I ran out of eggs yesterday – no biggie as Sainsburys is our corner shop – but I remembered, as I often do, le marche de Maurice.
When we first moved to La Croix Haute the house across the road was derelict. By which I mean there was a tree growing out through the roof and half rotten boards pretending to be doors. We always assumed it would be left to tumble earthwards and the ruins overwhelmed by the white lilac that we stole lush and perfumed armfuls of every spring.
Until Maurice arrived.
He was a market gardener who’d made his living at Rungis but had been born and raised in the region on his parents’ farm. He’d retired and come home and he set to, transforming the acre around his property into the most abundant potager. He grew everything and in abundance and in those perfect neat rows I could never master despite all the twigs and string in the world. A walk through the beans and potatoes and carrots and onions and garlic and asparagus and lettuces and tomatoes and vines and fruit canes was the definition of ‘a feast for the senses’ – food so fresh and alive and pungent, the smells of earth and tomato vine and chlorophyll. All achieved with an old spade, a fork, a few seeds, and a thumb so green it could have grown cucumbers on concrete.
Meanwhile, across the road, I toiled on my own plot. I borrowed a rotivator, I added compost, I double dug. My father and I had demolished an old henhouse – he discovered he had a real talent for destruction and relished the job – to make our first vegetable patch, only to watch tomatoes drop with blossom end rot and parsnips emerge as hollowed shells. After my dad died I switched the location of our failed potager and found solace in turning the earth, in the hard labour of digging, enriching the soil, preparing to sow though I never could get those damned drills as straight as Maurice. The tomatoes fruited finally and the haricots burst through the earth like little green aliens but I never did fill the freezer with produce as I’d hoped. But growing things helped as did Maurice’s words of encouragement, his trucs et astuces.
Then the first box arrived.
It was waiting on the doorstep one day, bursting with what was best and freshest from Maurice’s garden. We feasted – the only suitable word – on fresh dug carrots and the tenderest beans and tiny new potatoes. I went across the road to thank Maurice – he was stirring a pot of lamb stew (he kept sheep on his field, and pigs on a neighbouring farm). He smiled and spread an oak tanned arm wide to embrace the bounty around him.
“Le marche de Maurice – c’est toujours ouvert” he said.
From that day on there were more boxes – or I’d knock on his door and he’d take me down the paths to what was best that day, cutting fresh crisp lettuce with his old opinel knife or inviting me to pull up tender sweet carrots. If I’d run out of eggs we’d go and see what the hens had laid that day. I gave his son Albin English lessons and there’d be a freshly killed chicken or a pork belly. Those days remembered were always warm, sweet with the smell of the herbs he grew whilst mine sat sullenly in pots and shrivelled – when we left he gave me a pot of thyme that was strong and healthy when it left his hands and dry and withered after a few months on my wintry English patio.
There were aperitifs and dinners round his kitchen table – he never did fully rescue the house from the decay and entropy that had had too long to embrace it – and laughter and eventually a funeral, though not his. Before we left finally, when the moving van was packed and gone, I dug a pot of earth to bring away with me. It sits on the bookshelf by my bed, a reminder of the fact that one day I will have a garden again and that – with care and patience and love – might be half as beautiful and enriching as the marche de Maurice.
NOTE: Maurice’s garden really was like having a little Eden that I was free to plunder just across the road. It’s an eternal regret that Maurice never met my father and that they never got to drink pastis together of an evening but I am eternally grateful that I had Maurice – and his marche – as a neighbour. Whenever I run out of eggs – or any produce – I raise a mental glass to his generosity of spirit and hope that my future potager will be as productive.