A Curious Market Tour in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence
We met Ashley, the Queen of Curious Provence, for a quick espresso at Café de la Place, located on the edge of the bustling St. Rémy market. Any possibility of feeling awkward or weird by meeting someone you don’t know was quickly obliterated by Ashley. She was perfectly outgoing and talkative enough to make us feel like we were meeting a long lost friend rather than an unknown tour guide. Within moments of downing our coffee, we were in the thick of the bustling market, weaving through the busy stalls like regular market habitués.
Visiting places with people in the know completely changes your experience from ordinary to spectacular. Ashley worked the St. Rémy market for over three years and seemingly knew everyone we passed. Because of her intimate knowledge, we were able to skip the less authentic vendors and concentrate on the highlights, getting all the good market gossip along the way.
Market days are curious things for the small villages of Provence. To borrow a line from author Patricia Wells: “Like a giant traveling carnival, with the cast of characters changing from village to village, market day is a spectacle that has survived untouched by modern times.” The day starts early with vendors showing up to sleepy towns around 5 am. A beloved town square sets the stage with colorful vendors arranging their wares all over town like props for a special production. By 8 am most markets have started and the show begins. Soon the streets are filled with beautifully arranged olive displays, artistic mounds of perfect fruits and vegetables, mountainous wheels of dried sheep cheeses and miniature wheels of chestnut leaf wrapped goat cheese.
We wandered through mazes of chewy nougat and neat stacks of perfectly cured charcuterie, stopping to chat with various farmers, fishermen, and artisans, and taste their wares along the way. The highlights were the air-dried beef, which I believe is known as secca de boeuf in this part of the world, perfectly briny oysters from a Camargue seafood vendor, and incredible locally handmade pottery.
We stopped several times at tables covered in colorful Provencal fabrics, any and every vendor armed with kitchen knives (a personal addiction), stalls filled with beautiful summer dresses, quirky toy stalls that captured Beau’s heart, and ones with the most beautiful watercolors and ink drawings of the local landscape. After all, we are in the town that Vincent Van Gogh adored so much.
An Epic Market Picnic
I started to notice a pattern developing, at the better vendors Ashley would grab small containers of poischichade, a baguette here, porky caillettes there, a few bottles of rosé, and the most addictive mussels simply cooked with nothing more than caramelized onions, garlic, and herbs. My stomach started complaining loudly that she was tucking away all these delicious foods for what I assumed to be a monumental meal when she returned home.
Just when I began to contemplate grabbing her sack of deliciousness and disappear effortlessly into the crowd completely unnoticed, out of nowhere she pulled a well-used folding table and set up a beautiful impromptu picnic complete with real glasses and tablecloths. I’m not sure if the growling in my stomach betrayed my intentions but her timing was impeccable. Soon the table was covered in the spoils of the market and all of us had glasses of chilled rosé in our hands and big smiles shining on our faces. No more need to be curious, lunch was served.
We feasted in typical French fashion on the well-laid table. Various market-goers gave jealous looks as we cut thick slices of caillettes and smeared it on fresh baguettes. Ashley invited the flower vendor, whom we were parked behind, to indulge in the feast. He took bites while he created beautiful flower bouquets and exchanged observations and commentary on events that unfolded all around. For a moment, I felt very much a part of this distinctly Provencal scene, I almost stopped eating to help a woman asking for a bouquet of flowers. I turned back to look at Lisa and Beau and noticed each were smiling at the wonderful time they were having.
Curious about Curious
Ashley is a Canadian transplant who moved to Provence over six years ago with her British beau Robin. Over the years, she has worked in every capacity possible from stints as a server in a restaurant to working the market stalls. You can book Ashley for market tours, picnics, photography sessions, and a whole host of easily customizable adventures through her very popular site Curious Provence.
Scenes From the St Remy Market
I am sitting in our Fontvieille kitchen listening to the high-pitched squeal of the washing machine spin dry our clothes while eating sheep milk yogurt pondering the wonderful day we shared with Ashley the day before. She truly is a gem and I am glad we got to know her better. And mostly I am glad she shared a small piece of the world that she holds extremely close to her heart. For a small moment she made us believe like we belonged in the pulse of the market. I strongly recommend booking her services next time you find yourself in Provence.
The joy of living, I say, was summed up for me in the remembered sensation of that burning and aromatic swallow, that mixture of milk and coffee and bread by which men hold communion with tranquil pastures, exotic plantations, and golden harvests, communion with earth.
Antoine de Saint Exupery
I bought a bouquet of violette artichokes and a fresh goat cheese in St. Remy to make a simplified version of my Artichoke Tarte Tatin memorializing the wonderful market experience. The three of us sat on our garden terrace, enjoying the tart and reflecting with a glass of Domaine Hauvette ‘Petra’ Rosé. The whole experience left us feeling rather serene and content. Merci Ashley.
Artichoke Tarte Tatin, version two
The quicker, family version of my signature savory artichoke tart.
Artichoke Tarte Tatin
- 3 large artichokes
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 onion sliced thinly
- 1 red pepper sliced thinly
- 1/4 cup basil sliced
- 1 pinch herbes de Provence or wild herbs picked in the Provencal countryside
- 12-inch circle of puff pastry only use ones made from butter
Black Olive Emulsion
- 3 egg yolks
follow the recipe for quintessential tapenade leaving out the anchovy fillets. http://pistouandpastis.com/2015/07/tapenade-an-irresistible-olive-spread-from-provence/
- 1 squeeze lemon
- 2 oz butter melted
- 2 oz Vallee des Baux olive oil or other similarly fruity olive oil
Artichoke Tarte Tatin
Peel artichokes using a sharp paring knife carefully cut around the bottom. Continue trimming artichoke bottom until all the outer leaves are removed and there are no more green spots. Use a spoon to scoop out the choke.
Cook the four bottoms in salted water mixed with olive oil and sliced lemon. The artichokes are cooked when a paring knife easily pierces the bottoms. Remove and chill.
Julienne the onion and red pepper, then sauté until tender.
Slice the artichoke bottoms thinly and fan out in the bottom of a non-stick pan brushed with olive oil. Top with julienned vegetables, basil, herbes, and goat cheese.
Cover with puff pastry circle and bake at 400 degrees until well browned, about 15 minutes.
Flip tart over onto a baking sheet and continue baking until the top is browned as well, about 10 minutes.
Black Olive Emulsion
Mix egg yolks, olivado, and lemon juice in a bowl. Whisk over boiling water until light and creamy. Slowly whisk in melted butter and olive oil like you are making a hollandaise.