Here’s another funny thing about the French. They have the world’s most beautiful, best kept, most photogenic, most productive and various, most orderly and desirable vegetable gardens. But where does the veg go? It never turns up at table.
The mystery deepens. French markets are a wonder. There can be as many photographers as customers around the jewel-like trays of fruit and veg in the dappled light of a summer market place. The restaurant across the way? It gives you a few radishes and, with your Suprême de Whatever, a little plate of sticky rice.
I exaggerate of course. But we’re just home from a few days’ journey, in perfect early summer weather, from the Côte d’Azur to Burgundy. We went back, 46 years later, to the hotel at Lamastre in the Ardèche that Elizabeth David sent us to on our honeymoon. Chez Barattero no longer has rooms, but the restaurant is still in the family, and still offers its famous Pain d’Ecrevisses Sauce Cardinal and Poularde de Bresse en Vessie. Vegetables? There were a few
pretty little carrots. Barattero may be in a time warp, but we then stayed at a château known for its Table d’Hôte and distinguished for its potager. A deep terrace on the south side of its hotel is a model of generous cultivation. An old orangery is now a prolific potting shed, where the rotovators and sprays crowd in among enormous benches of seedlings ready for pricking out, the seed packets on sticks promising every known variety of succulent leaf and root. Raspberry canes are trained along the walls, irresistibly ready to pick. The tomato patch is the size of a small vineyard. And the deep crumbly tilth ………
Dinner? A little lettuce salad with mushrooms and croutons. Then Blanquette de Veau with rice. You could just detect carrots: red dice in the veal sauce. Never a green leaf, no potato, no courgettes or beans.
But in the gastronomic temple of Dijon, Le Pré aux Clercs (you’ll think we do nothing but eat), things got worse. The melting and mega-rich piece of beef in red wine sauce was accompanied by….. a spoonful of rhubarb purée. That was the nearest we came to a vegetable in the whole evening.
I have a theory. The grander the meal, or the more the cook wants to impress, the less chance you have of seeing the produce of the potager.
In my dreams I see the Potage Garbure I ate years ago in a hotel in the Franche Comté. Cabbage, beans, peas, potatoes, turnips, onions, carrots, kale, tomatoes, nettles and herbs could all be seen and tasted in the translucent broth. The tureen was tall, the ladle battered silver.
Oh France, why do you hoard your true riches?