Life in the Time of Coronavirus: post-confinement reflections on markets and movements


Market on the Med

Down at the Big Blue for the first time in months it felt strange to be out of the small world of our small hamlet. In post-confinement France there are mixed opinions about social distancing, mask-wearing, legal size of public gatherings, definitions of public gatherings, fines, and the rest.

At the local market- a dozen or so stalls set up along the edge of the beach -there were few customers, none wearing masks, although the traders were fully equipped.  Stopping to buy cheese, we fell into conversation with the young stall-holder.  He was from the Savoie, plying his trade in the different markets, morning and evening, of the Pyrenées Orientales , working with local members of the market fraternity. Each week he returned to the high mountains to pick up more cheese before driving back across country, a 1200 km round trip.

melons and fromage de savoie

Further along, another young man was selling melons. Not local ones he told us, but from Provence, the town of Chateau Renard near Avignon.  His story was similar. Shuttling between the markets of the coast and the farm , 250  kms away. As they smiled and chatted, offering us samples of their wares, sweet chunks of orange-fleshed melon, the huge wheels of pale Alpine cheeses I was impressed by their dignity and courteousness, the way in which they appeared to be not just happy with their hard and precarious metier, but proud of it.  I would have liked to buy up every single melon and every scrap of cheese and taken them home for a slap-up lunch.

We don’t have French TV at The Cowshed so one of our treats here is to watch the 1 o’clock news on TF 1 with Jean-Pierre Pernaut. This French newscaster has been wowing the public since 1988 (Le Journal de 13h has more viewers – 6 to 7 million- than any other European lunch-time news programme)  and this month the bespectacled 70-year- old with the Cheshire cat grin was voted France’s  No 1 favourite TV personality by the public. A hilarious poke in the eye for those self-satisfied, woke presenters who spend most of their time sucking in their cheeks, grooming their egos and rudely interrupting their guests.

Why is Pernaut so popular? Although famous for occasionally letting rip, Andrew Neill style,  about an  event hitting the headlines, he’s more likely to start with an image of almond blossoms, budding vines or lavender fields baking under the sun. This is a programme which, for the most part, turns its back on the madding crowd, focusing instead on the regions of France in all their wonderful diversity and stunning natural beauty, highlighting their history, culture and the people who live there (just hearing the accents makes you feel as though you’re on holiday).

French markets

Though sniffed at by intellectuals as being boring, provincial, redolent of ‘mucky clogs’ (‘sabots crottés’ –Liberation), even xenophobic,  the formula has proved to be a winner for many weary of political harangues, moral lectures and the existential problems of metropolitan elites unable to find supplies of Kobo beef at Le Bon Marché.   It has a similar sort of appeal to Rick Stein’s Secret France series. The other day, flocks of sheep were being taken up to the mountains to munch on all that sweet summer grass – the famous transhumance – followed by  a trip to France’s ‘Emerald Isle’ – a bit of Ireland in Brittany – followed by a reportage on eco pasturage – an ancestral method of maintaining green spaces by allowing sheep and goats to graze freely.

Ah, forget COVID and its rising death toll for thirty minutes, listen to the sheep bells and breathe in the bracing odour of sabots crottés

One of the most popular campaigns launched by the programme three years ago is the competition to find ‘the most beautiful market in France.’  Last year more than four million people voted. The winner, Montbrison, a small medieval village in the Loire, is famous for its fourme de Monbrison, a cheese mentioned on the UNESCO site for its part in French gastronomy – ‘an intangible world heritage’. The competition is fierce with each region defending its favourite. This year’s winner will be announced on July 8th…(cue music from Jaws).


Reluctantly leaving behind cheeses and lavender fields…even in our hermit’s cave it’s been hard not to miss the BLM demonstrations.  Normally I don’t comment on world events on this blog, but I have previously mentioned two difficult subjects: the plight of  Christian girls in Nigeria taken as Boko Haram ‘wives’,  and that of Yazidi women and girls taken as slaves by Islamic State. The details of their suffering have been well documented by different sources including reports submitted to the UN Human Rights Council and are available to read by anyone with access to the Internet.  I am not going to repeat them here. Suffice it to say they are the stuff of nightmares and anyone who thinks I’m exaggerating need only watch the testimony here of Amal Clooney, speaking to the UN in September 2016 on behalf of one of the Yazidi victims, Nadia Murad.

