It is rather intriguing to me to note the items one takes for granted in one country which are unknown in another, neighbouring one. I’m not talking here about such abstruse delicacies as marmite, cancoillotte, or chinotto but rather the ubiquity of spring greens and curly kale in Britain and their total absence in France, whereas you can get endive and lambs lettuce by the armful in France but can never lay your hands on cicoria or puntarelle, which are readily available in Italy in season.
And that points up another thing. We notice that your average Waitrose or Tesco has a reliably solid selection of the same fruit and veg year round whilst here what is on offer varies with the seasons. It’s the same in Italy: a sure sign of spring are the handwritten notices warning customers about loose broad beans for sale (apparently people with a certain genetic susceptibility may develop a blood disorder through contact with them) and you will see fat bunches of baby artichokes, asparagus and the aforementioned puntarelle for just a brief period before they make way for the tomatoes, aubergines and other summer vegetables.
Seasonality is definitely something we take for granted. I once saw a huge poster declaiming “Les Fruits de France, c’est maintenant ou c’est dans un an!” which was decorated with mouth-watering pictures of strawberries, peaches and other summer fruits. Eat them now, or wait a year, and it is certainly the case that if you want raspberries or apricots right now you’ll have to look in the freezer, either your own or the cabinet in the supermarket.
Even the butchers’ shops change their wares with the changing seasons. Obviously there is Easter lamb and veal for Spring navarin dishes along with our own Fin Gras du Mézenc to kick things off. Then as the sun warms up and people get out the barbecues, an array of chops and grillades appear, there are serious discussions about the pricey Côte de Boeuf and “on attaque les merguez!” Our butchers make their own sausages, pâtés and terrines, and woe betide you if you ask for a smoked sausage in June! For that you have to wait until November, when you are offered all the bits and pieces for choucroute garnie (smoked pork and sausages, garlic sausage, local “frankfurters” and salted pork knuckle) cuts of beef for slow cooked daubes and Morteau sausages to cook with lentils.
In the markets there are chestnuts, squash and root vegetables for sale and not a lot else. But I don’t really mind. I like fitting the food to the season and although it’s grey and dark out we’ll soon get the first of the new season’s oranges, always a highlight for me, which will keep on until the last of the Tarocchi blood oranges from Sicily in late February.
The producers chat and stamp their feet to keep warm. I wish I had not disposed of a great pair of clogs someone once gave me. With wooden soles and plaited straw uppers lined with sheepskin they would have been just the job to keep Brice snug as he sells his wine on these chilly late autumn days.