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Spring has come early to the Quercy. An exceptionally mild winter followed by a week of brilliant sunshine, clear skies as blue as the virgin’s robe and warm southern breezes, have transformed both the landscape and the markets. The almond trees have suddenly exploded into riotous blossom and all my lemon trees are following suit, stiff, waxy white petals unfurling to release a delicious fragrance that pervades the whole terrace. An unseasonal haze of light green floats over the fields and vineyards, farmers and vignerons have been hopping round the vines, clippers going like lightening. The sap will rise early this year and there’s no time to lose.
Last Friday, as I guided my dusty grey car round the hairpin bends that lead down to the river valley, I noticed small purple patches appearing at the edge of the oak woods. Violets! The sweet-smelling flower of Toulouse. Before long they will be joined by lemon-yellow darns that indicate the first of the cowslips, just a few to start with, growing and spreading to vast sheets interspersed with the new acid-green grass of spring. It’s a sight to melt the hardest heart.
Down in the little market town of Prayssac I breathed in and nosed carefully into a space fractionally smaller than the car – my French driving techniques have been so finely honed I could pass as a native – and as I glanced over towards the market stalls I spotted another herald of spring. The jonquille sellers had arrived. Little old ladies with makeshift stalls who sell wild daffodils, snowdrops and violets in tightly bound bunches. They are fully out of course and will last less than a day or two in a warm house, but it’s worth buying a bunch every now and then just for the experience. These ladies have lived long and probably harsh lives, their faces are worn and collapsing with the weight of years, shawls pulled tightly round their hunched shoulders – mornings are still cold – only their sloe-dark eyes are still youthful and alert. They sell mainly to the tourists and if they hear a foreign tongue or spot a likely candidate they spring into action immediately, completely belying their age.
A beautiful bouquet?’ They call out to me. Despite my marketing basket, stuffed with leeks, lettuces and early aillet, my fair hair and silk scarf have given me away. I may not be a tourist, but I’m not of local stock. Now comes the tricky part. I don’t at all mind donating a couple of euros to their cause, I shall put my little jonquilles on the southern terrace, where they will happily adorn the lunch table for at least two days, but I object to the next ploy.
Three for five euros…?’ She deftly wraps three bunches in damp newspaper, and reaches for the violets. But she’s met her match. I’m an old hand at this game. I take a likely looking bunch from the table and hand it to her.
Just one, thank you, Madame.’ Our eyes meet. She wraps it and takes my two euros with a twinkle of respect in her eye. And at that moment an unmistakable American twang pricks my ears. Two young girls and their father bounce in on the scene and I am totally forgiven and forgotten as the ladies swivel to capture more lucrative prey. I smile, tuck my little bouquet into the side of my basket and move on to the farmer who sells succulent and divine-smelling chicken rotis, our Friday lunchtime treat.

Poulet Roti

Poulet Roti

‘Jus?’ He asks, spoon at the ready. I nod, and he ladles in some of the delicious juices that have basted a hundred or more roasting birds that morning. Tucking the warm chicken into the bottom of the basket I pay a quick visit to the boulangerie for half a yard of crusty bread, then with lunch in the bag I head back to the car. On the way I encounter the American and his daughters. He’s carrying a bag of walnuts and a large bunch of jonquilles – for his wife maybe – and the girls each have a bag of pastries and a tiny bouquet of violets and snowdrops. Altogether the flowers will have cost him ten or twelve euros, and this little family will go back to their cosy gite and put them on the table in the sunshine where they will fade by morning. But is it a rip-off? Of course not. A French country market is a wonderful, uplifting experience, especially if you’re new to it. They will go home and talk about it, tell their friends about it. Perhaps they’ll never quite forget it.

When you’re deep in a freezing Manhattan winter, surrounded by skyscrapers and non-stop traffic, ten euros doesn’t seem much to pay for such golden memories, does it?

© Amanda Lawrence 2008

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Early Spring Market from French Vie

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