As anyone who does not shop at the hypermarchés here in France is aware, the pickings are rather slim in the winter months from local producers at the market. Although we do buy certain imported fruits and various fresh herbs no doubt grown in hothouses, I do still frequent the market get what I can from the local sellers. I imagine that before market logistics got to where they are today, people still ate well in Lyon and all through the Rhone valley through cold winters.
Recipes come in from Burgundy, the Limousin, Auvergne, specialties from Grenoble, and the upper Rhone Valley and the Alps, some even just floating in on the mist of the culture in general. What they have in common is that they elevate the most basic of winter vegetables to simple splendor. Every year a handful of good ones are added to the list. The great thing about these recipes is that they’ve been around long enough to spark stories and debate about their origins, yet as a rule are simple to execute. Some are as easy as bacon and chicory in winter salads, others involve a bit more lore. I love the hunt that comes with digging out all of the juicy details of a regional recipe.
Living in the modern world, during certain months we do resort to imports to stay healthy, of course. Last week I was drawn to a Carrefour circular that had been stuffed in our mailbox, because I have a particular weakness for mangoes, and my légumier at the Martinière Halle sells them at a pretty high price. Ripe, juicy, imported, yes. A ray of sunshine in the winter months. My favorite way of avoiding rickets. The ones he sells are small and sweet, ripened exactly to the day. “When do you plan to eat it, Madame?” he asks, and chooses just the right one. The price at Carrefour was precisely 1/3 of the price of my neighborhood specialist’s mangoes, so I decided after all to make a trip to the store. The last time I went to the hypermarché was April of last year.
I slogged in coat and gloves through the shopping mall, up two escalators and through security at the entrance of the store, then hiked through house wares to the escalator that would take me to the mango section. Indeed they were there, at the price advertised, and two women in robes and matching headdresses were shuffling through them, picking them up, squeezing them, and pitching them like fast balls back into the bin. Unacceptable. Rock hard and dark green. Shouldn’t I have guessed?
From our local vendors, rutabagas, turnips, cabbage, carrots, and tasty winter greens like chard and chicory bring their heft and earthy flavor to the forefront, in addition to leeks and endives, very popular around this time of year. Bins of apples carefully stored since autumn are ready for cooking. Of course there are plenty of eggs and the hens that lay them, the larder is stocked with dried nuts, fruits, and our stock of spices, and we have the basic tools and ingredients for sauces and savory pastry of all kinds. The butcher brings out some aged sausages and cured meats as well as the first tender veal and lamb. The cheeses coming from summer milk are coming into their own. We have many choices there.
The method to good seasonal eating in winter lies in seeing the beauty and variety of possibilities in winter’s vegetables. The best thing to do is to begin with a vegetable, no matter how humble or simple, and concentrate on as many of the possible ways that people have passed down ideas through the generations to prepare it. Many of the interesting regional and country dishes don’t include a whole lot of meat, depending on the region and the time the recipes became standards.
Sometimes great inspiration comes from the memories of others and other times, but most of all it comes directly from the thing itself. Go and look at it. What seems plain can be packed with flavor and nutrition not to mention being fun to cook. Seen through the cool lens of low winter light we can find a certain inspiration in this produce that we don’t find at any other time of year.