2000s Archive

In the Night Kitchen

Originally Published May 2009
When dusk falls on the Dordogne’s farmers markets, rather than pack up their produce and head home, the area’s artisanal purveyors prepare dinner to order during a summerlong series of evening feasts.
dordogne, france, night market

Except for the picnic tables and plastic chairs, everything at the Audrix night market, a Marché des Producteurs de Pays, comes from the region itself.

The best way to get a parking spot at the night food market in Audrix, in southwest France, is to drive up to the tiny village in a Citroën 2CV. The ancient cars—an aggregation of tin cans and elastic bands first produced in 1949 to carry a farmer, his wife, two children, and a dairy churn over plowed fields without spilling a precious drop of milk—are so beloved, the French treat them like pets.

Although I had the Dersh—as the Deux Chevaux, or two-horsepower Citroën, is fondly nicknamed—the only spot, if it could be called that, was a very small gap between a foreigner’s rented automobile and a pack of motorcycles. I nosed alongside to measure the distance. A passing villager set down his basket and gave a peremptory wave: “Descendez.” I turned off the replacement bathroom light switch that operates my car instead of a key and obeyed. He gave another wave to his son. Together they picked up the Dersh and dropped it into the one space the night market had to offer.

With the car now slotted into the sloping hillside, we followed the crowd toward the minuscule town square. There, refectory tables covered in butcher paper were set in front of a 12th-century church. From their baskets, picnickers pulled out plates, cutlery, and glasses in anticipation of the evening’s feast. I grabbed a chair and put down a place setting. Then I began to wander among the merchants, trying to decide what to eat.

Audrix, population 290, is in the heart of the Périgord Noir. Officially, the département is known as the Dordogne, after the majestic river running through its gorges and plains. But the locals call it the Périgord and divide it into four regions: the Green, the White, the Purple, and the Black—where English second-home owners and retirees joke that they are taking back Aquitaine one house at a time. (When Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry I of England in 1152, her prime dowry was the countryside from the Périgord west to Bordeaux and south to the Pyrenees.)

The night market at Audrix is the original of its kind. Held every Saturday between the last weekend in June and mid-September, it was launched over a decade ago by Mayor Claude Thuillier, who was looking to expand the selling opportunities available to the area’s artisanal businesses. “It was clear to me that if we were going to run a farmers market,” he says, “we would have to offer something different from all the daytime ones. Who would come at night just to buy a kilo of vegetables?” Audrix already held two to three feasts each summer, cooked by the community for itself. “To extend that idea to an evening Saturday market offering the food of local producers, cooked by them, was a natural development.”

To help with this venture, Thuillier called on Stéphane Bounichou, the village’s sole cheesemaker and one of its lead purveyors, and made him Président de la Société du Marché. Next they drew up a list of farmers and artisans they would invite to join. Ten to twelve now attend, selling everything necessary for a modest feast, from gésier salads (confit duck gizzards with walnuts) to sweet-as-candy walnut tarts and red and Bergerac rosé wines. “We pay fifteen euros each Saturday for our space,” Bounichou explains, “and eighty euros for the whole summer for insurance, electricity, setup and cleanup, and the orchestra.” The Mairie (town hall) and the commune it runs get nothing but the value of involving the community.

Since then, dozens more night markets have followed suit in towns all across the Dordogne. At Audrix, it’s a Marché des Producteurs de Pays. This means it showcases only the food of people who have grown or raised and slaughtered what they are cooking to order using local recipes. So far, according to Thuillier, there are only ten of these purist markets across the Dordogne. But if you add night markets where commercial businesses also sell their wares, you’ll find that there’s a place to eat in an outdoor communal setting in almost every village every evening but Sunday.

Surrounded by villagers and clusters of tourists, I stroll around, debating whether to opt for a bowl of Tourin blanchi (garlic-and-egg soup) or a helping of haricots aux couennes—pork rinds melted almost into oblivion among beans cooked slowly in tomato sauce. Or maybe I’ll have lamb, thrown on the grill by the woman who raised and slaughtered it. Another smallholder has salads of mixed organic leaves dressed in a vinaigrette of walnut oil. (Walnut trees are bountiful in the area.) There are walnuts, too, in caramel tarts from the local pâtissier, and local strawberries: the Mara des Bois, with its musty flavor of coppice clearings, and the vanilla-scented Arabelle. Recognizing picnickers from the previous week, sellers cry, “Salut!” Cheeks are kissed, children patted.

Under the tiled arcade housing a bread oven as big as a garden shed, musicians unpack their instruments and tune up. The baker snatches out rags plugging the air holes in the oven’s stone walls, reducing the searing heat within. He’s been up there baking since late afternoon. Carefully removing the heavy iron door, he slides his wooden paddle deep inside to sweep out loaf after loaf of steaming bread. Artisans who spent the morning selling their produce at their farms or the nearby markets set out fresh displays for the evening feast, their vans now parked around the edges of Audrix’s only square.

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