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Gariguette strawberries

Gariguette strawberries

The sweet smell of a thousand fragrant Gariguette strawberries lured me round Cahors market last Wednesday. The day was warm, the sky a cloudless blue and the stalwart stallholders were in carnival mood. Asparagus assailed me as I entered the fray at the southern end; huge bunches of creamy green, brushed with purple. Just the thing for a light supper, dripping with melted butter and accompanied by some good bread and a nice jug of Cahors. I glanced at the early peaches, transported overnight from the glasshouses of Andalucia, but the rising scent of strawberries was becoming insistent. Rounding the corner, where one of my jovial stallholder friends was holding his weekly pantomime with leeks and cauliflowers, I was mesmerised by a sea of scarlet.
Three stalls were selling nothing but strawberries, the incredibly sweet, early variety grown in the Lot et Garonne and greedily consumed by the million, each April, all over the Quercy. They are sold ripe and ready for eating, no question of buying for Sunday lunch here! That would have to wait until Saturday. I bought two little barquettes – half a kilo – and moved on to the fresh goat’s cheeses from Rocamadour. Just two tangy, pungent little discs, carefully wrapped and tucked away at the bottom of my basket. As I made my way to the outer edge where one of my favourite stallholders sells her own freshly picked garden produce, I came across an impromptu little stall. It was a collapsible table, the sort that used to be sold as a camping table in the sixties – and probably equally venerable. It was covered with a red and white checked cloth and displayed several bunches of dried herbs and wild asparagus. It’s rare to find this little treat nowadays, the Quercynois have always been fond of gathering food from the wild; mushrooms, truffles, walnuts, herbs and miscellaneous seasonal fruits, but asparagus is hardly ever seen.
How much?’ I asked her, and reeled at the reply.
You will not find it yourself.’ She assured me, ‘you must buy from me.’ I asked her if she found a lot.
‘No, there is little left now, and it becomes very precious! Here, you will try this, and next week perhaps I have some more.’ She pulled a few straggly strands from a bunch and stuffed them in my basket. ‘Steam them, toss them in butter and eat them with a poached egg. Or you can cut them up,’ she made vigorous chopping motions with her hand, ‘into an omelette.’
I started to ask how much I owed her for my sample, but she waved the question away, it was a gift, her contribution to my culinary education. She looked derisively at the fat bunch of asparagus already resident in my basket. ‘Pouf! Swollen with water, it has no flavour! She stroked the three bunches of stringy green stuff on the table before her. ‘This is the real thing!’ She grinned at me as if we both knew she was putting on an act, then wiped her seamed old hands down the front of her all-enveloping blue pinny and nodded dismissal. ‘Next week, don’t forget!
I stopped for a couple of damp lettuces, and then weaved my way thoughtfully through the stalls towards my café on the Boulevard Gambetta and a coffee in the sun. This sort of thing happens quite a lot in the regional markets. If you look hard you will always find one or two little stalls, usually on the outer edges, selling all sorts of seasonal local produce. They are rarely cheap, not always well presented and the delicacies they proudly display are never washed. But they represent the last bastion of a fast disappearing way of life, a life that has been lived here for longer than history records. Where local paysans sell the surplus from their overflowing potagers, or the harvest from their expert foraging, in the open market.
They are, as Madame so eloquently put it, the real thing.

© Amanda Lawrence 2008

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The Lure of Gariguette Strawberries from French Vie

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