One of the main reasons that I chose to relocate from the UK to the South of France was (predictably?) for the food. The quality of the local produce here is beyond incredible; who knew that simple things like tomatoes could taste so fabulous?
Supermarket shopping is, unfortunately, not what it used to be in France. The credit crunch (la crise) has driven prices up and quality down, and so to get real top-notch nosh, I go to my local market on a Sunday morning. From the early hours of the morning, sprightly local farmers and their bleary eyed teenage assistants set up stalls around the town square, and by 8am cups of coffee from the nearby café are being handed from one grubby palm to the next in exchange for gossip.
The sights and smells of the market are just like no other thing I have experienced. Every two or three meters, your senses are invaded by a new sensation - roasting chickens, prawns bubbling away in giant paellas, melons freshly sliced open, tangy young goat's cheeses, vats of olives and garlic large enough to fit a grown man, freshly cured sausages... And all laid out for you to touch, smell and taste before you buy.
And behind each display stands César, or Manon, or Marcel, all brown as berries from a lifetime of working in the sun, and brimming with advice, recipes, and chit-chat.
Perhaps the best stall-holder that have come across was a woman selling fresh cheeses, coated with pepper corns, tiny slivers of walnut or garlicy tapenade - let's call her Margot. Margot was in her late 60s, and cared very little for cheese, in fact. She told me that her husband had invested in two goats on the day of his retirement, and set about making dairy products. Very quickly, he increased his flock and cheese-making become his number one activity. At first, Margot relished in the peace and quiet whilst her husband milked and tended to his goats. But lately, she told me, he seemed to spend more time talking to his goats than to his wife, and so she had decided to sell her husband's cheeses on the market, not to make money, but to hold a conversation longer than "Tu vas où?" - "Voir les chèvres". I've since noticed that each customer stays a few extra minutes with Margot and her cheeses, listening sympathetically to tales of her husband and his adventures in the dairy world. And if you listen long enough, she'll pop a couple of extra cheeses in your basket, just to tide you over till next week...