By Eric Olson, Travel Host
Nancy and I had arrived at the colorfully effervescent weekly market at Éauze, (say Ay-OWS) in the middle of the Gers department, the center and heart of Gascony. After parking our Peugeot rental we rounded the corner and found ourselves winding through the market. The air was mild and breezy, with sunlight filtering through the leaves of ancient trees. A faintly vivifying fragrance and an air of anticipation seemed present all around us. The market itself was in the street, filled with booths, with shops and small restaurants along the sidewalks. The more permanent activities were separated from the other by voluptuous banks of greenery. Behind low walls of vegetation, customers seated at outdoor tables sipped coffee, read the paper peacefully, and visited with friends. On the other side of the bushy divide, the market buzzed with people shopping, vendors hawking, and everywhere was chat and laughter.
At a modest table in a corner of the market lay a dozen home-baked bread loaves, each slightly different - one with herbs, another plain, a third flecked with olives. It seemed like a talented home baker’s experiments, taken to market to pick up a bit of extra cash and a chance to socialize and chat with friends and visitors. And that was in fact exactly what it was. The vendor, a lovely young woman, who seemed too pink-cheeked and healthy to be real, offered me a taste of her bread, along with a voluble and happy stream of Gascon-inflected French, none of which I understood. I eyed one of the loaves, thinking to take it back to our room at La Moulin de Laumet along with some delicious-looking cheese resting on the counter of a nearby vendor’s truck. Since neither of us could speak to the other, our baker sought the counsel of a another vendor, a smiling older woman who came over to translate. The price was right, the bread delicious and soon I had the loaf in hand. Then we visited our translator’s booth. Although clearly French, she spoke superb English with the lilt of a British academic. Unlike the snobbish reaction I’d encountered before in more urban French settings, she was plainly delighted to see us and converse, which was typical of the reception we encountered throughout Gascony. Her specialty was home-brewed beer, bottled cleanly and labelled with deft, clear handwriting. Soon some of her offerings were in our basket, we said goodbye with a cordial handshake, and wandered on.
The market at Éauze is a bit of a general store, with something for everyone. Need footwear? Here’s the shoe vendor who implacably piled the street in front of his truck with a wall of shoes of all kinds. Think it might rain? Here’s the man with umbrellas, all displayed in clever tripods. Fabric by the meter, garden supplies, beautifully healthy plants including cactus were offered.
As a cook, I was drawn to the produce. There is an exuberance here, a kind of fertile fecundity that animates the people and imbues the produce with radiance and health. Walking slowly but with avid interest, I saw and lusted after globules of perfect huge green grapes, lettuces with curling gorgeous leaves, baskets of fresh-picked haricots verts, peppers, potatoes and carrots, interspersed with slate signs with curlicued chalk-written prices. Under the energy of the sun, sitting in their wicker baskets, lay large orange gourds, leeks, and shallots, healthy and fresh as can be.
We wandered a bit more, the names of items on sale forming a romantic air of culinary charm: Poitrine Demi-sel, Saucisse de Francofort, Jambon aux Herbes, Pâté de Canard aux Cèpes. Since Éauze is reasonably close to the sparkling Mediterranean, the market also offers fresh as fresh can be seafood - monkfish, filets, shellfish, a heady bouillabaisse of seafood.
All of this food-related stimulation worked it’s way within us, and we became hungry. By this time, we’d reached the end of the market, which turned into a street of small eateries and shops. We chose a small restaurant near the end of the market. There are several such choices such as Le Bar du Marche, famous for tapas, or the Cafe de France, a popular spot situated in an ancient medieval house. This was similar to the market at Lectoure, where we had visited “Le Cochon Bleu” a combined bookstore and restaurant, and sat down among the books to have a bite. Behind Nancy lay a display of little blue pigs. Suddenly we got it: Cochon Bleu means Blue Pig! Although we never got the reason for the name, our “salades,” prepared in a kitchen the size of a small closet, were exquisitely plated and most welcome. To us, part of market day is a pleasant meal to cap it all off, and a chance to review and re-enjoy what we have experienced.
The quiet peace of a tasty meal seemed like the perfect end to the bustle and excitement of market day in Éauze. At the end of our restful meal, we walked out and were astonished to find the entire market had disappeared, except for a street cleaning machine disappearing in the distance. Everything had been cleaned up, booths and trucks packed up and driven off, and the quaint street as quiet as if the market had never been there. But there will be another market next Thursday, as has been the case for hundreds of years.
We will be revisiting the lovely and fascinating market at Éauze on September 20, 2018 on the third day of our 9-day all-inclusive culinary adventure tour of Gascony. Would you like to join us? Instead of The Blue Pig, we’ve decided to sample the lunch Le Bar du Marché, one of the restaurants lining the market. As with all aspects of our style of travel, you’ll be free to explore on your own, if you choose. To learn more about the adventure of exploring Gascony with us, just point your browser here.