The biggest market in Lower Normandy takes place each Tuesday in 'Aigle. Here is the most lavish of hypermarchés, but in the open air, and colonising most of the main shopping streets and squares of a busy provincial town. You can buy clothes, shoes, watches and sunglasses. There is a stall devoted to casseroles. One trader specialises in food mills. But the heart of the market, and what never fails to excite the senses of the visitor, is the food itself.
With our recently rekindled enthusiasm for farmers' markets, we do these events more self-consciously in Britain. In France, they belong to the rhythm of the week. Every day is market day somewhere within 15 miles of our cottage. In our small town, it's on Friday, but there are just a few stalls. 'Aigle is something else.
It is daunting at first. The place teems with fruit, vegetables, fish and charcuterie: where to begin? Perhaps at the first stall we come to, run by a rather pushy family whose tactic is to hand over apricots and slices of melon for tasting and then, joshingly, to take for granted that you will buy more of the same. The maman tutoits me - a mildly shocking breach of etiquette. We come away with melons and apricots, of course, and with white peaches, and find that we have spent a mildly shocking amount of money. In London, I can buy bagfuls of stuff at my local greengrocer for about £8. Here, getting far less in return, I always seem to hand over about a third as much again. Perhaps it is because of the pricey summer produce.
Sobering up, we come to the fish stalls. Lobsters and crabs move sluggishly in buckets. There are piles of blue-black mussels. Chunky, fierce-visaged eels stare sightlessly. Yet, among the most appealing produce is also some of the cheapest: mackerel, electric blue and vividly striped. My daughter, who is agnostic on the subject of fish, allows me to buy four of them, without insisting on sole or snapper instead. I make a mess of grilling them on the barbecue, but they taste superb anyway.
When I began to visit 'Aigle market, I avoided one of the busiest stalls, which sells chicken cooked on the rotisserie. I could roast a chicken myself, I reasoned.
That was a mistake. The rotisserie cooks to perfection these poulets fermiers, which are no more expensive than the raw versions. A ?14 bird provides three and a half meals. First, we have it in a salad, with waxy Charlotte potatoes, green beans, olives and roasted peppers. Then a couscous, soaked in some of the stock concocted from the carcass. Then a gratin: a sauce made with butter, garlic, flour, stock, crème fraîche, mustard and parsley, poured over the remains of the chicken, and baked in the oven until bubbling. Last, with the remains of the stock, a soup: leeks, garlic and lentils. That thriftiness helped to justify the expense of the pushy stallholders' melon.