This has been a year if ever there was to celebrate green food – this year’s crops have been the best for some time. Peas and broad beans in particular have been special – no horrid mealy texture in either.
We have a tradition is feasting on these ‘primeurs’ as the French like to call them – where the best there are come from the rich soils along the Loire valley. That’s historical because of getting fresh produce to Les Halles, then the main food market in the centre of Paris and now a tourist trap saved only by Joe Allen (American I know, but a haven nonetheless) and Le Chien Qui Fume – even my old favourite, Au Pied du Cochon, had succumbed to the tourist dollars and yen when I last ate there. Gone are the giants in their blood staned aprons sipping Pastis and Kirs – only a handful of meat traders remain in th district.
Preparing, cooking and feasting on simply vegetables is a wonder. A vegetarian I am not, nor ever could be – but eating no meat a days or so each week is no hardship when there’s plenty fine produce to be had in the markets.
We once ran a ”let’s see if they notice?” experiment for a big food group who employed us to run think-tanks – a creative device for getting their marketeers to think outside their boxes and recognise new ideas were all about, if only they could be trained to spot them by thinking laterally.
Good food was always central to the process. On this particular session we located in the Richmond studio kitchen of food photographer Anthony Blake. It had been the HQ of Lyn Hall’s La Petite Cuisine for many years and was splendidly equipped with heavy duty stoves, huge work surfaces, copper pans and more. More so, for softees like me. it was hallowed ground as many of the great French chefs had demonstrated their skills in that place. Many I’d met courtesy of AB in their own kitchens in France – going to market at 0400 with a three star chef is something money can’t buy. I’ve done it many times.
This day, around this time of year – and it a was on the cool side as I recall, when a long cooked rich braise might have been the more the menu choice than a plate of greens - we served vegetables and wine. No more was said. The freshest and best tiny peas and broad beans, the thinnest of French haricots verts, baby lettuce, green and white asparagus, celery hearts, endive, chicons and fresh dug waxy potatoes – all steamed, poached, braised or grilled depending – some cooked two ways and most dressed with a selection of fine olive oils.
The wines served were ‘white’ or ‘red’ en-carafe - everyone knowing the Longhouse style knows we always would offer wine by terroir or varietal. This time the team was briefed to say nothing more revealing than red or white – all the wines were upscale Californian. The whites were by Kistler and the reds from FF Coppola and Opus One. There were certainly three from Kistler – the memory is hazy on the red apart from that amazing Cabernet Sauvignon Coppola has just launched in London.
Fresh fruit and cheeses followed. At no time did anyone ask about the wines – which were off the scale of high end excellence – or comment on their meatless meal. It was because they’d feasted and excessed on small portions of extraordinary produce – only small servings of wine were poured into the over-sized Italian glasses.
We do this at home too – and in a meat hungry family, there’s never any complaint that no beast was sacrificed for today’s table.
I hope this inspires because you have only a few more weeks to eat like this until next Spring – the asparagus has already long gone and the peas and beans are all but finished. With a good producer supplier, there’s always something to inspire – and there many dozens of ways to cook the same vegetable. Quick cooking to a point where the vegetable is barely warmed through has all but passed on – young chefs would say they’d taken their inspiration from the Chinese and their stir-fry. Untrue, they were presenting near raw warm vegetables to their customers – a trend as thankfully near its end those freaky ’baby vegetables’ - they should be reserved for a restaurant chain called Snow Whites – where some of the staff work harder than others..
Green is good. The darker and richer the green, generally the more nutritious and stronger flavoured the vegetable. Experiment with long cooking like they do in Germany – then allow yourself some rare game. ‘Allez les Verts’ as they cry in St Etienne. Never ever say there’s nothing in the vegetable department, or your local market. Common sense not cookery books will guide you through.
Eat locally produced food by all means – but only where it’s good - but please don’t be bullied into not enjoying quality that’s been flown in from another continent. It’s not always possible to be a locavore. Equally produce picked before its time and ‘ripened’ artificially will never have taste nor texture of produce as Nature intended.