In France and Italy in June, my friend Pat and I stayed in apartments rather than renting hotel rooms, in order to have more space, get into the local culture, and (for me, anyway) to be able to cook. Three weeks without cooking and I would have been going a bit twitchy, so we were lucky to find three lovely apartments for one week each with relatively well-equipped kitchens, each of them close to a local outdoor market.
The first place was in Ile sur la Sorgue, a small town in Provence, east of Avignon, where essentially the entire town turns into a market twice a week. Although I’ve been to France many times, mostly for business, I’ve never stayed in Provence and was pleasantly overwhelmed by the smells and tastes in the market. Amazing cheeses, smoked sausages of goat or bull, asparagus and other seasonal vegetables, and a good supply of fresh fish. I grilled vegetables sprinkled with Herbes de Provence, and tossed them with pasta, unfiltered olive oil and fresh Parmigiana-Reggiano — more Italian than French, but when you’re that close to the border, it really doesn’t matter. We would step around the corner to the bakery in the morning for hot-from-the-oven baguettes, and have a lunch of bread, cheese and sausage while driving around the countryside. I was introduced to the rosés of Provence: crisp, dry and fruity, and I’ll be less likely to prejudge pink wines again. Pat had heard from a friend about the melons in Provence, and I ate melon every day in both France and Italy: smaller than our supermarket cantaloupes, with intense aroma and flavour. Altogether, nothing better than these rustic, lusty flavours in the summertime.
Next was Florence, where we stayed a block from the market near Santa Croce: I could see the market from our kitchen window! It had been a few years since I had been in Italy, and a few more since I had attended the cooking school at Villa Delia, but the tastes and recipes just flooded back into my head. Amazingly, I found a food mill in the kitchen so was able to make a sauce of simmered red peppers and herbs, pressed through the mill to make a wonderfully smooth sauce for the hand-made ravioli that we found at the market. We made perfect caprese salads with fresh buffalo-milk mozzarella, vine-ripened tomatoes and handfuls of fresh basil, and snacked on tiny, piquant olives and sharp bleu cheese while sipping Chianti on the terrace of our apartment looking out at the hills of Fiesole.
Lastly was Venice, where we stayed (coincidentally) in the Santa Croce district, a five-minute walk from the Rialto fish market. We ate monkfish, mantis prawns, scallops in the shell, scampi — and that’s just what we cooked for ourselves. I found a little shop near the market that sold handmade gnocchi, and had a very well-illustrated lesson (in Italian) from the woman behind the counter on how to cook it. A quick pan-fry or grilling for the fish, and we ate it with fresh bread and salad in the warm mid-June evenings. However, it’s never too hot for risotto: I saved the prawn heads for a broth, and made a risotto of the shellfish broth with leeks and the biggest porcini mushrooms that I had ever seen. I even think that the mushroom guy in the market liked me, because he threw in a handful of herbs with the porcini that made a perfect complement chopped and sprinkled on the risotto.
I never miss the opportunity to visit a local market when I travel, whether it’s a souk in Egypt or La Boqueria in Barcelona, and having a little flat to prepare and serve the local delicacies provides a great opportunity to feel even more like a local.
Pictures compliments of my talented photographer friend and travelling companion, Pat Anderson.