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Market Day in Vaison la Romaine

Editor’s Note: This past May I had the pleasure of teaching a Travel, Food and Wine Writing Class in Provence for The Writer’s Workshop. During the class, the students experienced the magic of Provence: wonderful restaurants like Maison Drouot in St. Remy de Provence , fabulous wineries like Domaine de la Mourchon and fascinating historic sites like the St. Paul de Mausole mental hospital where Vincent Van Gogh painted The Starry Night. I’ll be sharing the stories they wrote over the next few weeks, exploring the beauty, history, food, wine and culture of this amazing place.  I’ll be teaching a similar course in Rioja, Spain this spring (May 21-27):

By Nancy Gaeden

We gather in what looks like the dining room of a hobbit’s house - the low arched ceilings descend gracefully into the stone walls, punctuated by a small window on one end, and on the other a stooped door surrounded by vines leading into the courtyard. A singular chandelier hangs from the ceiling. We crowd around the long tables, pens clutched, brows furrowed in concentration as our travel writing teacher unpacks the do’s and don’ts of travel, food and wine writing.

But anxiety creeps in. Today is Market Day in Vaison-la-Romaine, and even at home in Sonoma I hasten to make the early part of our Saturday farmer’s market.  I look forward to and have grown so fond of this weekly ritual, discovering the season’s bounty and filling my basket with fresh anticipation of the week’s meals to come.

Our teacher is incredibly kind, but each minute enlightening us in the art of writing is restraining me from that colorful market known as one of the finest throughout Provence.  What if they sell out of those Carpentras strawberries before I get there? Fresh and stinky cheeses? Will I have enough time to explore the stalls of seasonal produce? Seek out the local delicacy of Nyon olives? What manners of charcuteries and pastries might I be missing? I shuffle uncomfortably in my seat and fidget with my pen. I look around to see how other classmates are faring. Everyone seems quite focused.  As this ridiculous panic dawns, I realize that if I’m really honest with myself:  I’m just here for the food!

At last, class ends. With market bag in hand and my trusty sun hat, I fly across cobblestones and leap down the hill of our medieval perch toward the incredible Roman Bridge that marks the beginning of town center. It’s impossible not to ponder that for hundreds of years people have been crossing this bridge for market day. The distant sound of many happy voices draw me toward the fray of hundreds of colorful stalls that seem to have popped up overnight.  In this sea of multi-colored sails, I surrender into the stream of jovial shoppers and allow myself to be carried along their meandering pace towards the promising cornucopia.

With all the beautiful produce coming my way, I wilt inside, knowing I do not have the means to cook anything at the hotel. And yet I cannot help but marvel at the gorgeous firm eggplant ancien, pink and white breakfast radishes, fat white asparagus, and shiny endives that barely fit in my hand. Freshly picked squash blossoms are 2 euros a box next to fiery tomatoes still clinging to their vine, followed by perfect florets of purple artichoke. I am further tempted by local black, orange and green tapenades, fat marbled saussicons from Luberon, and the rich enticing aromas of chicken roasted in herbs de Provence. I watch as a mustached baker fills a bag with slender warm baguettes - I fantasize holding one to my cheek and breathing deeply. Ah, true romance.

As I approach a particularly busy corner, there is a smiling lady selling miel, perfectly at ease amid the constant buzz around her stall. I ease my way into the crowd for a taste of the deeply hued golden liquid - my mind flashes to the collection of honey I already have at home, and the heaviness of my suitcase - but the mysterious tasting jars seem to have a pull of their own, and I cannot help being drawn in.  What exquisite texture! The world takes pause as I stand overwhelmed by the combination of sweetness, tang, and perfume reminiscent of standing in a field of flowers. The Miel Fleurs des Baronnies especially smells of jasmine and melts dreamily on the tongue. With a jar in hand, I float onward.

The unmistakable scent of fresh berries draws me towards a beautiful display of Carpentras fraises nestled in blue and white baskets. These are not the deeply red large angular strawberries I am familiar with at home, but small and medium oval fruit with their tiny seeds pressed into the bright crimson skin.  A dark handsome man offers me a taste - my mouth waters in anticipation and the delicate skin gives way to a surprisingly sweet and juicy pool of flavor. Oui, si vous plait!

To my delight, there is a SALT vendor! Friends at home are often amused at my extensive salt collection - who the heck eats all that rock? I lean into the stall over the grid of checkered wooden boxes containing all manners of my favorite mineral. There is the ever-popular Hawaiian red salt, huge flakes from Cyprus in the shape of Aztec pyramids, zingy blue salt from Persia, and salts blended with various spices.  My eyes search for something local and come across the wine-colored sel Carmague Côte du Rhone. Hmm. Subtle and tasty!  Blown away by a couple smoked variations that made my lips pucker, I added them to my bulging market bag. Quite pleased with myself, I turn from the stall to continue my adventure.

To my dismay, merchants are starting to close their booths. It seems as if the bell marking end of recess has rung, and the atmosphere has quickly turned to one of packing up and moving out. How has two hours gone by so quickly? Everywhere I look, veggie crates are being stacked, olives sucked into plastic bags, cheeses whipped out of sight and into the backs of minivans with very un-Provençal efficiency.  I wanted to frantically wave my arms and cry out for them to stop - Wait! I’m not done yet!  But they would just laugh - anozer crazy Americaine! Wistfully I drift through the bright sea of packed tents and boxes, accepting at last that the magic carpet ride of market day has come to an end.

I find my classmates already at the town square, and we content ourselves sharing the discoveries and flavors of market at our picnic lunch.  Strawberries, a baguette, salumi, pastries, and glistening Nyon olives spill out of our bags and into the shade of a stately plane tree.  We chew in appreciation and wonder.  What a dream, and I’m left hungry for more.  Next Tuesday, is Market Day. I’ll just have to change my flight.

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