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The flavors of Europe

In modern Europe, grocery stores stock everything anyone might need, yet attendance at outdoor markets is as massive as ever.

In village centers, at seaside docks and other crossroads, markets bring communities together once a week, maybe more often. Farmers and other artisans haul their wares from town to town, providing an array of goods that show off their talents. Handmade cheeses and sausages, bins of briny olives, and, almost always, flowers in full bloom.

For the traveler, street markets are a glimpse into local life, plus they offer a chance to interact with townspeople. A smile and a couple of words in the local language will get you started, even with the French who have the reputation, true or false, of being unforgiving and snooty. Want to blend in completely? Make sure a wicker basket dangles from the crook of your elbow.

Despite the well-stocked, convenient grocery stores, locals say prices are better in the street, since the middle man is cut out. Fierce competition among market vendors also helps. Plus, you just can't beat the quality. Most markets also sell non-food items such as flowers, books, shoes, tablecloths or linens by the yard.

Here are a few markets I visited last summer and recommend to other travelers:

Florence, Italy, 9 a.m.
on a Sunday

If you wander on the other, less-traveled side of the Ponte Vecchio, neighborhoods become quieter, tourists fewer and locals progressively more visible.

The historical neighborhood of San Spirito and its church, itself an important but sometimes overlooked destination, are on the left bank of the Arno River. Early every morning, on the adjacent piazza of the same name, vendors sell fruit and vegetables, fish and meats, beckoning locals in droves.

But it's on the second Sunday of the month that this quiet and shaded market takes its full measure. Artisans of all trades gather to offer their goods in a competitive, but definitely social atmosphere.

Well-groomed Italian men, loud and convivial, flirty with the women and amicable with others, sell cheese with life from checkered tablecloths. Formaggi de capra, or goat cheese, with different degrees of fermentation, dryness and looks as indicated on black boards, are protected from occasional flies with white tulle. Wicker baskets hang from everyone's elbows. Imprecise scales weigh rustic breads. Local summer truffles, gathered from undisclosed locations by pigs on leashes and truffle gurus, sell fast. Esoteric literature or secondhand clothes mix with food items.

There, at his stand next to the central fountain, I meet Pierre Cusseau, an artisan herb expert. Cusseau grows, harvests, dries, blends and sells herbs and spices. An ex-overworked Parisian lawyer, Cusseau discovered years ago the Tuscan dolce vita and stayed. He never regretted immigrating to Tuscany and lives a quiet life in a villa in the rolling hills of Florence's backcountry. It's picture perfect, with olive trees, vineyards and a warm light in late afternoon.

But Cusseau's business is not about pastoral beauty; it's about taste. Indeed, the herbs are utterly flavorful, in a subtle kind of way. Even dried, they look extraordinarily fresh, with vibrant colors and delicate, crispy leaves. At a tasting the prior week, he and his buddy Giulio Benuzzi, a charismatic local restaurateur, tour guide and bon vivant, served me one of the best, yet paradoxically simple, multicourse meals of my life, using only small portions of fresh artisan cheese, Cusseau's herbs and spices, and a drizzle of Tuscan olive oil. A minimalist tour de force that owed its success to impeccable ingredients.

Cusseau is an artisan, but he is not an anomaly at the markets. At virtually every market you visit, you'll find someone who lives his trade with passion — a rarity in the global marketplace but common stock at street markets.

Laissac, Aveyron region, France, 6 a.m. on a Tuesday

In this fairly remote area of France, the town and locals look almost stereotypical. The place du village is overflowing with vendors' tents, the boulangerie sells lots of baguettes, French-looking French people ride bicyclettes and throw lots of bonjours! to neighbors and strangers alike. Pay attention and you'll even spot a few baguette-carrying elderly country men with berets and red suspenders. Only the French poodle, more common in big cities, is missing from the picture.

Laissac's claim to fame is the wholesale livestock market. Local buyers and sellers gather early to sell and buy farm animals — mainly cows, bulls, goats and sheep — under the scrutiny of the negociants, or brokers.

In the Aveyron region, men are rugged and children strong like oaks. Think of it as the French Wild West. Men in black shirts and plastic boots with walking sticks and berets congregate to talk business, a manlier version of market chitchat. Their rolling, rustic accents are punctuated with a spectacular patois that even I, a French native, can barely understand.

Visiting the livestock market in Laissac is an early morning activity. When the village church bells ring nine times, you're too late. By then, travelers' flashy T-shirts and Nikes replace black shirts and plastic boots in the streets. The brokers, traditionally men, already up for several hours, will congregate at terraces or bistros for cafe au lait and croissants, maybe even an early glass of red wine, and participate in various rituals of heated conversations and loud, humorous banters.

The bovine market has recently been closed to tourists after a few upset cows and bulls went after unaware wanderers. Now, tourists are escorted to the "tower," a tiny elevated cabin with a spectacular view of the animal market.

Uptown, the regular market takes place. In Laissac, in order to sell their products, many shepherds or high-plains farmers come down from the desolate Aubrac Mountains. Food products inherit the rusticity of the place, and it's a good idea to visit Laissac's market if you are seeking authenticity of taste and mountain food items.

Issigeac, Dordogne region, France, 9 a.m.
on a Sunday

In the heart of Dordogne, in southwest France, Issigeac is a historically rich, rather quiet medieval town of 600 people. Things get much livelier on Sundays, when the weekly market takes place on the place du chateau and spills over into the winding, tiny streets all the way to the outskirts of the medieval fortification wall.

There, a curious mix of duck fat and designer perfume brings locals and travelers to the center town for the ultimate market experience. Southwest France is seriously immersed in traditions and is famous for its lively people, as well as regional cuisine revolving around duck and goose. This is the epicenter of foie gras.

In the stalls, I find spices from far away. Moroccan raz-el-hanout, Provencal herbs, Indian cardamom or Caribbean colombo (a type of curry) and Cajun spices. Cajun spices in southwest France!

I also find saucisson, or dry salami, from such animals as donkey, horse, bull, duck or venison.

And of course there is duck everywhere. Duck liver, duck confit, duck fat, duck foie gras, duck cassoulet, and even ducks roasting over a wood fire, turning around in a carousel, like a vertical rotisserie. Ducks and chicken can be bought dead or alive, with a little discount if bought alive. Behind the duck stand, a guy plays cello with a straight face.

Portobello Market, London, 10:30 a.m. on a Saturday

Markets are as old as Europe. Here in Notting Hill, the Portobello Market is relatively new, a mere 300 years old. It began as a food market; the antique dealers and funky clothing merchants arrived much later, in the '60s, along with Sgt. Pepper and the very first Notting Hill Carnival.

Since then, the market has grown in popularity and morphed into a tourist attraction, where streets are overcrowded and vendor deals hard to get. Locals sometimes refer to their neighborhood as "Notting Hell." Crowds attract petty crime. Entrance signs to the market warn travelers: "Beware of thieves and pickpockets!"

Nonetheless, Portobello Market is a lot of fun. Notting Hill has become an ultra-fashionable place to hang out and, at the end of Portobello Road, where the new and vintage clothing area starts, fashionistas with labradoodles and Prada cell phones haggle with junior designers over the season's latest.

The vendors themselves contribute to the energy of the Portobello Market. In mid afternoon, when the market is winding down but inventory still high, they shout out prices, with heavy accents and rhyming cockney lingo.

There is a large section of food stalls, where locals buy produce, fish and meat, as well as other goods. Note that the 1990s mad cow disease scare had a strong impact on the English, who have since embraced organic and locally produced food. Many outdoor markets have a wide selection of excellent produce, as well as meat from animals raised on small farms, somewhere in the plains surrounding London or in the Midlands.

When you need a rest from the market, head to a pub. You won't be lacking for choices with hundreds of pubs within 3 miles of the Notting Hill Gate Tube (underground train) station. Popular pubs include the Prince Albert or the Castle on Portobello Road.

Travel guides and London Web sites recommend getting to the market as early as 4 a.m. In reality, few vendors are even awake at that time, so finding a bargain will be tough that early. Most bargaining happens in mid afternoon, when vendors get desperate and want to pack up for the day. The market hours are more or less 6 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., but the market is best experienced from late morning to mid afternoon.

• • •

For the traveler, European markets are a feast for the senses, where one will find produce, meat, fish and other goods, but also photogenic images of characters, oddities and other exotic memories. There, the traveler has a place to meet locals, try out a few words of foreign language, and a chance to blend in. To increase your chances, don't forget the wicker basket.

Gui Alinat, a native of Provence, France, is a professional chef specializing in home and corporate parties and a freelance writer based in Dunedin. His Web site is www.chefgui.com.

The flavors of Europe 03/21/08 [Last modified: Monday, March 24, 2008 11:34am]

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