If Terence Conran could sell French country style to the English in the 20th century, why shouldn't I sell English patisserie to the French in the 21st century?
If only it were that easy. I hadn't reckoned on French bureaucracy, weather and good old xenophobia. But hey, life on the traditional French markets is full of surprises so I thought I should share them with the wider world.
After 20 years living in the centre of uber style-conscious London, I shipped out to live in the rural bliss of west central France, leaving all semblance of chic and style behind me together with my manicured nails to live in muddy boots and ripped jeans to work on the 'renovation of our French country ruin'. Eventually finding a need for contact with humanity in whatever form, I came upon the idea of selling fairy cakes to the French. Only problem was; I didn't have a kitchen!
This blog will be a document to the success, or otherwise of my enterprise along with the tales, trials and emotional rollercoasters of life on the market in France. I hope you will enjoy.......

quintessentially English

quintessentially English
........but in France!

Monday, November 22, 2010

My return to the French market scene was heralded by the announcement that the local Mairie has decided to completely redevelop the town square over the winter season. of course this threw everyone into a turmoil and the main topics of conversation on the market were
1. What a waste of money
2. Why were the traders not consulted ?
3. How would they fit a whole market into half the square?
4. Who would we be put next to ?
5. Will the cafe stay open for breakfast!?

Apparently this has been planned for a long time, but we were not informed until the last minute about the elaborate plans for new grass, cobbles and a re-vamped fountain. The merry-go-round lady was consulted as they are creating a hard standing for her equipment, so she won't have to prop up the merry-go-round on piles of wooden blocks any more due to the uneven surface, (which always made me nervous!) Unfortunately, in typical French builders style,they have not allowed space for her little cabin and motor, so she still isn't sure how it will work!
Last week we were all moved to our respective new positions, and chaos followed of course with vans, cars and trailers backed up along the main street waiting to offload and set up, so that eventually our local 'Policier' who is responsible for the on the ground organisation on market days, had to emerge from his cosy office to direct traffic and 'speak kindly' to the idiots who had left vans blocking the way both to the market square and to the parking area! The market organisers have kept the established groups of traders together, so I am still with my girlfriends, but our organic vegetable lady ( I mix up the French 'Bio' and english 'organic' to make a 'bionic' veg lady!) found herself standing in the pouring rain in a puddle almost up to her ankles, the poor thing had plastic bags, recycleable of course, over her feet tied on with baler twine! She completely flipped when the policier's reaction was that she should just wear wellies like she would on her farm, rather than allocate her a new space! Even 'bionic' farmers have the right to a little glamour when in town I think!
I'm quite happy with my space as it is at the end of the market, so I can make a quick getaway if I need to, which I did the other day when the rain was so awful that after our morning coffee the consensus of opinion amongst us was that it would be pointless to get our heavy canvas parasols wet for nothing, only to have them drying in the shed for days afterwards, so we finished breakfast and all went home!
The shame was that I had finally perfected my lovely rose cupcakes with their dreamy pink topping, so they didn't get their first outing that day. As I don't have a refrigerated display, I can't use fresh cream products on my cakes, so mascarpone cream toppings are out of the question, but I have discovered this lovely meringuey topping which I have scented with rose water as a lighter substitute for cream frosting, and it keeps longer too!
The Christmas season is upon us already and I have ordered some lovely gifty things to add to my stand, notably red velvety flocked reindeers with little gold bells, cake sparklers and mini christmas puddings, I have subscribed to the annual Christmas Market in the larger town a few miles away, where I will be sharing a little wooden chalet with my friend who sells candles and wooden gifts, so at least we know we will be in the warm for three weeks, but, it's a commitment of seven days a week, over the holiday period, so we need to make it work for us!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Return to Eden?

Firstly I must apologise for having been absent for so long - explanations to follow!
Over the summer season my girlfriends on the market deserted for sunnier and more profitable French costal towns, where they both have family homes, so things seemed pretty subdued without them while we all waited for the famous 'season' to start, and waited..... and waited..... and waited.....!

