If you’ve ever explored France, chances are that you’ve stumbled upon one of the country’s many markets. These have long been a thriving tradition in France with regular markets displaying produce ranging from fruit and vegetables, to fish, meat and other delicacies, as well as many non-food stalls.
The market at Sanary-sur-Mer is no exception. There’s a market in the seaside town every day of the year except for Christmas Day, but visit on a Wednesday for the main event, from around 8am to 1pm. Last year French TV channel TF1, the most viewed television channel in Europe, pronounced it the most beautiful market in France, beating tough competition from all over the country after four months of voting.
Situated in the department of Var, between Marseille and Toulon, Sanary-sur-Mer has a picturesque harbourside setting, and fought off tough competition from Royan (2nd), St. Pierre of Reunion (3rd), Uzès (4th), Arras (5th), Châtillon-sur-Chalaronne (6th), Issigeac (7th), Dieppe (8th), Puy-en-Velay (9th) and Valves (10th) to be crowned the most beautiful market in France.
Wednesdays are a great day for fish at the market with many stalls lining the harbour, displaying recent catches – some quite large – right by the water’s edge. Even if you have no intention of buying, it’s fun just to watch the hive of activity as fishermen cut a whole tuna into steaks ready for sale or chat to passing customers.
Just a stone’s throw from here, a specialist horse meat van sold a variety of different cuts. Given the anatomical similarities to a cow, these cuts are much the same as you would find in beef, but typically with less fat. Finer cuts such as tenderloin, sirloin and entrecote were all displayed, along with a number of cheaper cuts more suited to slower cooking and for use in casseroles, for example.
There are also stalls cooking dishes in what I would call large paella pans but no doubt they have a different name in France!
I visited with the owner of the new small luxury hotel Mas du Brulat, Su Stephens, and consultant chef for the hotel’s L’Olivier restaurant, Clive Dixon, who himself has worked alongside the likes of Heston Blumenthal and Pierre Koffmann, on a quest to find some of the region’s best local produce for the restaurant and some ingredients that Clive would use to prepare a meal for us later that evening.
The emphasis was on finding quality produce and creating a meal from that, rather than coming up with a dish first and then trying to source the required ingredients – a subtle but important difference that prioritises quality produce ahead of a pre-determined menu. And finding great produce at a French market is made easier because many of the stalls allow you to sample and taste their offerings, and you can also talk directly to the producers.
One of our first stops was at the cheese stall run by Nos Fromages de France.
There Clive was drawn to a mature goat’s cheese from the Savoie region of France that had the crumbly consistency of a Parmesan but with a delicious, nutty flavour.
Next up the grocery stall run by Fred et Karin, a family business from Ollioules.
There they had some particularly good tomatoes that you could taste and we ended up coming away with two different varieties that would go nicely with the goat’s cheese for a simple starter.
We had seen both white and green varieties of asparagus in abundance at a number of stalls so it was clearly something that was in season. We opted for the slightly more delicately-flavoured white asparagus to go with some fish that we’d be having for our main course.
Clive had had his eye on some Gariguette strawberries but, after we tasted the Carpentras variety which is famed for its early crop in Provence, it really was no contest. Displayed with them was a Qualisud certificate for their exceptional quality. And they really did taste amazing!
Next it was on to the fish stand belonging to Poissonnerie Pilato, the commerical division of which also already supplies the hotel’s L’Olivier restaurant.
Here we bought some monk fish…
…and some red mullet.
Even if you have no interest in purchasing, it’s worth watching what goes on at the stall – the staff are quite entertaining and jovial, doing silly things like kissing the fish and pretending they are flying, as well as getting on with the more serious business of de-scaling and gutting anything you buy, should you wish.
Whilst doing the rounds at the market, we also sampled some meats at Le Roi de la Bistouquette’s stall, where they had a particularly tasty Figatelli – a Corsican specialty – amongst other meats.
There are plans back at the hotel to develop the cellars with an exciting and lively wine bar and many of these meats would be ideal for some lovely charcuterie plates, so this was a useful find for the future.
Of course, there are many other stalls at the market – not just more food stalls with things like bread, olives and much more, but also stalls with items such as clothes, kids’ toys and so on, but to my mind it’s the food at the market that’s by far the most interesting. Once we had our fill of the market (quite literally in some ways!), we headed for a patisserie to purchase a tarte tropézienne.
As its name suggests, tarte tropézienne has its origins in St. Tropez but was in fact given its name by none other than the then relatively unknown Brigitte Bardot when she was in the city for the film ‘And God Created Woman’ which was largely responsible for bringing her into the public spotlight. As it’s name doesn’t suggest, it is more of a cake than a tart; it was invented by Alexandre Micka, a Polish pastry chef in St Tropez, and consists of a round brioche with pearl sugar and a sort of pastry cream and buttercream filling, with a delicate flavour of orange blossom water.
Finally, a wander around Sanary-sur-Mer’s streets, away from the hustle and bustle of the market, was a good way to get more of a feel for this pretty town. Explorer Jacques Cousteau had a home here and it was in the waters off Sanary that he developed diving equipment that is still crucial to deep-sea diving today. There’s even a museum – the Frédéric Dumas International Diving Museum – in the town, dedicated to the man who achieved a world-record deep-sea dive in 1943.
Back at L’Olivier, Clive worked his magic in the kitchen. The starter was relatively simple (so often the simplest dishes are the best, though!) and involved combining the tomatoes with the cheese, some basil, olive oil, seasoning (both smoked Maldon sea salt and Camargue salt), and a dash of sherry vinegar, so the focus of his attention soon turned to our main course.
Having peeled the bottom two thirds of the asparagus (white asparagus spears tend to be thicker and more fibrous than their green counterparts), they were put in a pan with some butter, olive oil and a little water, and some roasted garlic later, and then set aside whilst the fish was cooked.
The red mullet had the heads and tails removed and was de-boned…
…before being cooked on a low heat with some white wine, olive oil and a little rosemary, with the pan covered with some clingfilm to help keep the moisture in. (Yes, you can do this if the heat is low enough!)
The monk fish was seasoned and cooked sous vide (vacuum packed and cooked at a low temperature in water) before being finished in the same pan that had been used for the asparagus and basted regularly with the juices.
Dessert consisted of the tarte tropézienne which was served with the strawberries that were washed and hulled, as well as a basil ice cream which Clive had prepared earlier but that was freshly churned using a Pacojet.
As for the finished product? Here are the three dishes that we had… and rest assured, they tasted every bit as good as they look!
Disclosure: Our trip to the South of France was courtesy of Mas du Brulat, a small luxury hotel in Le Castellet commune of Provence – part of the Olives & Vines brand.