It is a fact that some parts of this little planet of ours just seem easier to love than others, and on the list of places to love the south of France must rank pretty much up there with the best. To be fair, what’s not to like? The blue waters of the Mediterranean; the mountains; little ochre-coloured villages perched on mountian tops, fabulous wines, fabulous food, fields of purple lavender or yellow sunflowers, and a temperate climate. Not hard to see how that would be popular! But for me, the south of France occupies an even more special place in my heart because it is here that i stepped off a plane one day in 1983 and first set foot on the soil of Europe, the continent with which I am having a love affair to this day. It seemed like the most exotic of places as we sped along the Promenade de Anglais in our taxi, and by the time we drove past the Negresco (which I knew from Elton John’s I’m Still Standing video), I knew I was in love with the place.
Almost 30 years on, my feelings haven’t changed much and so an invitation from the Vaucluse tourism board to come and explore the northern bit of Provence (around about Avignon) was cause for great celebration here at Cooksister HQ. We set out at the crack of dawn one grey Saturday in June in the trust Volvo and made our way to the ferry at Dover for a crossing to Dunquerque. The rest of the day was spent getting to grips with the navigational possibilities of my HTC Flyer tablet (verdict: pretty awesome once you get the hang of it), dodging localised torrential downpours/thunderstorms, and ummm… losing our petrol tank cap at a motorway filling station and having to backtrack miles and miles to retrieve it. Don’t. Even. Ask. At least we did manage to get a good night’s sleep at the Fasthotel in Gerzat – a place I had plucked off Tripadvisor because it was halfway between the coast and our destination. It looked unpromising but had free parking for our car, featured very clean rooms, hot showers and free WiFi – for €17 per person per night. And they pointed us in the direction of La Rainette restaurant where I had a very fine plate of steak tartare indeed.
By about noon on Sunday, after driving through some spectatularly pretty countryside in the Auvergne, we finally arrived at the first official stop of our trip: the Coustellet Sunday market. Coustellet was the first village in the region to etablish a weekly marché paysan (farmers’ market) which now takes place every Sunday morning from April to December and has grown in the past 30 years to include not only farmers selling their produce but also stalls selling fish, herbs, spices, cheese, organic breads, rotisserie chickens, local fruit juices, olives and wines. In total, there are about 80 producers selling their wares, and because all produce must be grown/produced within a tight radius of Coustellet and sold by the growers themselves, it provides a great showcase for truly regional products and produce.
So what caught my eye at the market? Of course, there was a wealth of wonderful lavender products – from fresh or dried lavender to soaps, lotions and perfumes. I was also surprised at hom many beautiful wooden objects were on sale, from the rustic to the brand new – and many of them are carved out of olive wood, a beautiful pale wood shot through with intricate veins of darker brown – I particularly loved the stylish pestles and mortars.
There were a couple of cheese stalls selling a happy mix of local specialities and classic French cheeses (I particularly loved the gorgeous flaky brown rind on one of the hard cheeses – of only I had written down the name!), and a number of stalls selling cured meats. These ranged from whole cured hams, carved before your eyes, to something that I have not seen since our last visit to the South of France in 2005: filet fumé. These are whole beef fillets that have been lightly cured and smoked before being sold vacuum packed. Thinly sliced, it tastes like the love-child of bresaola and carpaccio, and is absolutely addictive paired with a smoky, peaty whisky.
Staying with the carnivorous side of things, there were one or two saucisson stands, selling every flavour of salami-style sausage you can imagine (and a few that you probably can’t!). Think Fennel, blue goat’s cheese, comté cheese, cumin, sanglier (wild boar), plain smoked, pepper… the list ran on and on. In the end we could not resist the comté, sanglier and the fennel .
And, of course, there was an abundance of fresh produce – green and white asparagus, artichokes the size of my head, bunches of freshly pulld garlic, rosy apricots, bright yellow courgettes… and of course cherries. Oh the cherries… I have had a lifelong soft spot for these short-lived treasures of summer and it seemed that I had landed in cherry heaven – they were everywhere! Not only scarlet punnets of heart-shaped fruits, but also colourful specimens shaded from sunny yellow through pale salmon blush to bright red – probably the prettiest fruit I have ever seen and oh-so-sweet. And then I fell in love with the grizzled cherry man’s smile. He handed me the wrong change, then immediately apologised, explaining himself with: “Désolé – je suis fatigue!”. I smiled back. “D’accord. Mon mari aussi,” I replied, gesturing to Nick looking bored behind me – at which point cherry man broke out in twinkly-eyed, nose-wrinkling guffaws. He was nearly as irresistably sweet as his cherries, which we made last almost all the way to Paris
The Coustellet market takes place every Sunday morning from April to December (also a smaller version Wednesday evening, June-August from 5pm to 7.30pm). It is held in the car park behind Maison Guion. We ran out of time, but there is also a Sunday morning antiques market at nearby L’isle-sur-la Sorgue which is definitely worth visiting as the town is world-famous for its antique shops and fairs. The Vaucluse Tourist Board has more information on markets days in the various Vaucluse villages available on their website.
Stay tuned for our spectacular lunch at Maison de la Truffe et du Vin du Luberon in beautiful Menerbes which I will be posting about shortly!
DISCLOSURE: I visited the market as part of a self-drive trip that was partially funded by the Vaucluse Tourist Board, but all travel and meals mentioned in this post were paid for by me.