Our little spa town doesn't have much to offer if you don't need the water treatment in the summer, and so I decided to desert the market too for a spell in sunny London. No baking, no hauling giant parasols about and above all long lie-ins in the mornings!
My return to France was a sudden immersion into the chaos of the fruit & veg season in our little (by French standards) garden. Plums literally dripping from our trees, courgettes appearing from nowhere overnight, succulent but marrow sized, and lots and lots of tomatoes in various forms and sizes.

The first steps into the garden were traumatic as a month with no other care than the kind hosepipe work of our neighbours had of course led to a veritable jungle of weeds, but that first taste of a sweet cherry tomato, warmed by the sun and oozing juice gave us the incentive to tackle the growth and discover what goodies were hidden beneath!
Since that moment it has been non-stop; re-starting the cake stall being almost an afterthought as we tackled the making of every imaginable permutation of plum recipe we could find!

Once I had become an expert in plum jam, plum tart, plum cake, plum bread and above all a fantastic plum and ginger chutney, I was ready once again to take time for communication with the non-plum world! Then over the space of 48 hours flat, all the peaches decided to fall off our tree at once!!! Off we went again, trawling the internet for recipes, but resorting to time worn favorites including peaches preserved in brandy which will surely warm us up in the cold winter months ahead here!

The really nasty bit about peaches is the fact that they need to be skinned before cooking. My first year of peach cooking was marred by hours trying to peel the skins off with a sharp knife, until a kindly neighbour put her head round the door and told me the trick : cover the fruit in boiling water for a few minutes and then the skins literally slip off with a gentle caress of the peach. (quite a sensual thing when put like that isn't it?) The only drawback being brown stained fingernails for days afterwards from the juice, but hey, it's still better than the sharp knife approach!
So now back to the real world, the market stall and with the next post some long awaited gossip I hope.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Sunshine and flowers

This week I remembered some of our reasons for moving to France. The sun is shining again and the ground is warming up so quickly compared with the English island soil. Local farmers are charging about on fifty year old tractors, cutting , turning and drying hay in such a short period it baffles me, having been used to my childhood haymaking taking forever, with showers outweighing the sunshine! My drive to the market takes me down a little winding lane, and this week it was a veritable explosion of wild flowers, all mixed in with roadside crops and blue skies. So, that's why I'm here!

Despite the idyllic wildflower-filled journey, my time on the market wasn't quite so uplifting. This week my two girlfriends and morning coffee partners have decided to leave our market for the summer season and migrate to their respective costal origins, so our ritual coffee was the last until September! Symptomatic of the French financial malaise; our little market seems to be slowly diminishing, less tourists, less money and fewer traders. The picture of a row of bored bums, epitomises our lack of trade,how often should you see a group of traders all sat in a row doing nothing at eleven o'clock on a sunny market day!

Luckily for me, the French still love their stomachs and cakes form part of their essential shopping list, so although my sales are not soaring as I had expected with the start of the summer season, I still have my loyal clients who are hooked on butterfly cakes and chocolate brownies!

As promised here is a picture of the famous chocolate and mint cream cakes that were such a success last week ( I photographed them quickly this time!) They have inspired a local English lady to order three big victoria sandwich cakes for her birthday party this weekend, so I am pleased that I can bring a little memory of home to someone!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Rainy days

Well the rain arrived here in our corner of France and this week has been a wash-out on the market! My early morning coffee and croissant with the girls stretched a little further into the morning as we looked out on the dismal weather and wondered if it was really worth going out there at all!
Still stuffed up with the cold I caught last week, I barely managed to make myself understood to the natives; the words 'meringue' and 'gateaux' don't come out too well with an English accent and congested sinuses!
Despite the rain, summer is well on it's way here, the air is warm, the green shoots are coming up in the garden and romance and procreation seem to be in the air. One of my colleagues who sells giftware on the market announced to me earlier this year that her partner had decided that they should try for a baby, she was over the moon, he seemed to think it would happen 'just like that', and the pair of them embarked in typical French hypochondriac fashion, on a series of medical appointments and check-ups. Both having been given the 'all clear', the project has been under way for a few months, with no results. This week my friend took me to one side after a strained phone call from her partner, in which I understood that something precious had been broken, but not knowing what. It turned out that she had that morning decided to do a home pregnancy test before leaving for work, only being a couple of days past her usual monthly cycle, I wondered if she wasn't a bit over keen, but she said that the test was negative, and not wanting to leave her sleeping partner in ignorance, she left the test on the kitchen table for him to see when he awoke. The resulting phone call was from a distraught boyfriend who was still in ignorance having woken up to find that their newly adopted dog had chewed the test up, and he couldn't read it!
On the subject of 'sap rising' I should tell you that my friendly veg man was back on the market today, of course no-one mentioned his disappearance of last week, but he was clean shaven and on top selling form today again! I bought some of his freshly picked red onions. I have previously used them caremelised in breadsticks, but this evening made a caremelised red onion and goat's cheese tart, which was really succulent and colourful with fresh thyme, salad and radishes from our garden.

