Politicians discussing contemporary Britishness should look at the world shelves in Super U, the French supermarket that caters for those expats who yearn, like colonials back in the days of empire, for home-grown foodstuffs. Brits are defined by Marmite, Colman's Mustard, Worcester sauce, tomato ketchup, tomato soup, strong tea, custard powder, tinned treacle and golden syrup. As summer ends, and la rentree begins, perhaps the British shelf will shrink.
Just before I left, the hot days began to be touched with cool winds. My last visit to the market: there we all were, we foreigners, in elegiac mode, feasting our eyes on red-gold pumpkins, on Breton mussels, on Conte cheese. I said goodbye to the organic stallholders, who feel like friends. The vegetable man who sells bunches of asters and parsley, eggs and punnets of woodland strawberries took my empty jam jars off me, accepted my empty egg boxes, urged me to buy his garlic. The bee man, in his straw hat, sold me acacia honey and warned me against eating commercially grown apricots: the workers who pick them go out to the fields clad in heavy-duty protective clothing. Because we enjoy chatting to each other, he pressed upon me a bar of powerfully scented honey soap.
Finally I bought courgettes from the young woman who brings
just a few things to sell each week. Her stall is arranged precisely as a still life: a basket of coco beans in their pink-streaked pods, a small bucket of marigolds, a clutch of knobbly courgettes. She urged me to try eating the latter raw, grated with vinaigrette. I told her about deep-frying the stuffed flowers.
This country goddess is blonde, slender, hooded-eyed, beautiful
and melancholy-looking as the heroine of a Yeats poem.
The next beautiful woman I visited was Sylvie, the organic baker in the neighbouring village. She has bought the disused bakery, with its old oven, in which she bakes bread to sell at markets in the Sarthe. Three evenings a week she opens up to sell to the locals. A three-woman band - one silent, half-invisible woman, swathed in apron and cap, manipulates the long-handled spade-like tool that shifts the bread about in the far reaches of the oven; a second, black-haired and merry, takes the money; and, with shining eyes and waving hands, Sylvie herself expatiates on the delicacies she insists we must try. Her walnut sourdough, fresh, still warm, was one of the most exquisite things I have ever tasted. Sitting on my front step, I ate bread and butter as my supper feast.
The last beautiful woman was Yvette, roaring with laughter because my boasted creme de cassis was completement foutue: I had unwittingly steeped the blackcurrants in vinegar rather than eau-de-vie. Putain-bordel!