Monday, March 31, 2008

Eating the French Countryside

What menu is that?  Where is this restaurant?  Why it’s just outside, in your local French countryside. While living in France I did a couple study retreats in cooking french cuisine using, yes it's true, France’s wild edible plants.

In 2003, 2004, and 2005 took French ethnobotany courses with a French ethnobotanist called Francois Couplan, and the great outdoors (as much as France has them) was our menu.

The first edible plant tour I did was just out in the Ile de France region around Paris, and the second was in the Provence Alps.  I went into these retreats thinking I was going to do an intensive study of wild edible plant collection and preparation.  What I got was an amazing experience in French cuisine, culture and language.

Collecting Wild Plants: 

The reality is that many of the plants growing on the sides of the road and in pastures are edible, in France and everywhere.  We drive by them all the time without a clue as to their nature, properties or cultural history.  Our ancestors used to collect them and use them for medicines, rituals and general sustenance.  Today, though, with your local super market and easy access to mass-produced foods we’ve forgotten this amazing cultural heritage.

As I sat during the first hour of this study retreat, Dr. Couplan talked about the importance of connection to nature, and that we would spend our weekend learning to identify and use plants based on sight, touch, smell and taste. As we stepped out the Auberge’s (Inn’s) door he stopped us immediately.  This little weed was growing on the ground very inconspicuously.  Picking a leaf to show us, he said that the plant was from the Malvaceae plant family and was edible.  Commercially we’ve seen drinks from the flowers of this family, such as Hibiscus juice, or fruit from this family, such as Okra. (Sorry, it’s not a vegetable…if you look inside it’s got seeds and that’s a fruit; botanically speaking).  But little do we know that tons of species from this family grow all over the countryside and they’re also edible.

Then we moved on, stopping every so often for Dr. Couplan to point out yet a new plant and discuss its properties, both medicinally and gastronomically.  At each stop, I tried to get a plant specimen for pressing in my book and strained to understand his rapid French.  I madly wrote things down in my nature journal that were half English and half French as I hurried to obtain as much info as I could before he moved on to the next subject.  Looking back in my nature journal today I laugh at some of the hurried concoctions I wrote, such as this entry, “Eglantier – Rosa Canina  – Pas des roses sans épines (No roses without thorns) – Rose hips long used to ease coughs and sore throats – can also ferment to make wine – fruit often used to make jams - good in pizza???”

Cooking with Wild Plants: At the end of the day, after hiking around the woods and countryside, we returned to the Auberge with our collections. I rubbed the little welts on my fingers, obtained during the collection of the stinging nettle plants while looking over the massive mounds of plants we now laid on the long table before us. There were near 20 of us in this course, so we collected a LOT of items during the day. Sitting around, everyone started to discuss what we would cook.  Some mentioned a new idea to make a dessert of Ground Ivy leaves coated in honey and crystallized sugar. Others talked about the Stinging Nettle Pasta we could make, or the mixed salad of various greens we’ve collected, or Hogweed au Gratin, or an appetizer of toasted bread with Plantain Pesto on it.

The list was never ending.  Luckily Dr. Couplan had also come with a list of recipes that he and a famous gourmet French chef designed, and everyone also chose from that.

Once the group had agreed on a plan of action and menu for the night then everyone started moving. It was an amazing experience for me to watch these French in the kitchen. I’m your typical American that doesn’t find cooking second nature.  I’ve had to work at learning it over the years.  For these people it is indeed a second nature.  True, they are all between the ages of 30-60 and so come from the cooking culture of France.  The young French today do not exhibit these skills so readily anymore and are starting to fill up your local French McDonalds: a sad but real effect of globalization I’m afraid. Yet, in this group, they just instinctively knew how to make a plant extract, or soufflé, or whipped pancakes from scratch, or a special aperitif.  I stood by in awe. They knew because they grew up seeing it, doing it, and living it.

I spent most of my time in the kitchen watching as they quickly and easily whipped things together, kept tasting everything and discussing it, and then added a bit of this or a bit of that until it reached their expectations.  For them, it was the experience of making the food that mattered; where the actual process was as important as the outcome.

Finally we put all the creations onto the dishes in an appetizing manner and the food wa served. Not just one dish, but several courses of appetizers and apéritifs followed by the salad, then the main entree and then the dessert.  I was stuffed, and it was all completely delicious.

Getting by in a foreign language: 

I’m sure anyone who’s traveled anywhere has a few stories to share about language blunders. I’m no exception to this group. Seeing as this study retreat was in French, I spent the entire time doing my very best to follow as much detail as I could.  In the evening, after we were done eating our gourmet wild plant meal I sat around going back through my nature journal notes and trying to look up the plants in my botanical books.  I wanted to sort out the information I had received throughout the day. At one point, prior to heading up to his room for the night, Dr. Couplan came over and was looking through my botanical book with me and we discussed some of the plants we had collected that day, then he retired for the evening and I kept working.

The next morning we were back out in the field collecting and he was discussing a new plant we’d found when someone in the group asked him what plant family it was from. I was busy writing other things in my nature journal at this point and not paying attention. So we all know what happens when that’s the case: The teacher calls on you! Dr. Couplan calls out my name and asks me something. I look up. I give him the deer-in-the-head-lights look, and then say “Comment?” (Come again?) He repeats himself by asking me to identify the family of this plant.

Twenty pairs of eyes turned to me. He went on to say, “You know, the plant family we were discussing yesterday.” Then I remembered the plants we were talking about the previous evening while looking in my botanical books and I replied to him in French “Ah, hier soir dans le livre?” (Ah, Last night in the book?)

But, I didn’t pronounce the last word correctly.

In fact I completely blundered it and instead it sounded like I said, “Hier soir dans le lit?” (Last night in the bed?).

Needless to say everyone’s mouths dropped open wide as they looked from Dr. Couplan to me.  Dr. Couplan laughed and said, “Non, ce n’était pas un tête-à-tête.” (No, it wasn’t a private moment (in a bed)).

Then I realized what I had said and corrected myself quickly at which time the entire group started to laugh at me non-stop; but in a fun jesting way.

Ah the joys of speaking a foreign language! Yet, a little embarrassment is part of the experience of learning a new language, and I’m certainly now sure to never mispronounce “livre” again. I can also make Wild Plant Pesto Sauce and Hogweed au Gratin. Luckily for others interested in such an adventure, but without the French skills necessary, this same trip can be offered in English too.

The plants we collected: 

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