The streets were swelled with locals, as if they were heading to a major sporting event. But they were turned out for something bigger – Le Marche d’Arles – the weekly open market. We passed rows and rows of booths selling everything from ballet slippers to live chickens in plastic cages. Our destination was the food market and our visit here was the first phase of Eric’s cooking class. He and I walked together with the kids. Madeline pushed their youngest in a stroller as she and Donna chatted about Pamela (Madeline was also worried she might head back home to the same old grind).
Eric closely examined a stalk of asparagus and flipped it over to show me the base, while explaining something in French. “The fresher the cut – the fresher the asparagus” Madeleine translated. “The longer the stalk – the less likely the base has been trimmed.”
Dozens of shallow wicker baskets filled with assorted spices looked like a big colorful palate. The vendor dropped a handful of tiny dried red peppers into a paper bag. “Bird’s tongue.” Madeleine said. “It lifts the flavor from the tomato sauce we’ll be making for our fish.”
We found a cluster of trailers, each with open cases of iced seafood. Eric carefully examined a row of shiny dark fish. “What’s he looking for?”
Madeleine smiled. “Wasps.”
“Yes, unlike flies who gather on dead things, wasps are attracted to living things. If the wasp is fooled, it must be fresh.”
That advice alone was worth the trip to France.
After we’d picked up what we needed for that evening’s cooking class, Eric and Madeleine headed back. Our family hung out at the market a little longer to buy some things for lunch. We returned to the grassy area near the Roman gate. The mid-day sun bathed our quiet surroundings. The smell of grass and mulch from a nearby flower bed generated thoughts of spring. Jill and Donna spread out the table cloth. We sat there enjoying berries, olives, sliced cheese, and dried sausages shaped like little cigars. We dipped warm bread into the fresh hummus we’d bought from a woman who’d just made it.
* * *
The cooking class took place in a large stone-walled room adjacent to the dining area. We gathered around a large stainless-steel covered table where Eric handed out five aprons then checked the water boiling in a large pot over a propane burner. He returned with a bottle of chilled white wine and several glasses which he placed in front of us. Chris looked at Donna with concern. “How do I say I don’t drink wine in French?”
Madeleine interjected. “You don’t.”
“You can have a little, Chris” Donna assured. He smiled.
Madeline stood behind a blender making fresh strawberry sorbet. Eric let us take turns using his grandmother’s wooden cutting board with an indentation in the middle from years of use with an associated two-handled, curved blade. We rocked it back and forth across fresh parsley and garlic. Using fresh eggs, olive oil, and fresh orange juice, we whipped up a mayonnaise-type sauce to go with our steamed asparagus. The kids brushed egg yolks across pastry shells that we stuffed with a salt-cod and cream mixture the French call Brandade.
Eric gutted the fish he’d bought at the market. Before cutting it into steaks, he scooped up some of the raspberry colored innards, took a whiff then smiled proudly. He held them up for Alex to smell.
“What do they smell like?” I asked.
Alex shrugged his shoulders. “Nothing.”
“That’s good.” Madeleine explained: “If the guts don’t smell, the fish is fresh.” Eric opened another bottle of wine.
By the time we ate dinner, it was nearly 10:00. We’d been having so much fun, we lost track of time. Course after course was layed out, each with a different wine. The food was tremendous. My only regrets were that my stomach wasn’t three times larger and France wasn’t closer.