Agen

I recently had lunch with someone who’d just moved to Paris. I gave her some places to check out and a few tips about living in her newly adopted city, including navigating some of the ups and downs, and what to do when city life became overwhelming.

paris train station poilane

But shortly after we parted, I realized that I’d forgotten to tell her my most important piece of advice for living in Paris: Whenever you see an available bathroom, use it.

my favorite thing in the world

Another vital piece of advice that I give to folks who arrive in Paris to live is that it’s important to get out of the city and see the rest of the country. Cities are great places but when you visit the smaller cities and towns in France, you see life that hasn’t changed so quickly. Paris is not France, it’s part of it – and there’s a huge, diverse country once you wheel yourself out of the city.

pears and peaches

At the local markets in the countryside, and in smaller cities and villages, farmers still bring boxes of fruits and vegetables that were just-pulled from the ground that morning, restaurants don’t require reservations three-to-six weeks in advance, folks wear clothes in colors other than black (guilty!), and the pace of life is slower so the locals are more relaxed and friendly.

birdhousepâté board
Agenbeans and bread

I always insist that I’m a city-boy and I’d never live anywhere else. But then, a couple of days into life in the countryside, and you need a crowbar to get me to leave.

flower
blue laundry

So I’ve been trying to get outta town more often because it’s so easy to get wrapped up on the excitement, and stress, of city living. Leaving the frenzy of Paris always begins at the crazy-busy gare (train station), where it seems all of Paris is frenetically converging to go somewhere else, too.

duck confit

I headed to Agen to visit my friend Kate, who runs a cooking school focusing on charcuterie. And where duck..and duck fat, reign supreme. Curiously, agen in French also sounds nearly the same as à jeun, which is “fasting”, as in, having an empty stomach. Which I knew we weren’t going to be doing.

beans & wine

So what does one bring someone who has farm-fresh produce right outside her kitchen window, rows of fresh herbs, and wine-by-the-jug?

tomatoeswrinkly figs
pearskate and wine

Pain Poilâne, of course. (I brought her a box of chocolates from Jean-Charles Rochoux as well, but I told her to hide them in her bedroom to keep them away from everyone else.) But that was me, at the busy gare Montparnasse, lugging a 2 kilo (4 1/2-pound) loaf of miche Poilâne in my suitcase (up above), which literally took up a whopping 55% of the space in there.

whisks

fresh shelling beans

Fortunately another reason to travel to the countryside is that you can pack a much more casual wardrobe; just a pair of worn jeans, a few t-shirts and pullovers, and, of course, a wine opener. Although in the countryside, you might not need it. Need another reason to leave Paris? You might luck upon some kale!

kale growing

While strolling through Kate’s potager (vegetable garden), I waded through bunches of kale shooting upwards, the crinkly leaves falling gently away from the stalk, deep-green leaves with that hearty flavor that we Americans can’t seem to get enough of. And I wanted to take off all my clothes and roll around in them, covered with olive oil, fried garlic cloves, and red pepper flakes – although if I did, I might skip the red pepper flakes, for reasons obvious if you’ve ever handled hot peppers, then took a restroom break afterward.

mirabelles

But the outdoor markets in Agen are wonderful, and the majority of produce is actually sold by the growers themselves. There were burnished little Mirabelle plums, which are quite sweet, as well as Italian prune plums, and the prunes d’Ente, which make the famous pruneaux d’Agen, and are one of the best things you can pop in your mouth. Just don’t eat too many, whether you’d had a few hot red peppers before, or not.

fill 'er up!red wine a plenty!

Wine is available in eco-friendly packaging. For €6/gallon — no corkscrew required.

tomatoes plein champs

The giant, irregular tomatoes ‘plein champs’ are the real deal, – not hothouse importers posing as real tomatoes. And to those of us who live in the big city – check out those country prices!

chasellas and muscat grapes

Being fall, peaches and other stone fruits are winding up, and piled up everywhere were lugs of grapes, specifically Muscat and Chasselas, which had much more flavor than those that get packed and shipped long distances. Chasselas are classified by the French government and I’m not usually all that wild about them as others are (although I love the wine in Switzerland made from them), but there were great and along with the muscats and a few rounds of dewy-soft, gently aged goat cheeses scattered about, we had the makings of an instant dessert.

grape seller at market

grapes and cheese for dessert

I shopped heavily at a stand of folks who grow and mill their own flour. They make bread from their own wheat and spelt flours, but they also sells bags of harder to find chickpea flour and lentil flour. And speaking of heavy, in addition to a few good-sized bags of tiny green lentils, I circled back for a couple of sacks of chickpeas from this year’s harvest and some stone-ground polenta, which is difficult to find in Paris.

