One rainy afternoon in early May 2012, Herb and I were sitting at an upstairs table at La Tarte Tropézienne in Saint-Tropez, France. This was our second visit of the day to the café with the peacock blue shutters on the Boulevard Vasserot. The wonderfully hot cappuccino and freshly baked croissants were a welcome respite from the chilly spring weather as we mapped out our route for the rest of the day.
We turned left out of the café and headed to a park across the street when we were stopped in our tracks by the most delicious aroma. A small food cart had been set up on a street corner, where a man was roasting chicken. As the chicken was turning golden brown on a rotisserie, piles of potatoes and vegetables were simmering on a tray below, flavors mixing together as if they were prepared in one pot. You could see steam wafting from the tray, evaporating into the cold air, leaving behind a sublime spice-filled scent.
“Why haven’t we seen anything like this at home?” Herb wondered, marveling at this inventive and delicious-looking take-away meal. It felt as if we had discovered a French culinary secret.
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Connecting the Dots
Fast-forward a few years to the farmers’ market near our home in San Diego. Every Sunday, a small shopping center parking lot plays host to a variety of produce stands, flower vendors and specialty food booths. There is French artisan bread, Spanish paella, Italian olive oil and Hong Kong stir-fried noodles. And in a corner near the lemonade stand is a food truck called The Swiss Grill, offering rotisserie chicken, potatoes and vegetables…cooked the way we had seen it in Saint-Tropez.
The Swiss Grill was created by Daniel Borer, who grew up on a farm in Switzerland and prepares what he describes as slow-cooked Swiss street food using recipes he learned from his grandmother. He nodded enthusiastically when Herb and I told him our story of happening upon the food cart in the South of France.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “It is very common for people in Europe to bring a meal like this home every week from a farmers’ market or a street corner truck. There are even pop-up rotisserie shops in some cities.”
Some Special Farmers’ Markets
The Swiss Grill’s food is wonderful, to be sure, but for me it holds an even sweeter taste because of that long-ago moment in Saint-Tropez. It has meaning beyond its sheer deliciousness that I would not have appreciated or understood had I not been there. It’s a reflection of why we travel and how the pieces of the world puzzle fit together in such an extraordinary way.
Discovering Daniel’s food truck got me thinking about farmers’ markets and the fantastic glimpse they offer into a city and a culture. The markets we’ve visited have never failed to leave me with a feeling about a place, a memorable take-away that stays with me long after the trip is over.
In Aix-en-Provence, it was the beauty of the flower market…
In Honfleur, it was rows of vibrant strawberries displayed like little works of art…
And in Munich’s oldest farmers’ market – the Viktualienmarkt – it was a discovering a beer garden and a maypole among the food and flower stands.
Farmers’ markets typically take place on specific days, once or twice a week, a serendipity if that day happens to coincide with your visit. An equally impressive and less fleeting option for travelers is an indoor market, housed in a permanent structure and open most days.
The stunning Great Market Hall in Budapest, built in 1897, left me with no doubt that paprika is the national spice of Hungary!
In a Dalian market, it seemed as if everything was offered on the grandest of scales – cakes as tall as a toddler, tea packaged in cauldron-sized jugs – a striking metaphor for what we had been experiencing in China.
Back on the Home Front
Our local farmers’ market has remained open throughout the pandemic, a welcome weekly ritual of constancy in our lives. Masks and social distancing were immediately put in place. The people we’ve come to rely on have been there Sunday after Sunday…Chris with his tomatoes, Rudy with his strawberries, Daniel with his Swiss dinners.
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I’d like to think that the man down the street from La Tarte Tropézienne has weathered the pandemic as well. I hope he has been returning to that corner with his rotisserie cart, perfuming the air with the fragrance of comfort food. I hope he has survived and has been there for the people who depend upon him.
I’ll never know for sure, of course. But it’s a lovely thought.