By Sharon Pritchard –
After the longest winter and the latest snow fall in Normandy for many years, it was nice to see our local market in full swing with some sunshine last week. French markets are renowned for the variety of local produce and our small market in Vire is no exception. Markets are an integral part of life in France and local producers of everything edible, from a live rabbit to home-baked bread, can be found as you wander around the bustling streets.
Normandy is dairy country and it’s therefore no surprise to discover a dairy stall at every turn in the market. Huge rounds of creamy, golden butter, wheels of soft Camembert, Pont l’Eveque, Livarot, Boursin – all with their own distinctive aroma and flavor sit quite comfortably with cheeses from every other region of France.
Another local staple is the Andouille sausage, produced right here in Vire, made from pigs intestines (including the bowel!) and smoked over beech wood for several weeks.This is a feature on many menus throughout Normandy although I confess, it is not one of my favorites! But with more than 30 varieties of sausage and dried meats from all over France, Italy and Spain to choose from at my local market, one is not compelled to eat Andouille.
The cold waters of the North Sea and the Atlantic are home to some excellent shellfish and wet fish all of which can be found freshly caught, on ice in our local markets. Rose pink ‘crevettes’ – known as shrimp in the US and prawns in the UK, sit temptingly on their beds just begging to be scooped up and served with a little home-made tartare sauce. Chewy whelks, shiny jet black mussels, creamy scallops with their brilliant orange coral languish in their shells inviting you to take them home and briefly sauté in Normandy butter with a splash of Calvados.
The delicatessen or charcuterie displays its colorful wares like an artist’s palette. Vibrant colors, perfectly symmetrical shapes are a culinary delight not only for the tastebuds but for the eyes. Fine pâtés, saucissons (sausages) and jambons (hams) of various shapes and sizes, whole dressed salmon, decorated with jewels of red, green and yellow peppers and cherry tomatoes, freshly mixed salads just a magnificent abundance of aromas, colors and textures with every dish proudly and expertly presented.
Let’s not go home without dessert. Ooh la la! Where does one start in a French patisserie? From light flaky croissants to Rhum babas oozing with their pungent sweet rum flavored essence. A boulangerie/patisserie can be found in every French village. They open early in the morning and close late at night and are one of the few shops that do not close for the obligatory two-hour lunch time closing! The French buy their bread once, twice or even three times a day thus ensuring their loaves are almost straight from the oven, fresh, crusty and oh so enticing.
I settle for a classic Lemon Flan Tarte but I do manage to persuade our local Boulanger to give me the recipe for his renowned Tarte Fraises or Strawberry Tart. So here it is accompanied by a jar of thick, luscious ‘crème crue’ a locally made calorie-laden cream equal only to the English Cornish clotted cream. Sinful but so good! Life is too short to drink bad wine, it’s also too short to miss out on a slice of this decadent strawberry tart. Enjoy!
Ready-made shortcrust to roll out ( a ready-made crust from the supermarket dairy case is good in my book).
4 large egg yolks
1 vanilla pod
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups flour
If you are using pastry to roll, fill your tin and bake blind until pastry is golden at the edges.
If you are using a ready- made pastry case…make your custard or crème pâtissière. Put the milk and vanilla pod (vanilla pod is essential – the French always use this, but if you don’t have a vanilla pod,use vanilla essence). In a large pan, bring to the boil, then turn off the heat. In a large bowl, whisk the yolks and sugar for 10 minutes until voluminous, then beat in the flour and lemon zest. Strain the warm milk slowly into the egg mixture, whisking continuously. Clean the pan, then pour the mixture back in and gently (very gently – it can burn at this stage) bring to the boil, stirring constantly until it has thickened. Take the pan off the heat, cover the surface of the crème pâtissière with cling film to stop a skin forming and leave to cool. Spoon the crème pâtissière into the tart, then level the surface with the back of a spoon. Place a strawberry half in the center of the tart, then arrange concentric rings of fruit around it until all of the crème pâtissière is covered. Melt some strawberry jelly – just about 2 tablespoons over a gentle heat until melted and brush each strawberry with this lovely syrupy mixture for a great shine. Leave to cool. Then, I challenge you to resist.