Sunday, June 11, 2006

Eating Fruits and Vegetables

Over at Chitlins’ and Camembert, Amy H. had a great post recently about vegetable seasons. I’m certain she knows more about eating in season than she lets on…

Having lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for nearly 20 years, Ken and I can certainly relate to Amy’s statement that in the US you can find nearly every kind of vegetable or fruit nearly any time of year, at least in the big cities, anyway. Tomatoes were always iffy, as Amy noted, even in season, and we could never get good corn-on-the-cob in San Francisco. What’s up with that?

The common theme we found with these year-round vegetables and fruits was cost. It’s expensive to import from Chile, Australia, and other worldwide locales. It’s also expensive to maintain greenhouses, and more and more of California’s prime agricultural land is giving way to housing developments and shopping malls and… ugh. This is one reason we left California.

Tomatoes in our Loire Valley garden.

There were, however, vegetables and fruits in California that were seasonal, and we came to know what they were. Artichokes, lettuces and strawberries from down near Monterey Bay in spring, cherries (even from San José), stone fruits (peaches, plums, nectarines) from the Central Valley orchards in July, grapes in summer, nuts in the fall, citrus and dates from the desert orchards in winter, and so much more.

When we moved to France a few years ago, we got even more educated about eating in season and now can’t imagine going back to the old ways.

What does it mean to eat in season? For us, it means eating fresh food produced by local farmers (and your own garden if you’re lucky) when it’s ready. This goes not only for fruit and vegetables, but also for some meats like lamb and veal. By paying attention to what we’re buying and when, we can really avoid a lot of expensive prepared foods and (not-so-tasty) imports by eating things when they’re ready. And we’ve come to anticipate the seasons for what we will be harvesting and eating much the way children get excited about an upcoming birthday or the winter holidays.

I should mention that some foods are imported in season, so it’s not necessarily the idea of importing that’s bad. Here in France, the winter holiday season is the time for clémentines from Spain and Morocco. They’re sweet and tasty, and they just shout Noël!

Around the Loire Valley, and more specifically in la Sologne, springtime is asparagus time. Big bunches of fat, white asparagus suddenly begin to appear in the local markets. The supermarkets try to get a jump on the locals by bringing early asparagus up from the Bordeaux area, but you pay for it. It’s fun to drive around and see your neighbors tending their asparagus rows, carefully building up the soil so as not to let the sun touch the tender white spears. We also see people out in the fields with that special asparagus tool that harvests the spears while they’re still underground. It’s a manual process all the way. Then you see the bundles appearing in the market, and each time you go, the prices drop as the supply increases. Thin spears, medium-sized spears, fat spears, and the prime tips are all on display and they disappear fast.

Fresh aspargus from the Sologne.

Anticipating asparagus season is fast becoming a ritual at our house. It means not only will we get to eat great fresh spears all kinds of ways, but that the days are lengthening and getting warmer. For the rest of my life, I will think of spring in the Loire Valley when I see or eat asparagus.

It’s funny; I never really liked asparagus until I moved here. Now, I can’t imagine not eating them. They’re great cooked until tender and served hot with butter, salt and pepper. Cold cooked spears are a treat with vinaigrette or home made mayonnaise. And my favorite recipe entails wrapping a few spears in a slice of ham, lining up about 6 of these wrapped bundles in a pan and covering it with béchamel sauce, gruyere cheese, then sliding the thing into the oven until it bubbles and the melting cheese browns a bit. Yum!

Then, one day, it’s over. Summer arrives and the asparagus get too pricey, then they’re gone altogether. It was great while it lasted, but they’ll be back again next year.

It’s not just the asparagus, though. Strawberries, artichokes, peppers, eggplant, tomatoes and so on, they all have their special seasons. We’re fortunate enough to have the land and the time for our own potager, or kitchen garden. This year is our third season for the garden and each year we learn a little more about what we’re doing, how much to plant, when to plant, etc.

We plant tomatoes, bell peppers, cayenne peppers, eggplant, beans, cucumbers, squash (both summer and winter varieties), greens (collard and mustard), and all manner of herbs. We have apple trees, and our neighbors have plum and quince trees, and we all share our harvests freely, at the appropriate time, of course. We even put in a fig tree that we hope will start producing fruit in a year or so.

As is the way with home gardens, there is usually much more produce than we and our neighbors can eat. This is where preservation comes in. The first year, we tried our hand at canning tomato sauce, which worked just fine, but it’s a lot of work. Last year, we got a freezer and have become freezer junkies! There’s practically nothing that can’t be prepped for the freezer and packed up in zip-top bags for good eating during the winter. We freeze tomatoes and tomato sauce (first in Tupperware, then we pop the frozen blocks out into zip-top bags so we get to re-use the container). We freeze red bell peppers, sometimes blanched, sometimes roasted. We slice zucchini into rounds, freeze them on cookie sheets, and slide them into the zip-top bags. We purée winter squash and pumpkins and we make applesauce, freeze each in usable-sized blocks and thaw them out for holiday pies and winter soups.

Our first attempt at canning tomato sauce (2004), and our home-grown red bell peppers (on the left).

We’ve preserved cayenne peppers in vinegar with great success, and last year we had so many cucumbers that we made 13 quarts of pickles! And, they’re good. We have even prepped and frozen herbs like cilantro and basil that we can’t really find fresh locally during the winter.

I know, I’ve kind of gotten off the topic of eating in season. But when we’re eating our own home-grown produce, whether in season or in the dead of winter, we’re still enjoying seasonal products without paying the price of imported, out-of-season food. And that makes me smile. Thanks, Amy!


  1. OK, can I tell you how jealous I am of your canning and freezing know-how? And your potager? (Mine from last year was ripped up by construction guys and has a truck sitting on it now.)

    I hope that when I've been here a few more years I can have a kitchen as tasty and bountiful as yours.

    p.s. Great photos!

  2. I'm confident that you will have a great potager - and hope that one day we'll be able to get together to share stories and recipes! Meanwhile, keep up the good work at the château. Max has a special mom, not to mention his dad who's building his future house!

  3. Hmmmm, I think you need to plant some aspargus soon! Thanks for the garden tales.

    BTW was the "epi" on the tiles several entries ago, a charcuterie ( I think this one of Marie's guesses)?

  4. Evelyn,

    Yes! It was a charcuterie. I had almost forgotten.


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