So I’m in France this week, staying in a rustic farmhouse with a very small smallholding (it is slowly getting bigger, with the addition of some goats, lambs and rabbits.) I’m here largely to cook for a group of 25 people and this involves sourcing all the ingredients for the 3 weeks that I am catering for. Now, being in France puts quite an interesting spin on things…
From the farmhouse, the nearest supermarket is a 50 minute drive, and it doesn’t have the same variety of foods that I am used to. Rice noodles, for example, have not been easy to come by, so Pad Thai is now off the menu. Fresh coriander is a difficult herb to find which makes tagine night a little less tasty. And popping to the supermarket for an extra pint of milk is also off the menu.
It’s also true that the availability of fruit and veg feels more limited. I was stunned when I asked one of my hosts if they could pick up some chard or spinach at the local farmers market only to be told that “it’s not the season for spinach and chard”. I didn’t really comprehend that, because my own chard and spinach have been doing really very well since mid June, and I thought that they’d be a little ahead of me given that it tends to be warmer in the south of France. I asked if she could double check for me, but she came back saying that it wouldn’t be ready for a few weeks yet.
I also asked about aubergines as I wanted to make a ratatouille. “No”, she said “we don’t grow aubergines in this region. It’s too high, too cold. You have to go down the valley, 40 minutes away”. Again, I was surprised. Ratatouille is a staple part of the French diet, so I had assumed aubergines would be abundant everywhere.
My surprise prompted some discussion with my hosts and once I’d accepted that the veg season here doesn’t quite tally with the veg season in the UK we started talking about the relationship different cultures have with food. In this region (up in the hills quite far from the coast), it seems, the locals have a really tangible understanding of where their food comes from. If they’re invited to a picnic and asked to bring something, they don’t immediately pop online to find a healthy and impressive salad or quiche to make. They go into the garden to see what’s growing. They call back on memories of the foods they’ve eaten with their families as they grew up. They use the ingredients that they have locally…oodles of goats cheese, plenty of onions (of course!) and all sorts of charcuterie produce. It seems that eating this way and understanding where the food comes from and when it’s in season is something that is deeply engrained, from a very young age. The children in the village don’t eat many fish fingers or baked beans. They just eat whatever the adults are eating.
It has all interested me and made me very aware of my own relationship with food and the seasons. I grow my own and I have a pretty big veg patch with a wide variety of different things growing, but I am forever nipping to Sainsbury’s to pick up the odd celeriac (which I love but have not yet grown successfully) at any time of year or a squash that is completely out of season so that I can roast it up for a warm, lentil and goats cheese salad. And I know fully well that those things have been shipped over from other countries. It’s very convenient, but I’m not sure I feel very good about it right now.
Perhaps 3 weeks of cooking with locally sourced produce will teach me some very valuable lessons – it’s certainly proving a challenge.