Glorious August in southwest France lures tourists as a buddleia in full bloom lures butterflies. The heat, the holiday atmosphere that pervades every little town and village, and the outstanding food and wine available at every turn, have all contributed to make this once neglected little rural backwater one of the holiday hotspots of Europe. For decades the overworked masses have swarmed down from the frozen North to the beaches of the Mediterranean, but gradually, very gradually, tourists have worked inland. They’ve stopped en route, made forays into hitherto untented territory, and discovered to their amazement that the beautiful Quercy holds more attractions than they had believed possible. Now, during the two holiday months, the population more than doubles and nowhere is this more obvious than in the markets. They swell in season, to four or five times their winter size, jammed with lithe blondes in skimpy shorts (much appreciated by some of the locals) and enormous bellies in lively shirts.
One radiant Saturday morning we elected to brave the crowded streets of Cahors, in order to sample the delights of the summer market. I wanted some peaches for a conserve, and our own trees were still too small to bear more than half a dozen fruits each. I needed a whole tray, twenty-four, and if you visit this particular market towards noon on a hot Saturday, you can pick one up for about four euros. And naturally after all the stresses and strains of the bustling marketplace we would need a little lunch.
We scuttled across the boulevard and on down to the cathedral square and the heaving marketplace. It was a cacophony of noise. The serious traders, who rely on these markets for their living, bellowed as loudly as their lungs would allow in order to attract tourists to the local delicacies. The vegetable stallholders, who’d sold most of their crisp, fresh produce by now, stood around chatting to each other, whilst the fruit stalls were still busy. Any local will tell you it’s better to wait till the end of the market to buy your fruit, especially on a Saturday. No farmer wants to load up crates of perfectly ripe peaches and nectarines only to lug them all the way home to rot. Much better to get what he can for them. I took my usual circuit to suss out the best and cheapest, selected a small stall by the cathedral door, and moved in. The old gentleman who runs this stall knows me quite well, he lives in our village and has seen me at the fetes – so he tells me.
“Ah Madame, bonjour, une dégustation eh?” I smiled and thanked him, but told him, quite firmly, that I only wanted some peaches. He ignored me completely – he is a bit deaf, but not that deaf – and lined up slivers of fabulous white peaches, a slice of juicy melon, a halved Reine-Claude plum and several little slices of a brugnon – a popular local cross between a peach and a plum – that he’d been sharing with his lugubrious dog. The latter wasn’t impressed.
“I just want a tray of peaches.” I begged. But no doing, these people are masters of their art, they have to be. I was firm in refusing the melons. I still had the last of Francine’s bounty to cope with, but I succumbed to a bag of Reine-Claudes. If you’ve never had one, let me tell you they are the sweetest, lightest and most delightful member of the greengage family, and the countryside round these parts is awash with them. I also reluctantly accepted four rather over-ripe brugnons that he balanced expertly on my tray of huge yellow-fleshed peaches.
“And you must have two white ones, as my gift,” he added in a low voice, looking at me from under the shade of his beret as if he’d just given me the keys to his Mercedes. I thanked him weakly, poured a handful of change into his purpled hand and staggered, bow-legged across the cobbles to where the beloved was happily ensconced in an argument about the continuing excavation of Roman and pre-Roman ruins in the city centre.
I had enough fruit to feed more or less the entire village.
Late that evening I sat leaning against the warm stone walls of Le Pigeonnier. The sun had lost its ferocious afternoon heat and was gilding me with a gentle glow. On the wall were six pots of peach conserve, cooling in the shade and two rather spontaneous-looking tartes that I’d made with the rest of the fruit. There had originally been three, but the first had inadvisably been put out on the wall to cool before I’d quite finished the clearing up, and gratefully consumed by the village mutts. Boulette, chief protagonist in the crime, looked up from her slumber amongst the lavender bushes, and gave her lips a thoughtful lick. I stared stonily back and we came to a silent mutual agreement. She yawned, gave herself a thorough scratch and turned over to cool the other side. A dog’s life in southern France is pretty good. All around me the insect life, disturbed by the dog, settled back to business on the low Mediterranean shrubs. In an hour or so Boulette would race off home to supper, as her builder-master pulled into the square in his big white van. I would be going in to bang about with pots and pans, and the children, grubby with the day’s play would be going in for a dunk in the bath. But out on the hazy lavenders, the hummingbird hawk moths, butterflies and bees would dance on in an entomological ballet that would last to the final streak of sunset.