Nadia Murad Wikimedia Commons By U.S. Department of State from United States –, Public Domain

Watching the BLM UK demonstrations I was struck by the huge groundswell of outrage sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Although the BLM movement, started in 2013,  had  a specific aim – to protest against incidents of police  brutality in the US against unarmed Afro-Americans- the latest protests  seemed to indicate something bigger, with more diverse aims; that they were more about human rights than civil rights, about the wider subject of exploitation of certain races by others. A lot of attention was given to the Atlantic slave trade, abolished in the UK (as all school-children know from their history lessons I hope), in the 19th century, thanks to the efforts of William Wilberforce and other members of the Anti-Slavery Society. This organisation, founded in 1823, gave birth to the current day advocacy group, Anti-Slavery International, the oldest international human rights organisation in the world.

William Wilberforce, British politician, philanthropist, and abolitionist who led the parliamentary campaign against the slave trade. Courtesy Steve F-E-Cameron

What a great  opportunity, then, after recalling shameful events of the past, for BLM UK to continue in the honourable tradition of Wilberforce and other reformers by turning a probing searchlight on the even more shameful  abuse still being perpetrated today, in the 21st century, on the most vulnerable members of the BAME community- women and children?

The estimates for the number of modern-day slaves are staggering – literally millions.  Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees that ‘No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.’ Amal Clooney spoke out against what she called ‘a bureaucracy of evil on an industrial scale’,  referring to the slave markets, live and on-line  using encrypted mobile applications (eg the 4Sale app). Here, girls and women ‘get purchased like barrels of petrol’ (UN envoy and human rights champion Zainab Bangura) and prices for choice specimens go as high as thousands of dollars.

BBC report on slave markets

Only four months ago, Rebecca Sharibu, mother of 16-year-old Leah Sharibu,  abducted by Boko Haram two years ago,  took part in a protest outside the Nigerian High Commission in London. Nigeria has been named by UNESCO as one of the leading countries in human trafficking. Commenting on the case, Lord Ahmad, the Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict said ‘The UK has made repeated calls for the release of all those abducted by Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa (ISWA), including Leah Sharibu. We are appalled by and condemn her reported enslavement, forced conversion and pregnancy.’

As I write this, the trial is taking place in Germany over the death of a slave kept by an Iraqui-German couple, a 5-year old Yazidi child chained to a window in searing heat and left to die of thirst after wetting her bed.

Boko Haram wives The Guardian Oct 2018 ‘Where is Leah Sharibu?’

Has there been any mention of these victims during the current protests? Where are their names? Where are their pictures? Where are the banners, where is the fury, the outrage against those committing  such horrors?  As Clooney said ‘we know who the perpetrators are’, adding ‘I am ashamed as a lawyer that there is no justice being done’  with states  failing to act  ‘because they find their own interests get in the way.’

Cleaning the Cenotaph

Not just states, it would seem.  I watched in disbelief as some demonstrators, instead of turning the force of righteous wrath (not to mention baseball bats) on real live human traffickers, preferred to attack inert, 300-year-old statues (take that, you villain)  and to daub memorials to those who made our history something to be immensely proud of –  men and women who sacrificed their lives to defend a liberty without which no protests would be allowed.

What a terrible, lost opportunity. ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’ said Dr King. One can’t help thinking that if someone with his vision, humanity and courage had been around to provide wise leadership things might have been different, and the moment would have been seized to draw attention to what is going on right under our noses. If I were a cynic (Goddess forbid) I might even be tempted to imagine that sinister strings were being pulled to do just the opposite. Cherchez les idéologues.

