The French do not give up their weekly market easily, and ours has been transferred to a straggling back street that runs off the town's other square. Most of the regular stall-holders are there, despite the irregular location, but there is only one farmer's stall without a rabbit or free-range chicken stretched out across the small table.
William, my husband, invariably heads straight off to inspect the two fish stalls. By British standards, the quality and freshness is good, but he will settle for nothing but the absolute best, never mind that we are several hundred miles from the sea and it is a hot day. There is only one fish that will do - a line-caught sea bass that shimmers like molten silver. Yesterday, we laid in stocks of grey gros sel, coarse salt, a snip at about 30p a kilo from the little supermarket in the square; we can use a bag of that for baking this svelte fish. Later on, I will stroll up to the top of our village, where a patch of the hillside is studded with wild fennel, the only flavouring that will be added.
The organic vegetable growers do not appear to have made it to the market, but the move to the new site has not bamboozled a particular rosy-cheeked Montoirienne. She and her husband grow their produce on the outskirts of town, and it is usually excellent - charlotte potatoes, crisp lettuces, tapering, fiery-tasting black radishes, rather puny fennel, fresh borlotti beans and herbs.
Apart from parsley, herbs are something you do not much see for sale round here. It is not that they are not used. Quite the contrary. Everyone grows their own thyme, rosemary, chives, bay, savoury, tarragon, sorrel and sage, so there is no huge profit to be made. Basil has made inroads relatively recently, though it is unlikely that you would be served anything as new-fangled as a tomato and basil salad in any of the local restaurants. Ripe, sweet red tomatoes come with a vinaigrette or perhaps a cream dressing, and chives or parsley. Parsley is virtually ubiquitous in all the crudites, the raw vegetable salads that often form the first course of a meal.
It is high plum season, and the tiny golden mirabelles and translucent greengages are being practically given away. The price of white peaches is low enough to buy them by the trayful. Inevitably, we get carried away and buy far too many of all three. It is too hot to make jam, though that would be the most sensible solution, and I cannot quite summon up the energy to make a plum tart. Still, we do have half a loaf of brioche and a small tub of thick creme fraiche from the farm, and that will do us nicely.
Sausage and potato salad
This is a salad that frequently appears among the crudites at the better village restaurants in the district. It is usually made with the French cervelas, but failing that good frankfurters or even garlic sausage could stand in.
Ingredients: 8oz (225g) waxy
potatoes, cooked, peeled and cut into 1/2 in (1cm) cubes
8oz (225g) cervelas, frankfurters or garlic sausage, skinned and cut into 1/2 in (1cm) cubes
2 shallots, finely chopped
3 small cornichons or 1 medium gherkin, finely chopped
2tbs chopped parsley
1tbs white wine vinegar
1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
4tbs groundnut or sunflower oil
salt and pepper
Preparation: Put potatoes, sausage, shallots, cornichons and parsley into a bowl. Whisk the vinegar with the mustard, salt and pepper. Gradually whisk in the oil, 1tbs at a time. The dressing should be erring on the sharp side to counterbalance the blandness of the main ingredients. Mix with the contents of the bowl. Taste and add a little more vinegar, salt or pepper as needed.
Raw mushroom salad
Some of the larger caves further along the hillside are used for growing champignons de Paris, or button mushrooms. They may not be anything out of the ordinary, but they are always incredibly fresh and pearly, with traces of compost still clinging to their roots.
Ingredients: 4oz (110g) button mushrooms, cleaned and very thinly sliced
1-2tbs lemon juice
1/2 clove garlic, crushed
3tbs groundnut or sunflower oil
1tbs chopped parsley
salt and pepper
Preparation: As you slice the mushrooms, turn them in lemon juice. Mix with the other ingredients, taste and adjust seasoning.
Tomatoes with cream dressing
Ingredients: 2-3 tomatoes, sliced
1tbs creme fraiche
1tsp white wine vinegar
2tbs groundnut or olive oil
2tsp chopped chives
salt and pepper
Preparation: Arrange the tomatoes on a plate. Mix the creme fraiche, vinegar, oil, sugar, salt and pepper. Taste and adjust balance. Drizzle over the tomatoes, sprinkle with chives and serve.
Sea bass baked in salt
This must be the purest way there is of cooking fish, but it is only worth doing if the fish is beautifully fresh and sweet-smelling. Every last scrap of flavour and moisture is sealed inside the shield of scales and salt. You should not need to bother with lemon juice.
For four people, take a 2-3lb (a generous kilo) fish and a little more salt and allow 30 mins in the oven.
Ingredients: 1 sea bass, weighing about 1 1/2 lb (675g)
a handful of fennel
about 3lb (1 1/2 kg) coarse salt
Preparation: Ask the fishmonger to clean the insides of the fish and to snip off the fins, but do not let him scale it. At home, rinse inside and out and pat dry. Stuff as much fennel as possible into the stomach cavity.
Make a bed of salt in an oven- proof dish and lay the sea bass on it. Cover completely with more salt. Sprinkle with a little water. Bake at 240C/450F/gas 8 for about 25 mins.
Crack open the salt dome at the table, and lift off chunks. Brush off the rest of the salt and lift the fish on to a clean plate. Remove the skin, and lift the fillets off the bone, making sure that you both get some of the fennel-scented flesh nearest the stomach cavity.
Croute aux prunes
I have a vague idea that I first came across this pudding in one of Elizabeth David's books, but it has become such an integral part of our August repertoire here that it seems to belong to the region. Any sort of plum can be used, but tiny mirabelles are particularly good and so, too, are greengages.
Ingredients per person:
1 slice brioche
about 4oz (110g) plums
1tbs castor sugar
chilled creme fraiche or mascarpone to serve
Preparation: Butter the brioche slices on both sides, and place on a baking dish. Halve and pit the plums. If large, slice them thickly. Arrange on the brioche slices, nestling them tight up against each other (they will shrink as they cook). It does not matter with small plums whether they are cut side up or down. Sprinkle each slice generously with sugar and bake at 220C/425F/gas 7 for 15-20 mins, until the plums are patched with brown and catching at the edges. Lift carefully on to individual plates, immediately put the baking dish to soak (it is horrible to clean otherwise) and then serve with a dollop of chilled creme fraiche or mascarpone slithering over the hot fruit.Reuse content