The hearty flavours of olive-oil bread and spicy saucisson tempted Jon Bryant during a stroll through the market and shops of Arles
The town of Arles has a rich Roman heritage, which is shown off at the enormous Saturday market, with its array of fruits, oils, nuts and vegetables. It is the meeting place for restaurateurs, foodies and tourists, as well as the cowboys of the nearby Camargue, who sit among the stalls and discuss the next bullfight over a cup of treacly coffee.
The market is split in two, straddling the Boulevards des Lices and Georges Clémenceau and stretching over two kilometres. The town-centre side is home to leather goods, clothes, knives and brightly glazed crockery while the far side of the road is the place for fresh produce. Even then, it is divided into sections, for ‘posh’ asparagus, endives and almonds, stacked and polished in wooden crates, and a more ‘down-market’ jumble of onion bags bulging with misshapen fruit.
In the middle of the market is the tourist office, which has a tricky job directing people to the Roman museum and amphitheatre beyond the bustling stalls. The museum has a giant marble bust of Julius Caesar, which was dredged from the River Rhône in 2007, but on my way to see it I wanted to buy a pain de César from Boulangerie Soulier. The baker told me it takes six hours to prepare; the dough is rolled and folded into huge layers, each one still visible after cooking. Made with olive oil and rice flour, it is thick and crusty, and is a perfect accompaniment to daube, the local stew.
The other side of the bakery contains trays of fougasse, the local olive-oil bread which has a much chewier and spongier texture than the pain de César. Soulier prepares it with chorizo, olives or chunks of dried bacon (gratillon) ready for the queue of hungry shoppers who line up along Rue de la République.
The town’s other celebrated food is the saucisson d’Arles. The recipe supposedly came from the descendants of a 17th-century slave who had been bought from his Saracen captors by a religious order. When he was released in Arles, the slave began to perfect a sausage recipe which has been handed down the generations. It is now held by the butcher Monsieur Genin, who mixes a secret combination of beef, pork, lardons, herbs and red wine into giant sausages which are air-dried in his cellar for three months before they have the right to be called La Farandole.
Maison Genin is a small shop that has racks of olives, capers and beans in addition to the fresh meat counter. To get in, I pushed through a heavy, beaded curtain which keeps the flies out in the summer. Only when I looked back at the shop from the other side of the street did I realise that the curtain is decorated to look like the back of a Spanish señorita. She is always first in the queue.
The current Monsieur Genin is the fifth generation in a family of butchers who opened a shop in Arles in 1877. So rich is their heritage and so complicated the sausage-making process that he offers an explanatory DVD to customers.
Arles has a highly meat-based cuisine and the macho feel of a region which enjoys roasting things whole and watching animals running around an arena. Many restaurants have bull’s meat on the menu and there are probably more tapas bars than brasseries in France’s most ‘Spanish’ town. When the travelling matadors look out from their window at the Grand Hôtel Nord-Pinus in Place du Forum, they see bubbling paella pans of saffron-flavoured rice or beige and yellow clams (tellines) cracking against the scorching sides like tiny castanets.
Nearby in Rue du Docteur Fanton, wine specialist Olivier Rognard of Le Cellier du Forum has a selection of locally produced liqueurs including the Liqueur des Gardians flavoured with rosemary and thyme, and a heady 43 per cent proof. Alternatively, he is the only stockist in Arles of Frigolet, a slow distillation of honey and alcohol. The yellow Frigolet sits next to a rack of green absinthe derivatives which offer a dainty serving spoon and are always marketed with a blurred, virescent image of Vincent Van Gogh on the box.
The artist came to Arles in 1888 and painted some of his most famous works during that period. His Café Terrace at Night has ‘come to life’ in Place du Forum in the form of Le Café la Nuit, a banana-coloured restaurant that serves everything from a late-night brandy to roasted bull’s tail.
The back streets have flamenco and Cuban-style bars offering musical Fiestas ‘Gitane’ and a fiery exuberance that you don’t often see in gallic France. To cool off, there are two excellent ice-cream parlours close enough to provide a bit of icy competition for each other. Soleileis on Rue Docteur Fanton serves refreshing ginger, pear or bitter almond ice-cream while Arelatis, opposite the Café la Nuit, specialises in fig, rose and violet flavours.
Across the River Rhône, in the former docks area of town, lies the Cave de Trinquetaille, which specialises in organic wines and unusual whiskies, and has an upmarket delicatessen at the back.
Arles is a heady combination of flavours and scents, a mixture of the Mediterranean, the Camargue, Spain, gypsies, Arabs, Romans and tourists. There is even an annual Féria du Riz, which takes place in the Roman amphitheatre in September, though it inevitably ends up as another bullfight.
LES BONNES ADRESSES
This main market is held every Saturday morning on Boulevard des Lices and Boulevard Clemenceau.
Tel: (Fr) 4 90 18 41 20
66 Rue de la République
Tel: (Fr) 4 90 96 09 30
Le Cellier du Forum
7 Rue du Docteur Fanton
Tel: (Fr) 4 90 96 37 58
Cave de Trinquetaille
8 Avenue de la Gare Maritime
Tel: (Fr) 4 90 96 64 34
9 Rue du Docteur Fanton
Tel: (Fr) 4 90 93 30 76
8 Place du Forum
Tel: (Fr) 4 90 96 28 61
MEAT AND CHARCUTERIE
11 Rue des Porcelets
Quartier de la Roquette
Tel: (Fr) 4 90 96 01 12