Thursday, December 1, 2011

Grapes and Garlic

When I left Seattle four years ago the locavore and seasonal food movement was really starting to take hold. Weekly produce markets were popping up all over the place, meat lovers sought out happy meat and restaurants were dropping farmer's names like rockstars on their menus. Conscious eaters were taking an interest in heirloom vegetables, asking questions about what farmers were feeding their cows and changing the way they navigated through the continuously well stocked produce sections of American supermarkets. Eating seasonally in Seattle was a choice that required a certain amount of work, you had to turn a blind eye to the pretty red strawberries in October and head for the pears, ignore the racks of lamb in December and wait for the spring and summer months, even though asparagus was available all year round you had to figure out when the season was and only buy it then.

The French public is consistently praised for their good food habits and sensitivity to the seasonality of ingredients. Is it in their genetics? A better sense of self control? A natural born desire to respect our mother earth and only enjoy tomatoes in August? Possibly...
but that's only part of it. You see France isn't necessarily full of enlightened consumers who make conscious choices to eat with the seasons. In France, if you would like to eat melon in winter you can't, because you won't find any. Plums, new potatoes, peas, peaches, white asparagus, artichokes, rasberries, shelling beans... these delicious finds flicker on to the market for a matter of weeks then disappear into the darkness of the off season not to be seen again until the following year. If you don't get your fill of dark sweet cherries in June then you are fresh out of luck if you have a hankering in August.

Even if you consider yourself to be an informed eater, the severity of the french food calendar can still catch you off gard. I had a funny moment with an American chef friend of mine who has also been in Paris for a few years. One night as we were cooking dinner and talking about french grocery shopping he said, "Yeahhhh.. who knew? Grapes have a season? I mean it makes sense that eating grapes are harvested at the same time we harvest grapes for wine (in the fall) but I just never put two and two together." The same sort of an "ohh yeah" moment happened to me this spring. In April I was rummaging around my produce guy's baskets looking for garlic. All I could find were dusty bulbs with shriveled cloves and sprouted tops. Towards the end of May, when I had given up completely on using garlic in my kitchen, I started to see large electric green and white bulbs showing up in the markets. Often tied to the top of the stalls, these potent plants dangled at just about nose height. Smelling that distinctive smell I immediately asked my vegetable lady about them, "It is L'Ail Frais or fresh garlic and is the first of the season. Its delicate stalk can be prepared and eaten like a leek and its cloves are a brilliant white that are both sweet and fiery!". Knowing the time I had with this ingredient was going to be short lived, I bought bunches of the stuff which perfumed my apartment... and possibly my neighbor's as well.

All produce sellers in France must mark the price per kilo and the country of origin. These are two great ways to clue into the French produce calendar, if the melon you are eyeing had to fly up from Marocco or travel here from Spain then the French melon season is close but not yet here, give it a few weeks. Or if those petits-pois are outrageously expensive then the season may have just ended and only those shoppers desperate to hold onto the tender days of spring will buy them. Which admittedly I sometimes do... in fact... while I am confessing... I feel the need to tell you that I am currently back in Seattle visiting my family for the holidays and while I was shopping in the lush and misty produce section of the Queen Anne Metropolitan Market I simply could not resist those long thin spikes of asparagus, the blueberries and the sweet corn on the cob. This scandalously out of season produce somehow leaped into my shopping cart and I didn't have the heart to put them back. Sorry mother earth. Just a brief detour. We'll be back to Paris soon enough eating citrus and sandy carrots until the far off days of spring bring back the peas and strawberries!


Julie said...

Yay finally a new and informative post! I can not seem to figure out how to send you a private message so this will have to do! I am very interested in living and working in France and so have been trying to find american companies with branches in France. I was wondering what company you worked for that had the international branch in France (the one you mentioned in the very beginning of this blog)? Any and all information would be helpful, merci :)

Amandinette said...

You would enjoy Provence where it seems to me that garlic is around year-round; obviously during certain months it is less flavorful. Attention à la orthographe du moitié est en français, l'autre moitié en anglais!

Kristina Emmons said...

Aww, I live in the Seattle area so when I read you were here it made me feel closer to you. Even though you are a stranger! Sometimes I mourn the fact that we don't eat like Europeans. They seem to do things with such common sense. And I'll bet the food tastes better too...(salivating)