The first thing we do after we’re settled in is plant our lettuces. Not too many of them, nor a great variety, but there aren’t many things better than a salad made of greens rushed from the garden to the salad bowl. Just a simple vinaigrette and Bob’s your Uncle!
When we first bought our one-and-a-half acre property twenty years ago, we were much more ambitious. We planted all sorts of crops – fava beans, okra, corn, zucchini, and or course tomatoes – in that first flush of “back to the land” when you actually think that you are going to “grow your own vegetables”. The okra and corn were to replace two veggies that we love in America and thought we couldn’t live without in France. Wrong. It also took us far more years than it should have to realize that each precious tomato cost us 10 times as much in both personal energy and water than the better-tasting tomatoes we could buy from other tomato growers in the village. We still persist with the lettuces because they’re so easy and rewarding; and zucchini (courgettes, here) mainly for the flowers, which are never better fried or stuffed than when you pluck them from your own garden.
Another thing we haven’t given up on is the herb garden. Many herbs like rosemary, oregano, thyme, and savory grow wild here but we make sure we have a ready supply of basil, tarragon, mint, chives, sorrel, bay leaves and quite a few others as well.
We eat very differently in San Francisco and Provence: San Francisco is a wonderful food city with an incredible range of ethnic restaurants and ingredients from around the world, simply unheard of in France. But while the French are, let’s say, quite insular in their tastes, the quality and variety of their raw ingredients is unsurpassed. You might be able to track down rabbits, quails, ducks, foie gras, spanking-fresh fish, shellfish and veggies in San Francisco (often at considerable cost), but these are readily available here in supermarkets and village markets for everyday consumption.
I’m not going to spend six months saying how much better the raw materials are here. But I will have to limit what I can blog about when I know that grilled fresh sardines wrapped in vine leaves or a roasted loin of rabbit or a whole fresh foie gras poached in the oven would probably be a stretch outside of France. Hopefully there are still enough ingredients-in-common to keep recipes flowing.
Spring Garden Salad
I have been making salad dressing in a pestle and mortar since I started cooking. If the greens are very delicate, I probably use only my best olive oil, a splash of vinegar or lemon and salt and pepper. For other salads I might start by crushing garlic or shallots with salt, adding mustard or not, and using a variety of oils and vinegars to bring out the best in the ingredients. In most cases I go light on the vinegar – about 4 or 5 to 1 oil to vinegar. I think vinegar too often dominates and overwhelms.
4 cups of the freshest salad greens available
A small shallot
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar, or a little more if you prefer
2 tablespoons good olive oil
Salt (preferably Maldon) and freshly ground black pepper
Crush the shallot with a half teaspoon of salt. Add the vinegar and let macerate while you wash and dry the greens, leaving no trace of water. Stir the oil into the dressing. Do not dress the salad until you’re ready to eat it. (You can wipe out the pestle and mortar with a few of the leaves.) Add freshly ground pepper at the table.