19 April 2009

Spring foods and herbs

Walt went to the Saturday-morning market in Saint-Aignan yesterday to look for locally grown asparagus. He found some. It was a man we often buy asparagus and strawberries from who had asparagus at a reasonable price — 6.00€/kg, or just over $3.50/lb. in U.S. terms, at current exchange rates.

Asperges blanches

The dollar is worth about 75 eurocents right now; that's the euro being worth $1.31 U.S. The euro went up to almost $1.60 last summer, so we were getting only about 63 eurocents for a U.S. dollar. It's better now, but when you live here with a limited income in $$, you have to pay attention to costs.

Anyway, you can see the difference between the asparagus we buy and the ones that grow untended out in the vineyard. The vineyard asparagus are the green ones. The cultivated ones, grown here along the Cher River Valley and over in neighboring Sologne, where the soil is sandy, are grown buried in sand so that sunlight doesn't turn them green.

Radishes, asparagus, and mint rooting in a glass of water

It's hard to say which is better, green or white asparagus. They are the same plant — only the growing methods are different. With the white ones, you have to peel each asparagus. Green ones don't need peeling. And the white ones take longer to cook. They have a more delicate, less asparagus-y flavor, maybe. We like both.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention our experiment with true wild asparagus. A few days ago, we cooked the slender stalks I had picked out back. Because it was an experiment, we decided not to cook the wild asparagus into an omelet or scrambled eggs, but to cook them separately and try them. To go with them, we made a mushroom risotto. Well, the wild asparagus turned out to be bitter. Almost too bitter to eat. I ate some by cutting them into small pieces and mixing them into the risotto. But I can't say I thought they were very good. Tant pis.

Herbs in planters. Mostly you see oregano.
Also cactus pads and a desert jade plant.

The other spring vegetable Walt picked up at the market was a big bunch of radishes. French people eat a lot of radishes. First you wash them well to get rid of any sand. You take them to the table slightly damp with the clear fresh water you washed them in. Then each person puts a pat of butter and a little pile of salt on a plate. Spread a little sweet butter on a nice piece of French bread. Take a radish and touch it to the salt so a little bit sticks to it. Then eat a bite of the salty radish and the crunchy bread spread with sweet butter. Now I'm hungry.

One of the trees I'm keeping any eye on out in the vineyard
now has fruit on it. Plums, I guess. I'll soon know.

For lunch Walt is going to make an asparagus and ham pie. More on that in a day or two.

Another spring food is herbs. We've been lucky this year. Our parsley came back up and is green and leafy. It's more beautiful than it was last summer. And mint that we planted last summer has come back up too. It was attacked by an insect (we assume) last summer. All the leaves were completely covered underneath with what I assume was insect eggs. We couldn't eat it. Mint is supposed to be invasive, but ours died back while the parsley next to it thrived.

Parsley and mint growing in the well

I've also planted chives and some other mint in planter boxes. We gave up on the herb garden last summer. Weeds took it over when the weather was rainy, and it's hard to go weed it in rainy weather. So we are going to grow herbs in pots and planter boxes this year.

Last June CHM came to visit and he bought us a couple of tarragon plants from a vendor at the farmers' market in Montrichard. We planted them and they did fine. At the end of the growing season, I dug them up and put them in pots for the winter. I left the pots of tarragon outdoors, at the base of the south wall of the house. I didn't know if they would survive.

Tarragon survived the winter

Well, they did we have a couple of tarragon plants now. I've transplanted them into good potting soil. I want to save them, because the plants were very expensive — 6.00€ apiece. Chicken with tarragon is a classic combination.


Another herb that reseeded itself, or grew back from the roots, is oregano. I've transplanted a lot of it from the abandoned herb garden plot (where we will plant vegetables next month) into planters. It is thriving too. It has nice flowers in summertime.

I foresee lots of herby salads over the course of the summer.


  1. I wonder if those fruit are plums? They seem to have very long stalks. Don't know what else they might be though, as they don't look right for cherries either.

    I read a long time ago that parsley and mint do not like to grow together, so maybe that is part of the problem with your mint. The cold winter would have knocked it back and caused it to go dormant too.

    Proper French Tarragon is always a bit expensive, because it is more difficult to propagate than Russian Tarragon.

  2. PS Interesting that the wild asparagus was so bitter. Perhaps not totally surprising. Many wild veg are bitter, especially the early season ones. The bitterness was often considered desirable as an indicator of nutritional value. Mind you, bitterness can also be an indicator of poisonous compounds in a wild plant :-)

    All edible asparagus is the same species, but I was under the impression that the difference between white and green was not just a matter of horticultural approach. I think they are different varieties, which will tend to be more white or more green, as well as different thicknesses, however you raise them, although the earthing up or not enhances the desired colour and flavour. Celery is the same. (BTW, celery grows wild in the Loire too.)

