Editor's note: Last December, Cool Chef made a three-week trip to France, land of fine food and wine. When I asked him if he was willing to share some of his foodie posts with the AsiaOne readers, he willingly agreed. AsiaOne Wine & Dine will feature the highlights from his blog (culinarywizard.blogspot.com), over the next two weeks.
In this first feature, Cool Chef takes us on a tour through the marches ("markets") of Cote d'Azur.
View photo gallery here: A gastronomic trip through France
Cote d'Azur, otherwise known as the French Riviera, stretches from St Tropez to Monaco and is home to many playgrounds of the rich and famous. It was also home to me for five and half years during the formative years of my culinary career, when I was cooking on one of the supersized yachts that we will hopefully get to see here in Singapore when the Integrated Resorts are completed. This time round, I had the chance to explore the markets (or Marches) at my own sweet time with my wife.
Marche Forville, Cannes
Located near the Palais De Festivals (the annual hosting venue of the Cannes Film Festival), Marche Forville is a battered stucco structure with a roof and a few arches but no sides. Every morning except Monday, it functions as the fruit and vegetable market which supplies dozens of restaurants near the old port of Cannes, as well as the luxurious private yachts at nearby Port Canto. The excitement starts around 7am but there is no shouting and hard selling, unlike our wet markets here.
The range of products here is enormous and many individual stalls stand out on their own. Winter produce such as cabbages, kale, chards, fennel bulbs and potatoes are the main highlights in December. Citrus fruits like lemons, clementines and oranges were also in season though there were also other imported items from warmer climate countries. We sampled commercial strawberries from Spain and artisanal grown ones from Portugal, noting the differences in appearance and flavour intensity. While the commercial ones look big and tempting with their vibrant colour, they are also more sour; the smaller Portuguese strawberries were lighter but more uniformly coloured, and were more flavourful with natural sweetness and strawberry aromas.
Besides the huge fruit, vegetables and flowers selection, there are also stalls selling artisan cheeses made from farms in the Provence regions, air dried salamis and saucissons from Alps Maritime. Most of these artisan cheeses are not available in commercial supermarkets as the volume produced is limited. They represent the art of fine cheese making, using traditional skills and techniques driven by passion passed down over many different generations. Made from goat's, cow's or ewe's milk, the cheeses are also flavoured with Provencal herbs like rosemary, thyme and bay leaves. From soft creamy textured cheese to those hard, ripened chunks exploding with nutty, sharp and pungent flavours, there is something for everyone to enjoy with their baguettes.
The cool and dry winter air from the Alps provides an ideal environment to practice the art of saucisson making. These air-cured sausages are an important ingredient in French cooking, lending flavour to soups and stews, served on charcuterie platters and stuffed into baguettes sandwiches. Made with different cuts of meats or butcher trimmings, they showcase the art of meat preservation in French culinary history before the invention of the refrigerator. Unlike Spanish or Italian sausages that tend to be more infused with North African spices, Provencal type sausages are flavoured with local herbs and sometimes encrusted with them too. The air-dried meats are full of "terroir" dimensions coming from what the animals feed on and the cold mountain air that dries up and concentrates the flavour of the meats after curing. The saltiness of these air-dried meats are often balanced by pairing them with a sweet fruit like melons or figs when served au natural, while the sides and trimings are often used for cooking.
Besides sausage and air-dried meats, another favourite item that the French love from their markets is homemade pate or pate du maison. It's a softer, finer blend of meat mixed with nuts, foie gras or truffles encrusted in a pie pastry and baked. The pates are then chilled and serve cold with salads and are sometimes used to as a spread for their breads. Just like cheese-making, making sausages and air dried ham is also an artisanal art for the butchers and represent a significant part of French culinary tradition.
Fungi lovers will be thrilled that despite being only one mushroom stall around, it has a wide variety of wild and dried mushrooms. Fresh morels, truffles, chanterelles, bolotus, cepes and portobellos are some of the variety that can be found here in different seasons. It's interesting to see an entire stall sell an interesting whole range of edible fungus grown both above and below the ground. There were truffles, fresh chanterelles, yellow mushrooms and black trumpet mushrooms on sale. Unfortunately, due to their easily perishable nature, I was not able to take some home.
Other interesting finds here are certain varieties of rare fresh herbs like lemon verbena, pineapple sage and purple basil leaves. A wide range of locally made infused oils and vinegars can also be found here. Different kinds of Mediterranean antipastos like semi-dried tomatoes, pickled olives and marinated grilled vegetables create an impressive sight. Some exotic fruits that are found here are tiny wild strawberries, mulberries and prickly pears.