“You are kidding, right?” I asked my aunt in total disbelief. Since the beginning of February I had been trying to connect with wild asparagus foragers who would graciously show me the ropes and, more importantly, the right places. So when my aunt offered to take me along on an expedition in my very own backyard, I picked up my little basket and trotted along.
In Languedoc foraging for young tender things is almost as big a sport as rugby. But you must know where. I know a chef who gathers purslane on very specific dry stone walls holding the garden terraces around his village. At a recent lunch at their home, Alain and Jocelyne Jougla served, along with a perfectly juicy guinea hen, a watercress salad so vibrant and delicate in flavor and texture, it bore no relation to any watercress I ever had. “We pick it in ditches around here,” offered Alain while his wife quickly corrected “not any old ditch; you have to be careful. This watercress grows along a very clean fresh water spring.”
Following my aunt around the park that surrounds my house, I was stunned at first to realize that what I had disregarded for years as webs of ugly prickly shrubs were actually asparagus ferns. I guess I have been a city dweller far too long! Then I found out that hunting for wild asparagus is not that easy, as they can be quite elusive and have a great talent to hide among and beneath bushes and weeds. They can also shoot up as high as 4 ft and sneer at you willowing in the sun as you take a break from crawling. I did manage (with the help of my aunt) to harvest enough for a light supper.
Wild asparagus are a lot milder than their domesticated counterparts and have a slight pleasing bitterness. The thin stalks are tough and fibrous, and should be discarded. The tips are usually steamed and tossed in light vinaigrette; omelets or scrambled eggs are also classic preparations. I saw a recipe for a soufflé — I think I’ll try it with my next “harvest.” That night, I kept it simple.
Scrambled Eggs with Wild Asparagus
- 1 cup wild asparagus tips or pencil asparagus
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 small shallot, minced
- 5 large eggs
- 1 tablespoon milk
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1 tablespoon minced chives
- 4 ounces smoked salmon
Blanch the asparagus tips in boiling salted water for 1 minute. Drain and refresh with cold water.
Melt the butter in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the shallot and sauté for a couple of minutes until translucent. Add the asparagus tips and continue cooking over medium-low heat for 4 to 5 minutes, until they are tender.
Beat the egg with the milk, salt and pepper. Pour the mixture into the skillet and cook over low heat for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring gently with a wooden spoon. The eggs should be just set and very creamy. Cook a couple of minutes longer if you prefer them drier.
Sprinkle with chives and serve with the smoked salmon on the side.
Five days to Election Day for Les Municipales, in which all of France’s mayors and their councilors are up for reelections. This is a time for polemics, seduction and promises – empty or not. The campaign is hitting its stride. And, of course, my small town is no exception. For the first time in 18 years, the incumbent mayor finds himself running against not one, but two opposition lists. After years of bad management, fiscal irresponsibility, cronyism, and essentially running what once was a lovely village to the ground, this is not surprising. Intrigues and public debates have been all consuming, offering at times plenty of comical colorful moments straight out of a Pagnol novel.
Full disclosure # 1: my father is running as a municipal councilor on the independent list.
My father and his twenty-six running-mates have been plotting this moment for a very long time, and for the past several months regular strategic meetings are being held in great secrecy at my house. While I am not privy to what is being planned, I am always invited to the potluck aperitif that follows. It gives me a chance to catch up on the latest village gossip and sample the homemade hors d’oeuvres often prepared by the wife of the head of the list, who we hope will be our next mayor. But I am most intrigued by the homemade wines and liqueurs assembled by the enthousiast male members of the team. Every meeting brings the opportunity to try a new one. Obviously this is a competitive bunch and everyone love to show off the year’s new batch. Cartagène, the Languedocien answer to Pineau des Charentes, and orange and walnut wines are excellent, but I have developed a fondness for the verbena liqueur served in small brandy glasses and savored slowly. On the other hand, I find the quince wine refreshing and light, which can be trouble if you don’t know how to pace yourself. Trust me on that one!
Full disclosure # 2: I haven’t tested the recipes below. I don’t need to. I’m such an appreciative audience that they feel compelled to leave any leftovers behind. My stash is rapidly growing and should last for at least the first year of the mandate. Now, I’m wondering if these artisanal concoctions qualify as kickbacks!
Makes 1 liter, about 1 quart
- 150 g sugar, about 2/3 cup
- ½ liter water, about 2 cups
- 50 fresh verbena leaves
- ½ liter alcohol, about 2 cups (see note)
Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove from the heat and cool.
Wash and dry the verbena leaves. Place the leaves in a 1 liter bottle. Add the cold syrup and the alcohol. Cover and shake well. Let the bottle sit in a cool place for at least 10 days before using.
Serve this liqueur as an aperitif, after-dinner drink or drizzled over vanilla ice cream.
About 1 liter, about one quart
- 2 large quinces
- 1 liter of rosé wine, about 1 quart
- 10 centiliter alcohol, about 6 tablespoons (see note)
- 200 grams sugar, about 7/8 cup
Scrub and wash the quinces thoroughly. Cut them into small pieces and place them in a large container.
Add the remaining ingredients; stir well to dissolve the sugar. Cover, and let it sit in a dark cool place for 45 days.
Strain through a fine mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth and store in bottles.
Note: In France you can buy 90% proof alcohol in pharmacies. Unflavored eau de vie or vodka are good substitutes