(Just say “no” to instant polenta, while you’re saying non to hothouse tomatoes.)

garlic at Agen market

Surprising me as well were tiny bundles of spicy red peppers. In comparison to other chili peppers, they’re not as piquante as others in their family, but Kate told me they pack a little bit of a punch. There was no shortage of cured pork products, beautiful breads from a local flour mill, and some mismarked plums that too many people pointed out to me when I tweeted the picture. (Obviously they don’t have Twitter followers because otherwise, folks would have been right on them for mislabeling their quetsch plums as Reine Claudes the moment they tweeted..er, I mean, put that sign up.)

Italian prune plumscured pork
whole wheat breadred peppers

Photographer Tim Clinch was with us at the market and when I asked him for advice about trying to take a decent picture of some tomatoes and peppers that I was having trouble with, he helped me out by giving me some sound advice: “Well David, try getting out of the way. You’re blocking all the light.”

peppers and tomatoes

Anyhow.

tomato salad 1

Also along was food and prop stylist Libbie Summers, taking a break for putting food in front of other people’s cameras, but toting her own camera along.

grapes

She was looking for market baskets (although we were all coveting the wooden grape crates…for obvious reasons), so went to a quincaillerie which is sort of like a hardware store, but more like the old-fashioned general store we used to have since they sell items for food preparation like curing salt (for making charcuterie), vinegar urns, and screened-in cheese lockers – #want –

quail eggsshelling beans in gascony
red winefromager garde manger

– which is a little paradoxical, because French people don’t put screens on the windows of their houses to to protect themselves from bugs, but will put them on little boxes to protect their cheese from them.

(Speaking of #want, I also want that chicken salt-cellar above, too.)

sac à jambon

In addition to being duck country, the Lot is also pig country, and the quincaillerie had sacks to cure your own ham in. Although I kind of wonder if there are “truth in advertising” laws in France, because I am not convinced that a pig in that situation is actually as delighted as depicted.

chasselasvinaigrier
knit parking meter coverapples

And lest you believe the stories that the French system hinders innovation, someo enterprising locals prove those naysayers wrong with a clever parking meter-warmer.

pastis rouge et bleu

After hitting the local liquor store, to stock up on Armagnac and other spirits (the red wine got taken care of at the market), we headed back home to cook…and eat.

grapes at the market

Surrounded by tree loaded with red-fleshed peaches (called pêche de vigne), figs, multi-colored apples, and bulky pears, if you wanted to find me, I was likely standing under a fruit tree, reaching into the leafy branches trying to snag a piece of ripe, juicy fruit off the branches. Although at least now, I’m smart enough not to stand directly in front of things I’m taking a picture of, blocking all the light.

red peach

I gorged myself on fresh figs, which were drooping from the trees like something I was going to say, but decided against it. But If I bit into one and found a bead of sweet syrup in the center, I was richly rewarded with that ethereal experience of a pitch-perfect specimen of fruit at its peak. So I tried as many as I could, looking for as many perfect specimens as possible. There were a few varieties of figs and one had a curiously spicy flavor, with a pale-purple skin.

figs

I don’t know the variety, but here’s a picture so perhaps someone can fig-ure it out, if you’ll excuse the pun. And I scared the chickens, who were racing around eating some the fruit that fell before I could snatch it, but they rewarded us with lovely little eggs, along with their neighbors, les quails.

I picked (and ate) so many figs that I got dizzy from all the sugar – and I suspect a touch of alcohol from munching on a couple of overripe ones- I finally stopped, and let the birds, and the bees, have the rest.

chicken shallot sausagecooked sausagedavid and figscharcuterie

In the kitchen, we cooked up the meter-long rope of chicken and shallot sausage from the market, shelled a cassole-load of fresh beans, and gorged on the amazing pâtés from the charcuterie at the market, as well as overturning a jar of duck blood terrine, which is always fun to serve to visitors, who usually have a little trouble approaching it.

duck blood sausage

And of course, all meals begin with an apéritif. (And if they don’t, they should.) Which helps to wash down just about anything. In this case, I’d bought a spirit called L’apéritif des Soleils, a mélange of Chasselas grape juice, Martinique rum, Tahitian vanilla, and une pointe of piment d’Espelette, the somewhat local Basque pepper powder.

aperitif

grits

The next day we did brunch, cooking up a bag of grits that Libbie brought.

kate & felix
frying eggs

Our lanky British lad, who helped collect some eggs for breakfast – and whose height made him a pretty good fruit-grabber, too – fried up some streaky local bacon, nice and crisp.

bacon and eggs

Potatoes were shredded for hash browns, gravy came forth, made from the bacon drippings, the apéritif glasses were soon filled with rosé.

pâtéshredding potatoes
Gasconytomato salad

And although we didn’t have buttermilk biscuits, it’s hard to complain about pain Poilâne, no matter how untraditional.

rose

To walk it off, we went to the local village, um…well, am not sure what kind of curious rituals go on with the farm animals (or if it’s a work of art) but maybe I do belong in the city after all…

for animals

So I finally bid goodnight to my chambre on wheels, where I slept. (#want) And since I had some extra room in my suitcase from dropping off that enormous round of pain Poilâne, I had a wee bit of room to bring something back to la ville de Paris.

trailer

Then, my weekend was over, and it was time to head back to the big city. Fortunately since unloading the bread, I had a little extra room in my suitcase. Okay, a lot. So I hit Kate’s garden at Camont before heading to the train.

kale

128 comments

  • An incredible experience. I want to go.