My best selling cake this week was the invention of my little boy who requested a chocolate cake with mint for his birthday, he has a wonderful habit of 'grazing' on my mint bush when he passes, and I find it difficult to discourage such a healthy habit - so much better than sweets!
In fact my chocolate sponges were such a success that I had none left to photograph for you, but suffice it to say, that layers of chocolate sponge, peppermint cream icing and chocolate ganache went down a treat in today's miserable weather! I'll do them again and show you!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Ups and downs

I was expecting to give you a view of the market through torrential rain and storms today, but we were all relieved to be out in almost perfect sunshine, so I am showing my new lime and coconut fairy cakes instead!
Unusually for me I arrived early at the market and so was ready to set up before my friendly veg man had turned up. Not wanting to block his parking space, I piled up all my stuff; table, parasol, cool box etc, and waited for him to arrive, fending off potential usurpers of his pitch and eventually apologising to his habitual early-bird clients for his late arrival, blaming it on possible flooding from the torrential rain storms of the previous night. Having given up on his arrival I set up my stall, and went to join the other traders for our early morning coffee and croissant in the cafe, that is where I learned the real reason for the friendly veg man's no-show. It seems that my friendly veg man has been a little more than 'friendly' with a certain lady for some time and that the night before his wife had confronted him about his mistress. After the inevitable row, he left to spend the night with his mistress and so of course there was no-one to get up at 5am to pick and prepare the vegetables for the market! I don't know what made me think that life in the country was all simplicity and innocence, It seems more complicated than 'desperate housewives' at times! Of course as you can imagine there were plenty of barbed comments relating to the relative sizes of cucumbers and the voracity of the live lobsters on the fish stall today!
Because of the uncertain weather we were quiet on the market today which left us all feeling a little strange, what with the absence of our friendly veg man, the wine and foie gras couple having decided that business isn't good enough to spend the time traveling to our market, and the sausage seller still on a three week spell on the Paris market circuit, where they make more money than in three months here; our little family felt quite diminished. The tourist season hasn't yet started properly and our little spa town has little to offer out of season visitors, so customers are hard to come by at the moment, hence my delight at being approached by the manager of the town's most chic hotel. She passed by a few weeks ago and was tempted by my lavender cakes. Having tried them, she came back for more and asked if I would be interested in supplying her hotel and it's associated health spa with cakes for their bar and cafe, of course I jumped at the chance and was even more pleased to be told that the hotel would be starting a series of early evening music and 'aperitif' evenings, and would like to add English tea and cakes to their repertoire. It seems that my infiltration of French tastes has started at last. Now, can I sell them some pretty pink cupcake coat hooks too do you think?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

