Friday, 9 September 2011

The Ladies of the Ventimiglia Market

I returned to the south of France yesterday after my annual summer visit to Canada and the first thing on my foggy, jet lagged mind this morning was the food market in Ventimiglia, just across the French border in Italy.  I couldn't wait to get there to see my regular vendors, scoop up their seasonal products and get caught up on the local gossip.

Driving to Ventimiglia is an adventure in itself.  The road is really narrow by North American standards and it curves this way and that, up and down, on the edge of a cliff high above the coast with puffs of  iridescent pink and red bougainvillea clinging to stone walls on one side and breathtaking views of the Mediterranean on the other. 
Two of my Favourite Ladies, Barbara and Tiziana
Add to the mix some crazy Italian drivers for whom the centre line is merely a suggestion, and the journey can be a nausea filled nightmare for some but for me it's a thrilling 20 minute chance to imagine what to buy,  what to make with it, whom to invite over to share it with and, of course, where the heck to park when I get there.

The market is very popular and always crowded especially on Fridays when the huge outdoor "dry goods" market pops up with hundreds of vendors and snakes through the town and lines the seaside road.

There are about 60 permanent vendors in the covered market.  Most of what they sell is from Italy:  bread, cheese, meat, pasta, wine, fish, fruits, vegetables and dry goods but the first thing I do when I arrive is bolt to the northeast side of the covered market. It's always my first stop.  I've nicknamed this part of the market, "Ladies' Row" since most of the vendors here are women who sell what they grow themselves and what they grow is always fresh, photo worthy and fabulous.  Eggs, cheese, olive oil, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and whatever else that they found in their gardens, on their trees or in the hen house is on offer.  On Saturdays, so many people come here to shop that some of the women bring their husbands, daughters and sons to help them deal with the thick, pushy crowds.  I always find this gesture romantic and charming amidst the chaos.
"Ladies' Row" on a Quiet Weekday
Barbara's Excellent Products
This early in the fall season,  not one particular fruit or vegetable dominates the market scape and a little bit of everything is available.  This morning I even saw a few porcini which have arrived a bit early due to July's cool and rainy weather.

What excited me on Ladies' Row this morning were the return of the fresh beans from Pigna, a small pretty, 13th century Italian village inland from Ventimiglia in the Ligurian hills.

Pigna beans are available here early in the fall, stay for about a month and then poof!  Like a phantom they vanish.  After that you can only find them dried, in little 200g canvas bags with brown lettering at triple the price of the fresh ones.

As with most things, the fresh ones are better than dried:  they taste buttery, sweet, and dissolve  in your mouth.  I gathered up about 2 kilos of them.  After cooking they freeze well.

I also found some tiny, sweet datterini tomatoes and fresh basil and some Mozzarella di Bufala from my favourite cheese vendor on the far side of the market

So to celebrate my first day back in Liguria and the south of France, for lunch I whipped up a simple Insalata Caprese with Fresh Pigna Beans, prepared to capture the best of the season.

Ahhh, it's good to be back.

The First of the Beans from Pigna
Tiny Datterini Tomatoes

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