I think that we could all use a little comfort food right about now. Not enough to lull us to sleep, no, but just to a pleasant hum.
That was certainly what my hosts' intention was for my stay in Menton over Christmas, to soothe and delight. So when Madame J, who has trained at the Cordon Bleu (that is the tip of her culinary iceberg) and has won many a competition when it comes to marmalades or pickled veggies, said that she really wanted me to discover the market at Dolceacqua, my horse ears pricked and my inner radar pinged.
Up and over the coast, the frontier passed then quickly forgotten and into Liguria, we parked and walked along the flowing Nervia River. The town's "sweet waters" namesake. The sun skipped, we bubbled along the banks, content to be on adventure on a winning morning.
J was already suspicious that the streets were so quiet and her pipping instincts were confirmed as we arrived to the market square. Many vendors had decided to stay home with their families on Boxing Day rather than be out selling their wares. And yet, as I know all too well after ten years of jogging through the Arles market, bigger is not always better. Everything was accessible, there were no lines or bumping baskets and what I could see...delighted me.
For instead of mountains of out of season (save in Morocco) melons, there were tables laid with homemade goods and delicacies. So many of them! Most were presided over by a no nonsense nonna who had made the tarts or the jam or pizza herself. An elderly gentleman seemed non-plussed that he had only a few pieces of wobbly mystery fruit and drapey stalks of leeks to sell. Nearly everything on offer was organic, with many sellers proudly displaying handmade signs of information detailing the wheres and hows (the why was evidently superfluous).
This, to me, is what shopping at a market should be.
Although the border was still nearly in eyesight, we had passed into another world of Italian friendliness. I could and did talk to nearly everyone despite language barriers, something that took years of courage-gathering to do in Arles, in order to bypass the raised eyebrows or blatant "I don't see you, American person" glares of the market dwellers. And so I ended up buying an heirloom blueberry jelly, grown at high altitude, because a young man with astonishing green eyes convinced me (I think I would have bought anything from him, actually) that it was more interesting than the chartreuse pear medley I had been eyeing.
But my favorite experience by far was with the wonderful woman, who constantly bit the smile between her lips, as she decided to give us a tasting of all the cheeses that she had on offer that tempted us. That would be ten. Ten different cheeses and my friends wisely bought six of them, each so different from the last even if the only due to few months date. I dream of those cheeses, still (yes, dietary guidelines were blurred for a day in Italy). And I am shuffling apologetic to keep making the comparison, but in ten years of shopping not only the Arles markets but many throughout la belle Provence, I have never, ever had anyone extend such generosity my way, let alone as a matter of course.
All was done with a light-heartedness that charmed me thoroughly. As the noon day bells rung, various producers would abandon their stands temporarily to buy a steaming plate of polenta ladled with ragù that was being sold for 4 Euros. Change was demanded between booths and a sense of camaraderie was as calmingly present as the Nervia flowing below.
Purchases made and photographs angled, we traversed the winding cobbled streets to those that mysteriously dive below ground. Back up to the light, we passed under the protective stones of the 12th century fortress, across the medieval bridge to settle into our outdoor seats at a café. My face turned towards the sun, I sipped the amaro that my host had chosen for me, ice clinking against my teeth with a smile also bitten to not be overly obvious about a willing adoption of this wonderful life, Dolceacqua style.
To learn more about this gem of a town, please click here.
And if you are in need of a bit of beautiful music instead, then by all means, please click here.
Thank you everyone for all of the heartfelt comments after my previous post.
Ok, big breath. And have a wonderful rest of your weekend,