Each market in France seems to have its own personality. It’s odd, because often, I see the same vendors in different market squares on different days, and yet they slide into each market puzzle seamlessly. The markets are faces of a partially solved Rubik’s cube, the vendors its coloured squares. Sometimes they are neat, symmetrical, othertimes haphazard. They can be in perfect monotone, or riots of clashing colour, and yet they always form an unbroken square. Most markets are balanced, complete. The ones you prefer, however, will depend upon what you have inside of you.
Tarascon’s Tuesday market is Maman – Mother. It’s wholesome, hearty and welcoming. Not only that, it’s got a pot of something warm and yummy waiting for you as soon as you step over the threshold.
It’s a market famous for paella, but that’s not all you’ll find served up. Go early, and don’t eat breakfast. Your nose will find the market for you soon after you enter one of the many arches that lead through the ancient walls. It’s hard to go past the rotisserie chicken, dripping its lovely juices all over salted potatoes resting in the tray underneath. But do – head for the porc roti – either a scotch fillet of pork, or even a whole beast with head attached. It will be rolled and stuffed with herbes de provence and rose pepper, then slow roasted until the fat breaks down and leaves the meat behind. Buy it in slices and eat it with your hands as you stroll the rest of the market looking for lunch or dinner.
Take an insulated shopping bag, and stock up on seafood. Tarascon is not a port town, but very close to Marsaille and the Camargue, and also resting on the Rhone River. You will find everything you need to put in a bouillabaisse – mussels, cockles, clams, calamari, gorgeous shiny dorade grise (sea bream) and prawns ranging from thumb sized pearly ones to king Nigerians almost the size of lobsters. The fish is bright and clean smelling – almost the best I’ve seen. It sleeps on ice, with clear eyes wide open, smiling, as if it knows it’s going to make a grand dish. Every stall has a home recipe rouille (an accompaniment for bouillabaisse) in petit pots for sale by the gram. It’s inspiring.
Despite the range of pre-prepared food, Tarascon’s is a cook’s market. Those who know their produce will be happy as the proverbial pig in the whatsit. Tomatoes? At least 12 varieties at most stalls. Herbs come still growing in pots rather than in decapitated bunches. Basil in small, medium, or large sized leaves. Little old men pass their wares to you for assessment, and regardless of your French, they will smile and nod while they watch you put the cherry, olive or the biggest oyster you’ve ever seen in your mouth – they know you will buy.
Compared to many markets in the region, Tarascon gives off the feel of an authentic market. The stall owners will expect you to speak French, and you should – the intensity of this little town’s atmosphere should was away all your ‘tourist’ in seconds. You will be a local before you know it.
The market visit resulted in the following inspired recipe:
- Tarascon Prawns
- 4 Nigerian Prawns (or the largest prawns you can find)
- 1 onion, sliced
- 2 cloves garlic, loosely chopped
- 2 shots pastis (about 60ml)
- 1 cup liquid stock (preferably fish, otherwise vegetable)
- 1 tsp dried thyme
- 1 bay leaf
- 100ml rouille (see note)
- olive oil, salt and pepper to taste
- 1 lemon and fresh bread for garnish
- Butterfly prawns (see instructions below), then place on a plate, flesh down, cover with cling film, then put another plate on top to flatten, and place in the fridge.
- Fry off garlic and onion in some olive oil at a medium-high temperature – let them brown a little. When they are nearly soft, add pastis, and cook down for a minute or so.
- Add stock and herbs, reduce heat, and cover. Simmer until onions are very soft (about 15 minutes)
- Strain sauce, and and whisk in rouille, then add creamy sauce back to onions back in the pan.
- Remove prawns from fridge, sprinkle with salt, and grill under flame. Start flesh side down, then turn once the shells are pink, then cook until flesh is white and has no translucence. (about 5-8 minutes total) If you cannot grill, then panfry, starting flesh side down. When cooked place on a plate, belly-up.
- Warm sauce. It will split, but don’t be concerned. Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Pour over prawns and serve with bread and lemon wedges.
To butterfly prawns leaving the shell on:
- Remove head with a twist and a gentle pull. Most of the innards will come with the head.
- The digestive tract should protrude a little. Pull ever so gently, and it should slide out fairly easily. If the prawn is not as fresh, it may break, but you can remove the rest later.
- With kitchen scissors, cut off legs, then slice up the belly all the way to the tail.
- With a sharp knife, slice down to backbone, then open up, removing any residual gore. Make a small cut with scissors at the head end.
- Wash, then pat dry.
- Place the prawn belly-down on a board or plate, then flatten with your hand gently. The shell will crack in places, but remain intact.