Twice a week, the normally traffic-free lanes of Sarlat are clogged with a human traffic jam of shoppers. Wednesday and Saturday are the town’s market days. And in all my travels, I’ve rarely seen a market better than Sarlat’s.
As the day dawns, Sarlat’s sun-baked streets are jammed with tables, each one a cornucopia overflowing with Dordogne Valley products. Produce is delicately arranged on a rickety wooden table — little more than a rough plank resting on sawhorses, groaning under the weight of lettuce, artichokes, leeks, potatoes, garlic, onions, carrots, tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, and radishes.
Plunging deeper, I’m immersed in a vibrant world of sights, smells, and sounds: Baskets neatly filled with oddly shaped sausages. Mountains of olives. Carefully sealed bags of dried mushrooms. Loaves of rustic breads. Refrigerated trucks displaying meats, fish, and tiny wheels and pyramids of goat cheese. A vivid festival of flowers. Tree stump-sized wheels of mountain cheese. Kitchen tools, from newfangled walnut crackers to a huckster demonstrating the sharpness of his kitchen knives. Snail shells already pre-filled with garlicky-green butter, ready for escargot. Mammoth hunks of nougat the size of car tires. Tidy rows of jams, jellies, preserves, and walnut oil. A young, dreadlocked farmer selling more different varieties of onions than I realized even existed. Bowls of colorful, intensely flavored tapenades. Giant slabs of fruitcakes — nut, orange, fig — waiting to be sliced up and sold by the weight. A rainbow of colorful little beanies used to cover your fruit or bread basket. And, of course, cans of artisanal foie gras and other duck and goose products. (Confit de canard may be the most delicious thing you’ll ever eat from a can.)
The longest line is at the strawberry stand — a good sign. You smell the strawberries before you see them. I try to stake my claim in the queue, but quickly learn that no-nonsense French grannies are shameless about butting in line. Elbows up! I trudge patiently to the front and am given a choice: charlotte or gariguette? I splurge on the pricier, rounder, more pungent charlotte style, at €3.50 a basket, instead of the cheaper, torpedo-shaped gariguette style, at €2.50.
It’s a good thing I got my shopping in early. Shortly after the noon bell tolls, everyone starts packing up. Shoppers disperse — instantly filling up the town’s many al fresco café tables — while merchants crate up unsold goods for tomorrow’s market in Domme. They’ll all be back in Sarlat on Saturday — just like they have been, twice a week, for decades. By then, I’ll be in Normandy, halfway across the country. But I’ll still be tasting those strawberries.