Inspired by what to eat at a French farmers market
The American writer Ernest Hemingway in 1950 wrote to a friend, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
Sometime after I returned home after a year of studying abroad more than twenty years ago, I devoured Hemingway’s brilliant memoir of life in 1920s Paris, A Moveable Feast, and let his spare yet descriptive writing paint me back into the street life and café life for which Europe, to me, is so inviting.
Official descriptions of the book may talk about how Hemingway hobnobbed, gossiped, partied and fought with preeminent authors, artists, musicians, and socialites in an endless stream. What captured me most however was just being there: sitting in a café, walking down the perfectly walkable streets, people watching, taking in and being a part of daily civic life.
Paris of course is not the only place where this experience exists. In fact, we try to find opportunities wherever we can to notice our community’s life: a local restaurant that beckons people passing by, urban life downtown, or our own farmers market.
The French farmers market in Nice, France, known as the Marché aux Fleurs, runs for a few blocks in the Old City. This quarter is a classic jumble of buildings squeezed tightly and knitted together with narrow streets, alleys, and plazas of all sizes that open surprisingly to the sky.
Street signs appear in two languages: French and a local dialect called Niçard, which comes from Occitan, itself a language that dominated Southern France until the state imposed the official French language in the 15th Century. This remains an unforgotten grievance for Occitan speakers, who refer to the suppression of their language as “vergonha”, or “shame”. We have seen this heated history before, where language, culture, identity, and food spend entire centuries clashing together and splitting apart.
Learning this history is endlessly fascinating and needs the time and interest to learn more, even if only in a Google search. When we sat down for breakfast at the outdoor café “Pain & Cie” right next to the Marché aux Fleurs, I could only wonder why the street signs were in two languages.
That was soon forgotten as we worked through a breakfast of café au lait and toast with butter and jam in the slightly chilly breeze. I marveled with envy – not for the first or last time – at Charla’s perfect penmanship as she wrote in her journal between sips of coffee.
Many decades ago in Paris having just found a new café, Hemingway wrote in A Moveable Feast how he let the act of writing take over him:
It was a pleasant café, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old waterproof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt hat on the rack above the bench and ordered a café au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and pencil and started to write.
A girl came into the café and sat by herself at a table near the window…I wished I could put her in the story, or anywhere, but she had placed herself so she could watch the street and the entry and I knew she was waiting for someone.
After breakfast we wandered among the food and and flower stalls. Colors, smells, tastes and textures leaped out at every turn. Deep red oddly shaped tomatoes, sliced fresh oranges, artichokes. Mountains of spices, herbs, salts, peppercorns. Something called garlic confit, which this blog will visit shortly in The Simple Kitchen. Olives of every imaginable color and size marinated in fresh herbs, oil, garlic, hot peppers, and lemons.
For lunch, some of the kids in our group got a to-go order of seafood pasta with tomatoes and fresh basil in a saffron sauce. They sat on the steps of the Palais de Justice in the plaza of the same name and watched the moveable feast go by.
Back in 1920s Paris, Hemingway watched a similar scene from his post at the café. It was not always easy to write and people-watch at the same time. But it is a struggle worth having.
The story was writing itself and I was having a hard time keeping up with it. I ordered another rum St. James and I watched the girl whenever I looked up, or when I sharpened the pencil with a pencil sharpener with the shavings curling into the saucer under my drink.
Pain & Cie
3 Rue Louis Gassin, 06300 Nice, France
Tel.: +33 4 93 62 94 32
Marché aux Fleurs
Cours Saleya, 06300 Nice, France
Open daily except holidays
A Moveable Feast
by Ernest Hemingway
Scribner; Reprint edition (May 29, 1996)