October is the official beginning of autumn, and I always feel slightly guilty that it is my favourite month. Guilty because everyone else is bemoaning the end of summer and I am secretly welcoming the onset of cooler weather and shorter days. But what I love about October (other than it being the month of my birthday, a throwback to my childhood I’m afraid) is not so much that the weather is getting cooler, but that it is heralding a change of season. This is most apparent in the market, where the fruits and vegetables on sale are completely different from one month to the next and there is always something new to try and experiment with.
I decide to go to Arles market this Saturday, my sister and her husband are visiting and I thought we could combine shopping with a bit of sight seeing. I have never been to the Arles market, and it is with some anticipation that we set off. I decide to have a dog free day and, Ralph, my Scotty dog, looks at me accusingly, as I leave the house without him. ‘Where am I going that he can’t come?’ His look implies. I promise to take him for a walk in the Alpilles when I get back, which, thank God, is now open again for walking.
We get to Arles and park the car. The first impression of the market is that it is huge. It is goes on for what seems like miles, down both sides of the Boulevard des Lices, which runs alongside the old city walls. One side is vegetable produce; the other side is arts and crafts. We proceed along the vegetable side.
I spot quite a few of the same stallholders that come to Tarascon. I see the man from St.Rémy and introduce him to my sister. He asks where my dog is. I tell him I had to leave him behind today. This month on his stall he has a large array of pumpkins, squashes and root vegetables: leeks, carrots and small turnips. The French are quite keen on their turnips and I decide to buy some with their tops still on. I also buy a butternut squash from him and tell him I am going to make a soup with it, with peanut butter. He just shrugs as if to say, “I sell the veg. What you do with it is not my concern.”
The first time I ever tasted butternut squash was in Upstate New York and it was served exactly in this way, as a soup with peanut butter. I was so enthralled by it’s nutty, velvety smooth taste, enhanced by the peanut butter, that I decided to try and make it at home, and it has become one of my staple soup recipes ever since.
We move on. There are stalls heaped with wild mushrooms. I ask the stallholder where they are from. He says he can’t tell me, thinking that I am after his closely guarded, secret mushroom spot. I laugh and say that I merely wondered if they were local or not, which he assures me they are, making a large, expansive gesture with his arms to demonstrate the countryside around us. There are mainly chanterelles and ceps, great piles of them. Both of which are my favourite. I take a handful of each. I used to pick them myself on Ashdown Forest as a girl; we would take them home and cook them gently with butter and then eat them with a sprinkling of parsley on toast. Another reason for this being my favourite time of year!
We move on further down the boulevard, passed the stalls selling soap and lavender oil; passed the cheese stalls; passed the stalls cooking meat on a spit; passed the stall selling tapinades, marinated cloves of garlic, dried fish and olives in all different colours and sizes.
Further towards the end of the market, the stalls take on a more Moroccan feel, catering for the large North African population of Arles. There are stalls displaying the most amazing array of spices that I have ever seen outside of Zanzibar. The colours and the variety of just one stall are enough to inspire a whole coffee-table book’s worth of colour photos. There are literally piles of different spices: curries, chilli peppers, paprika, saffron, cloves, cumin. lavender and even little tiny rose buds, all in the most vivid colours. There is also an assortment of different scented teas. I feel compelled to fill and buy the little jars that they sell alongside the spices, as much for their bright colours to liven up my kitchen shelves as to perk up the flavours of my cooking. Recently a friend said that he had problems finding the right spices to make an Indian curry. He obviously hadn’t been to Arles market; either that or it was an excuse not to invite us round for supper.
Further on there is a stall selling everything for the Hamman, black soap, body scrubs and oils and scratchy mittens. I have never been to the Hamman in Arles, but it is definitely on my list of ‘must-do-soon.’
Finally we get to the end of the market and come to a little square where there are many stalls selling fresh fish. As it is passed noon, they are all packing up and the pavement is strewn with ice and water. No doubt they have been up for hours and looking forward to going back to their homes for their lunch.
