French Fancy and An Ode to Fromage

Contributor NIGEL HEATH enjoys a mouth-watering visit to France...

Contributor NIGEL HEATH enjoys a mouth-watering visit to France…

The salmon pate served up on the fish stall ate Saturday market in the charming spa town of Bagnoles de L’orne in Northern France, is absolutely ‘delicious’ but there is one small problem.

The market is a twenty- minute drive away from our holiday home in Lassay les Chateaux in the region known as Pays de la Loire and there is only ever one large bowl of this heavenly pink repast.

So, the fish stall is our first stop on arrival and is immediately obvious by the cluster of basket bearing French folk forming a large and expectant queue hungry for all the fresh fruits de la Mer displayed on its glistening ice covered counter.

My wife Jenny and I always make for the middle of the queue and peer hopefully around heads in an attempt to gain a glimpse of that salmon pate bowl which by now is invariably at a dangerously low level or even-catastrophe-completely empty!

But not to despair because there are always lots of other goodies to tempt the taste buds and its never long before we have honed in on the cheese stall with its large and locally made offerings.

Here we taste small pieces proffered on cocktail sticks while agonising over whether the six months matured is preferable to the year- long offering and then watch in hungry anticipation as a knife is drawn slowly through a wedge and wrapped in white grease proof paper.

Even deciding the size of our wedge can be momentary heart- rending affair because the larger the piece the less Euros will be left in the purse. Of course, there is no way we can taste any of the delicious rich Camemberts in their array of round wooden boxes and all in varying degrees of ripeness, primed and ready to make their presence known in our fridge.

But that’s a small price to pay for sinking one’s teeth into a tiny wedge, teased out of its box under silent gooey protest. Beyond the cheeses, there is a display of artisan breads, steaming vats of cuscus offering a tempting takeaway and another tasting option at the stall selling locally made cider and pear juices.

Now there was a surprise in store at the far end of the market on our most recent summer visit when we spotted a young lady selling oysters freshly landed from beds close to the port of Cherbourg.

It’s hard to believe that these tasty bite size flavours of the sea were once the poor man’s fare along the Thames in London. But no Bagnoles Saturday morning market is ever complete without a visit to ‘the garlic man’ who must surely know by now that he’ll be in for a decent sale every time he sets eyes on us.

For we always come away with dozens of bunches for storing and using at home and for distribution among other eager members of the family.

While this market is at the top of the town and a short stroll from the picturesque lake and its casino, the one in nearby Le Ferte Massey, and held on a Thursday, is just off the centuries old main square with its impressive twin spired church.

Here the stalls are all packed tightly together, including one regular only selling locally grown organic produce, before spilling over into a cool market hall where the fish purveyors are to be found.

And on the subject of organics, the size and variety of foods for sale in local supermarkets has increased markedly over the past couple of years, possibly encouraged by the growing success of the Biocoop chain of food stores now to be found all over France.

A visit to our local Biocoop in the nearby town of Mayenne is a must on all our trips and is usually combined with a walk down the picturesque River Mayenne or a short drive to the nearby lakeside hamlet of Fontaine- Daniel which has an excellent restaurant.

We normally follow lunch with a round trip walk beside the small lake and through chestnut woods to be followed on our return by visiting the hamlet’s tiny tea shop which offers hundreds of different varieties of the golden nectar.

A thirty- minute drive beyond Mayenne and again on the banks of the river, lies the busy town of Laval whose Saturday market is the piece de resistance as far as our local ones are concerned.

It is staged amid medieval splendour close to the upper ramparts of the city and includes a tree lined area designated for locals to display and sell their own home grown produce as well as having a special section for the sale of ducks, geese and chickens.

Small animals are also to be found at the Wednesday market in held in the Normandy peninsula town of St Hilaire-du-Harcouet which is further afield.

Here the first stall we came across on the edge of the car park, contained dozens of ducklings and hens cheeping and chirping as an elderly gent filled a large ventilated box.

He was gently lifting the fluffy yellow creatures when, oops, he dropped one and in a moment the youngster was scuttling off under the stall with its lady owner in hot pursuit.

Now we left this comparatively quiet backwater and cast ourselves off into the slow- moving throng of humanity flowing through the banks of stalls.

What would the French do without their bread baked every single morning in boulangeries in every town and thousands of villages throughout the land and there were mountains of it for sale in this market.

We didn’t need a loaf but we were tempted by a large pain au raison to eat when we finally took refuge outside one of the cafes dotted around the town centre.

This is one of the many aspects of French life that we like in that one can sit outside a cafe with a coffee or beer and munch through food bought off the premises without le patron turning a hair.

Fact File

Our holiday home is just 90 minutes from the Caen-Oustram car ferry terminal used by Brittany Ferries who offer a comprehensive programme of return sailings to Northern France from Portsmouth, Plymouth and Poole throughout the year.

For further information on ferry travel, Brittany Ferries package holidays or to book a trip, please go to or call 0330 159 7000.