Sun, mud crabs and hula: market day in a French island town
It’s 9am and the sweat is already beginning to bead on my brow as we walk into the Pouembout Grand Marché. Today the RT1, the main highway from Nouméa to the northern tip of New Caledonia, is closed and detours are in place.
The reason? The 12th anniversary of the Pouembout Grande Marché. A special day-long street festival has begun on this dazzingly and very warm Saturday morning, as New Caledonians and expats come together to celebrate.
I have learnt many things about this tropical French territory during the months I have lived here as an expat. One is that its people love a market. Happily, markets are one of my favourite things in which to indulge. And unlike the usual modest fare at the weekly Saturday market, today’s bumper market is a wonderful mélange of local produce, second-hand items, hot snacks, plants, stalls of new trinkets and clothes, and of course, music and entertainment. Quel bonheur!
The dulcet strains of French language country music fill the air, mingling with the smoky aromas of barbequing meat. A stall of jewellery, many made from shells, wood and semi-precious stones, is tempting me. I pick up a ring made from a seashell, topped with many naturally occurring spiny points.
« Cette bague est très dangereuse, non? » I joke with the stallholder. She laughs and we move on.
My heart gives a little flutter as I spot a lovely shaded stall, laden with lush green plants. I have spied little pots of menthe. Mint is not easily come by in New Caledonia so I scoop up the nearest pot as quick as a wink. To round out my fledgling herb garden at home I also buy a healthy pot of persil. I’m happy with my garden treasures and we keep wandering, stopping occasionally to chat to friends and neighbours.
There are several stalls groaning with many jars and bottles of wondrous homemade treats and condiments. Sirop de citron, sirop de miel and sirop d’hibiscus are particularly popular, easily identifiable in whisky bottles.
Various jars of pickles adorn the clothed tables, including jars of achard crabe which is pickled crab meat, loaded with garlic and spices and fabulous on a fresh crust of baguette.
Further on, under the shade of a large tree, is a group of local kanak women with produce for sale. Among them is igname, or yam, a locally grown root vegetable which is a kanak food staple.
Other stalls boast boxes of chokos, pumpkins and live trussed mud crabs which are caught locally among the mangroves and mudflats.
There is a flurry of excitement when music strikes up and a hula troupe from a neighbouring town take to the stage in the middle of the street. The gorgeous dancing of the girls in their skirts, long hair flowing, hands and hips in unison to French and New Caledonian pop beats, confirms the relaxed and joyous celebration underway.
We watch and cheer with some neighbourhood friends, enjoying the community vibe. The sun is high in the sky and people are still arriving but unfortunately it is time for my tired children (and their foot-weary parents) to return home. But I am counting the days – and my francs – until the next Grand Marché!Images:
1. A selection of jewellery made from natural elements at Pouembout market stall.
2. The stall where I made the happy discovery of pots of menthe and persil.
3. ‘Confitures achards sirops’ for sale at many market stalls.
4. Kanak ladies rest in the shade while offering igname for sale.
5. Live mud crabs for sale.