My mobile phone rings. It is the artist.
“I was just wondering where you were,” he asks, ”and whether you have Ralph with you.”
I later learn that whilst we were away, Ralph had somehow escaped from the house and was missing for a couple of hours. Worried, the Artist, walked along the streets asking neighbours if they had seen him. As he walked passed the Gypsy bar a few streets away from our house, wondering whether he should report the missing dog to the Police, the barman, Marc came out and said “If you’re looking for your dog, he’s here.” Sure enough, there he was, curled up in the corner, fast asleep as if chez lui. “He’s been here a couple of hours,” Marc said in French, “I think he was looking for you.”
WILD MUSHROOM RISOTTO serves 4
A handful of wild mushrooms, chanterelles or ceps or both, sliced
50 gr Butter,
Splash of Olive oil
I red onion
350gm Arborio rice
1 glass of white wine
1 litre of chicken or vegetable stock.
1 tbls parmesan
Heat the stock in a pan. Meanwhile in another pan, melt the butter and add a glug of olive oil. Then add the wild mushrooms and onion. Cook for about five minutes, until the onion is translucent. Add the rice and stir until until every grain is coated with the butter and oil, then add the glass and wine and stir until most of it has evaporated. Then add a ladle of hot stock and carry on stirring, until it has been absorbed, then add another ladle, until all the stock has been used up. Keep stirring throughout! Then take it off the heat, add the parmesan and another knob of butter and the chopped parsely.
Serve immediately with extra parmesan.
If you have any dried mushrooms in the cupboard, soak them in hot water for 10 minutes and add this to the stock for added pungency.
Wild mushrooms are also delicious fried gently in butter and folded into an omelette.
BUTTERNUT SQUASH SOUP WITH PEANUT BUTTER
I small to medium butternut squash
1 tbls. Peanut butter
2 tbls. Olive oil
1 clove garlic, sliced
1 sprig Thyme
Coarse Camargue salt
Freshly ground pepper
1 litre chicken or vegetable stock, heated
Preheat the oven to 200c. Cut the squash lengthwise, remove seeds and pulp and then cut each piece into four and place into a baking dish. Cover with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, a sprinkling of salt, garlic slices and crumbled thyme. Bake in a hot oven for approximately 45 minutes, or until the squash is soft. Scoop the flesh from it’s skin and place along with the garlic and escaped oil into a pan, add the peanut butter and a few grinds of the pepper mill. Heat and stir. After a minute or two, add the stock and simmer for 10 minutes. Then whiz with a hand whizzer, or place in a blender until smooth and creamy. Season according to taste.
PASTA WITH TURNIP TOPS AND CHILLI
1 bunch of turnip tops
2 tbls olive oil
2 garlic cloves, sliced
200g dried or fresh pasta
1 anchovy fillet, rinsed in water and chopped
1 small dried chilli
Blanch the leaves from the turnip tops in boiling water for a minute. Then remove from the water, squeeze and chop.
Warm the olive oil in a pan and add the garlic and finely chopped chilli and cook gently until soft. Then add the turnip tops and toss in the chilli and garlic oil. Turn down the heat and add the anchovy fillet.
Meanwhile cook the pasta and when it is al dente take a ladle of the cooking water and add it to the pan with the turnip tops. Drain the pasta and add to the turnip mixture, cooking it gently for another few minutes until it is well mixed. Pour over some more olive oil, salt and pepper and serve.
You can use brocolli or spinach instead of the turnip tops.
Wine suggestions to go with the above:
WILD MUSHROOM RISOTTO
2003 Gérard Bertrand Minervois Les Matins d’Aurore
BUTTERNUT SQUASH SOUP WITH PEANUT BUTTER
2005 Danjean-Berthoux Givry 1er Cru La Plante
PASTA WITH TURNIP TOPS AND CHILLI
2004 Château la Clotte-Fontane Coteaux du Languedoc Crémailh