Monday, December 24, 2007

Mise en place

We went to the Christmas Market in Valbonne last night. It had rained steadily all weekend and we had all followed a routine of determined activity in the morning that faded into staggered afternoon naps. The meteo warned us that the weather could well continue into Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I decided late in the afternoon yesterday, after nap, that we would all load up and go over the hill. Fireworks were scheduled for the early evening, to be followed by vin and chocolat chaud in the place. We didn't think the fireworks would go off in the rain, but decided to go over anyway.

Two curves away from the village traffic came to a dead stop and we suspected that there might be other people who had finished their afternoon naps too. C. let us out at the edge of the village and we opened our umbrellas and ventured into the market: G., E., and our Christmas visitors and I. Everywhere were families with umbrellas and hoods. On the village's upper terrace there were wooden pens enclosing sheep, goats, and poultry (the first time I have ever seen small farm animals on display for charm's sake, not for potential consumption), and, at the far end of the boules court, a miniature wooden chalet for Pere Noel. Between the animals and Santa were a few stands selling homemade jams and jellies and foie gras, and local olive oil, and even truffles. We stepped around the mud and the puddles, leaning under the tents as much to get out of the rain as to see the sheep and the truffles.

Turning back down into the village I spotted the socca stand. I had already talked about socca to our visitors, and the crisp chickpea flour cake would be a warm antidote to the weather. Sending everyone else on, I got in line for our socca behind two men who were already waiting. The socca man had rigged a tent over his worktable and firewood and created a little waiting space. Behind his stainless worktable he had an old kitchen chair, and as I got into line he was mixing his batter in something like a five-gallon bucket: chickpea flour, olive oil, water, salt. He stirred and added and stirred and added, oblivious to the men and to me. Once he judged the batter to be the right consistency, he put a lid on the bucket and set it aside.

It was when the socca man took out the second bucket of batter and began to make adjustments to it, as well, that I realized it was going to be some time before the socca was forthcoming. The men in front of me weren't waiting for their socca to come out of the oven; they were waiting to order. The socca man continued to adjust his batter, a little oil, a little water, and others began to gather under the tent.

I wondered if I should push on. This is a familiar problem: every time I stop to buy socca at a market, I find myself waiting and waiting and whoever is with me waits and waits too. Is it worth it? Shouldn't I just go on? But I am almost always entranced by the preparation of the socca. It is the street food, the fast food, of the region; it is peasant food, cheap and filling and probably fairly nutritious. The socca man drives from market to market with his wood-burning oven hitched to the back of his truck, or, sometimes, his motorcycle. Like New York hot dog carts, or pretzel carts, the socca cart provides a quick and warm snack.

But--and here is the cultural catch--quick means something different in the markets of the Cote d'Azur. Last night at least a dozen people had gathered under the tent and spilled out under their umbrellas before the socca man took the order of the men in front of me. He had adjusted his batter, added wood to the fire, and, finally, cleaned off his stainless steel worktable and then set his salt, pepper, paper napkins and aluminum foil just so. And there was no impatient energy from the line, no grumbling, no pushing, no angling for a closer position, just quiet chat while they waited. The socca would be ready when it was ready. New Yorkers would have left in a huff after saying a few choice words, and Washingtonians would probably have sued, but the Valbonnaises waited patiently.

I struggled, as I always do. My family were waiting, time was passing, what about the fireworks and the vin chaud? Then the socca man asked for my order, and in a second I decided. I would wait while he made two more socca for us. C. and G. appeared, ducking under my umbrella, and I sent them away again, just a few more minutes and I'll meet you in the place. The men in front of me were gone now with their four socca, and my socca was in the oven. The socca man kept checking it, adjusting it in the flat pan it cooked in, turning it a bit, pushing it closer and then farther from the fire, until, finally, he judged it to be just right. Then he took the pan out and put it on the stone trivet on top of the worktable and, using a tiny wooden knife, cut the round thin pancake in half and folded each half over again. He slid the halves onto pieces of aluminum and gently peppered and salted each one, then folded the aluminum down to make a packet and handed the two packets and two napkins to me with one hand while he took my two euros in the other.

I moved away from the rest of the line and turned down the lane towards the place. The lane was lined with tented booths--olive wood bowls, pottery, mushrooms, honey, the Corsican sausage man, and an old man dozing over his homemade nougat--and across the lane giant irregular snowflakes flashed in blue and white lights. A soaked red carpet down the center led the way to the place, and the crowds were smiling and happy and busy. As I walked past the fountain, a warning firework shot up over the place, and its white sparkles showed over the blue and white lights and the red carpet and the booths, through the rain. I came around the corner into the place and found my family, and we gathered at the edge of a tent selling dried fruits and nuts and looked up past the rain into the fireworks that went off overhead. And we shared warm socca.

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