Wednesday, 1 December 2010 12:00 AM
Sandra Shevey, street market historian, walking guide and campaigner is blogging for Travelbite.co.uk about street markets in the UK and across Europe. Here is the second instalment of a series of blogs on traditional markets on the French Riviera:
Menton, like the Nice and Cannes markets is a Provencal markets. The food is fresh, local and regional. The two most popular foods: chard tartes and oreillettes: thin, crisp, rectangular dessert fritters.
Notably Menton became a British winter resort following a four-week visit in 1882 by Queen Victoria whose enthusiasm for the climate and landscape precipitated a building boom of holiday villas.
The physical beauty, scenic landscape and intense colour of the place remain unmitigated. Eucalyptus, palm, mimosa and other exotica enliven a granite landscape framed by sun, sand and sea.
Menton's market was formalised in 1898 and still operates within the original market building conceived by local architect Adrien Rey, a protÃ©gÃ© of Gustave Eiffel, who softened the fundamental steel structure by adding awnings to the facade.
The appearance is of a Mediterranean colonial hall with hollow tile roof and Belle Ã‰poque decoration. It is colourful. It is vibrant. It is impressive.
The market operates from Monday - Sunday from 8am until 1pm and on Friday there is also an antiquity market.
Along with oreillettes there are Fougasse (pastry made of orange flour, raisins and nuts, onion tartes (very popular), and tomato/onion pasties. Fresh French baguettes have all the oddities of shape of freshly-baked bread and can last for days.
French 'fast food' is on offer - roast chicken on a spit sold with sausages and potatoes stewing in the pan below.
There is a second market in Menton and it is half the price of the municipal market. This one is located near the bus station and gets some of the local farmers who probably fail to comply with EU regulations and thus no longer can sell elsewhere.
Produce is sold out of backs of trucks and/or off tables underneath railway arches. It is not a salubrious environment and very few Mentonnais shop there, preferring to patronise the local supermarkets or the municipal market.
But the produce is good, fresh and cheap. As a matter of fact these farmers are still doing naturally what some interlopers are mining as a kind of luxury product. The Menton farmers market sells four and four different varieties of broccoli, tomatoes, artichokes and aubergines.
It sells them without fuss and at a good deal less than some of the offcomers who have moved into Menton and cultivate organic and rare varieties.
Immortalised by director Alfred Hitchcock in To Catch a Thief, the Nice flower market has achieved iconic status. Located in the Cours Saleya it was incorporated in 1895 as an open market but probably has been going since Roman times (or even earlier). The market, which also purveys fruit, vegetables and food runs Monday - Sunday 7am-5pm with Monday earmarked for the sale of antiquities.
Weekends are the most buoyant with sales of local flowers by small farmers competing with larger suppliers. It appears like most things the market is dominated by the bigger suppliers these days but if you search you'll find the tried and true locals plying their flowers. And then - what joy!
Choice is great, though. There was lavender from Provence but also from England and the Canaries, calla lilies (oh, Katharine Hepburn ... "The calla lilies are in bloom again") and arum lilies. There were pumpkins and courgettes with delicate leafy stems, round courgettes, fresh corn, yellow beans, oyster mushrooms, and several varieties of broccoli.
There were flawless nectarines, peaches and melons; strawberries in punnets, gooseberries and figs. There were cherry vine tomatoes and large vine tomatoes - both from Provence. There were beefsteak tomatoes from France and Nice.
There were green lemons, great for grating into flour for Nicoise chard tartes. The lemon is a symbolic Provencal fruit. Introduced into Menton in the 15th century to bolster immunity against scurvy, the lemon is celebrated as part of the town's annual local festival.
Because I had booked a self-catering flat in Menton I had the chance to buy fresh local produce daily, which I cooked up for supper every evening. Buses all over the Riviera cost only 1 euro so you can hit every local market going. There is no excuse not to eat well, to eat cheaply and/or to eat in.
Many types of greens, all from Nice, were on offer - rocket, spinach, parsley, mesclun, soft lettuce, romaine, batavia...
A woman was hawking muscat grapes from Provence - good, sweet purple grapes.
A boulangerie was selling homemade bread sticks - fresh and soft and chewy.
Also on offer was Estouffadour de Provence - a pastry of polenta, almonds, sugar and butter. Because it is made with polenta, there is no 'cakey' aftertaste. Fresh macaroons, meringues and apricot Florentines were also purveyed.
Baguettes were ever so fresh. And what a choice! White, brown, sesame, caraway, four grains ... just to name a few. The stalls also sold a specialty of Nice - a kind of Nicoise version of apple strudel - apple, raisins, and pine nuts. Somehow I couldn't get my taste buds around the pine nuts. I think I'll stick to the Austrian strudel. Another Nice specialty is chocolate bread topped with chocolate candies.
The unprocessed herbs were a treat - oregano, rosemary, sage, thyme, coriander, laurel, fennel, chervil, basil, verbena ... and others. I talked to Mme Andre Gallet who in 1980 inherited her father's old stall. She doesn't come very day but can be found on Tuesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. She grows everything herself.
So too does Viviane whose Chez Viviane stall has been going for 48 years. Viviane's farm is 25 kilometres from the market and she sells herbs for cats and dogs; also homemade fig jam (the chunky kind) and compote of prunes mirabelle; fresh eggs and oregano for pizza.
Another stall boasts a wonderful tray of freshly-ground loose teas - gin fizz (ginger, lemon and lemon extract), camomile and tropicana (water of fruits, bananas, oranges and cocoa)
Feeling peckish? Time for lunch and I plumped for the eponymous salad Nicoise which comes from Nice. My remit was one of the best cafes in and around the market (near the Justice Palace) where the tuna is fresh and the medley of vegetables includes artichokes (uncooked) and anchovies along with prosaic beans, potatoes and eggs.
My friend ordered 'Socca' - another local Nicoise dish consisting of pressed chickpeas with lemon-grated flour and fried in a big pan (not unlike scrambled eggs). Fabulous!
In part three of my series on the French Riviera I look at the markets of Cannes and Nice, before reflecting upon the antiques markets in the area in part four. Then I move up the coast to the Italian Riviera food and general markets in part five.
By Sandra Shevey
Sandra Shevey runs market walks around Riviera local markets. Contact: email@example.com
Sandra's trip to the French Riviera courtesy of Sci Villa Sud Pre.
Copyright Sandra Shevey 2010 All Rights Reserved