French Connections

Find Holiday accommodation in France

SUMMER AND winter, early every Wednesday and Friday evening we're interrupted in whatever we're doing by a mighty noise from somewhere down in the village, a monstrous wave of gibberish, and there's no excuse for missing M. Maigre, the travelling

SUMMER AND winter, early every Wednesday and Friday evening we're interrupted in whatever we're doing by a mighty noise from somewhere down in the village, a monstrous wave of gibberish, and there's no excuse for missing M. Maigre, the travelling fishmonger. At least, gibberish it seemed to me when I first came to live in the village, but bi-weekly repetition has taught me that if I sit up, listen carefully and pay close attention, always salutary things for an ex-teacher to do, some sense can be made of it. Maybe it doesn't matter much; there are few meaningful insights to be had from the sound your alarm clock makes, it's enough that it makes a noise at the right time. The medium is the message, and our only doubt is whether, if M. Maigre is reaching the end of his round, his van isn't furnished with more decibels than fish.

Anyway, I've learnt to pick out a few words, although I'm still not exactly certain how they're strung together: Eh bé, je viens d'arriver (I've just arrived) . . . seiche . . . baudroie . . . merlan . . . rascasse . . . rouget . . . l'océan . . . la mer.  The ever-knowledgeable Josephine tells me that l'océan refers to fish from the Atlantic and la mer to fish from the Mediterranean, a reminder that we should go down to the sea more often.

After all, it's not very far. An hour's journey over the hills and down across the vineyard-covered plain, and there it is, sparkling in the sun, wavelets lapping the unbroken sands that stretch for kilometre after kilometre from the Camargue to the stub-end of the Pyrenees and the Spanish border: the Mediterranean, cradle of western civilisation. A Latin teacher of mine once advanced twin theories that the spread of western civilisation around the Mediterranean basin was due to the Phoenicians' endless inshore search for murex, the shellfish that gave the costly and rare Imperial purple dye, while the absence of tides, bar a centimetre or two, made cape-to-cape navigation and overnight beaching so much easier than in the tidal oceans.
Tucked up in our valley we forget that it's there, in winter.  In summer there are strong tides, but of a different kind: the daily ebb and flow of waves of people reaching ever closer to the water's edge as the day warms up, retreating as the sun goes down, leaving a tideline of churned-up sand, crumbs and buried mégots, fag-ends. We forget the toe-scorching sands, the sweating ice-cream and Orangina sellers, the microlights trailing advertising streamers, the scanty to non-existent beachwear that doesn't owe much to the murex but drags middle-aged observers uncomfortably back to lost opportunities of their youth. 

But that's all months away. On a perfect winter's day, clear and cloudless, we chose a spot, warm in the low January sun, between the ancient Greek colony of Agde and the  port of Sète. There's a narrow sand-bar linking the two, carrying the road parallel with the railway line from Montpellier to Barcelona between the sea and the lagoon behind, a shallow inland sea called l'Etang de Thau. We chose a parking spot from the thousands on offer and ambled down to the water's edge.

The beach was deserted, not a Phoenician winkle-picker, topless girl or Latin teacher in sight. We wondered what a far-out fishing boat was hauling in, and whether the catch would turn up the next day in M. Maigre's van and we would hear his mighty voice announcing that he'd just arrived and that la mer had yielded up seiche (cuttlefish) . . . baudroie (monkfish) . . . merlan (whiting) . . . rouget (red mullet) . . . and rascasse. Rascasse is a fearsomely ugly fish that has no English equivalent, the sort of creature from the depths that gives other fish and small children the night terrors, and which is much valued for the famous Mediterranean fish stew (it's not really a soup), bouillabaisse.

M. Maigre is as keen to dispense recipes for his fish as he is to the sell them, but he's cagey about bouillabaisse. However he'll oblige, with the proviso that you're likely to get as many different recipes as people you ask, and, since it's a dish from Marseilles, and as the Marseillais are very protective of their own, his version risks being elbowed into the Vieux Port on a dark night with no lifebelts handy. It all depends what fish are available. A real bouillabaisse, the sort of thing you can imagine Marcel Pagnol's Marseilles quayside characters tucking into, will indeed include the famous rascasse, head and all, baudroie and merlan, but M. Maigre's stock stops short of other fresh-caught fish like grondin (gurnard), vive (weever or stargazer) and congre (conger eel), which should be cleaned in sea-water and then boiled up long and fierce in a broth of olive oil, water, onions, tomatoes, seasoning and the indispensable saffron. Some of the fish will disintegrate, others can be pulled out more or less whole and laid on a plate to be served beside bowls of broth into which rafts of garlic-rubbed toast have been launched. Immediacy is all.

If I've never developed a taste for it it's my own fault. Many years ago, while on holiday in France, I found lurking in a dark corner of a supermarket in a town called Sourdeval some battered tins of bouillabaisse. Tinned bouillabaisse! What a find! Never mind that this was in Normandy, far from the Mediterranean: back they came to Scotland in triumph, to be served to Francophile guests worthy of this honour. We tried a tin beforehand, just to ensure a private recapture of the Mediterranean sun, the sparkling sea,  the wavelets lapping the toe-scorching sands, the scanty to non-existent etc., etc . . .

. . . there was only one word for it: 'Gadz!' as children in the North-east of Scotland used to say when faced with something unusually revolting. We didn't get beyond a second spoonful, and even the dog refused the horrid mess, however heavily laced with Pedigree Chum. I hope it found its eventual way back to the sea. We would have done better with an American bouillabaisse recipe quoted sardonically by Alan Davidson in his Mediterranean Seafood: "'Put one can tomato soup and one can pea soup in top of double boiler and heat.' The recipe contains no fish, no herbs and no olive oil."

Time to go home. One last glance, and we turn our backs on the waters that maybe once bore the hulls of Odysseus, St Paul, Richard Cœur de Lion or Horatio Nelson, not to mention Phoenician shellfish hunters. And M. Maigre's fish suppliers, to be sure.