ave you ever bought an avocado? Of course not!
Come with me and you will see how an avocado ideally makes it into your kitchen.
Facing several rows of neatly placed Haas avocados, I stand in line at Les Halles du Val d’Or, a vegetable stand on the shopping street in Suresnes. Potatoes and onions sit in the bins along the back wall, and carefully arranged vegetables luxuriate beneath. On the other side of the narrow aisle, perfectly round oranges, limes and other fruit beckon to the customer.
We wait patiently to make our requests, because in France you request at a store. You don’t say, for example, “Do you sell wild garlic?” You ask if they offer such a thing, as in, “Do you propose wild garlic?” There’s a délicatesse in the transaction.
And you certainly don’t grab your avocado, squeeze it, and then toss it in your shopping cart. For one thing, these little specialty shops—fruits and vegetables, cheeses, meat, bread and pastries, wine—don’t offer you any carts, large or small. People often use a large woven basket with sturdy handles to carry their shopping for the next couple of days, preferring frequent shopping for fresh ingredients.
When it’s my turn, I say, “Je veux bien un avocat. I would like an avocado. “Quand?” the vendor asks me, meaning when. At first, I thought, what do they mean, when? Do they want me to come back later? In fact, the “Quand?” was not when do I want to buy it, (or have it proposed to me). Mais non, the person was asking me when I wanted to eat it.
The answers could range from midi (the noon meal), ce soir (for dinner), or even demain (tomorrow), or apres-demain (the day after). In the early days, I watched mesmerized as the vendor touched one avocado, then rejected it for another, choosing just the right one for my time frame. Did I say the right one? I meant to say the perfect avocado. The flesh had gone just past green into yellow—firm enough but succulent with the taste that only a naturally ripened fruit could have.
After a while I would joke with a particular vendor. Un avocat is also a lawyer and I once made a lame joke about giving an avocado to a lawyer. Delighted, he replied in English, lawyer, liar.
My favorite vendor, Marie José, even shared French recipes with me, one especially for Christmas time. The French hybrid apple called le chantecler is a yellow apple, a cross between the golden and the reinette Clochard. You slice these lengthwise and sauté them with cooking onions, similarly sliced. These take a long time to fry up like home fries, but they are so good they have become a family favorite.
In the very early days, the cashier at the vegetable shop, perched on a chair, and bent over a high desk, murmured steadily to herself. Pencil in hand, she was adding the figures on the little piece of paper which represented each order, in her head! Her pencil flew over the paper as she tallied the bill just as fast as the adding machine, which eventually replaced her. The customers and the other vendors would marvel, exchanging glances as the cashier’s sums danced along to the bottom of the page.
The various fruit and vegetable staff also coached me in my French. Better than a French class, they assured me. Fruit are generally feminine: Une pomme (apple), une banane (banana), une pêche (peach), une poire (pear). And the exceptions: melon, is of course masculine, (le melon), along with grapefruit (un pomélo). The word fruit itself is masculine, un fruit. Someone once suggested that I just always use the masculine gender because there are slightly more words in the masculine than feminine in French. I would be right slightly better than half the time. Ah, but the poor fruit! Those feminine genders so hard won.
WHERE IS THE FOOD?
Let’s go to the Sunday market. On a large parking lot, vendors set up all manner of products. Beautiful purses, Italian belted jackets, nets filled with balls, all range around the covered white market proper. Inside, specialty shops abound. Porto from Portugal, not too sweet. The best fish shop, presenting fish with heads and without, which nestle on beds of ice, parsley scattered artfully around. And the surprises: one week it’s antique candlesticks; another it’s handmade paper. And, of course, the usual suspects: many fruits and vegetable stands, some manned by the farmers themselves. Two cheese shops, a butcher, and even a horse meat vendor. And a wildly intoxicating array of spices in burlap bags, with little recipes tucked inside. Ah, a taste of India!
Suddenly, a man with a microphone approaches. He has been making announcements all morning. “Ladies and gentlemen, this market offers you the freshest ingredients in the department Hauts de Seine. Profitez-en bien.” Take advantage! Now he says to me, “Madame, do you know what region this cheese is from?” He holds up a white cheese wrapped in paper. I have never seen that cheese in my life. My cheese tasting has never been very adventurous. There are over 1,000 different kinds of cheeses, many of which, including this one, I have never tasted. I look over the man’s shoulder at the cheese shop nearby. The vendor holds up a sign which names that very cheese and the region it comes from. I read aloud, get the answer correct, much to the surprise of the microphone man. And I win a gift certificate for 15 euros. I promptly spend it at the cheese shop, giggling with the man who helped me.
Now the market is over; it’s about 13h30, last-minute deals are finalized, and the weary vendors begin the take-down after having unloaded all the products at sunrise. So many unsold tablecloths that have to be packed up. Fruits and vegetables and other merchandise are loaded in packing crates and onto trucks. The shadows of the men from Godot are upon the vendors. Achingly repetitive gestures, with young men and young women boisterous even now, perhaps longing to escape this life given them by their families, some of whom may actually break away and seek adventure, but for others it will be said, “they did not move.”
And what do we do with all of these ingredients? While I usually close with a book I’ve read, I can’t help but think of Babette’s Feast, a movie in which a French chef releases the joys and spiritual pleasures of French dining in a religious community. It is such a testimony to the art of French cooking and the delight that a good meal can bring to all.