After all, we in France have watched since November 2018 the story of les gilets jaunes, a genuine grass-roots movement with huge public support uniting people from across political and other divides, from truckers to grandmothers, brought to an end by blatant hijacking from the violent  ‘casseurs‘, wreckers, Black Blocs and the like . And as every French person and student of history knows, the glorious revolution of 1789 was followed by the Bloody Terror of 1793.

So what’s next for the true believers? The Jews have already been lined up, as usual, and in a praiseworthy reaction by Sir Keir Starmer, a shadow cabinet minister who should have known better has been sacked for retweeting an anti-semitic tweet. Country-dwellers however, might have been surprised to find they too were in the firing line as they ambled along in their wellies: ‘many BAME groups see the countryside as a white environment’ according to BBC’s Countryfile . And for heavens sake let’s not forget the literary villains. Salman Rushdie may have been punished, but what about that ‘notorious genocidal racist’  Charles Dickens? Fortunately  former Green Councillor  Ian Driver put the record straight by painting  ‘Dickens Racist’ on a museum in Broadstairs.  A statue of Cervantes also got the red paint treatment (the genius with the spray-paint obviously didn’t know the great author had spent 5 years as a slave in Algiers).  Publishing houses are purging their authorial lists.  Perhaps a spot of book burning ?  Now would be a good moment,  with cries to #Defundthepolice and  more than 140 officers  injured dealing with protests and illegal parties in the last 3 weeks  according to Cressida Dick.

Funny how these defunders have conveniently forgotten Barak Obama’s caveat in 2015. He defended  BLM but added  “I think everybody understands all lives matter. Everybody wants strong, effective law enforcement. Everybody wants their kids to be safe when they’re walking to school. Nobody wants to see police officers, who are doing their jobs fairly, hurt.”   Thomas Sowell put it more succintly: ‘ If you are not prepared to use force to defend civilization, then be prepared to accept barbarism, ‘ 

Meanwhile, those in their safe houses and safe democracies will continue to  run around with evangelical zeal bravely toppling statues and painting graffiti on war memorials.  It will remain for the quiet few, extremely courageous people, mostly unknown to the public, many of them women, who are genuinely risking their lives to speak out on behalf of the real victims of slavery and exploitation  today. Hats off to them and shame on those who turn a blind eye because they find their own interests get in the way…

You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.’
― William Wilberforce

 ‘As long as we were desirable enough, and not yet dead.’ Nadia Murad, Nobel Peace prize winner, first Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking of the UN,  former IS  slave, beaten, raped, burned with cigarettes.

Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.’  Martin Luther King

‘All animals are equal but some are more equal than others.’ George Orwell, Animal Farm.

‘I was a girl once, but not any more.’  Edna O Brien, Girl


Bon appétit from the Tarn: The Perfect Easter Lunch

Navarin d’agneau, the perfect Easter lunch

A leg of lamb– gigot d’agneau–is a firmFrench favourite for Easter. Stick it full of garlic slivers and rosemary leaves, cover with butter (yes) and roast on high heat until pink in the middle. But this year I’ve gone for something more complicated, in honour of the tender new vegetables just coming on to the market– a navarin d’agneau,  lamb stew, but with class.

First, a trip to the market. Here are Claudie and Caroline at the wonderful market in Biarritz. They’re shopping for lamb to make a tagine, but the basic principle is the same. Forget your list and throw yourself on the mercy of He–or She–Who Knows Best…

Early morning at the marché de Biarritz

“In spite of the early hour there was a bustle. Caroline felt her spirits lift as they stepped indoors. The tiny bars with their zinc counters were doing a brisk trade in strong espressos. A din came from the produce stalls, where the market sellers, on raised platforms, vaunted the quality of their wares interspersed with rapid-fire banter with the customers in a mixture of languages, French, English and Spanish.

‘Deux kilos de saucisse pour la belle dame à la robe rouge!’

