A market story – Narbonne Part III

By Didier Descouens (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsOther than the cathedral and canal, Narbonne’s most celebrated attraction is the central market. A rectangular, covered, glass building, it houses stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables, fish, all kinds of meats including pigeon, hare and the more normal kinds, and bread, as well as cooked foods like quiches and roast chicken. A number of kitchens serve fresh meals from a menu, and at least half a dozen bars are scattered throughout.

We went straight to the bar.

There are some people, I suppose, who think of beer for breakfast as a gross indulgence, a waste of a morning even. I am not one of those people. Fortunately, neither are the French – or the Croatians, Italians or Spanish, for that matter. A small glass of beer at 9am is not so remarkable, and so that’s what we had while deciding what to eat.

We chose a bar that was crowded with locals: young and middle-age men starting their day – or possibly dividing their day – with a half bottle of rose. I’ve read that the French don’t get drunk. Oh no, not like those nasty Brits who come over and guzzle down bottles of wine by the crateload. That hasn’t been my experience in the South of France. We’ve seen plenty of tiddly Frenchmen at all hours, and each city has its fair share of public drunkards sleeping in bus shelters. I’m beginning to suspect that the ‘French people’ that people talk about when they talk about ‘French people’ encapsulates only a certain class and region.

But enough of sociology. Narbonne market provides plenty of opportunity for breakfast beers with locals, and over two mornings we tried two different places. At the first bar we watched jealously as a table of burly men shared an enormous bowl of tomato and tuna salad. Not for the first time, we wondered if you would ever see that in Australia? Can you imagine – a large group of construction workers sharing a salad? We sat ourselves at the bar looking into the kitchen, where a short solid woman with short solid grey hair was peeling potatoes almost as fast as she was pulling them out of the bag. Out come a huge potato, swish, swish, swish went the peeler, and with a lazy roll of the wrist she tossed the perfectly peeled, perfectly clean potato into the bowl. Plonk. Then out with the next one.

This same woman came over to us and with a flourish and a few muttered words, she wiped down the bar. Looking at us squarely – you might even say, shortly and solidly – she said “Mesdames?”

I will never get tired of being called Madame.

We ordered “deux bieres pression” – a very civilised option, I’m sure you’ll agree – and we sipped and watched her as she turned those spotlessly clean potatoes into chips. She was utterly merciless, pulling down on the lever and sending each potato to its deep fried doom. Where those potatoes were going there was no coming back.

They looked delicious.

What we couldn’t find at the bar was any indication of a menu. She was clearly making food. The salad had come from there. But how to order these delights? We were too scared to try, so we didn’t.

I’ve always been jealous of people who can make a situation like that work for them. Well, not exactly jealous, but in awe. I know people who would have attempted in their best Franglish to be understood. They would have ended up with an incredible meal that would look amazing on Instagram, and even get a photo of themselves smiling with the chef. I am not that person. Like it says in my bio, I’m a lazy tourist.

Instead we wandered around for a bit longer, C eventually settling on a potato cake with chevre and caramelised onion. I got some curious Moroccan onion and chicken patty, stuffed full of dried fruits and nuts, a dish which prompted Mr Severine to ask later, when he saw it, did I not like French food? I like it fine. As far as I can tell most French people eat kebabs and Moroccan food.

Our second trip to the market was on our way out of town. We had our backpacks on and this time sat at a bar with a name – La Fourmi – the ant. It seemed appropriate. Once again, “mesdames?”, once again “deux bieres pression”. The bar was crowded with locals, mostly men drinking rose, although one chap had a bottle of wine the deep black-red colour of earth.

A pair of older ladies approached the bar and we made some room for them, but they shooshed us away and said they would stand.

The waitress came over to serve them. “Mesdames?” she said.

One of the ladies tapped her hand sharply on the bar. “Madamoiselles!” she said, correcting the waitress. I guess some people get tired of being called Madame.

La Fourmi was much easier to navigate that the previous day’s bar. Alongside the framed soccer and rugby jerseys on the walls were large clear menus. But as the meals were mostly of the meat and chips variety we decided to skip it. We had the opportunity to see one of these meals being made and it was an absolute behemoth. The steak was at least 5 centimetres thick. It came (before it was cooked) wrapped in paper, from a box of other steaks through which the chef dug looking for just the right one. How he distinguished between all those little wrapped parcels, I don’t know. Perhaps there were secret markings on the paper.

While we were there, a woman who works in an adjoining stall came over. There followed some sort of exchange, the gist of which I think was that if the woman could make her own coffee, the waitress would let her have it for free. The woman, her big brunette hair tied back in a messy ponytail, her apron wrinkled by the morning’s work, faced off against the unflappable waitress, dark hair perfect, shiny blue makeup, a utilitarian but chic outfit of black. The woman took the coffee handle from the waitress and set to shoving it into the machine.

“Non!” said the waitress. It wasn’t in right.

“Non!” said the waitress. It was on an angle and wouldn’t pour properly.

“Non! Non! Non!” said the waitress.

The woman tried every way she could. She peered closely at the attachment. Touched it with her fingers. Moved the milk jug out of the way for more room. She twisted it this way, and twisted it that way, but still would come that “non!”

Finally she gave up. She threw her 2 euro into the cash register and sat down at the bar, not entirely happy at the laughs her performance had drawn. A few seconds later the waitress presented her with a perfect hot espresso with a smile. The woman threw a handful of sugar packets at her.

Any hard feelings were short-lived, however. Soon enough, the woman was back behind the bar saying “Coffee? Coffee? You want me to make you a coffee?” and laughing at her own ineptitude.

We declined the coffee. It was time for us to leave Narbonne. And besides, at 9 in the morning why have a coffee when you can have beer?

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Nat Newman

Nat Newman is an award-winning writer of short stories, content, podcasts, feature articles, drunk text messages and, soon, a novella.

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