When I was about six years old, my late half-sister Lucille moved to France. After completing her language studies in South Africa, she went to do an Honours course in Aix-en-Provence, fell in love, got married and never moved back to South Africa. At the time, South Africans did not really do that sort of thing (this was the 70s and way before the concept of the gap year had been invented!), and so it seemed incredibly exotic to have a close relative living in a foreign country. Thanks to Lucille, I was the only girl in my class who could count to ten in French, and I could sing happy birthday in English, Afrikaans AND French. I thought I was terribly clever 😉
In the early 1980s, we took a family trip to France, partly so that me father could attend a conference and partly to visit Lucille near Bordeaux. I remember arriving at her apartment one morning and being parked there with the menfolk while Lucille and my mom went shopping to buy ingredients for lunch. I later remember my mom telling my dad with eye-rolling bewilderment about the shopping trip to the local market. “It took forever! First we had to go to the fish man; then the cheese man; then the potato man; then the butter man. And at each stall we had to stop and enquire about his health, his wife’s health and their dog’s/cow’s/goat’s health. And then we had to choose each individual item – each potato, each peach. It was ridiculous! So impractical! I could never live in France!” My ever-practical mother had always been a great believer in convenience and viewed shopping for food as a necessary evil. To her, the supermarket, offering the possibility of a one-stop shop and as little time-consuming social interaction as possible, represented progress and modernity. And because I was only about 12 years old, I took my mother’s words as gospel and filed the whole market experience under “Weirdness, general (French)”.
It’s funny what a difference a few decades make. Now that I, like Lucille, am living in Europe, I find myself thinkng back often to that family anecdote. What seemed so outlandish and foreign to my mother now seems totally natural to me – show me a market and I will sprint towards it, eager to talk to the producers and stallholders, and to choose each individual tomato for my salad. I shop at supermarkets, but only because we have no real neighbourhood market where I live – and because there are only 24 hours in every day! But as soon as I have a little more time – like when I am on holiday – I head for the market. Last week as many of you know, we were travelling through France, first to the wonderful Vaucluse region in Provence and then back to England via stops in Dijon and Paris. We had nothing planned for our final morning in Paris, so I asked my friend Val who lives there to recommend a market. Asking a Parisian for their favourite market is like asking a Londoner about his favourite pub – everybody has a different one. And the one that Val recommended was the Rue Grenelle Sunday market.
Situated under the railway lines, a long, straight avenue of stalls stretches as far as the eye can see between the La Motte-Picquet – Grenelle and Dupleix Metro stops (15th arrondissement). This is no tourist market either, but is bustling with locals in search of provisions for their Sunday lunch. Although there are a few of the obligatory cheap sunglass/sandal/clothes stalls, the focus here is definitely on the food: glistening fresh fish stalls sit side by side with huge hunks of Charolais beef; the egg man sits a few metres down from the honey man; chickens in various stages of being roasted sizzle quietly as their rotisseries turn; wines from Bourgogne are sold beside bottles of pastel coloured jus de pommes and jus de poires; vast oceans of roses and peonies perfume the air; and everywhere there is such a cornucopia of beautiful fruit and vegetables as to make choice near-impossible. Giant heirloom tomatoes rub shoulders with fuzzy red peaches; vivid orange apricots blush scarlet and the sight of the huge, crispy concombres; courgettes rondes jostle for space alongside exuberantly purple-striped garlic; artichokes as big as my head loom over delicate petit pois peas; and everywhere the seasonal bounty of thick white asparagus and scarlet cherries abounds.
Spoilt for choice is not the word! In the end, we walked away with vine tomatoes, beef tomatoes, large and small artichokes, courgettes rondes, a big bag of cherries, and of course, white asparagus. I had rubbed shoulders with real Parisians as I queued; I had marshalled my limited French vocabulary and communicated with the stallholder; and I had hand-selected each and every tomato. If my French were better, you can bet I would have asked after his wife and his cat as well.
Asparagus is a perennial plant native to Western Europe which is prized for its edible stems and shoots. Asparagus are a good source of dietary fibre; vitamins A, C, E and K; B vitamins; folic acid; and minerals such as iron, phosphorus, potassium acid, selenium and chromium. White and green asparagus come from the same species – all that makes white asparagus white is the fact that it is grown in darkness, so the chrolophyll in the stems never photosynthesises or turns green. Although you often see the green asparagus for sale here in the UK, white asparagus is far more rare – but in the Netherlands, Spain, France, Poland, Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland, asparagus sold is almost exclusively white and it is prized for its tenderness and delicate flavour. White asparagus is only seasonally on the menu in these countries and asparagus dishes are advertised outside many restaurants, usually from late April to June. Many German cities even hold Spargelfests to celebrate the white asparagus harvest. With our bounty of fat white stems, I decided to hold a little Spargelfest of my own, choosing a dish that would emphasise rather than mask their delicate flavour. Asperges a la Flamande is a dish from Flemish Belgium which sees the asparagus simply steamed before being served topped with a sauce of boiled egg, butter, lemon and nutmeg. It is simplicity personified and really brings the flavour of the asparaus to the fore in a truly elegant dish. I also added a personal touch by sprinkling the dish with some of my newest addiction: Halen Mon oak-smoked sea salt from the Isle of Anglesey in Wales – a true entente cordiale between European and British produce.
ASPARAGUS A LA FLAMANDE (serves 4)
1kg fresh white asparagus
80g butter, melted
2 tsp fresh lemon juice
a fistful of flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
black pepper and smoked sea salt (I used Halen Mon)
Hard boil the eggs (about 6 minutes), then cool, peel and mash finely with a fork.
Using a vegetable peeler, peel the woody end of the asparagus spears, and chop off the bottom 2 centimetres or so of each stem. Rinse and place in a steamer over boiling water. Steam for about 20 minutes or until the desired tenderness is reached (this will depend on the thickness of your spears – mine were HUGE!).
Once the asparagus are done, melt the butter and mix it together with the eggs, lemon juice, parsley, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Spoon over the asparagus and serve at once, sprinkled with a little extra smoked salt.
DISCLOSURE – I received the Halen Mon sea salt as a free sample in the Plate to Page Somerset workshop goodie bag. In Paris I stayed at therather fabulous Sofitel La Defense at a discounted rate.
On Friday 22 June I will be speaking as part of a round-table discussion entitled “British Blogging Now” at the Britmums Live 2012 blogging conference in London – and there’s still time to register!
Have you booked your ticket yet to hear me speak at theSouth African Food & Wine Blogger Indaba in Cape Town, South Africa on 24 June? I am speaking on “Ethics, etiquette and why we blog”, as well as presenting two photography workshops – one on getting your camera off the auto setting, and one on Photoshop/post-processing together with the talented Alida Ryder of Simply Delicious. Buy your ticket today – they are selling out fast!