‘Et vous Monsieur, qu’est-ce qu’il vous faut? Un bon pied de porc pour ce midi?’

a selection of charcuterie Barritz market

A long queue had formed at one stall where three men in Basque berets were nimbly dodging and dancing past each other reaching for hams, duck legs and trays of charcuterie…

It took a good half hour for Claudie to drag Caroline to the stall which sold the lamb. Laid out behind the glass were different cuts of lamb chops, shoulders of lamb, gigots, racks of lamb, lamb sausages. Caroline tried to take it all in. Presiding over the proceedings was lady of a certain age with a regal bearing. Under her white apron she wore a fluffy angora top in Barbie pink. Rubies glittered in her ears, the same colour as her Chanel red lipstick. Her blonde hair was sprayed into an immaculate golden helmet.

Caroline nudged Claudie.

‘It’s Catherine Deneuve.’

Claudie giggled.

‘That is la patronne. The owner’s wife. She has to keep up appearances. Look at that diamond, you can see it through her plastic gloves. Le patron is doing well.’

Madame, on her raised platform, was playing the crowd. She spread her arms theatrically and apologised graciously to the steadily growing queue.

‘They are busy with the orders,’ she said, indicating her husband and a team of assistants who were cutting, sawing and packing meat into Styrofoam boxes.

The way she imparted this information indicated the customers should be honoured there was any meat left for them at all. They nodded respectfully, an eye on her flashing knives.

‘Oui Mesdames?’

Finally it was their turn.

Claudie began to order.

Madame paused.

‘What are you making?’

‘A tagine.’   (NB: Or, for today’s dish ‘un navarin’ -Ed)

Madame smiled.

‘I will choose the meat,’ she said, putting away the cuts that Claudie had asked for. Her manicured hands in their plastic gloves hovered over a tray of shoulders. She paused, dived on one piece of meat and held it up for Claudie’s inspection, turning it from side to side like a jeweller showing a rare gem.

‘Perfect,’ said Claudie.

They watched as Madame selected a long thin knife and deftly removed the bone, holding that up for inspection too.

‘This will be good. For the flavour.’

She made a neat wax paper package.

Her eyes travelled over the other trays. ‘The fat.’

She chose three pieces of neck and weighed them.

‘Perhaps one more?’ ventured Claudie.

Madame complied graciously.

Caroline looked behind her at the waiting customers. They all had solemn expressions on their faces. No one moved or complained.

Five minutes later they had a basket full of packages and Claudie had handed over a lot of money.

‘Bon appétit,’ said the patronne. ‘And give my regards to your mother.’

She tilted her head in a nod of acknowledgement.

‘She knows the family,’ said Claudie under her breath, adding ‘Merci Madame. Bonne journée.’

‘Merveilleux, truly merveilleux,’ said Caroline as they left.

(Biarritz Passion: French Summer Novel #1)

After the lamb, a visit to the veg stall to buy the tenderest baby carrots and turnips, tiny onions, dwarf green beans, spring potatoes (grenailles) and  peas. (OK, I cheated. The peas were frozen). All the vegetables must be lovingly prepared and added to the lamb for the last hour of cooking, then left overnight so that the flavours mingle.  NB don’t forget to treat yourself to bouquet of spring flowers along with the dwarf beans.

Add sugar to your lamb to get that perfect amber glaze

For the recipe*, I use a combination of Julia Child’s classic and the inspiration du jour , but an essential  thing to remember is that the lamb, as you are browning it, must be caramelised with sugar in order to acquire the beautiful amber colour typical of the dish.


Now, which olives for the aperitif…

For amateurs of the French Summer Novels, Caroline and Claudie will be at the market again, discussing life, love and the best olives in town in ‘Villa Julia’, the last book in the series, currently under, ahem, revision. Imagine a vast shapeless onesie with long arms and short legs being painstakingly unpicked, re-cut, tucked in here, let out there; add a few sequins, a flounce, a bow and with a bit of luck it might end up  as a haute couture ballgown on next season’s catwalk…But while ‘Villa Julia’ is being cut to ribbons in the atelier, you can always hop over to the beautiful Basque country for less than a fiver! Let yourself be carried away to the Atlantic rollers via Biarritz Passion and Hot Basque . Go on,  you’re worth it…   😉

Joyeuses Pâques!

*Julia Child’s recipe can be found here: