Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Childhood markets:1: Samatan, Gers

One brown-leafed French November morning in my childhood, we are rattling along the road towards Samatan, in the heart of the Gers, Gascony of old. And here it is, its signboard proudly proclaiming, in the manner of all provincial French towns proudly listing their assets, Sa piscine. Sa foire a l'oie. No,we definitely haven't come to Samatan for its swimming pool, even though it's been listed first, where other places would have son chateau or son eglise, its castle or church. We've come for the goose fair, a cold-season event that draws in immense crowds from all over the region, from across France, even from around Europe. I imagine something huge, polite, dignified, all the Michelin-crowned cooks of Europe coming together in some kind of white palace of gourmandism.
The reality couldn't be more different. We park in the mud, on the verge of an immense corrugated iron warehouse. The morning's frost is still visible near the sides of the building, delicate traceries spoiled by splashes of mud, and all around us are farmers' battered cars, and there are throngs of men in berets and old jackets and women in short hairstyles, little gold earrings and the dark flowered overalls that you see for sale in country markets. Accents as thick as yeasty fougassse, as succulent as confit, simmer around us, and my father's own Southern accent boils over in response. I've imagined I'd see foie gras dealers from Paris in shiny smart moccasins and shiny black raincoats; but it seems they are more canny than that, and are hiding indistinguishable in the crowd, their pointy Parisian accents jettisoned along with their pointy shoes.
Inside, organised chaos reigns. There are lines of women, sitting heavily besides wicker cages full of yelling geese and ducks. There are huge men presiding over long tables displaying waxy white carcases; there are sharp-eyed men and women watching carefully over kingdoms of foie gras, where the massive livers rest in state in gleaming glass dishes. My father pulls us to and fro, his eyes gleaming, his words bubbling with a daube-like richness of anticipation. 'Look at this one, hmm! Oh--look at that goose, it seems so suprised..Ah, how well this one looks..!' In front of the tables of foie gras, he looks wistfully at the great livers, spreading gently in their dishes. 'Hah..that one's good. I must say, I prefer duck liver to goose..' A thin little woman behind the counter calls out crossly, 'You don't know what you're talking about, monsieur! Everyone knows it's the goose liver that is the queen, in the Gers!'
'Hah,' Dad snorts challengingly, but she's turned to another customer, a real customer, not a purse-tight dilettante critic, and her words have become as soft and golden as a merveille, that light fried Southern pastry.
Another table has beautiful pieces of magret, and pieces suitable for confit, and we look at the golden tangle of breast and leg, smelling already the smell of liquifying poultry fat. Oh, how I love dipping a piece of bread in the fat, then frying it till it's crisp, yellow as gold! But Dad says, 'No, we'll do it ourselves, I don't like buying meat already cut, it's no good,' and the protector of the magrets calls after him, 'What would you know? Damn foreigners, thinking they know better than us!' Dad retorts stiffly that he's from Toulouse, but the man shrugs, unimpressed. He turns eagerly to another customer, a thin man in a too-new beret who I think must be a Parisian dealer. The new customer's voice is sharp and thin and precise as a pin, and Dad, hearing it, mumbles, bitterly, 'Hah, and that one talked about foreigners!'
We come to the tables laden with goose and duck bodies, their heads and necks dangling over the edges of the tables, their great oval bodies a satiny pinky-white, perfectly plucked. Dad peers at them all. He looks at the gimlet-eyed man behind the table. 'How much do you want for this one?' he says, pointing casually at the biggest goose, managing to convey the impression that he is doing the man a favour. Gimlet-Eyes is not convinced. In a red-wine voice, he mutters, "The best goose. The best.' And he names a price. 'Take it or leave it,' he adds challengingly.
'You don't mean that,' Dad says, and I squirm in embarassment. Why does he have to bargain, why do both my parents do it? Maman even tried it once or twice in department stores in Sydney, the ultimate in shame.
Gimlet-Eyes repeats his price. ' No more, no less.' Why doesn't Dad simply pay? What the man's asking is hardly expensive. The bird is huge.
'From the best farm in the Gers,' Gimlet-Eyes says, fiercely, and then to my surprise, suddenly lowers his price.
Back home, Dad brings out the goose, and rubs his hands together with satisfaction. 'A good price, if I may say so,' he says. 'You have to watch out for those paysans. Cunning as foxes, they are!'

1 comment:

  1. miss all that. Here it's called cruelty to ducks or whatever.