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Following the Seasons in France


mzimbeck
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Two years ago I stood dumb before my fishmonger, wondering why in the world I wasn’t getting any scallops.

Had I used the wrong word (Coquilles Saint-Jacques)? Had I not ushered the proper greeting? No, I understood after the third repetition: they were not in season.

Not in season? In America I could buy scallops whenever I wanted. But now, on the eve of my first dinner party in France, the pesky bi-valves were nowhere to be found. With Serge and Agnès arriving in less than an hour, I pointed hopefully to some white flesh-looking fish and returned home to struggle with its bones.

Despite the fact that I was raised in the “breadbasket to the world,” I had no sense of seasonality before moving to France. The same items were present year-round from my stadium-sized grocery store. They were cheaper in certain months, but always available.

In France, during that first month, I felt constrained. There were fewer options in smaller stores that seemed never to be open when I needed them. The recipes that had formerly dazzled were, without the right ingredients, of little use to me now.

I had to re-learn how to eat.

Eating in France means following the seasons. My next lesson was the autumn appearance of wild mushrooms. Months later, the arrival of clementines marked time for a city without snow. Oysters burst onto to scene with crowds gathering for free tastings at the local poissonnerie. Within months friends were whispering about springtime lamb and asparagus. And summer, before I knew it, had come 'round again - bringing deep red tomatoes and stacks of fresh herbs.

Last night I cooked again for Serge and Agnès. This time, however, I went about it in a much different way. Gone were the convoluted recipes and fusion acrobatics. In their place, an offering of what's best in September:

Salad of endive, radicchio, beets, pears, goat cheese, and hazelnut

Roast chicken and potatoes with green beans

Seasonal plums (mirabellle, Reine Claude, quetsche) with a runny Brie de Meaux

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When you buy food that’s in season, you don’t have to do much besides put it on a plate. The Brie de Meaux, which had been aged for eight weeks in my butcher’s cave and set out only when it was ready to be eaten that day, was runny and redolent of green summer grass. The plums were at the peak of ripeness – perfect in the moment and rotten the next morning on my counter.

So to paraphrase the Rolling Stones:

You can’t always get what you want

But if you try sometimes to follow the times

You just might find...you get what you need (and more).

Meg Zimbeck, Paris by Mouth

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Love it. That brie looks wonderful and the fruits too.

The other day was the official opening of the cepes season.

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I've been planning out all kinds of great dishes that use them, and just waiting for them to arrive. The first day, we prepared them simply just to enjoy the flavor.

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That first taste of the season is always heavenly.

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Last night I cooked again for Serge and Agnès. This time, however, I went about it in a much different way. Gone were the convoluted recipes and fusion acrobatics. In their place, an offering of what's best in September:

Good for you! Bet it was just as delicious as it looks.

By the way, we can get 'spring' lamb three times a year locally. Bernard keeps his ewes indoors most of the time (they're out with their lambs for a couple of hours each day weather permitting) and he has three lots of lambs each year; spring, late summer & winter. We just got our late summer lamb, strictly milk fed & weighing 15 kg dressed out. Yummy!

The other day was the official opening of the cepes season.

Lucy, out of curiosity what are the cepes selling for in your market? At Caussade yesterday the going rate was 12 Euro/kilo.

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So, what will I find being served the first week of December? Can I hope that goat cheese is out of season and assume that oysters are in?

tracey

The great thing about barbeque is that when you get hungry 3 hours later....you can lick your fingers

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Avoid cutting yourself while slicing vegetables by getting someone else to hold them while you chop away.

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I was buying oysters at a University Seafood here in Seattle last week. With the NW oyster scare earlier in the summer they were quick to council 'cook them, really' and 'wait until October if you want them raw.' I reminded them that they had a BC oyster that a week earlier had been recommended as safe (er).

As I went to the counter I saw a pile of gorgeous, fresh, scallops. I asked how much longer they would likely have them. 'Until the season closes.' 'How long is that? Days? Weeks?' 'Let me check.' The owner expected the season to close 'any day', so I adapted my menu plans to include seared scallops (served on a bed of sauteed fresh corn) and had a blissful family dinner (including several dozen raw oysters).

Same shop also carries wild salmon--when the season allows.

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So, what will I find being served the first week of December? Can I hope that goat cheese is out of season and assume that oysters are in?

tracey

Your hope will be dashed, but your assumption is correct.

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mzimbeck, thanks for the beautiful photos. now that you've "re-learned" how to eat, do you find it to be so much easier to decide what to prepare for meals -- i mean, no more tyranny of choice, right?

can't believe it's not butter? i can.

