A delicious dose of asparagus for vegetarian week and Celiac Awareness month.
After twenty years of living in France, there are still many items on my French fascination list. One of them is touching fruit or vegetables at the farmers’ markets.
As a Paris new arrival, you can imagine my shock seeing ‘Ne touchez pas!’ prominently written on blackboards above stacks of grapes and bananas at our local street market. It was in the 7th arrondissement’s rue Cler, which is a permanent market street (as opposed to temporary market stalls that set up at certain times in the week) and just a 10 minute walk from the Eiffel Tower. Tourists would pop along, grabbing just one or two fruits to go, which made the touchy Parisian sellers go bananas.
I learned my lessons in these early days, pathetically trying to state my case with a pigeon French accent before disappearing à l’anglaise down rue Cler, tail between my legs, carrying the forbidden fruit that I’d touched in little brown paper bags. It’s no wonder we had to move to les banlieues, on the outskirts.
Here, at our local market in St Germain-en-Laye, it has taken a while to avoid the rotten surprise apricots at the bottom of the bag or the mouldy bottom layer of loose expensive Gariguette strawberries. I’d play safe and go for the pre-packaged.
Was it the accent? Was it being polite and remembering your s’il vous plaît and merci talk, which the French – quite rightly – love?
My first tactic, to avoid them hearing the accent, was to push my French children forward and let them do the talking. En plus, they received freebies for their girlie grins and cute curls. Gradually, with more confidence and just taking the French language by the sweet corns, the best way has been simple: just be your chatty self (chatterbox=bavarde, meaning you salivate a lot, ahem).
Case of the rhubarb last week: greeted seller with Ah! La rhubarbe! – using the couple of back-of-the-throat spitting ‘r’s in there (throwing the arms in the air, trying not to knock over the old lady next to me) – and, as I quickly passed over 4 large sticks, asked if I could help with these, as it was a long stretch over the stall for him. Voilà.
As for these Plougastel strawberries straight from Brittany, you can see our job is just to hand over the Euros. No touchy.
Sniffing melons is another case. There’s something extremely fun watching the male sellers seriously juggle their melons about. The French take it for granted that if a Provençal melon from sunny Cavaillon is to be served in 2 days, they need to sniff to check it will be perfect by Sunday lunchtime. Normally they expertly sniff for you and get it right. You want to sniff them yourself? Flattery is the buzzword. Tell them they have lovely looking melons? Nope. You try that one! (I was just checking to see if you were still reading at this point.) Seriously, though, squished melons from prodding are not fun.
Admiring the bundles of asparagus, at least you can see if the produce is fresh by the looks of their spear heads (firm, compact and dry). If you haven’t already tried it yet, taste this Asparagus Clafoutis from Le Bristol’s chef, Eric Fréchon (using green or white asparagus), another recipe in the egg yolk collection.
Now, if you were caught touching and checking out this fresh horseradish from Germany, cellophane-sealed in all its glory, what on earth would happen, do you think? Would they take you seriously or would you seriously be taken away by the local Gendarmes?
Madame was kind. She politely went straight up to the seller and asked if she could help herself to the kiwis and, before he could even answer, she was in there picking the best ones out. The seller pretended not to look and was remaining calm, although do you wonder how he felt inside?
Quick! Nobody’s around here. Let’s be daring and touch a pineapple! Fancy a sticky pineapple recipe? Coming up next on le blog.
When the asparagus season finally pokes its head out to say bonjour, it’s time to get totally asparagused. Hearing the calls of ‘Aspergez-vous!’ at our local market just outside Paris, I do what I’m told and end up buying so much asparagus that I could open a shop with all the elastic bands they’re bound in.
Weigh-laden with our usual favourites from Monsieur Dee’s poultry stall, I couldn’t help swooning over impressively fat, fresh white asparagus spears which are first to arrive pride of place from sun-kissed Provence.
It’s time to snap these asparagus stems. Snapping asparagus is easy when they’re fresh: they should be firm, have compact heads and not look dry at the stems. Just snap them where they break naturally, about 1/3 from the bottom. Ideally, eat asparagus fresh on the day, otherwise store white asparagus in the fridge for up to 4 days in a humid kitchen towel, heads upwards.
I love tossing fresh white asparagus in sage butter and serving simply with a crunchy baguette, but this is a warmer starter to welcome this chilly Spring. I discovered the recipe in a magazine last year featuring Eric Fréchon, chef at Le Bristol, Paris. But could I find the magazine that I’d painstakingly placed in a ‘safe place’ for this season? No (don’t laugh, Mum). Luckily, I jotted it down and see he’s written a book on Clafoutis.
Macaron lovers will be glad to note that it uses up FOUR egg yolks, but don’t be fooled: this is such a light way to start a meal – and it’s gluten free, too.
White Asparagus Clafoutis Recipe
Recipe Adapted by Eric Frechon, Author of Clafoutis.
Preparation Time: 40 minutes
Cooking Time: 35 minutes
1 bundle white asparagus (500 g /1 lb)
4 egg yolks
10 g (4 tsp) cornflour
300 ml /10 fl oz single cream
100 g /3 oz fresh parmesan, grated
Handful of pine nuts (optional)
1. Preheat the oven to 160°C. Wash the asparagus spears and snap them 2/3rds of the way down, where they break naturally. Peel them as close as possible to the spear heads. Keep the peelings!
2. Cut the asparagus in 3, reserving the spear heads.
3. Fill a large pan with water and bring to the boil with the asparagus peelings, adding a tablespoon of sugar (to reduce the bitterness).
When bubbling, remove the peelings and cook only the spears for 3 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon.
4. Using the same cooking water, drop in the rest of the asparagus chunks and cook for 7 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, prepare the clafoutis batter: mix the eggs, cornflour, cream, grated parmesan and season with salt and pepper.
6. Drain the asparagus chunks and, using a hand blender or food processor, mix the asparagus and cream together.
7. Pour into a non-stick tart dish and decorate with the asparagus spears. I like to sprinkle over some lightly toasted pine nuts for a crunchy texture.
8. Bake in the oven for 35 minutes until golden.
Note: If making individual versions, pour into 6 silicone briochette moulds and bake for only 20 minutes. Turn them out directly on guests’ plates for a posh but simple starter.
Enjoy this asparagus clafoutis either warm or hot from the oven and serve with a glass of chilled Pinot Blanc from the Alsace.
Now it’s your turn to snap them this Spring and become totally asparagused!