Monday, April 6, 2009

Wild food in Provence - morels and asparagus, rocket, cherries and plums

April, and the land is warming up. The winter stock of pieds-de-mouton and hellevelles - a variety of morel - is almost used up, just enough for another two or three meals still deeply frozen. So it's time to look out for spring mushrooms. Morilles are said to grow wherever they want to but some people round here say they're most often found on ground that has been disturbed or on land burnt by forest fire. Each spring I find them around the edge of the forest here close to the soil that was displaced when foundations for the new part of the house were laid. They can be hard to spot, growing under fallen oak leaves and lavender bushes. But they're such a pleasure to find. They're simple to add to meat and fish dishes and release a wonderful truffly scent and flavour after being saute-ed briefly in butter. I had realised that they're probably hunted by the sanglier who lives round here. He turns up huge tracts of ground with his tusks and it's not likely he misses morels as he roots around. What I hadn't known till recently is that they're also taken by jays and squirrels and that may explain why I have to look hard for them. I only get the ones the birds and squirrels are too lazy to get hold of. Robert Carrier had a great recipe for asparagus and morels and it couldn't be more seasonal or convenient - wild asparagus is popping up all over the place now the sun's out. Again you have to look for it - the spears grow from the root of the sprawling, tangly, prickly plant and they grow in any old direction so you find yourself peering at all the greenery for a while before your eye hits on the straight, slim spears. Carrier would chop them in two, drop them in boiling water for a few minutes till tender, cook them in a little olive oil, butter and then add cream and the morels. Very simple and very natural. Morels are also good with duck and with salmon.
I have a friend who found wonderful, good-sized truffles nearby last winter. He's local and has that knack I can scarcely believe of spotting the flies that hover over oak tree roots when truffles are underneath. I'm quite jealous that he can do that but I know my limits so I'll stick with the foods that are easier to find.(Have a look here for hunting truffles with pigs: Gaston and the Truffle Hunters (Home Use Version) )

One of them is wild rocket. It's everywhere. More peppery than the shop stuff it needs to be added to salad in smaller quantities but it's a very good addition.

And then there are cherries and plums on the way. The plums are better than the cherries - small and sweet and easily turned into jam or made into desserts. I'm a bit spoilt for large red cherries anyway as my neighbours have two big orchards of cherry trees producing far more fruit than they can use. The only problem is that, since the trees are not treated with pesticide - happily - the flies get to the cherries and then the worms grow inside them. It's like a massive industrial process - every single cherry seems to get done on the same day so you have to keep checking the progress of the fruit and try to pick them just as they ripen but just before the flies get there. As the cherries are huge and sweet and a rich dark red they're worth pursuing. At present the trees are in blossom - great white petals buzzing with bees from the mielerie along the track - but the fruit forms and ripens with astonishing speed.

Lastly, the other good ingredient right now is the stinging nettle. I've been reading about the now-maligned nettle and it turns out it's a bit of a star. Packed with vitamins and minerals it's said to have about a dozen medical uses from helping arthritic joints to curing thinning hair. It used to be widely eaten during the war and was also harvested to make the dye for camouflage materials. IT can be made into material too. And paper. And very good soup. A friend made me a nettle soup this week, using an armful of young nettle leaves, a few small potatoes and a few small onions. He added a bit of creme fraiche just before serving and it was wonderful. It starts off looking muddy and brown but once it's whizzed in a mixer it turns a luxurious, velvety, deep dark green. You can use it just as you would spinach. It's high time it was rehabilitated and people stopped seeing it as a weed. Amazing the knowledge that society can lose...