The town’s market origins date back to 1249 although an unincorporated market probably existed from time immemorial.
In the 17th century Louhans Monday market was one of the main markets in France attracting buyers not only from the French towns of Lyon, Dijon, and Chalons but also Geneva and other towns in Switzerland.
The market is still the biggest poultry market in France famed for the variety of races and breeds. You can buy AOC Bresse poultry as well as horses, pigs, goats and other livestock. Gerard Depardieu is a regular and director Claude Chabrol has always wanted to make film in Louhans.
Nothing quite prepares for that first glimpse of Louhans market along the cobbled thoroughfare... a High Street of 157 15th century arches and arcades... the longest arcaded street in France... stalls and shops selling fruit, veg, flowers and local produce.
The longest arcaded street in France? It also is one of the most picturesque... and must have inspired playwrights like Tennessee Williams. The synthesis of bawdiness and conformism is unlikely to have its match, even in New Orleans. But it’s a living memento… a real life film set.
Those medieval arches and alleys house real cafes and shops and the town folk from far and wide who patronise are not Central Casting extras.
And yet the town has kept that air of mystery... of secrecy..of exclusivity. There`s still a strong medieval feel about Louhans. We’ll never really know all about this town, inasmuch as much of it is kept sequestered.
Literally ‘behind’ closed doors and in and amongst Louhans famous ‘yards’ there are old wooden tenements dating back possibly to the 11th century. No wonder Chabrol wants to film here.
The cafes all proffer coffee and cake (the local specialty is a sort of French version of our Yorkshire pudding).
Choose a cafe across from one of the most striking flats along the High Street - an 18th century style flat with a `Streetcar Named Desire` veranda supported by massive Doric columns. Lattice shutters adorn as do potted palm trees. And if you don`t see Blanche DuBois step out of that flat and Stanley shouting from below, I’ll eat my French Yorkshire.
The arches, arcades and alleys remind of a London market recently profiled – Surrey Street market in Croydon, where the few remaining arches and arcades are but a bleak reminder of what once was. Britain has lost its past; France still retains hers.
Having arrived at Louhans via cheesemonger lorry, I made for the Red Horse where a booking had been made on my behalf. The hotel, itself part of the Logis consortium, is an ancient Louhans coaching inn and has been popular since the days when Louhans was a leading trading centre for Jura and Saone plain.
Most of the meals I had during the trip were nouvelle and at brasseries or cafes. Some were touted by the guidebooks and tourism offices. I was not impressed. As a matter of fact, I began to wonder if I would leave France not having had a decent meal?
Then there was the Last Supper at the Red Horse where Peter Aubry, founder and chef since 1978, dished up one of the most splendid meals I have ever, ever eaten. In style he is not unlike Pierre Koffman, owner of London’s now defunct La Tante Claire. When he says ‘sauce’ he means ‘reduction’ and not cream or butter.
Eating one of Peter`s meals was like eating Koffman’s. The produce was so pure. The cooking was so basic. You felt you could do the whole thing over again once you`d finished eating.
So, what did I have? Of course, the Bresse chicken... the culminating gourmet treat of the trip... presented on a plate of China white... the bird was white as snow. Its skin was translucent, almost transparent. The flesh was firm yet juicy. This patrician bird of birds is the result of an intensive regimen of free range foraging (for snails); diet (buttermilk and corn) and a month or so of rest before the kill.
But you couldn’t go wrong. Everything was superb. I had Farmhouse pate in aspic to start whilst another ordered snails (the freshest, most buoyant snails I have ever seen) These snails had the cleanest, whitest shells and whilst I don’t know precisely the method of breeding and kill I suspect like most things Bresse it is immaculate. Another had timbales of courgette and aubergine puree. Delicious!
Most of us ordered the Bresse chicken, but one or two had lamb or veal. The puddings were local – nougat house sundae, winemaker pear; and there was an assortment of superb local cheeses.
