Born in Orlando, Florida, the food journalist Susan Loomis spent her childhood travelling the world with her father, an officer in the US Army. Finally, she settled in France with her husband Michael and their two children and restored a dilapidated convent in the centre of Louviers, Normandy. It is here that Loomis writes her popular expat journals-cum-cookbooks, and opened the cookery school where she runs courses during spring and autumn. This is an extract from her most recent book, 'Tarte Tatin' (the sequel to 'On Rue Tatin'), detailing further recipes and her latest accounts of a foodie's idyll in Normandy.
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I love waking up on Saturday morning; even from inside my bedroom I can feel the lilt in the air because it's my favourite day of the week, market day.
I like to get to the market by 8.30am. If I go any earlier the vendors won't have their stands fully set up; much later and the crowds who at that hour are still at home taking their last sips of coffee and wiping the crumbs of baguette from the corners of their mouths will descend to block the passages, chat with the vendors and stand in long queues in front of the most coveted produce. By getting there before them I can do all of these things at a leisurely pace, and still be home in time to put in a good, full day of cooking.
I have a prescribed order to my marketing, which rarely varies. I walk out of our courtyard and head right down the main street of town to the bank's cash machine. I am already in heaven as I watch the street wake up: the florists are putting out the last plants and buckets of flowers on the pavement; Brigitte, the owner of Laure Boutique, is arranging the precarious stacks of baskets and postcard racks that announce her store; and one of the women who works at the charcuterie is carefully spelling out the daily specials on a sandwich board outside the shop. I always, every time, admire her slightly Victorian handwriting and the way she manages to produce a perfectly straight, perfectly justified list.
Brigitte looks up as I pass, takes off her glasses and we kiss twice on each cheek, then I go on. When I turn the corner from the main street I can hear the hum of the market, which will build to more of a crescendo as it swings into its full, mid-morning rhythm. When I turn again, into the market, I get the same feeling as when I set foot on the dance floor: the rhythm takes over and I pick up my pace, straighten my track and hold my head a bit higher as I meet the sounds and colours.
I refer to this street as "goat cheese alley'' because the goat's cheese producer is here with his soft, creamy fresh cheeses. I don't dare buy any now because they're so fragile they need special handling or they'll be torn to mush, but I smile and nod to the producer, who is usually sharing a rillettes sandwich with his neighbour, the produits de luxe, or luxury products man across the way. I'll buy cheese from him just before I leave the market to return home.
I smile at the produits de luxe man, too. He has the most exquisite smoked herring, fat, luscious fillets of salt cod, dried and peppered mackerel fillets, gorgeous smoked salmon and trout. I buy the herring and the salt cod most often - the first to serve with boiled potatoes and fresh onions, the latter to serve in dozens of different ways, though my favourite preparation is a silken, garlicky purée called brandade.
Next to him is the plant man who, each year, has the most beautiful pansies and petunias. I always buy royal blue pansies for the autumn and winter window boxes, which I like to mix with white, or white and salmon. Come spring and I plant pots with his deep purple petunias, which fill our courtyard with their vanilla aroma. Along with the fuchsia and white and mauve petunias in the window boxes, they make a riotous display of colour that lasts right into autumn.
The long farm stall next to him is manned by a trio of young farmers who laugh and make jokes all morning long. The mother of one of them is there sometimes, too, and she is just as jovial as they. I check out their produce as I walk by, cataloguing it in my head in case they've got something I'll need when I return.
The market is full of quirky personalities, and across the street is one of them: a woman with an assortment of fruit and vegetables that she grows herself and that she claims are all organic. She's got that honest, country look that can't help but be attractive; I bought most of my vegetables from her when I first began shopping at the market years ago. But I learned to pass her by, because each time I returned home I would find something rotten, unripe or otherwise inedible in the bottom of my bag. Then I began hearing others complain about her. How she stays in business I'll never know, but she seems to do just fine.
Around the corner from her is a snaggle-toothed man with unkempt hair who sells very few items, all of them slightly smudged and grubby. I cannot imagine anyone actually buying the smashed pats of butter he says he makes, or the boxes of nuts that are surely from several years ago, judging by their allure. He is a distant cousin of people we know, and all they can say is that he was put on this earth to be mean. Mean he may be and a cheater to boot, if what they say is true, but he certainly seems to enjoy himself at the market, and is always in conversation with one of his neighbours.
Readers of 'The Independent on Sunday' can order copies of 'Tarte Tatin', by Susan Loomis (rrp £6.99, HarperCollins) for the discounted price of £5.50 (including p&p within the UK). Call HarperCollins (0870 787 1724) and quote code 839A. Offer ends 31 October 2003.
Follow in the footsteps
Fit for a king
Louviers is in Normandy's département of Eure, about 30km from Rouen and 100km from Paris. You won't learn much about Louviers from Loomis's book, which tends to concentrate on cooking and eating, but it is a historic town with a colourful history.
During the Hundred Years War, the story goes, Henry V was conferring with the Earl of Salisbury during his attack on Louviers when a shot fired by the defending gunners struck his tent. Henry was so angry that when he captured the town he hanged the eight gunners from the walls.
In 1642, the nuns of Louviers claimed to have been possessed by the Devil, giving lurid evidence during a witchcraft trial that echoed the events at Loudun 10 years ago. The church of Notre-Dame dates back to the 13th century and Le Cloître des pénitents (Cloister of the Penitents), now the garden of the music school, is said to be the only cloisters in Europe built alongside a river.
The best way to get to Louviers by public transport is by train via Paris. Return fares on Eurostar (0870 160 6600; www.eurostar.com) start at £59, while easyJet flies to Paris (0870 6000 000; www.easyjet.com) from £40. From Paris, trains leave for Louviers from Gare St-Lazare for Val de Reuil, where a bus picks up passengers to take them into Louviers. The return fare is around €33 (£24). If you are driving from the UK, the nearest ferry port is Le Havre, which is served by P&O (0870 600 0613; www.poferries.com) from Portsmouth.
Susan Loomis runs cookery courses at her home in April, May, June, September and October. For further information visit www.susanloomis.com for more information.