My fingers drag heavily across the keyboard as I write a eulogy this month of May. Though joyous in almost every respect, it is during this time of delicate blossoms and perfumed air that, in cruel contrast, the season of coquilles Saint Jacques—sea scallops—comes to an end. That it happens each year makes it no less tragic. Those of us most affected try not to dwell on how empty our plates will be without these sweet, succulent morsels to fill them. We look away from the fish stand at the local market, for it shouts of absence, the lost joy of something beloved and familiar.
This year was made easier for me as I was invited to be an Executive Scholar in Residence at a university in the US during this sad time. What I had forgotten while absent, so lost was I in a private soup of sorrow, were the many things that would come to blunt the pain and eventually make it disappear.
This eulogy becomes, then, a celebration. For today, as I approached my favorite market stands in Louviers, I was astonished at the changes wrought in just two weeks of absence. Sadness couldn’t prevail when fresh green asparagus, cut from the ground not twelve hours earlier, begged to be bought. Right alongside it were bunches of tiny radishes, soil clinging to their delicate roots, mounds of tender red and green oak leaf lettuce (feuille de chêne), and billowy, deep-green spinach leaves. I returned home, my basket overflowing, to realize I’d forgotten my beloved scallops. Oh, the inconstancy of the seasonal gourmet
Which brings me to the simple subject of seasons, those glorious separations of time, weather, flavors and culinary savor. Two short weeks have wrought dramatic change as roots give way to leaves. The round, warm perfume of strawberries, heretofore available only upon opening a jar of last year’s jam, is on its way back. The rosemary that makes a hedge in my garden is peppered with tiny lilac-colored blossoms; thyme has grown an Afro of bright green leaves, tarragon is already waving from the ground along with stick-straight chives. From now on, each meal will take on new and welcome freshness.
This seasonal renewal is the lynchpin of food and eating in France. While economies, currencies, political policies and strikes explode around us, seasons never change. Winter with its roots is the longest season, but it quickly turns to spring with its new and tender shoots, then melts into summer with its fruits and bulbous vegetables, then fall with its earthy game and mushrooms.
I haven’t tasted asparagus since last June when it abruptly disappeared from the marketplace as fields emptied. What joy to see it back. This crop, twisted and somewhat gnarled, has nothing to do with the lovely, straight white stalks from the Loire Valley where AOCs (Appellations d’Origine Contrôlée), a pedigree of place and cultivation techniques, decorate labels. The asparagus at my market is fat and green, produced by a young farmer who knows his soil, his climate and his clientele. While it may lack pedigree, it is the sort of asparagus that inspires dreams. I cannot wait to wash and trim the stalks, steam them quickly then eat them one by one. Asparagus is the only vegetable in France that, once cooked, may be eaten with the fingers, and those of us around my table this evening will do just that. Silverware would defile them.
Before we eat the asparagus, though, fresh radishes are on the menu. I will serve them with equally fresh butter that becomes increasingly pale in color as the cows eat spring and summer grass and flowers. The technique for radishes is thus: cut an X in the root end of the radish and dab some butter in the heart of the X, then sprinkle it with fleur de sel. One bite, and the alchemy of spring and youth fill the mouth. Between each bite, a mouthful of fresh and crusty baguette and a sip of Sauvignon blanc make gastronomic perfection, available for one season a year. I call this springtime’s best snack.
These are simple pleasures, to be sure. Much more can be done in the kitchen with both these ingredients. Once we’ve become accustomed to asparagus and radish (if indeed one can become “accustomed” to vegetables that are available only two months each year), preparations will become more complex. For instance, I will braise asparagus the way I do Brussels sprouts—with a drizzle of water, a shower of herbs and a spoonful of olive oil—or steam and serve them with a freshly made, peppery mayonnaise. As for radishes, I love to cut them into rounds and arrange them on a piece of cod so they look like scales. A sprinkling of salt and pepper, some fresh thyme leaves, an envelope of parchment paper so they can bake protected in the oven, and what emerges is another gorgeous spring celebration.
Even cheeses benefit from the glory of spring, as the cows munch ever greener grass and blossoms. Camembert in winter is yummy, but by spring it becomes velvety with butterfat and extra nutty flavor, as do Pont l’Evêque and Livarot, the queens of Norman cheeses.
With all this bounty, there is really only one way to enjoy it to its fullest, and that is out of doors. Spring weather is capricious, of course, but by May the rains of April have mostly gone and it is safe not only to wash the table and chairs but also to put up the parasol. The flowering quince in the corner is still vivid red, apple blossoms decorate the branches like ruffles on a dress and the air has the beguiling scent of honey. Nothing is better than to carry the dishes out and sit basking in such heavenly surroundings. I, personally, prefer to dine outdoors now than later in the year, as all is still fresh and new. Even a hot spring day has a whisper of coolness, and the light here in Normandy is palpable, as though one could reach out and grab it.
I leave you with a spring recipe for cod—or any filet of white fish—and radishes. Find the tiniest radishes you can, and rinse them well. You will not only enjoy their color, but their flavor as well. And don’t hesitate to introduce this dish with spring’s best little snack!
THICK COD FILLETS WITH RED RADISHES
12 spring onions, trimmed, with about 2 inches (5 cm) of green stems attached
1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tsp grenadine syrup
Fine sea salt and freshly ground white pepper
1 large shallot, minced
1/4 cup (60 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
15 red radishes, sliced almost paper thin
Four 6-oz (180-g) cod fillets (or any seasonal white fish fillets), skin and bones removed
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp cumin salt (1 tbsp toasted cumin, ground with 2 tsp fleur de sel or fine sea salt; use only ½ tsp for this recipe)
Chervil sprigs, for garnish
1. Preheat oven to 410°F (210°C). Cut paper into four 12 x 10 inch (30 x 25 cm) sheets.
2. Bring 3 cups (750 ml) water to a boil in bottom half of a steamer. Steam onions until tender, about 5 min. Transfer onions to a tea towel spread over a cooling rack to drain.
3. Make grenadine vinaigrette: In a small bowl, whisk together lemon juice, grenadine syrup, salt, white pepper and shallots. Slowly add 3 tbsp olive oil, whisking constantly, until mixture is emulsified. Reserve.
4. Place radishes in a shallow soup dish and moisten them with the remaining 1 tbsp of olive oil.
5. Season fillets generously with salt and pepper, then sprinkle cumin salt evenly over them. Carefully arrange the radish slices on top of fillets, slightly overlapping them so they resemble fish scales. Season them lightly with salt.
6. Place each fillet on the bottom half of a piece of parchment paper. Moisten edges of paper with water, and fold the top half down over the fish so edges meet. Make a narrow fold around the cut edges, pressing firmly, then repeat, making another narrow fold. Finally, crimp the folded edges to seal each packet. Place packets on a baking sheet and refrigerate until ready to bake.
7. Bake until packets are golden and puffed, about 8 min. Remove from oven and carefully cut open packets. Using a good-sized metal spatula, place each fillet in the center of a warmed dinner plate. Place onions drizzled with grenadine vinaigrette alongside, garnish with chervil, and serve immediately.
Journalist and author Susan Herrmann Loomis has lived in France for 20 years and currently teaches cooking classes in Normandy and Paris. She has written nine books, including Cooking at Home on Rue Tatin (William Morrow, 2006). Susan’s website
Originally published in the May 2009 issue of France Today