Saturday, April 21, 2007

Good-bye, potato man

I thought I knew the Cours Saleya market inside out until I did the rounds with Franck Cerutti. As chef at the Louis XV restaurant in Monaco and previously at the Don Camillo in Nice, he has been shopping at this market at least five times a week for the past 15 years or so. A friend who lived next door to him introduced us about a year ago, and Franck immediately offered to give me his personal tour of the market. "Be there at 7am, no later," he said.
Seven am? At that time I wasn't even aware that there was something to see so early on a Saturday. Dutifully I showed up on time with my basket. Franck was already in full swing, darting from one producer's stand to the next. "Don't bother trying to buy anything now," he said. "Just follow me."
Easier said than done. Only Franck understands the logic of how he shops, but somehow he always finds the best products and keeps everyone on his good side. Part of his strategy seems to be to move so quickly that no-one ever quite knows where his is or whose produce he has chosen that week. He buys from all the producers but favors the older paysans, who understand that he likes his produce sorted by size and neatly aligned. Much of his time is spent on the phone with his staff, giving a play-by-play account of what he has found. One minute he is opening a pea pod and shaking his head in disapproval, the next he on the other side of the producer's square ordering 15 kilos of Mona Lisas from the potato man.
Ah, the potato man. I have to admit that I had barely noticed his stand before my tour with Franck. It has never been the most colorful stall at the market, displaying just a pile of grubby potatoes, a few bottles of olive oil and some long-necked squash in winter. But, thanks to Franck, I learned that there is more to producer Louis Dau than meets the eye. It seems his broad beans are so good that he has to hide them under the table or fights break out among the older customers (who know a good thing when they taste it). Also hidden from view are paper-wrapped bottles of wine, which Franck likes to drink at home. And the grubby potatoes? Franck transforms them into fluffy gnocchi or bakes them, then infuses chicken broth with their smoky flavor. It's the high altitude that makes them special, he says.
But I should be speaking in the past tense. Today I went to see the potato man with the express purpose of featuring him in my blog. He was there, but his stand was gone. "It's over," said Franck. "He's retiring." Louis explained to me that following the death of his mother-in-law this week, he no longer has the right to cultivate her land (this had something to do with the intricacies of French inheritance law, which I won't attempt to explain). He is well past the conventional retirement age but it's clear that he would have loved to continue coming to the market each week, even if it meant arriving at 4.30am to secure his spot. Next to him was a single bag of potatoes, which was reserved for another customer.
Franck, meanwhile, was looking around for a new source of potatoes. "These look OK," he said, fingering a potato. "They're cultivated in the mountains too."
In the end, though, he drove away in his little van without any potatoes - probably as a sign of respect for Louis.
Good-bye, potato man. We'll miss you.


Dorie said...

I'm sorry I didn't get to read this the day you posted it -- it is a wonderful story beautifully told. I think I'll go back and read it again.

Rosa said...

Thanks Dorie! Louis still comes to the market most weeks just to hang out with his pals. I miss his potatoes, but at least a few of the producers have beautiful new potatoes now.