Obscure vegetables of France

Back to the Roots

heirloom_vegetables_paris
Cerfeuil tubéreux (tuberous-rooted chervil), on the right, next to the multicolored carrots, is in season in the late fall and winter – now, in other words. They’re great simmered with shallots and butter or olive oil.

The first thing I bought from the vendor I call the Weird Vegetable Lady was off-color carrots. I was browsing the Friday afternoon market in Place d’Anvers and noticed that she had these big, fat, pale yellow carrots (not parsnips, yellow carrots – carottes jaunes), and some bright red carrots and some others that were the usual orange but short and nearly spherical. When I asked her why she had so many offbeat products, she explained that she was reviving strains of vegetables that had fallen out of favor and, in some cases, nearly into extinction, over the years.

Declining biodiversity in produce is no doubt a worldwide trend these days, but in France it dates back to World War I, not because of a weak postwar economy or the dawn of the supermarket age, but because France suffered so many casualties in the Great War that there was no longer enough manpower to keep all the farms going. Many crops fell into neglect simply because nobody was there to grow them any more.

I’m one of those people who can’t resist trying anything unusual to eat, so I bought a selection of oddball carrots. I was expecting a new flavor experience, but they turned out to be odd mostly in color and shape. The yellow ones were rather sweeter than the regular kind, but they still tasted like carrots. And the small, round ones were a real pain to peel, so rainbow carrots did not make it into my daily repertoire.

The next time I appealed to the Weird Vegetable Lady’s expertise was after a French friend told me that I should try a vegetable I’d never heard of called what sounded like "crones." Before embarrassing myself by getting the name wrong in the market I decided to look it up first, but I found nothing in my thick, heavy and supposedly not very abridged dictionary under "crones," "krones," "chrones," "creaunes".... Those of you who have struggled with the quirks and eccentricities of French spelling know what this is like.

I was about to give up when my wife suggested "crosnes." Bingueau. That’s how you spell it, and the English translation is “Chinese artichoke” or “Japanese artichoke.” even though it’s nothing like an artichoke in size, color, texture or flavor (just like Jerusalem artichokes, for that matter). Crosnes are little beigeish wormiform roots no more than a couple of inches long and half an inch in diameter, with a bulbous corrugated shape resembling what the Michelin Man’s toes must look like, if he has any.

Of course the W.V.L. had them. I asked if I needed to peel them, which, given their small size and irregular shape, would require the patience of a particularly masochistic saint, but she assured me that it’s not necessary: she explained that you can rub them in a towel with a big handful of coarse salt to abrade the skin off, or you can just leave it on.

After trying the towel-and-salt thing once and finding it messy, exhausting and totally ineffective, I decided that crosnes are best unpeeled, as God made them. Boiled or fried, alone or mixed with other roots, they’re quite nice. Not quite what I would call a revelation, but nice.

The revelation came a couple of weeks later. The Weird Vegetable Lady had these frankly unappetizing-looking little dark brown things covered in a crust of dirt, with the price given per 500 grams instead of the usual kilogram, which is what market people do when they think the per-kilo rate is discouragingly high, and which I consider to be a sign of quality.

These were cerfeuil tubéreux – tuberous-rooted chervil. I had to try some, so I bought a pound. They were about the same size and shape as those annoying round carrots, so I figured that, instead of peeling them, I would wash and steam them and see if the skins would slip off afterwards, as beet skin does.

This is how I discovered that steaming reduces chervil root to a sort of purée, at least for the outer layers, and that the skin does not slip off easily. With my first batch, after messily divesting them of their peels, I chopped up the remaining firm bits and all of the mush I could salvage and threw it all back into a pan in which I had sautéed some finely chopped shallots in butter. The result was heavenly: a singular sweet, nutty flavor and a texture somewhere between non-gluey mashed potatoes and vichyssoise.

This is my favorite vegetable now. I love to throw it into menus when we have guests for dinner, because no one I’ve served it to so far, French or foreign, has ever tasted it before. Only now I take the time to peel the tubers before simmering them in the shallots-and-butter combination. Unlike the heirloom carrots, cerfeuil tubéreux are definitely worth the effort. But I still don’t qualify as a saint.

David Jaggard

Note: The Weird Vegetable Lady’s stand can be found at the markets on Place d’Anvers on Friday afternoon and Avenue de Saxe on Saturday morning.

Visit David Jaggard's blog Quorum of One

© 2009 Paris Update

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