New additions

In the world of commerce they say that one must constantly update and innovate. I have grasped the bull by the horns and invested in some supplementary products for my 'typically English' look on my market stall. This week I launched the 'design and decoration' department in my very small way! When the box arrived with my 'nouveautes' I was jumping up and down with excitement at my treasures; patchwork union jack bunting, embroidered pink chiffon fairycake coat hooks, ceramic sugar pots in the shape of cupcakes, all pretty and very english! But, how to display them? My usual cake table lies flat and would not show off my objects to advantage , so I considered clamping display stands to the table and even hand painting boxes to match my pastel coloured union jack table! This all seemed very complicated and time was running out when my good friends the 'optimistic baker' and his wife arrived to ask if I would be interested in a display table that folds flat, but opens as a stepped display unit - serendipity is really one of my favorite words!
So I was all set this week for my new look stall. I call my friend the 'optimistic baker' because he has been in so many sticky situations and always comes out smiling and convinced that he will one day conquer the world. My very first day on the market was a spring day, and I had my little picnic table, some cakes and very little else, of course it started to rain and I was ready to pack up and go home when the 'optimistic baker' offered to shelter me and my cakes under his parasol, so began a friendship that has really helped me and my business to get going. The 'optimistic baker' is a fantastic market salesman with the gift of the gab and a smile for even the most miserable customers. He gained kudos by having the 'petite anglaise' on his stall and I gained sales by being allied with the best selling baker on the market. The 'optimistic baker' and his wife worked seven days a week, running a village bakery and also selling on five different markets during the week, living on about three hours sleep a day and adrenalin, the pair were a formidable force, undercutting the prices of other bakeries, and still managing to produce really great bread. The drawback ( or maybe not) of being with the 'optimistic baker' was that I became privy to all the personal history of their relationship and business. One of the first thing he told me, almost with a sort of perverse pride, was that his wife had cheated on him and that he was sexually very inexperienced. I was a little thrown by this, and wondered if it was some kind of chat-up line, but no, it seems that he told everyone the story, and his wife too was very open about the affair. The more disturbing moment came when he started telling me about their 'swinging' evenings and wondered if my husband and I might be interested! Wife swapping not being quite my style I declined, but the flood gates were opened and stories of visits to clubs and strange dinner parties began to come out. It seems that this was the 'optimistic baker' s way of accepting infidelity in his marriage without actually having to cuckold his wife who he loves dearly, I'm not sure that I understand the attraction of a swingers club, but it is certainly a way of brightening up a rainy morning on the market to hear of low lit corners with copulating strangers draped over the furniture! More on life and love on the market to come, in the meantime I leave you with a typical spring sunshine picture - blue skies and mock orange blossom, a perfect combination.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Feel-good moments

Today I had a real feel-good moment on the market. After a superb bank holiday weekend with temperatures hitting 30 degrees, we had the inevitable thunder and rain storms for two days, so I was relieved to wake up to dry and warm weather for my market morning! The story starts on my last market, where an acquaintance came by and decided that she would like to buy cakes to offer as a gift for some friends who had invited them for supper. I knew this was a big thing as she has been out of work for at least three years and the family has been surviving on her husband's very poorly paid job in a phsyciatric hospital, and an enormous vegetable garden, so when she said that she wanted four of every kind of cake on the table I felt very privileged. This morning she arrived on the market again and was so pleased to tell me how much the gift was appreciated; apparently each fairy cake was cut into slices so that all the guests could taste every thing, and pass judgement on 'English patisserie'! The stars of the show were my new Lavender cakes and chocolate meringues ( how you slice a gooey meringue into eight, I don't know!)
So today I suddenly became not only her cake provider, but also by default her friend and confidante. It seems that the poor thing has had a really rough time since her childhood, with a mother who used her as a scapegoat for all her own inadequacies, saying that she never wanted her daughter to succeed and succeeding in raising a daughter with no self-confidence whatsoever. After moving to this region from Marseilles to be with her husband she has never managed to find a new job, and has had numerous phsycological difficulties. A mutual friend is a healer and yoga 'guru' ( although she hates that word) and 'La petite Marseillaise' has been working with her on her inner strength and self confidence. Over the past six months she has transformed her outlook on life and is ready to start facing the world again. Today I was privileged to help her a little way along the road because while we were chatting she said that she didn't think she could ever do what I am doing, selling direct to the public, talking with strangers, dealing with money etc, so I said, "Of course you could, if you believe in the product then you can sell it to people" and taking a leap of faith, suggested that she should be the one to sell on my market stall today. Off came the dowdy anorak and on went the smile! La petite Marseillaise' came into her own, talking to complete strangers, albeit with a quavering voice at first she extolled the virtues of my fantastic lavender cakes, speaking with the authority of a 'southerner', muddled up Victoria sandwiches with lemon butterflies, and still managed to recover and sell a selection of cakes to a lady who was adamant that she didn't eat cake! La petite Marseillaise' phoned her husband to say that she was going to be late home for lunch, and really got stuck in. By the end of the market she was a transformed woman, and even suggested to my friendly veg man that she could help him out too if he needed her! So my leap of faith paid off, I had a good sales figure and a new friend who said that the experience was priceless!