In the town of Brive, three hours drive to the east of Bordeaux, Corrèzian merchants and customers exchange pleasantries, local products and French francs at the market, "Les Halles George Brassens." On cart, table, or from the side of specially built display trucks, the merchants create attractive presentations of their cheeses, meats, flowers, live chickens, pigeons, vegetables, foie gras, and more.
"Au marché de Brive-La-Gaillarde," sang George Brassens, friend and colleague of the internationally famous Jacques Brel. In honor of Brassens, in honor of his recognition of Brive, the townspeople named the covered open air market, Les Halles, after him. Perhaps the trucks in the parking lot were different in his age, twenty years ago, but the regional products have changed little.
I walk past cages of pigeons and fowl to where flower vendors are already selling "muguet." Delicate lily of the valley, tiny bell shaped white flowers protected by long, inward curling green leaves is traditionally given to française by francais, on the first of May. Giving of the flower on other days is giving a wish for "bonheur," happiness, good fortune. This season, the mild temperatures of spring have brought the muguet to an early bloom.
On the fringes of the market, trucks display a variety of local meats and cheeses. Corrèze is a department in the larger region of Limousin. The Limousine cow, is known world wide for it's good size, good stock and good meat. The Limousine was introduced into the United States to improve the quality and robustness of American cattle. The Limousine, normally preferred by the French people, is an essential alternative to Britian's mad cow.
The Cabecou cheese, une specialité de la region, is a little round flat goat cheese. On a table near this truck, but obviously of another vendor is what remains of a wheel of cantal. The vendor recommends a variety of cantal called salers. Made on the farm, in the department of Cantal near Corrèze, salers is made from cow's milk, like ordinary cantal, but salers is unique to the spring and summer when the cows eat the new green grass in the fields, thus giving the cheese a sweeter taste. In the cold months, when there is no green grass, the cows eat "le foin," hay, and thus called, simply, cantal.
With a quick twist of the wrist between knife, cheese and thumb, the vendor slices off a piece of the dark burnt yellow, straw colored (jaune paille), cheese and offers it to taste, to help in the decision making process, to tempt. With interest obviously showing on my face, the vendor positions a fine piano wire with handles next to the cheese and awaits cutting instructions. When we agree, "la marchande" slices a chunk from the foot and a half high and is equally grand in diameter wheel of salers.
Winston Churchill said to General de Gaulle, former president of the French Republic, "how can you run a country where there are over 300 different types of cheese?"
Back in the area behind the cages of chickens, I squeezed past an old wooden table covered with leeks, around a display of foie gras -- the whole, fatty liver -- and noticed another old wooden table with, relative to the opulence found everywhere in the market, a veritable paucity of little black balls. Amongst these lonely and mysterious nuggests, a cardboard sign, loosely placed is hand scribbled with the number "240". "Ce sont des truffe?" "Mais, bien sûr!" The black gold of France, the truffle.
The American Heritage Dictonary defines the truffle as "Any of various fleshy, ascomycetous, edible fungi, chiefly of the genus Tuber, that grow underground on or near the roots of trees and are valued as a delicacy."
These little edible fungi things before me were found at the root of a certain tree, with the help of a certain truffle sniffing pig in the forests of south Corrèze. I had heard of the truffle, knew of its repute as a delicacy, but had never tasted one. I thought that 240 francs for a kilo seemed like a lot of money. That makes for about $20 for a pound. Ha, ha, silly me. 240 is the price for 100 grams ! Try $200 a pound. I guess that's a good price. In Paris, they are much more expensive.
For $40 I buy, invest in, one truffle and later share it with friends in Paris. In celebration of the truffle, it is presented "à la croque-au-sel:" on a good baguette spread with Normandy butter: thin slices of raw truffle are placed and topped "du gros sel," with 'big chunks' of salt. The widow Cliquot (Veuve Cliquot Champagne) joins us for the dégustation. At Easter dinner, bits of truffle are mixed with a lettuce vinaigrette, bed to an already sumptuous appetizer of braised coquilles Saint- Jacques (scallops).
The sale of regional products is not the only thing that takes place at the Brive market. Weeks before, walls enclosed the area and within, and I joined the Brive rugby team and their directors, in party, feast, celebration of their victory of the European title, Le Cup d'Europe. I stood next to Les Halles George Brassens and watched the fireworks, that lit the waters of the river Corrèze.