Leaving the table without feeling bloated, I plumped for a demitasse and a brandy, and sat around in absolute heaven until the owners turned us all out at closing time.
Monday has been Louhan`s market day since having got its charter in the 13th century. The market spans some 10 hectares supporting three distinct precincts. On the High Street you’ll find fruit and veg and cheese and produce. There`s a great cheesemonger selling a rare Bresse Blue and another proferring Savarin from Dijon.
Around the 14th century Gothic church of St Pierre (that resplendent roof of glazed coloured tiles) traders sell clothes, shoes, handbags and wristwatches. It reminds a bit of Covent Garden market today but at a fraction of the price.
A group of local ladies were fighting over the purchase of floral print French pinneys (or housecoats) – the kind which were popular in the Fifties and still are in this part of France.
One woman shouted to the trader, ‘How do I look?’ The trader pointed toward a hitched-up try-on room (right in the middle of the market) replete with mirror, hangings and frame. The woman smiled. She entered. The deal was done.
The third and last precinct is the agricultural market where local farmers come to sell everything from Longface clocks and Wellington boots to farm feed and garden tools.
But the real ploy is the sale of livestock which some liken to a zoo and thus tout in support of amusement for children.
Unfortunately I cannot agree and felt a real depression at seeing six or seven hens or chickens or geese or rabbits crammed together in a cage big enough for just one. It’s a real acknowledgement of the heroism of these creatures not only that they don’t peck each other to death, but they endure with a minimum of antipathy.
Huddled and trembling – their sweet, furry faces looking at you via eyes of foreshadowed death – they revert to historical memory. They know they are going to die. The only exceptions are the dogs which sleep soundly knowing they are loved and admired and will be looked after eternally.
There are pens of capons, cocks and poulettes. There are eggs of every conceivable kind of chicken and poultry. There are old capons and rabbits – quaking, shaking, trembling. A rooster was crowing from atop his cage. A small boy ran over to pet him but was remonstrated by his mother.
We came across a breeder selling AOC Bresse poultry which was probably killed the very morning and whose translucent white feathers, bright red crest and grey/blue legs were perceptibly intact. All wear an identifying ring on their leg leg and a seal on the neck naming the slaughterer.
And there were pom pom ducks (with full bushy crests)... I fell in love with these ridiculously darling creatures.
There were ponies and prize rabbits; goats, roosters (squawking!) and puppies.
Did you ever want something not to end? That’s the way I felt about this trip around Burgundy’s ancient markets.
We lunched at our guide Marie-Paul’s ranch house in the foothills of the Jura on the border between France and Switzerland. The ranch belonged to her great-grandfather and looked like something out of a Hollywood western. Very Mexican! And why not? Mexico was a French colony for many years. I well expected Lee Van Cleef to walk in through the front door!
Veronique Beigenger whose remit is to meet and greet and then to despatch journalists joined us for lunch and our visit to a Bresse breeding farm. The farm belongs to Jean C`aude. It gave us a chance to see the birds in their natural habitat- grazing... resting!
Fluttering initially when removed from their cages, they gradually relaxed as they got to know and trust. It’s a foul fate which awaits the fowl. A nasty scenario, but then I am after all a carnivore. The method and manner of breeding precludes resistance since the birds are born ‘within the box’. The breeder is the pack leader and the friend. Thus most if not all of their native instincts- their animal instincts – have been diminished if not annihilated.
I smelled of cheese and jam and mustard as I made for the train on my way back to London. The immigration officer sniffed – ‘Mustard- French?’ ‘Dijon’, I replied and smiled. ‘What`s wrong with Colman’s English mustard?’
Sandra Shevey runs English-speaking tours around Burgundy’s ancient markets.
Hospitality courtesy: Rail Europe – www.raileurope.co.uk
Burgundy Tourism – www.crt-bourgogne.fr
Sandra also runs walks around London markets and has a dvd. She also runs multi-city walks around Britain, France and the EU.