If you want to live and die like a medieval monarch, the main market of a big French town is for you. As the supermarket fish stall franchises decrease their range and quality and the small market stalls go for the reliable basics, it is off to the big city on the weekend to see what you can find.
All the usuals, of course, and not necessarily cheaper than in the supermarket, but some splendid surprises await. I once bought a firm, white fleshed fish with spotted skin called Capitaine. It was so good that I mentioned it to my mother when on the telephone and she said that when she was living in the Congo before the war it was regarded as a great delicacy. Now what on earth was an African fresh water fish doing on a slab in the middle of France? I have bought whole shark in my time...no, not of Jaws proportions....but can easily resist the melancholy tanks of carp trying to survive until being decanted back into the holding tanks at the supplier's base. There is something about those mobile mouths that induces guilt and sorrow.
I have found the little green crabs for putting into bouillabaisse, the roes from lotte, shad -the fresh water herring - queen scallops and, of course, lampreys, that estuary fish with a sucker on its head famous to schoolchildren of my generation as being the downfall of various medieval monarchs. I did not buy them, not because of their fairly repulsive appearance, but because the only recipe I had for cooking them involved plunging them alive into boiling water to remove the silt, then into cold water to remove the skin, then, while they are still alive, removing the spinal cord. I can only imagine that having received that treatment, the results of a surfeit are the lampreys' revenge.
When I was first in France, fishmongers displayed whole fish, which were then cleaned, scaled and filleted as the customer required. It meant long queues, but you could gauge the freshness by the eye and gill, unlike today, where the customer's perceived distaste for fishbones and smell results in a display of ready filleted fish, together with that abomination, salmon steaks with scales on the flesh as the fish has not been scaled before being cut. I may not be as fast as these d'Artagnans of the fish knife, but I can clean, scale and fillet accurately if I take my time, and there are still bargains to be had. As these big markets are usually on a Saturday, some fish cannot be kept over until Monday and as the market closes will be sold off cheaply. This used to be the preserve of Chinese restaurateurs as the French are suspicious of anything cheap, but these days the U.K. expat with elbows honed on years of attendance on the Boy Scouts' jumble sale provides worthy competition.
The drawback to these markets is that they are at least an hour's drive away, and, being in the town centre, the parking is diabolical. However, when I go on my own, I set out early with my coolbox, and am parked within walking distance of the market by the time they are setting up the stalls.
Visitors are another matter. For one thing, extracting a visitor from its bed is worse then scraping a limpet from a rock, and then they all occupy the bathrooms - oh for a water cannon and tear gas to get them out in under an hour. Finally assembled, one always decides to go out for croissants, thus making everyone else move their cars so that he can drive down to the baker to obtain these indigestible symbols of the holiday in France. When he returns, the objects will need to be reheated, filling the kitchen with the odour of the industrial fat with which they were made. Then it's back to the bathrooms. Bring back Napoleon and his whiff of grapeshot.
When the convoy finally sets off, it travels at the pace of the idiot with the gps which is set to travelling on autoroutes - something for the conspiracy theorist here - or by the most direct route as the crow flies, which leads one into villages with one way systems, chicanes for traffic calming, and single track roads with no passing place. Finally parking in the expensive private parking lots and undertaking the long march to the market, the whole horde will turn as one on the sight of a cafe with a terrace to imbibe coffee...and, given the unaltering folly of human nature, order croissants.
On the way to the market a committee will appoint itself to choose which fish to have for dinner, and, on reaching the market, sub committees will form once what is available becomes apparent. Finally the family dictator will restore order to chaos by settling himself in a cafe with coffee..and possibly croissants...and despatching his underlings to report on prices and quality. By the time all reports are in, the market is closing and it is back to the elbow competition with the Chinese restaurateurs.
At home, in the evening, grimly cleaning, scaling and filleting the catch of the day while listening to bibulous noises from the terrace, one thinks longingly of the lamprey and his revenge.
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