I recently spent two weeks in the Midi-Pyrénées in France. Mission: Cook, write, walk and read. Destination: a small town called Montségur at the foot of Chateau Montségur, an old castle. The first order of business on a Monday morning was, naturally, to go to the local market and stock up on food for the week. Markets in this area are not fancy food halls like those that recently opened in Copenhagen, where I live, nor are they designed to supply fresh food to urban areas. These markets are run by farmers who’ve been coming to town every morning for generations, selling what they have harvested or produced. So, right there in the medieval center of the town of Mirepoix, we found the small market where I could buy everything needed for a week in the mountains.
Surprisingly, Mirepoix has a kind of hippie New Age feel: a few snowboarders, young guys with dreadlocks and baggy pants; kids eating vegan food and drinking herbal tea; elderly people in flower-power clothes with long gray hair and a smattering of French housewives out shopping with their baskets. A few tourists, like ourselves, on the lookout for something different, completed the picture.
A time for turnips
Every time I visit a market I become excited, deluged with a flood of ideas about meals I want to cook. In Mirepoix, I picked up Swiss chard so fresh and green the cold winter seemed to disappear simply by looking at it. I bought winter vegetables, too: turnips and Brussels sprouts. It’s interesting how food sometimes has its moment, like a new record you listen to constantly for three months. I have the same tendency with ingredients, and right now turnips are the thing. I cook turnips all the time. Usually I just rinse them, cut top and bottom off, then cut them into wedges and pan fry them slowly in butter, and season with a bit with salt and pepper, then a dash of apple vinegar at the last minute.
Because I was in France, cheese, bread and wine were a given. Unfortunately I do not speak French, but my husband does, so while I tried all the cheeses, my husband did his best to translate. I ended up with three different cow milk cheeses. Two were from the mountains and tasted of grass and fresh air. The third had a softer texture and sharper taste and came from cows that had grazed near a lake. As a gift, the cheese man picked up one of his sausages and pointed it at me as he said, very enthusiastically: “Snack, snack.” Then he wrapped it in paper and placed it in my bag with my cheese. I walked away feeling very fortunate.
Mandatory bread and cheese
I found another vendor with a very small stand and two kinds of Tomme de Savoie-style cheeses, one more mature than the other. I bought both, as well as fresh yogurt. At one of three stalls selling bread, I bought a pain de champagne, which was tasty with just the right balance of sourness and texture.
Back up in the mountains, I cooked a lot of simple bean dishes; most of our meals were bean stew, salad, bread, a bit of cheese, and of course red wine. I felt connected with the wonderfully gifted food writer M.F.K. Fisher, rediscovering how to cook in a small kitchen with very little room and craving hearty simple food. I think white beans are going to replace turnips, and I will have to come up with a lot of different summer recipes with white beans.
On our way home, we stopped in Paris for two days and stayed in Saint-Denis, home to one of Europe’s biggest food markets (92 Bis Rue Gabriel Péri). Every week, 40,000 people shop there. By 10 a.m. on Sunday morning, it was already filled with an international crowd. A sea of food cultures was in the process of being exchanged. The market is not fancy at all; it has no gourmet edge or aesthetic, just piles of meat, fish, vegetables. Cheese, breads and yogurt are sold, too, along with honey, a variety of baklava.
A long cue of shoppers waited with their bottles to get raw milk from big steel barrels. They lined up to buy halal meat from butchers: meat, kidneys, liver and of course, Margaux sausages.
On our way home, we bought some of the best croissants in Paris from Patisserie Lannois (41 Rue Gabriel Péri), so flaky and buttery. The Saint-Denis market, like the one in Mirepoix, represented everything food should be about: life, exchange, culture and joy.
My Favorite Bean Stew
- Soak the beans overnight in cold water.
- The next day, discard the water. Peel garlic and onions. Cut the garlic in half, and the onions into wedges. Cut the celery into thin slices.
- Place garlic, onions and celery in medium size pot with the beans, olive oil, chili flakes, bay leaves, rosemary and water. Bring to a boil and let simmer for 45 minutes.
- While the beans are simmering rinse the Swiss chard and cut into slices, cut the tomatoes in half, add to the beans and let simmer for 5 more minutes and season with salt and pepper.
- Serve with a green salad.
Trine Hahnemann is a Copenhagen-based chef and caterer and the author of six cookbooks, including “The Scandinavian Cookbook.” She has catered for artists such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soundgarden, Elton John, Pink Floyd, Tina Turner and the Rolling Stones. Her company, Hahnemann’s Køkken, which runs in-house canteens, counts the Danish House of Parliament among its clients. Trine writes a monthly column in Denmark’s leading women’s magazine Alt for Damerne.
Photo: White bean stew. Credit: Trine Hahnemann