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I've been holding back here but want to put a word in as a contrarian. While I too love seeing the oysters roll out onto the street in winter and the fruit appear in summer and greatly respect the chefs who go to Rungis and design menus on what's in; supermarkets, street markets, indeed "Arab" stores (that's not a slur - see Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran) have plenty of string beans from Kenya, avocados from Israel, tomatoes from Holland hothouses, apples from New Zealand, grapes from Chile, etc, just like in the US. If stuck for an ingredient, I can usually get it at my Asian-African specialty shop. Now granted, they're not as good, vine-ripened, etc., but for a recipe, they're available.

John Talbott

blog John Talbott's Paris

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I've been holding back here but want to put a word in as a contrarian.  While I too love seeing the oysters roll out onto the street in winter and the fruit appear in summer and greatly respect the chefs who go to Rungis and design menus on what's in; supermarkets, street markets, indeed "Arab" stores (that's not a slur - see Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran) have plenty of string beans from Kenya, avocados from Israel, tomatoes from Holland hothouses, apples from New Zealand, grapes from Chile, etc, just like in the US.  If stuck for an ingredient, I can usually get it at my Asian-African specialty shop.  Now granted, they're not as good, vine-ripened, etc., but for a recipe, they're available.

John, I always love a contrarian. And of course you're right; it's possible to find most things somewhere (and often quite near).

While perhaps I did over-wax poetic, my intention was simply to describe a shift that has occurred since moving to France in my understanding of seasonality.

In the States it honestly didn't matter if the food I bought was in season, or much good for that matter, because it was destined to be tricked out in miso or lemongrass or whatever else happened to be splashed across the pages of Bon Appétit. I was always chasing new ideas, and that novelty was driven more by the Food Network than by changes in the seasons.

[i understand that there are plenty of Americans who, by the grace of God or different parents, have a different understanding and approach to food. I'm just speaking for myself here]

So, to answer Berthela's question, yes it's much easier for me to plan and cook here. The challenges that keep cooking interesting are related to learning about and locating what's best in each moment, and trying not to wreck it through overzealous preparation. It's still fun every once and a while to try and do something really complicated, but it's no longer the norm.

I hope Lucy and others continue to show off their seasonal food porn. If for no other reason than it will remind me what to cook.

Cheers,

Meg

Meg Zimbeck, Paris by Mouth

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While perhaps I did over-wax poetic, my intention was simply to describe a shift that has occurred since moving to France in my understanding of seasonality.

meg, it sounds as if you have the best of both worlds, basically: the opportunity to buy the freshest seasonal foods daily, without being distracted by too much choice; and the option of giving in to non-seasonal fancies when they hit you. the starbucks and convenience markets are there, but you can just act like they're not, until you need to go to them. (and, of course, you will never need to go to the starbucks :angry: ). for that, i very much envy you.

Edited by bethala (log)

can't believe it's not butter? i can.

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When you do choose to cook through the seasons, there are dishes that you start to associate with special memories, especially when you note the good recipes and cook them again, even if you have the dish once a year. I noticed once I'd been around the seasons a couple of times that my notebooks were chronicling a lot of great seasonal dishes and I sort my notebook recipes by season. These past three days I've worked a little each day to prepare a civet de cuisses de canard. Not only do you have to wait for this dish to marinate, braise and serve on the third day, but for this particular recipe you also have to wait for the cepes and quetche plums to overlap. Well worth the wait from both perspectives, I think.

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When we start getting some real game, things are really going to pick up. I think that for anyone really interested in food and cooking, autumn is the best time to visit France.

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I've been holding back here but want to put a word in as a contrarian. 

I take it all back. Today at Chez Cedric, 13, rue Denis Poisson in the 17th, the review of which I'll be posting soon, I had the first petoncles of the season, fresh fish just in at Rungis and peche de vigne - seasonal stuff is the way to go.

John Talbott

blog John Talbott's Paris

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I've been holding back here but want to put a word in as a contrarian. 

I take it all back. Today at Chez Cedric, 13, rue Denis Poisson in the 17th, the review of which I'll be posting soon, I had the first petoncles of the season, fresh fish just in at Rungis and peche de vigne - seasonal stuff is the way to go.

Stay contrarian. At the Market in Uzes in July -- probably the month with the least amount of "r" in it of the 12 -- I picked up a couple of dozen oysters that were extraordinary, particularly eaten cold with a chilled Chablis after a long canicular day.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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