in existence since at least eighty years ago, which is when my grandfather, Georges Payen, decided to buy a holiday home on the island of Noirmoutier. Since then, every year my family have spent holidays on the island. I spent six weeks in summer there throughout the whole of my childhood, and one of my fondest memories is of the Sunday market on Place de la République, in Noirmoutier-en-l’ÎIle, where my mother would leave me standing outside the cool glass-covered fish market, with its lobsters and oysters and cuttlefish and great displays of sea-bass and red mullet, and tell me to wait there quietly and make sure I behaved myself.

Outside the fish-market, there were stalls selling every kind of produce. There was an aisle of fruit-stalls, with white and yellow peaches, nectarines, melons and strawberries; and vegetable stands that sold lettuces as big as pillows and great bouquets of fresh herbs. There were cheese stands, selling fresh goats’ cheeses rolled in grey ash; and sausage stands, selling log strings of donkey or wild-boar salami. There was an old man selling honey from a glass-fronted box into which you could look straight into the honeycomb and see the bees at work. There was an old lady selling loaves from out of the back of a battered blue van, and who used to give me pieces of madeleine from the basket at her side. I soon learnt that these tradesfolk gave out samples of merchandise, and that if I hung around there, I could collect enough to make a very passable breakfast; slices of orange melon nantais or cubes of hot-pink watermelon; chunks of brioche or gruyère cheese; pieces of nectarine; salami slices; crusts of newly-baked rustic bread.

The traders themselves soon discovered that the presence of a little girl eating (for instance) a slice of melon could make all the difference, especially when trying to attract elderly female customers, and would make every effort to persuade me to stand by their stall, rather than a rival’s. Even at an early age, I was open to bribery. I got to know them all, and their customers, too. There was Madame Fourrage, who wore the traditional island quichenotte and who always bought the same things; a loaf of bread, a bottle of red wine, olives from the stall which sold a bewildering number of different types, shining like polished gemstones, and a goat’s cheese wrapped in leaves. There was Adrien, who never went anywhere without his ancient, shaggy dog, and whose island accent was so strong that I rarely understood what he was saying.

Then there was the lady who made galettes on a hot plate by the roadside, where my mother would always stop after she had bought the fish, and who never, ever commented (as I ate my cripsy galette, just-the right-side of burnt at the edges and filled with spicy merguez sausage) on the two or three breakfasts I’d already made with the help of my friends at the market-stalls…

Nearly fifty years later, the Sunday market has barely changed. It has expanded to include a great many clothes stalls, souvenirs, jewelry and bric-a-brac – and even a carousel roundabout, with a double row of leaping horses, much loved by my daughter – but the essential heart of it is still there, clustered around the fish market; the fruit stalls and the flower stalls and the old men selling Gros-Plant and the old ladies selling madeleines. And they still give out samples – for the price of a smile. Just remember to bring an appetite.

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