I went up to an occasional farmers’ market yesterday at les Fauries above Arlebosc. As I was walking towards the action I overheard a pair of ladies remarking “we ought to have brought a knife, there are some really good dandelions up here”, and indeed there were! It was a gloriously sunny day though with a stiff northerly wind. The apricot trees are beginning to flower and the grass is shooting up, but it’s still chilly when the sun goes in (what my mother used to call “the blackthorn winter” and indeed the blackthorn is in flower).
Spring is on its way and it’s time to eat our bodies into shape.
In Britain, after the excesses of the midwinter bacchanalia, the papers are full of detox plans and slimming advice, shortly to be followed by the anti detox columns which point out that it is January, and the dead of winter. The days are short and dark, the weather is horrible and it hardly seems the right moment to put one’s body under such stress. Whereas in Mediterranean countries people are still eating warming soups and stews at this time of year. After all in France Christmas and New Year dinners centre around oysters, smoked salmon and champagne and if you steer clear of the yule log (which isn’t hard to do) your waistline won’t come to much harm. Midwinter is the time to make pot-au-feu, boeuf en daube, pintade au chou, smoked saucisse de morteau with white beans, and other heartening fare.
The detox comes once nature begins to reawake and the first bitter shoots and herbs appear as the days grow longer. Then you will find people out in the fields and on the hillsides, sharp knife in hand, cutting dandelion roots and shoots, early lambs lettuce, chicory and, a little later, wild asparagus. The idea is to purify the blood and prepare the body for the move outdoors again into the Spring sunshine, which is often considered to be dangerous. In Milan last week in our other life as tour guides, we had a delicious simple Spring salad made of thinly sliced raw artichokes and parmesan shavings in a light oil and lemon dressing. I won’t be able to find those tiny artichokes here for a while, but dandelion salad, although a bit of a fiddle to make, is definitely on the menu, as is nettle soup.
The lady who took us collecting dandelions many years ago explained that you should cut them when the rosette of leaves is still flat to the ground with a small flower bud in the centre. She showed us how to run a sharp knife around the base and lift a little stalk, which gives a delicious nutty flavour to the salad. You scrape and clean the base as you would do for a mushroom and then split the plant in two. Wash the leaves carefully and trim them to a convenient size, discarding any which are too large and tough. (Some people recommend heating the salad bowl if the leaves are too bitter but this shouldn’t be necessary). Dress the salad with a sharp vinaigrette made with wine vinegar, a little oil, salt, pepper and finely chopped shallot. Toss well and top with diced hard boiled egg.
Nettles are a good source of iron and magnesium, they are said to help with rheumatism and have a diuretic and purifying effect on the body. To make the soup, pick a pound of young nettle leaves (carefully, although when very young they do not sting) and make the soup with an onion, potato, garlic and stock in the usual way, puréeing it at the end.
By the way it struck me that in Welcome to the Free Zone, Mme Hermelin is not being entirely idiosyncratic serving nettle soup to the guests at her pension, but the authors, who never miss a trick, are subtly underlining her tight-fistedness since it is far too late in the season for nettles to be palatable, no doubt the reason why her husband has to chop them up. As Victor Hugo observes in Les Miserables: Quand l’ortie est jeune, la feuille est un legume excellent, quand elle viellit elle a des filaments et des fibres comme le chanvre et le lin. Hachée l’ortie est bonne pour la volaille; broyée, elle est bonne pour les bêtes à cornes. (Young nettle leaves make an excellent vegetable but older ones are as tough and fibrous as hemp and flax. Chopped up they can be fed to poultry and if mashed to cattle and other horned animals).
These guys obviously know what’s good for them!