  3. Hi Ken,
    Radishes with salt, butter and some bread are great. Mmmm.
    An alternative way of serving them is: spread a thick layer of cream cheese on a slice of bread (une tartine), sprinkle thin slivers of radish and finely chopped spring onion and some salt (optional)on top of the cheese. Enjoy with a glass of Geuze or Kriek beer. I know you don't really like beer, but these Geuze and Kriek beers have a slighly sour flavour, which goes wonderfully well with the creaminess of the cheese, the peppery taste of the radishes and the freshness of the spring onion.
    Of course, the beer is optinal too. A glass of rosé wine will do just as nice. Bon appetit! Martine

  4. Hi Ken

    I'm not clear whether your wild asparagus is the genuine article, or the wild "asparagus" we get here, which isn't actually asparagus at all -- it's a wild plant that produces very thin spears which happen to look like asparagus. This plant is indeed quite bitter, and is basically reserved for the "omelette de la St-Loup" -- on Easter Monday, families (or in our case practically the whole village) pick wild asparagus, make a fire from vine shoots and pulled-up vine stems, and picnic on an omelette made with the asparagus. It's usually a celebration of the first weather fine enough to eat outdoors -- unfortunately it rained this year :(

  5. Can't wait for that asparagus & ham pie !!

  6. Don't you just love picking your herbs straight from the garden?


  7. Veronica: good point about the other 'wild asparagus'. This is Spiked Star of Bethlehem Ornithogalum pyrenaicum, a small lily. It's known in Britain as Bath Asparagus, but is no relation to true asparagus. From Ken's pics, it seems he has true wild asparagus. Here is my photo of Spiked Star of Bethlehem just coming into flower http://lh3.ggpht.com/_q1gk42pzUhc/STFpNDaB5FI/AAAAAAAAFNI/V__BO3fjT48/s512/spiked_star_bethlehem_M.jpg.

  8. Proper French tarragon plants are expensive here too (although not that expensive!), and I've had no luck keeping one for more than two years. I wonder what I'm doing wrong?

    Mint, however, we've got nailed. We have more than enough mint for all occasions. Ours grows in the shade though.

    The verification word is "trite." Ouch.

  9. Hi Susan, regarding the wild asparagus, I ate more of it that Walt did, but neither one of us had any adverse digestive or other reactions after eating it. It was pretty bitter though.

    I've wondered why in France people mostly grow and eat white asparagus rather than green as in America. Maybe it's because the older varieties became bitter when they were allowed to grow up into the sunlight and turn green. Growing them buried in sand was a way to keep the bitterness away, and now white aparagus are what people are used to.

    The Larousse Gastronomique says that there are many varieties of asparagus but implies that all varieties can be grown so that they are either white, violet, or green. The white ones are grown protected from sunlight, the violet ones have just the tips exposed to the sun, and the green ones grow above ground. La coloration est donc fonction de la technique de production, Larousse Gastro. says. Le Val de Loire et la Sologne produisent près de la moitié de la récolte française... En France, c'est surtout sous le règne de Louis XIV que l'asperge commença à être en grande faveur...

  10. I should imagine wild asparagus has been eaten for long enough for us to be pretty sure it isn't poisonous. There is sometimes a fine line between tonic and poison though.

    I think you are probably right about why French people prefer the white.

    Chrissoup: I think tarragon is just not very vigorous, and not very long lived anyway (although 2 years would be annoyingly feeble). Cold winters and poor drainage probably do for it. I haven't grown it for years.

  11. I read this about mint:

    Mint can be affected by rust. This can be a deadly disease for mint plants. If you notice orange blobs on the underside of your mint leaves remove the leaves immediately.This is what we saw last summer. All the mint leaves were affected. Maybe the nearby parsley weakened the mint and made it more susceptible to rust.

    Now I also have some mint planted in a pot. I hope it will do better. We really like mint and lettuce with our Vietnamese spring rolls (nems).

    Our tarragon plants survived but with no real help from me. I dug them up and put them in a pot because I wanted to be able to till the garden plot up without worring about them. Now I have them in a planter and will hope for the best. Next winter I'll cover them with compost (autumn leaves) and hope they don't freeze. I've always heard that French tarragon is harder to keep going than Russian tarragon, but the former is much more aromatic.

  12. Chris, Jean-Pierre Coffe (a French food and gardening celebrity) says that tarragon "abhorre l'humidité et le froid".

  13. I really appreciate it when you compare euros/dollars for things. Makes it easier to relate to. I'm also enjoying learning more about growing vegetables.

    Snap peas sauteed in butter until slightly soft, add quartered radishes and chopped scallions, cook another 3 minutes, add coarse salt and serve. yum~!

  14. Thank you so much for the link to RTL. I have been listening to "the best of les grosses tetes".
    Last year I planted basil and mint next to each others and I got white flies. They also invaded my rosemary bushes. I tried everything. My neighbor even bought worm casting for us, but the white flies are back. Aaargh!!!

  15. I am heading to the grocery store now to buy fresh asparagus and ham. You answered my question of what to have for dinner tonight.

  16. Thanks Ken and Susan. It's quite possible that my tarragon froze, as we've had two cold winters in a row. When I replant, I'll shelter the pot from December to February (our "winter").

    It's in a pot with good drainage, so I don't think that's what's bothering it.


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