    The photo of the duck made my mouth water. I love duck confit.

  • Wonderful wonderful post ( as always)….thanks so much for all your hard work putting these posts together, it is sooooo appreciated….in Paris now and the countryside of France, somehow my photos don’t quite bring the experience home as well as yours!

  • David,
    Again, thanks for the lovely write up about ‘my adopted hometown’ It’s nice to see so many comments appreciating your discerning eye and my turkey mustard pot (I’m sure it’s a turkey and I’m sure it was a mustard pot ? ). I thought your readers would also like the very complete website that the Lot-et-Garonne department #47 produces. (The Lot is to the north!) Here is a complete list of true producer’s markets …in English no less! http://www.tourisme-lotetgaronne.com/uk/local-gastronomy-markets.php
    Warm regards…from Gascony,
    Kate

  • Thanks for the luscious tour of a countryside I can only dream of seeing, at present.
    MM, dark blue-gree kale!

  • Beautiful article AND pictures.

    On one of my next trips I plan to do a tour on France’s countryside – much to see!

    Regards!

  • I just returned from France–in and out (mostly) of Paris. Good markets were hard to find. The covered market in Reims has just been renovated to a “destination” with theatre, ballet, movies, and, OH, a market. Went to Epernay and their market was functioning, but really sad–few vendors or buyers. I had several new lists of street markets in Paris, and when I followed the schedule, there was not market.

    Dorman was a truly French market I stumbled upon and it was lovely. I asked for two peaches to eat in two days and the vendor picked the best and they were WONDERFUL with our picnic. Amazing.

    The super marches are wonderful compared to even the best US grocery stores, but I think that open air markets are losing pace. Fifteen years ago, there was an easy to find market daily. Things have changed.

    But when you find a good one, it is a remarkable experience–shopping and eating!

    • There is a list of markets in Paris on the city’s website (it’s linked on the My Paris page, here) that lists them and what day(s) they take place. It’s pretty accurate. However some visitors are surprised that the markets aren’t necessarily growers and farmers, but middlemen (négotiants). Yet at most markets in Paris, there are some producteurs and I usually scope them out and buy from them. Out in the countryside, as was the case at the markets in Agen, a huge majority of the folks there were growers, which was a treat to see.

      Supermarkets in Paris can be hit-or-miss. Some are fine while others are rather dingy. Lately many have cleaned up their acts and have better quality items, although the produce is usually rather unexceptional, and expensive to boot.

  • Alors, I miss France.

    There is such purity and rich goodness in French country food. The funny little strawberries that taste like flowers and sunshine, the duck fat, les fromages, the wine, the bread, the delicate lettuces, plums, olives, haricots blancs, aperitifs, etc. etc. etc.

    Thanks for bringing back beautiful memories.

  • It has been many years since my time spent in France, and because of age I will never make the trip over again, so I love reading your newsletter and seeing the beautiful photographs. It brings back many fond memories. Thank you. Terry

  • I lived in the countryside in Rhone-Alps for a year, and visited your blog during that year for recipes, and read about your expat adventures in adapting to la France. Now I read the blog to armchair travel with you through your exploits. Thank you for your beautiful post and photos…warms my heart! Vive la campagne!

  • David, thanks for sharing your countryside adventure. How do you plan to cook the kale? Will you be serving it with anything else?

  • There are obviously a lot of knitters in that area. That parking meter warmer — it’s called yarn-bombing and is very popular in some parts of Europe and regions of the U.S. and Canada. As described on Wikipedia, it’s a type of graffiti or street art that employs colorful displays of knitted or crocheted yarn or fibre rather than paint or chalk. Nice to see an example of it in France…

  • Really!!! You´re the best. Thanks so much.

  • mouthwatering, groan, groan, #want…#want…xxx

  • Wonderful post David! You certainly don’t need any tips on your photography skills!

    I want to thank you for posting your love of figs in some of your posts. I love all varieties of fruits and vegetables but had never tried a fresh fig. I was intrigued and so bought some which looked nice and ripe. I couldn’t believe how delicious they were! I ate them one after the other. Within a few days I was back buying more. :)

  • Oh, enjoying life at its best!!! Thank you, again for the descriptions and for the photos…made me feel like I was there!!
    Greetings :-)

  • David you really bring the country side to your blog. I felt I’m already there by just seeing those pictures above. “You need a crowbar to get me to leave”I understand what you feel for not leaving the country side. Me to wants to stay together with my mom. But I have to leave for my job. I really appreciate your blog. Thanks.

  • Hello! How surprising to read a post about Agen on your blog, for it’s the town I live in – born&bred! I wish I was there to meet you all when you went to the local market. And just to let you know, the wood structure on the 3rd picture before last was used to shoe cows.